Sunday, April 01, 2007

  Corn, Ethanol and Bullsh@t

Lately we've heard two major opinions about ethanol. One by the automotive industry one by ethanol opponents. We've been told over and over by the Big Three (that is the three makers of the world's worst automobiles - GM, Ford and Chrysler) that ethanol i s THE definitive answer to our foreign oil woes. We've been told by ethanol nay-sayers that we have neither the capacity nor the money to switch entirely to ethanol for our domestic fuel supply. Both assertions at their base are patently false. Both assertions are based on the self interests of the parties involved.

OK, fist off, a quiz: who uses 61% of the US domestic corn yield?

The answer: Cattle growers.

The main opponents to the high price of corn and ethanol are cattle growers. They are a huge lobby in the US - bigger than tobacco and almost as influential in Washington as big oil. Trouble is, the beef industry in the US is on its way out. It doesn't know it yet but Americans aren't crazy for beef per se. If it were not for the fast food industry, beef and chicken would be consumed in nearly equal quantities. Currently beef uses a massive media campaign to spur its lagging sales. It's still king by a long shot but ask any beef marketing lacky, sales have been better.

Eventually as competing fast food interests take hold in US markets, beef will loose its strangle hold on Washington. Until that day however, they will oppose any industry that competes for its share of the US corn yield. Still the beef growers would have you believe that ethanol competes with the corn that US citizens eat. The truth is that if you took beef off of the corn menu, we would be swimming in corn and eventually have to pave our highways with it just to keep it from smothering our nation.

Consider also that the planned source of ethanol is not corn but switchgrass. Now switchgrass ethanol technology is an emerging technology but frankly, a dedication to ethanol production in the US is still ten or more years away. We can and do make ethanol from switchgrass today. We will have a viable production process within a few years. When we commit to ethanol, switchgrass will be ready.

The other big assertion that is patently false is that ethanol is THE definitive answer for our fuel needs. It will help. It may even put the US back on the path to internal reliance upon fossil fuels. What it won't do is end our dependence on petroleum completely and reduce our emissions of harmful toxins into our air (let's forget the argument about global warming for a moment). Ultimately our vehicular energy consumption lies in a non-combustion future. Yes, I'm talking electric. I won't even worry about swaying the anti-electric crowd. Electric motor technology simply wins over internal combustion/cam-driven technology in every way. Electric's single drawback is recharge time and recharge infrastructure which - by a strange coincidence - is the reason the Big Three love ethanol so much.

The Big Three want ethanol because switching to ethanol would mean almost no change to their business model. Ethanol is a liquid with similar handling characteristics to petroleum. The same gas stations that pump your fuel now would pump ethanol with little or no modification. Basically Ford, Chrysler and GM want to enter the future by doing nothing. Ethanol is their way out of the alternative fuel conundrum. It appeases the greenies while allowing the Big Three to produce the same substandard product they have produced for over a century. That is their sole interest in and involvement with ethanol. It means business as usual. If you knew what I knew about GM, for example, you would understand that this more than any other imperative drives the US auto industry. Make more, don't change, avoid fourth quarter losses at all costs.

So my point? The information about ethanol being reported at the moment is flat out wrong - from every side.

1) There is no corn shortage, there is a vast beef surplus.

2) Ethanol won't solve the US energy problem, it will only put off a final solution to the matter.

3) Ford GM and Chrysler should not be basis for choosing our next generation fuel.

What America needs to do is look at what it has available and base its decision on abundance and technology. The one drawback to a liquid fuel economy is that you consume much of your product supporting distribution. Refineries, ships and trucks all burn the same fuel that they carry. Ultimately we need to think about energy that requires no wheels to move.

Just a thought.

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