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« Social Security Reform Thursday: Week Sixty-Nine -- Taxes On Benefits. | WILLisms.com | Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 406 -- Looking For The Increasingly Rare Union Label. »

Trivia Tidbit Of The Day: Part 405 -- Energy Alternatives.

Policies Have Consequences-

Popular Mechanics has some facts on ethanol versus regular gasoline:

A gallon of E85 has an energy content of about 80,000 BTU, compared to gasoline's 124,800 BTU. So about 1.56 gal. of E85 takes you as far as 1 gal. of gas.

So, ethanol gives you poorer gas mileage. Awesome. I noticed this phenomenon firsthand while traveling extensively by vehicle in the Midwest throughout 2006.

And it takes more energy to produce ethanol than gasoline. And is more expensive:

Corn farmers have done a good job of disguising the fact that it still takes more than a gallon of fossil fuel--29% more is the best estimate--to make a gallon of ethanol. In addition, various mandates requiring the use of ethanol significantly increased gasoline prices last summer and led to spot shortages because ethanol can't be carried through pipelines and requires special blending plants. James Glassman, an economist with J.P. Morgan Chase, notes that expensive ethanol was a big factor in the sticker shock consumers encountered at the pump this summer. "We'd probably have retail gasoline prices between $2.30 and $2.40 a gallon if not for ethanol," he told The Wall Street Journal last June, when pump prices were topping $3 a gallon.

So, could ethanol replace petroleum-based gasoline entirely? Nope, not really:

One acre of corn can produce 300 gal. of ethanol per growing season. So, in order to replace that 200 billion gal. of petroleum products, American farmers would need to dedicate 675 million acres, or 71 percent of the nation's 938 million acres of farmland, to growing feedstock. Clearly, ethanol alone won't kick our fossil fuel dependence--unless we want to replace our oil imports with food imports.

That's a lot of acres. Too many acres, really, to allow for "energy independence" or the elimination of foreign oil, without disastrous Mao-esque externalities.

Visiting with staffers from various (typically unsuccessful) Senate, House, and Gubernatorial campaigns throughout the Midwest in 2006, I heard a similar refrain again and again:

"Minnesota is the next Saudi Arabia."
"Iowa is like Saudi Arabia for corn."
"Missouri will be the Saudi Arabia of ethanol."
"Wisconsin is like Saudi Arabia for alternative fuels."
"Illinois has as much energy as Saudi Arabia, but in corn and soy rather than oil."

And so on.

When I would hear this line, everywhere I went, I admit now to bursting out laughing spontaneously, and sometimes the laughing may have been taken as rudeness. Sometimes a dose of startling reality can come off as rudeness, though, when it shatters evangelical levels of false idol worship (corn/ethanol being the idol).

Credit for the idol analogy goes to Jerry Taylor of the Cato Institute:

"Right now ethanol is the closest thing to a state religion in this country," said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington. "It's a bipartisan conviction."

But Taylor estimated that federal and state alternative fuel tax subsidies are in the $6 billion to $7 billion a year range - about $1 for each gallon of ethanol produced.

"Most people think the ethanol program reduces fuel prices; it doesn't," Taylor said.

When it comes to ethanol, what on earth is the point? It costs more, powers less, and doesn't eliminate foreign sources of energy.

Popular Mechanics also has a highly engaging graphic on the differences between and among various energy sources (.pdf), for a trip from New York to California. Here are just two of them:


It would be interesting to determine the true costs of ethanol subsidies, including what this means for consumer food prices, including the corrosive toll on vehicle innards, including how many billions of dollars in ethanol handouts could have been used to reduce tax rates, and so on. What I do know-- anecdotally-speaking-- is that it cost me more to fill up in the Midwest than in Texas in 2006, and I had to fill up more often, because of all of the ethanol added to Midwest gas.

UPDATE (Jan. 26, 2006)--

Busting up some myths on ethanol.

Myth: Ethanol reduces air pollution.

A review of the literature by Australian academic Robert Niven found that, when evaporative emissions are taken into account, E10 (fuel that's 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline, the standard mix) increases emissions of total hydrocarbons, nonmethane organic compounds, and air toxics compared to conventional gasoline. The result is greater concentrations of photochemical smog and toxic compounds.

Myth: Ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

At best, E10 reduces greenhouse gas emissions by from zero to 5 percent; pure ethanol by 12 percent. The International Energy Agency, however, estimates that it costs about $250 to reduce a ton of greenhouse gases this way, or more than 10 times what Yale economist William Nordhaus thinks is economically sensible given the economics of climate change. Ethanol as an anti-warming policy is what academics refer to as "crazy talk."

Simply astounding, this ethanol snake oil craze.


Previous Trivia Tidbit: Mandatory Spending Swamps Discretionary.

Posted by Will Franklin · 25 January 2007 03:47 PM


What people don't understand is that crops are simply natural solar power plants of rotten efficiency.

An average solar cell converts maybe 15% of the sunlight directly to usable energy. A really good one can get to 30%. A leaf converts, at best 3 to 6% of the sunlight to plant mass. Of course not all of this plant mass is the corn used to make ethanol, so that efficiency number is much lower. At least by half (2 to 3 %). And there is the oil sued up to make corn. And inefficencies in the conversion of corn to ethonol (not all the corn is converted). But let's just be optimistic and say 2%.

Someday someone will wake up and realize that ripping out corn fields and replacing them with solar panels would be, at a minimum, 5 times more efficient. Probably more like 20 times more efficient, i.e. energy generated per acre of farmland. would be 5 to 20 times higher by placing solar collectors rather than growing corn.

And solar energy is becoming steadily cheaper and more efficient over time. For example, quantum dot solar cells show the promise of converting infrared energy directly into electricity as well. Cost per Kwh is decreasing by about 10% per year, as has been for a long time.

Increasing corn's ability to convert sunlight to usable energy is probably never going to catch up

This is why I love your blog - it makes me feel less crazy, at least for a couple of minutes each day.

Posted by: Big D at January 25, 2007 04:30 PM

Your reference to Jerry Taylor's comment starts leading us to the source of the fascination with Ethanol. This is a political movement driven by our US Congress and endorsed by the MSM and therefore gobbled up by a sizable portion of the population. And, of course, the Midwest is on-board because it could create an economic boom in that part of the country. Congress will offer a political solution, not the best technical solution. After all, we are not exactly dealing dealing with scientists and engineers, we are dealing with lawyers and professional politicians, trying to get re-elected.
Big D, I agree with you, solar power, wind power, wave power, and other forms of energy generation make more sense. Mother Nature provides us with all the energy we need here on earth, we just have to learn to convert it.
I am not a fan of corn base fuel, tried some in the gas tank, the creamy style clogs the fuel injectors.

Posted by: Eneils Bailey at January 26, 2007 08:46 AM

But are any of you guys calculating in all the energy created from the warm-fuzzy feelings generated by talking about how great ethanol is?

Posted by: Hoodlumman at January 26, 2007 12:45 PM

LOL @ Hoodlumman.

Good read, Will. Once again you've put all the information together so people like me can understand!


Posted by: Greensickle at January 26, 2007 02:01 PM

I keep wondering what is going to happen to the people who have hybrids when they have to change the battery??? ...

Posted by: zsa zsa at January 26, 2007 05:34 PM

I've been even more down on burning perfectly good ethanol in vehicles since the 8 billion gallon blowjob.

Posted by: Ken S, Fifth String on the Banjo of Life at January 27, 2007 03:41 PM

I have a feeling the Senators appreciated that, Ken S, fifth string on the banjo of life...

Posted by: zsa zsa at January 27, 2007 03:52 PM

Why let logic and reason get in the way of a good political feeding frenzy?

Posted by: Dan Patterson at January 28, 2007 08:32 AM