There’s no doubt the hype is growing in the ethanol space – as this article from my brother points out – certainly wouldn’t recommend buying stock at this point. But I think there’s little doubt that ethanol and other biofuels (methane, biodiesel) will play a significant role in a sustainable future – as they already are in
Another big piece of news in the space is that the IRS just published Form 8911 Alternative Fuel Vehicle Refueling PropertyCredit which provides the first ever federal income tax credit for the installation of E85 fueling systems. It was part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act and provides a 30% federal income tax credit, up to $30,000 per property, to install alternative fuel dispensing systems (this news from the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition)
Clearly the momentum is building in the
First: ‘ethanol takes away from needed food production.’ This is a marginal concern – we subsidize farmers not to grow food, global hunger is not a supply issue, and obviously it’s irrelevant in the case of biomass ethanol (produced from crop residues or other biomass, not necessarily food like corn, sugar cane or beets).
Second: ‘it still emits CO2.’ This is true, but it theoretically could be a ‘carbon neutral’ process because the carbon from the biomass will be stored in new biomass – so it’s not a violation of Sustainability Principle 1 (substances from the crust). In reality it's not completely true - E85 means 85% ethanol, 15% gasoline, which is sometimes needed for cold starts. Also, currently in practice, ethanol uses fossil fuel inputs for production, transport, agricultural production, etc.
Third: ‘it deprives the soil of nutrients.’ Here’s where it gets interesting. Fritjof Capra (fantastic writer on sustainability) more or less writes off ethanol for this reason. And he’s got a valid point – soil is the basis of civilization, and oil is not the scarce resource of the future – phosphorous is (with
A whole-system perspective highlights some of the threats of a large-scale shift to ethanol – and there are more than those addressed here, many specific to various regions (particularly water) – but it also highlights the opportunities. While there are only ~600 filling stations with E85 pumps in the US, that number is growing and that tax incentive will surely help. There are already over 5 million flexi-fuel vehicles on the roads in the
The shift to a renewable fuel base will likely happen fast once it reaches a critical mass, as is happening in Sweden, and as it does, it will be vitally important to have this whole-system perspective to ensure that it’s done right. Stay going…