Saturday, January 28, 2006

Ethanol is Not Such a Bad Bet After All

Making ethanol from corn would only be a transition step since making it from cellulose is becoming feasible and would allow large amounts of farm waste, yard waste and all those damn leaves that fall every autumn to be turned into fuel. But it is still encouraging to find out that it is actually more energy efficient and less environmentally damaging to use gasoline to farm corn for ethanol when the opposite has been thought recently.

In 2004, ethanol blended into gasoline comprised only 2 percent of all fuel sold in the United States. But auto manufacturers are able to make cars that run on 85 percent ethanol, and nearly 5 million such "flex-fuel" vehicles are now on the road. Kammen noted that almost all light trucks now sold have flex-fuel capability, though frequently unadvertised. Converting a car into a flex-fuel vehicle able to burn E85, as the 85/15 ethanol/gas mix is called, costs about $100. More flex-fuel vehicles than diesel vehicles are on the road today in California.
I suppose that the reason that the fuel-flex quality is not advertised is so that they don't discourage the segment of the market that feels that alternative fuels are for effeminate types. As the price of gas rises this quality may start to get noticed, just as hybrids are becoming popular. That brings up the question: Are the hybrid vehicles, fuel-flex.

It is fascinating to see how many different methods of capturing and storing energy are being developed now that people are getting nervous about the price of fossil fuels and the reliability of the electricity grid. I never saw the Mad Max scenario of society collapsing as the oil runs out as being credible but some people did interestingly, it is the people who do not see the worst as inevitable that end up developing these technologies just as it was not the Y2K hermits who fixed the Y2K problem but those who felt the effort was achievable. Being able to see trouble comings is worthless if you make no attempt to use the ability to prevent it. The fact that the original studies overestimated the energy cost of farming ethanol because they were using out dated assumptions illustrates one of the most important lessons for living in a technologically developing world. Just because something is not possible or unaffordable now does not mean it is intrinsically impossible or unaffordable.

Most of the most limited world views as well as negative forecasts for the future ignore fundamental properties like time and change. News articles, political speeches and what generally passes for thought in the world seem obsessed with how things are now and ignore how they got that way and whether there is a longer term trend. Unemployment in some region is high but if no one tells you if it is rising or dropping then you have no information about employment in that region. If one is told that crime is up this month but not told that it is up slightly from a 38 year low than what we have been told is factual but anti-informative. This may sound obvious but the information we are given from most general media sources is snap-shot data which sounds like it is informative but actually is not.

In conclusion, um... I like corn.

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