Corn-based ethanol: A case study in heavy-duty truck fuel follies

Corn-based ethanol: A case study in fuel follies

When I consider the renewable fuels legislative mess our states have created, I’m appalled. The lack of a coherent national energy policy has provided fuel (pun intended) for institutions as the Renewable Fuels Association, which is still trying to convince us that corn-based ethanol is a viable alternate fuel. We’ve also enabled state environmental agencies, such as California Air Resources Board (CARB), to think they can actually legislate innovation.

The problem with non-technical thinking is that the unintended consequences are never really addressed. That’s what creates the unrealistic situations we are currently experiencing.

Take ethanol, for example. Corn-based ethanol was originally created to reduce our dependence on foreign sources of crude oil. It was a stop-gap method until other forms of ethanol, such as cellulosic, could be developed. Then both farmers and producers got rich off government subsidies. Now, they don’t want to relinquish any of that wealth funding development of lower CO2 sources of ethanol such as waste. In fact, they’re even unhappy that vehicles with better fuel economy have resulted in lower U.S. ethanol sales. That’s why they are pushing both state and federal governments to approve E15 (15% ethanol fuel).

Corn-based ethanol is big business. The ethanol industry consumers over 400 million bushels of corn and millions of gallons of water every month. Iowa alone produced over 4 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol last year. The U. S. exports 1,500-2,000 barrels (63,000-84,000 gal.) to other countries (the largest being Canada and China) each month. Is it any wonder that the Renewable Fuels Association wants governments to disallow cradle-to-grave emissions calculations that show that ethanol doesn’t really reduce CO2 emissions significantly?

Let’s not forget fuel economy. Stoichiometry—the chemically correct fuel air ratio for combustion—for gasoline is 12 to 14 parts air per one part gasoline. That ratio is five to six for ethanol, which means you have to combust twice as much ethanol to produce the same amount of work as gasoline. That’s physics, folks, and no amount of talking and political posturing can repeal the laws of physics.

States with naive legislators have painted themselves into a box by believing their own rhetoric. California, for example, counts on ethanol for 51% of its low carbon credits dictated by their LCFS. They use more than 700 million gallons per year, with only about half of that coming from Midwestern farmers. Local California producers provide less than half the requirement, and they must utilize precious water they’ve taken from Mexico and other states. California couldn’t survive if they had to provide for themselves.

Several other states such as Oregon, Washington and several states in the Northeast have decided to follow California’s lead. Again, I question the science behind these decisions. I think these decisions are made by politicians listening to those who demonstrate outside their offices. Kissing those babies gets them repeatedly re-elected.

California wants to completely phase out diesel fuel usage by 2050, and Oregon wants to eliminate coal usage by 2030. Oregon might have a chance to realize their goal due to an abundance of hydroelectric power, but California doesn’t have a prayer unless we have a momentous battery breakthrough between now and then.

Our 2016 presidential election will set the tone for many states to follow in subsequent years. For the good of the American economy and the trucking industry in particular, please use your head, not your heart, when visiting the polling booths. Our nation needs well researched energy independence and improved fuel economy, not a re-elected Congress.

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