E-85 is selling for $2.65 a gallon up here in Wistucky these days. It’s significantly cheaper than standard gas ($3.09 as of yesterday), but it has less available energy per unit than does petro-fuel, so consumers end up buying more of it. That means more land will go into corn production, more corn will get fermented, and more small towns will have their men and women-folk revert back to their vocational roots: moonshiners, albeit with government sanction this time.
It’s the land going into corn production that worries me; I’m all for more small-town moonshiners. Call me kooky, but I’d assume that the vast majority of land that gets converted to corn production, either from previously fallow land, or from a different crop, is going to be managed conventionally, ie. with insecticides and fertilizers based on petroleum. That’s a whole lot of petro-energy to put into growing a crop for bio-fuel. Then there’s additional energy input into the process when you talk about actually using the corn to produce ethanol. In fact, based on this study from the University of California at Berkley, we’d be better off putting the energy it takes to produce ethanol straight in the tanks of our SUVs.
While it’s true that ethanol burns significantly cleaner than petro-fuel, we’re just creating other problems (further degrading agricultural lands, skewed agricultural policy, and throwing away energy to make energy [ignorance of the laws of thermodynamics is no excuse!]) in our quest to mitigate one: global warming.
I’ll give you this: global warming is a potentially big problem. But does it make sense to keep rushing around with blinders on and creating more problems than we solve? I say we break with tradition, admit that we lost this round, and slow down while we figure out smart ways to mitigate the damage we’ve done while slowly, intelligently reversing the changes we’ve unwittingly engineered.