As concerns mount over soaring gasoline prices and the United States' dependence on foreign oil, ethanol is emerging as a controversial balm for the nation's growing energy problem. Politicians and automakers say the corn-based biofuel can reduce demand for gasoline. By using more ethanol, advocates say, gasoline prices would come down and air quality would improve. But some critics say there are far more effective alternatives than a fuel which requires massive energy inputs to produce.
"I wish ethanol were everything that advocates say it is, but it is terrible that this has been latched on to and proposed to be a solution to our liquid fuels problem," said David Pimentel, a Cornell University ecology and agricultural sciences professor. Not only does ethanol require 30% more energy input than what is produced, Pimentel said, but crop pesticides and fertilizers cause water pollution and other environmental problems.
For its part, the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition said ethanol production has become less energy-intensive over the last 20 years, and will continue to improve. There are two types of ethanol gasoline: E10, a blend which contains 10% ethanol, can be used in any vehicle and is already used in 40% of all gasoline sold in the U.S.; and E85, a blend which uses 85% ethanol and requires specially made vehicles.
Although automakers are on board, even touting their products, the question is whether consumers will warm to vehicles that require a different fuel and engine. A J.D. Power and Associates' study reported that only 7.23% of all new car buyers last year said that "environmental impact" was a key factor in their buying decision.
There are other challenges. For one, ethanol achieves lower mileage than traditional gasoline. Another problem is the lack of infrastructure. There are about 180,000 gasoline stations in the U.S., but only 600 or so ethanol stations, according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.
In January, two midwestern senators sponsored a bill that would require automakers to annually increase the number of vehicles capable of burning E85 until nearly all vehicles are so equipped.
General Motors Corp. has launched an ad campaign touting ethanol. Hybrid leader Toyota Motor recently said it would consider building ethanol-friendly vehicles. Chrysler Corp. plans to add three new vehicles to its lineup of E85 flexible-fuel vehicles this fall: The Jeep Grand Cherokee and Commander SUVs, and the Dodge Dakota pickup. Earlier this year Ford introduced the Escape Hybrid E85, a research vehicle that marries hybrid electric power and flex-fuel capability, and is said to produce 25% less carbon dioxide than a gasoline-fueled Escape hybrid. In all there are about six million E85-compatible vehicles on the road.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2006