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U Alumni Challenge Corn Biofuels

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I first saw this story on Loon Commons - Minnesota Magazine published an article detailing problems with corn-based ethanol. Apparently, Governor Pawlenty did not like it, but the article appears to be pretty accurate. Read the original article here.

I found the 4th problem quite interesting - the one that discusses greenhouse gases.

Ethanol indeed reduces air pollution—in small doses. Ethanol has become a much-needed replacement for the gasoline additive MBTE (a possible carcinogen and pervasive groundwater pollutant) to help gasoline burn cleaner. Blending a small amount of ethanol with gasoline reduces carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, and particulates.

But when you look at the entire life-cycle of ethanol—from growing to harvest to processing to combustion—burning E85 (85 percent ethanol) as fuel actually produces more carbon monoxide, volatile organics, particulates, and oxides of sulfur and nitrogen than an energy-equivalent amount of gasoline, according to the University’s study.

And ethanol doesn’t do much to address the big issue: global warming. "We found corn ethanol as currently produced saves about 12 percent greenhouse gases from gasoline," Hill says. And that’s if the corn is grown on existing fields. "If you take land out of CRP you may have a net greenhouse gas release." That would actually exacerbate global warming.

The actual GHG savings of corn-based E85 are doubtful. Though U studies show corn-based ethanol is energy positive, it does not offer a sizable reduction.

Because so much fossil fuel is burned just to make ethanol, turning our entire corn crop to ethanol production would reduce our fossil fuel use by just 2.4 percent.

This article highlights the need for many solutions to do a little each. Corn-based ethanol can do a little and Minnesota is right to encourage it. We need to make other changes as well though and the most important is to reduce what we demand.

By making housing developments in a transit-friendly manner and raising the price of gas (slowly, over time) via a tax, we will reduce demand for all liquid fuels. This is a key step in the process because no new fuel will allow us to continue and certainly not add to present consumption.