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Ethanol may be the answer

Fri, Mar 31st, 2006
Posted in Commentary

The answer to America’s dependence on gasoline could come from the Midwest, not the Middle East.Using ethanol as a transportation fuel can be traced back to Henry Ford and other transportation pioneers. Ford’s Model T, produced in 1908, had a carburetor adjustment that would allow the vehicle to run on ethanol fuel produced by farmers. Ford’s vision was to “build a vehicle affordable to the working family and powered by a fuel that would boost the rural farm economy.”Shortly after the Model T was introduced, rising taxes imposed on ethanol limited its use as a fuel alternative. Low gasoline prices and a well-run campaign by the major oil producers kept ethanol from catching on as a transportation fuel. In spite of this, interest in alcohol-based fuels as a supplement to oil-based fuels was revived during the oil shortages of WWI. During WWI, vehicle fuels contained a mixture of 20% alcohol and 80% gasoline. The use of alcohol and gasoline as a blended fuel was again reintroduced during WWII when the government took over whiskey distilleries and transformed them to produce alcohol for fuel. Following WWII, oil prices dropped to an all-time low, the petroleum industry was opposed to using ethanol blended fuels and campaigned to cancel any further incentives for use.The production of alcohol fuels was on hold until the oil crisis of the 1970s, and ethanol production was again recognized as a beneficial, renewable, alternative fuel source. In 1979, the OPEC oil embargo had created long lines and higher prices. There was national concern about the transfer of wealth to the Middle East and the vulnerability of the United States from increased oil imports. President Jimmy Carter spotlighted the nation’s dependency on fossil fuels, promoted renewable energy and developed an ethanol program. In 1986, the Minnesota legislature initiated a program to increase the use of ethanol by creating a state tax credit for ethanol-blended gasoline. At the same time, rural Minnesota was also in the throes of a major agricultural market depression with low crop values and the loss of eight thousand farms between 1984 and 1986. In response, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture began developing an ethanol program intended to encourage rural economic development through farmer-owned value-added processing, while reducing the state (and nation’s) reliance on imported energy.Minnesota’s support for the ethanol industry has created significant economic benefits for the communities where ethanol plants are located and for the state as a whole. In comparison with other midwestern states, Minnesota has made a commitment to promote the production and use of ethanol as an automotive fuel. This commitment is known as the “Minnesota Model” and has resulted in farmer-owned ethanol plants. In 2005, several states, including Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, and Wisconsin, were considering legislation to join Hawaii and Minnesota in requiring the use of ethanol in gasoline.Today corn ethanol’s main use is as an additive that helps gasoline burn more efficiently. Ethanol is an environmentally friendly substitute for MTBE, a petroleum based additive that is toxic and is now banned in California and 24 other states.Over the past several years, record oil and gasoline prices, federal and state clean fuel programs, and growing concerns about our growing dependence on imported energy have prompted ethanol demand. As a result, ethanol is blended in more than 30% of the gasoline sold in the U.S. today.Advancements in technology have also improved today’s dry-milling ethanol plants into more efficient and productive entities when compared to the first generation plants that operated in the 1980s. Lower energy requirements and more sophisticated technology have cut production costs significantly. A new technology called BPX, will reduce energy consumption, improve the corn to ethanol conversion rate, improve the quality of dried distillers grain, and reduce plant emissions. Processing corn products instead of exporting corn as a raw commodity adds value to each bushel of corn. In addition to fuel, ethanol plants also produce high-protein livestock feeds plus other products such as starch and carbon dioxide.Although the majority of ethanol produced in the U.S. is made from corn, new technology has been developed to make ethanol from a wider variety of “cellulosic” sources. These sources for ethanol include corn stalks, grain straw, switchgrass, quick-growing tree varieties (such as poplar or willow), or even municipal waste. Work continues to bring this technology to commercial scale. Having a wide variety of feedstocks for ethanol production is beneficial because it allows the U.S. to make even more ethanol, further enhancing our energy security, national economy, and environment.Petroleum products still account for most of the fuel used for transportation in the United States. While the federal government has increased it’s spending on research and development for ethanol, biodiesel, hybrid vehicles, and very low-emission fuel-cell-powered vehicles, these outlays seem small compared to the huge subsidies given to American oil companies. With U.S. demand for gasoline at 140 billion gallons annually and growing, ethanol’s current yield of less than 4 billion gallons barely scratches the surface of the potential that exists. Whatever the technological challenges, a world of abundant, clean ethanol is suddenly looking a lot more realistic than a return to the days of cheap, unlimited oil.

Eunice Biel lives on a dairy farm with her husband near Granger. They are shareholders in the ProCorn Ethanol plant.

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