Ethanol and the environment

All the buzz about ethanol as an alternative fuel really had me excited. Ethanol is made from plants such as wheat, sugar cane and soy beans – in fact, just about any plant matter can be converted into ethanol.

There’s certainly some very positive environmental benefits, or would appear to be, including up to 30% reduction of carbon monoxide emissions and around the same for toxic emissions overall when compared to gasoline.

Ethanol is relatively non-toxic and dissolves in water.It’s not a fossil fuel and ethanol is certainly a renewable form of energy. Seems like the perfect “have our cake and eat it too” solution in the short term; including slowing down global warming.. or will it?

There is a major, major problem with ethanol that directly impacts on our environment.

Hats off to Brazil for the implementation of ethanol only cars; but they may also be teaching us a lesson as to why ethanol is not a viable replacement fuel. All cars in Brazil run on either ethanol or gasohol; which is a mixture of gasoline and ethano. But here’s where things get a little disturbing. According to figures I’ve been able to dig up, in 2003/2004 over 45,000 square kilometers (17,374 square miles) of land was used for the production of sugar cane for ethanol production – and most of this was for internal use.  This is a larger land area than the entire country of Denmark.

Another point to bear in mind is that Brazil has a population far less than the USA and Brazil’s economy makes car ownership within the reach of only a small percentage of the population.

I’d hate to think how much land would need to be used to fuel all American cars with ethanol or gasohol.

As the motor car has so often been put before the welfare of humans throughout automobile history, I also worry about how much of our crops that were meant to be for food will be re-routed for ethanol use.

Some ecologists have also warned that producing ethanol or biodiesel uses more energy than the resulting fuel generates; therefore it’s totally non viable and will actually add to global warming and environmental woes.

Finding a renewable alternative to our oil addiction is only one part of the equation – there is a more important element; reducing consumption – and that’s the issue that governments, big business and consumers seem to have the most trouble in coming to terms with.

What are your thoughts on ethanol as a renewable fuel solution?