Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Corn Free

Hello kids, we're in the mood for a slightly more cerebral post today. It concerns ethanol, and is one of those reasons that we're grateful for (semi-)anonymity. See, we spend some of our time chatting to people who finance new ethanol projects, and there was a mini-boom in construction of these, followed by a recent slow-down.

Ethanol is, well, alcohol, distilled from corn and then poured into gasoline/petrol, instead of down a hillbilly's throat. It replaced MTBE, a derivative of methanol, as a fuel additive. MTBE was among the substances which replaced lead in petrol, but has since been accused of polluting groundwater.

So we have here an article in Slate, pointing out that ethanol's shortccomings as a fuel additive, and the huge subsidies attached to its production, as well as research that shows that it sometimes takes more energy to create ethanol than it produces. Now it's true that next time a wild-eyed environmentalist starts screeching about
"biofuels", one should take a sharp look at what fuels are being displaced, as well as how we produce them.

But as far as we're aware otherwise there's only MTBE available as an additive, and MTBE certainly doesn't use much energy to produce, but it has the whole contaminating groundwater thing. You could use diesel cars, but these have never been hugely popular in the US. And even hybrids need to use some petrol.

So what is ethanol? It's a bridge. It will be needed for as long as cars use gas and refiners won't add MTBE to their fuel. Rather like wind farms, which are rather ugly but better than nuclear or coal power. The fact that ethanol is inefficient and heavily subsidised doens't make it a bad idea. It does, however, suggest that drivers, rather than taxpayers, should be supporting the difference between the amount that the stuff fetches on the market riight now, and what it costs to provide a return to farmers and distillers.

Quick note, though. The studies that the author, Robert Bryce, cites of the energy output of ethanol do not, as far as we can tell, include the byproduct, which can be used as animal feed, and has both a small calorific content, and a small econmomic value. We haven't seen the research yet, but think it's worth considering.

We've also been woozily covering the story of the Guardian trainee that offered up an explanation for the actions four idiots that wanted to make a difference by blowing up random people in London. Turns out he's a member of a radical Islamic group. We're not sure that disqualifies him from writing op-eds for the Guardian, although his writing should do the trick nicely. His reporting is meant to have been fairly good.

Moreover, if you're going to run something about this, as Brand republic did, try not to use the Moonie-owned Washington Times as a barometer of where US feeling stands on the matter. In fact, refrain wherever possible for usiing the Times of Washington as a source on anything.


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