Against E85, for windmills

A number of controversial studies criticizing biofuels have been coming out of the University lately.

Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor from Stanford University, came to the University on March 27 to deliver a guest lecture “A Renewable Energy Solution to Global Warming.” In a nutshell, his message was this: Wind and plug-in battery powered cars, good. Ethanol, either corn-based or cellulosic, bad. He said this to a group of about 50 students, faculty and guests who listened politely that every car in the United States should be battery powered, and those cars should be charged each night from a power grid fueled by wind and solar energy.

As a representative of the American Lung Association, I could hardly find fault with his futurist, albeit unlikely, vision of all of the United States scooting around in millions of zero-emission vehicles that have not yet been built, powered by a massive electrical grid connected to gigantic wind turbines and solar farms we don’t yet have. It’s a wonderful dream.

I do take exception to his comments on the ethanol-based alternative fuel E85, sold at more than 340 outlets in Minnesota, used in many vehicles in the University’s fleet, and strongly supported by the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest as a clean air choice for Minnesota motorists.

Jacobson repeated some outlandish claims he published last year, that air pollution from E85 would kill people – in the Los Angeles of the future. Sound like science fiction? To me, it sounds like more fiction than science, and I was astounded that a visiting professor with such impressive-sounding credentials would offer cherry-picked, tortured data to support his study on E85 and mortality rates.

In his studies, which are entirely based on computer modeling using data he selected – no actual vehicle emissions were measured or tested – Jacobson “writes the rules” even as he plays the game. He first selected the emissions studies that best fit his hypothesis, then told the computer to convert every gasoline vehicle in Los Angeles to cars using only E85 fuel, plugged in predicted weather/climate patterns 14 years in the future (14 years? – predicting tomorrow’s weather is tough enough) and predicted how many people will die or become ill in 2020, based on direct causation ties to ground-level pollution based on today’s emergency room visits/mortality rates.

No doubt some people will view Jacobson’s guest lecture as part of an intentional effort by the University to discredit alternative fuels made from crops like corn and soybeans. I hope this is not true, but there is no debate that a number of controversial studies criticizing biofuels have been coming out of the University of lately – a trend that is raising eyebrows and ire across the state and nation. At least one major farm group has already threatened to withhold more than $1 million dollars in research funding because they feel that these data and research are not being presented fairly.

Lately, it has become fashionable to bash biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol. Almost every week, another media report blames ethanol for a variety of woes, from food prices to water consumption. There is much less discussion of the air pollution we know comes from our gasoline and diesel use. While hardly perfect, biofuels are just one of many small (but vital) steps away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner renewable energy. Here in Minnesota, it is working, and the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest will continue to strongly support both E85 and biodiesel as a better alternative to fossil-based fuels.

Moffitt is the communications director for the American Lung Association of Minnesota. Please send comments to [email protected]