U researchers: Ethanol and other biofuels won’t solve U.S. oil woes

At maximum capacity, ethanol could meet only 12 percent of demand.

Marni Ginther

The quest for cleaner, cheaper fuel is on many people’s minds as gasoline prices increase, but it’s riddled with obstacles for researchers and industry leaders.

University applied economics researchers have found some more twists and turns in the path toward widespread use of biodiesel and ethanol to fuel the nation’s vehicles.

A study by the group released July 11 led by postdoctoral applied economics researcher Jason Hill reported that dedicating all current U.S. corn production to ethanol would meet only 12 percent of the nation’s demand for vehicle fuel. The study also said ethanol produces only 12 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than the gasoline people already use.

With the current sources available for ethanol, primarily corn in the United States, and the technology used to produce it, widespread use of ethanol doesn’t look economically feasible, Hill said.

“Corn grain ethanol and soy biodiesel are first-generation biofuels, and so we need to look for other ways of producing biofuels from different sources, and even producing different biofuels,” Hill said.

Mark Hamerlinck, communications manager of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, acknowledged “we will never run all the vehicles in this country on E85,” which is the gasoline blend with 85 percent ethanol seen at some gas stations.

But “12 percent (of gasoline demand) is still 12 percent,” he said.

He also pointed out that currently all gasoline in Minnesota has a 10-percent ethanol additive, and in the year 2010, that additive will be increased to 20 percent.

He pointed out that in recent years, fuel economy of cars in the United States has not been restricted.

“We have these land yachts driving around,” Hamerlinck said. “If, every year, (cars) had to get 3 percent better fuel economy Ö then your total fuel usage would actually start to go down, so the percentage of ethanol usage could go up.”

“There is much more we can do on the demand side than on the supply side,” Hill said.

But even as an additive, Hill said ethanol would not work for the whole country.

“Even E20 is not sustainable for the nation,” Hill said. “E10 is not sustainable for the nation either.”

Despite studies like Hill’s which say ethanol might not be significantly cleaner than gasoline, Taher Alyamany, sales manager at Freeway Ford in Bloomington, said flex-fuel vehicles are selling more than before.

“Our only flex-fuel vehicle was introduced three years ago and it’s selling pretty well because it’s a flex-fuel,” he said. “A lot of people now are thinking more about gas prices when buying a vehicle.”

Hill said this is creating a demand for ethanol, which might mean that ethanol prices won’t be much lower than gasoline.

“(Ethanol) is a response that, in many ways, is short-term, and I don’t think makes complete sense,” Hill said. “We really are in the early stages of developing sustainable biofuels.”