A crash course in changing the world.
I wrote this for my Environmental Policy class, and I thought I would share it, since ethanol is the huge alternative in cars these days:
Ethanol is the alternative fuel of this century, Brazil being one of the biggest (or THE biggest, depending on the source) producers and distributors of this energy source for decades. In fact, since the 1970’s, they have been attempting to spread ethanol as far as possible, while reaping economic benefit from the fuel as well. Brazil has even developed several automobiles capable of running on 100% ethanol, a feat that has come earlier than the same from other countries. Of course, there are several issues regarding production, use, and the environmental effects of any new fuel source, and ethanol is not perfect by any means.
Ethanol is produced through the fermentation of “starch or sugar-based feedstocks” and is an alcohol by definition. One of the qualities that makes it more of a renewable source of energy rather than oil is the fact that it is made from growing plants and takes much less time, geologically speaking, to produce than petrol. Given that the production technique is growing instead of drilling, it supposedly does not contribute to pollution, and increases oxygen production as well.
There are several issues regarding this, however, because agriculture has not come without its environmental price. Overworking of the soil can leave desertification and barren land, and lack of diversity in a farm environment can cause nearly pandemic disease in the crop, as well as many other effects depending on the climate and area being discussed. Running the farm equipment and making fertilizer for the crop surely contributes to greenhouse gases as much as before the production of ethanol. Not only this, but the corn and other crops being used to produce ethanol would surely be better used to feed the 20% (as of 2004) of Brazil’s population that are in need of food security.
Farming to produce ethanol can be avoided, however, according to Alexander Farrell, a professor at the University of California. His call for cellulosic technology, which would help to break down the woody parts of plants and reduce the need for farm production of the material used to produce ethanol. He says it could be made into “a really good fuel” if we were able to break down the plant waste instead of using food products to drive with. If plant waste were used for ethanol production, it would also reduce the amount of methane being produced by decaying biomass.
The ethanol industry is growing rapidly, though, and this could spell trouble for the environment in the long run. Population continues to increase on the planet, and where population increases, fuel consumption increases as well. Will ethanol be able to sustain the world’s growing need for energy in the future? With the cost of the equipment to farm the corn, and then the cost of the equipment to extract ethanol from the crop, it costs much more to produce ethanol than it does to refine oil.
Let us not forget to mention that the producers of this new fuel need to make a profit as well, and so will continue to exploit a food source to provide ethanol instead of edible products to its customers. This will give incentive to clear ever more Brazilian land for farms, and lead to more environmental degradation as discussed above, as well as “incur higher food costs” so that even fewer of our number can afford to feed themselves. The continued increase in production due to increased population will not be able to sustain itself for long, and will eventually collapse under its own weight.
All of this combined with the fact that ethanol is significantly less efficient of a fuel than petroleum leads to the problem of needing to produce one third more ethanol than one would need oil. This would inevitably speed up the process of the self-destruction of an industry, and leave the world right back where it started in pondering a new fuel for an increasing population. If the world became dependent upon ethanol in the near future, we would only be making the same mistake again, and not just economically.
The fact of the matter remains: ethanol is another combustible, even in the absence of some percentage of gasoline. The world even at this moment is moving toward inventions regarding taking mechanical energy and turning it into electricity, which is a much more sustainable and active way to power our lives as humans. We cannot discount the benefits of ethanol now, but they will eventually be outweighed by even more beneficial mechanical energy rather than chemical energy. Ethanol will not be sustainable environmentally or economically, serving only as a transition into a mechanical energy revolution.