The Future of Ethanol and Renewable Energy Sources for Automobiles

  • It matters less about the mileage for weight per gallon and more about the cost and supply of the ethanol. And whether using it cuts into the market for food in countries where the local populations are starving partly because it’s more profitable for landowners to export ethanol produced by their crops and sell in US dollars than it is to sell food at local exchange rates, at least if one considers such fiduciary social responsibility. Also, the exhaust from burning ethanol is much, much cleaner than diesel or gasoline.

    Of course, with oil so low right now, well under $60/bl.. I honestly think that ethanol may never go mainstream the way gasoline and diesel have. The infrastructure is pretty much there… it doesn’t have unique requirements such as pressurization as with LNG, CNG, LPG, hydrogen…

    But I still don’t see it happening. Even if by government decree all gas stations were forced to provide an ethanol fuel, there is not nearly the economic supply available that would be necessary to justify mainline production costs. Still, I admit it is much more likely than engines that run on used restaurant oil sludge going mainstream. What I recommend for those interested in having ethanol going mainstream… which is not something I’m adverse to, mind you, I am simply saying that I don’t foresee it happening as things stand now… I would focus on ways to use the vegetation waste that is produced by the agriculture industry.

    So my question would be along the following lines: What is the all-in production cost, starting small-scale, to produce one gallon (at a given size production facility within reason) of fuel-grade ethanol suitable for internal combustion engines (or, alternatively, turbine engine powered vehicles.. but I’d start with ICE’s) out of waste vegetation? Include costs of collection and bids to farmers for the raw product, as well as other industrial supplies, and waste water permits, environmental regulations, etc. This is a good project to work on for a DOE grant.

    One thing I might propose to simplify our measurements- though this would be a pretty big thing to actually do and propagate… I would stop tying into “miles per gallon” – which causes people to make a gallon-for-gallon comparison with gasoline- and instead use an index of “Cost per distance” for an average passenger vehicle. I know, it sounds crazy, but think of it this way. With oil prices subject to so much geopolitical craziness, and with ethanol actually intended, it would seem, to dissociate from that, I’d consider establishing a baseline rough estimate of how much a “standard vehicle” costs to drive one mile (AVERAGE) for a vehicle for the index, say a passenger vehicle that is on the middle to high fuel efficiency – a Honda Accord or similar American made vehicle – and state that “At ( cost per gallon for gasoline, it would cost the average [Honda Accord?] to travel 1 mile on average. With an ethanol powered vehicle, (regardless of how many gallons, or miles per gallon), you could state the cost per average mile.

    The purpose of this is to change the psychological baseline that appears in consumers’ minds naturally when making the comparison. Given the different properties of ethanol, and the different ways energy can be extracted from it in varying degrees of efficiency, this may be a bit hard to explain at first but it MIGHT help to break out of the gallon comparisons, since the actual properties AND the actual costs will be on entirely different charts now and in the future.

    This COULD prove especially useful in presentations derived from predictive analyses.

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