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Published November 05 2011

Nelson: Enough ethanol mythology

Russ Newman, vice president of Tharaldson Ethanol near Casselton, N.D., recently boomed ethanol again in The Forum’s pages. Before we examine the mistakes and nonsensical reasoning behind his remarks about this trash fuel, I should note that I once felt the same allure to this idea of growing our own fuel. Somewhere in my luxurious machine shed library is a book from the 1970s on making and using alcohol for cars.

The first fly in the ointment for me was discovering that ethanol, being less volatile than gasoline, doesn’t work well in carbureted engines. Thirty-five years ago, one of the book’s solutions was to run two fuels in the car: gasoline to warm the engine, then alcohol (now ethanol). Rube Goldberg, anyone? Fuel injection has solved the volatility problem for the most part. But older cars, most motorcycles and all small utility engines (snowblowers, lawn mowers, chain saws, etc.) use carburetors.

Boosting ethanol content in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent, which Newman favors, is likely to cause cold weather starting problems for carbureted engines. What’s more, it might cause damage even to modern cars that are not built to burn so much ethanol. In response to pie-in-the-sky EPA claims, Ford says that it “does not support the introduction of E15 into the marketplace for the legacy fleet ...” Mercedes Benz claims it will damage its emissions control equipment. Honda speaks of “the potential for engine failure,” while Toyota will void warranties on its vehicles run on such high-ethanol-content fuel.

All carmakers can make vehicles that will withstand this corrosive, troublesome fuel, but the ones already on the road – all the way up to the new ones that are not E85-proof – are not so devised.

Ethanol requires constant life support in terms of subsidies and mandates. (Minnesota, by law, requires gasoline to carry 10 percent ethanol.) It’s the fuel that can’t stand up on its own. Contrary to the ethanol industry’s claims, ethanol still barely renders more energy than it takes to make, disproving that it in any way displaces imported oil. Even if one accepts the ethanol industry’s inflated estimate, the energy in/energy out ratio of ethanol is feeble.

Newman claims a great deal of employment in the ethanol world. There should be. At a cool $6 billion a year government subsidy, that’s no surprise. But given ethanol’s tiny energy surplus, it’s not gainful employment. Worse, in a world of scarce resources, we’ve chased ethanol down a dead-end alley, wasting time, energy and money.

Sometime, somehow, we’ll have to replace oil as an energy source. We still have some time. But we’ve poured a lot of effort and money into a hole in the ground with ethanol, only to have its boomers wish to force more on society. Enough already.

Nelson is a Fargo postal worker and regular contributor to The Forum commentary page.