Mother Earth News Blogs > Green Transportation

Green Transportation

Moving toward a transportation system that fuels healthy people and a healthy planet.

MAX Update No. 2: Changing My Mind About Biofuels

I've been asked why I've ended my romance with biofuels. It's a fair question, particularly because I used to be a biofuels buff back in the ’70s — an era I expect we'll remember fondly as Energy Crisis Lite — and even wrote glowingly about biofuels in Mother Earth News.  

It's simple: I wasn't encouraging biofuels in general, I was encouraging home-brewed biofuels (or as the revenuers called it, moonshine).

So what's the difference?

The difference is, stuff that folks make for themselves gets valued, and stuff that folks buy is just stuff. 

Growing, fermenting and distilling your own fuel-grade ethanol is a lot of effort per gallon, enough effort to make anyone an instant convert to efficiency. Thirty-some years ago, people put their home-brewed ethanol in economy cars and work trucks, and they didn't take two trips to town when one trip would do. Nowadays, people put store-bought corn ethanol in their flex-fuel muscle cruisers and treat it just like gasoline — except it’s a little cheaper because it's subsidized by us taxpayers — and feel smug while they're doing it. Hey, not only are they saving the world, they're saving themselves a pretty penny by not paying a gas guzzler tax. So what if they're driving an ethanol guzzler ... ethanol doesn't count.

Well, in quantity, ethanol counts. The ethanol industry has become a lucrative market for corn growers, lucrative enough that many food farmers are becoming fuel farmers. A tank of E85 in a flex-fuel Chevy Suburban requires enough corn to keep a bicycle engine running for a full year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

What's a bicycle engine? You're one, and so am I.

Overconsumption of ethanol auto fuel could pit people who want to drive against people who want to eat. That's one reason the MAX project is focused on minimizing fuel consumption, rather than focusing on what fuel gets consumed. Future technologies will cut the link between biofuels and groceries. But for today, I'm favoring fuel conservation, no matter what we're burning. Cellulosic and algae ethanol may be just around the corner, but conservation works right now.

Look for much more on the infant days of MAX in Here Comes the 100-mpg Car, from the August/September 2008 issue. And follow our progress through this blog, the Green Energy & Great Homes e-newsletter and my Kinetic Vehicles Web site.

jack mccornack
7/31/2008 1:11:00 PM

> I really don't understand why you didn't mention ethanol > which is made from sugar cane. 'Cause I have limited space in this blog, it's a blog about MAX, MAX can't use ethanol (it's a diesel), and we aren't doing sugar cane ethanol in the US--our country uses government subsidised corn ethanol, and penalizes importers of sugar cane ethanol. When I get to talking about energy politics in the US I start bounding and plunging and my eyes get real big and people don't want to stand too close. Thanks for pointing it out. While sugar cane ethanol isn't entirely flawless, it has significant advantages over corn on a global level. Its biggest disadvantage politically is it doesn't grow well in America--too little sun up north, too little water down south.

steven schwartz
7/31/2008 7:01:15 AM

I really don't understand why you didn't mention ethanol which is made from sugar cane. Brazil is the world's largest producer and most of their vehicles are being run on straight ethanol or gasoline/alcohol mixture. They went into production in the late 70s as a response to the gas crisis and have been extremely successful in becoming energy independent. If the US didn't put high tariffs on imported ethanol and sugar, we could help alleviate the high prices at the pump. Ethanol is usable in most modern vehicles and is not as corrosive as Methanol, which is another product of distillation. In fact, one of your readers, the late Robert Warren, made ethanol in 1978 and designed a still for the purpose of using it for fuel in his vehicles. He was able to run his vehicles on alcohol with no detrimental effects. Plans are available for $30.00 at the website, I am surprised at you folks for not mentioning this!

jack mccornack
7/21/2008 11:45:02 PM

Thanks Matt, glad you're enjoying the blog. I think biofuels will be part of the long term energy equation, and more efficient conversion of lower-grade feedstocks is essential for biofuels to help more than they hurt. Fortunately, lots of people lots smarter than me are working on improving biofuels (and other alternative energy sources). My efficiency skills are drag reduction and weight reduction, and I'm going to keep pounding the drum for conservation. It doesn't matter what we burn, burning less of it will help.

matt foster
7/21/2008 3:21:20 PM

Great blog. I've known for a while now that ethanol from corn was very energy intensive (especially the use of petroleum) but I was wondering what you thought about the use of switch grass to make biofuels? The rhetoric on it makes it sound pretty good because the yield is high without being energy intensive.

7/21/2008 5:19:10 AM

I agree that conservation is the key; keep to what we "need"; stop indulging in what we "want". There's far too much waste in the world today. We should pare down, simplify and work diligently to protect the resources we have left.