MAX Update No. 2: Changing My Mind About Biofuels

Reader Contribution by Staff

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.