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Ethanol Dreams

Blume has been into ethanol since the early 1980s, when he and friends used to gather day-old donuts and boil them down to extract the sugar

By Novella Carpenter

Just as the Wall Street Journal is not my newspaper, and Fox News is not my news channel, Forbes is not my magazine. But still, I was disappointed to see that this month's issue features a negative article about a new-to-me alternative fuel: ethanol. I had seen ethanol at the pump once before, on a trip through America's corn belt, and knew it was an fuel additive, but for some reason, I associated it with a sinister government plot. Turns out, it's the other way around. Yep, ethanol's got it all--a dash of conspiracy theory, a pinch of do-it-yourself and a large helping of petroleum busting.

Ethanol has a long history as a fuel; Nicholas Otto designed his combustion engine to run on alcohol in 1877, and Henry Ford's Model A was designed to run on ethanol. But when the petroleum industry grew powerful following prohibition, ethanol lost its position as a fuel. These days, detractors of ethanol outnumber pro-ethanol folks, mostly because of misinformation, like the recent Forbes article, which opines, "Congressmen love ethanol subsidies, notwithstanding that growing corn and distilling it into ethanol uses 29 percent more energy than it produces, according to Cornell University's David Pimentel."

For the rebuttal, meet David Blume, a farmer, teacher and ethanol enthusiast. He says that Forbes journalist Jonathan Fehay has the numbers wrong. Fehay's main source--David Pimentel's research--has long since been discredited. "First of all," Mr. Blume said, "on the energy-balance issue, one would pick the crop that would make the most sugar, which is not corn, but sugar beets. There has been research that shows a 1:11 energy-balance ratio with ethanol. The USDA, definitely a conservative entity, found net positive output from ethanol of the order of 67 percent. When you compare that to the current numbers on petroleum extraction, which hover around the 1:1 ratio, we should wonder why we all aren't growing sugar beets."

Blume has been into ethanol since the early 1980s, when he and friends used to gather day-old donuts and boil them down to extract the sugar, which would eventually make 100 gallons of ethanol. Blume doesn't do that anymore, he told me over the phone from the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture, but he might start again, once his book is finished. Alcohol Can Be a Gas! (due out next year) explains all the details of brewing your own ethanol, the history of the fuel and the ins and outs of driving an ethanol-powered vehicle.

Plenty of people are using E85 (85 percent ethanol) to power their vehicles. Blume collectively buys large quantities of ethanol for about $1.60 per gallon, and the federal tax credit makes it $1.06 per gallon--now that's some cheap fuel! Of course, there's a website--www.e85fuel.com--which lists stations with pumps, the majority of which are in the Midwest states. In terms of conversion, there are cars driving around right now, made by your favorite Detroit manufacturers, that are called flexible-fuel vehicles: cars like the 2004 Ford Explorer 4.0L, the 4.7 Dodge Ram Pickup and the 2005 GMC Avalanche, to name a few.

You might not need to even use a flexible-fuel car though. Blume's group found in a test of eight vehicles that they all could run at least 50 percent ethanol. Blume pointed out an article in last week's Economist that touted biofuels like ethanol as the antidote to the Forbes article, part of which concluded, "The old idea of biofuels as merely a green diversion from the real world can no longer hold. Fine, when oil was $20 a barrel; not even oil companies believe it now."

Blume agrees, "The choice is over; we hit peak oil production in November 2004. We're currently operating in a functional oil peak, and alcohol is the only fuel to challenge gas." To find out more about Blume and his book, check out www.permaculture.com. No, you can't drink it.


Email Novella at novellacarpenter@yahoo.com.

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From the June 8-15, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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