Switchgrass and Ethanol

SWITCHGRASS AND ETHANOL….Aside from “human-animal hybrids,” the word that sprang out of nowhere for most people in this week’s State of the Union address was probably “switchgrass.” But as Sam Jaffe wrote for us in 2004, there are two new technologies that promise to make ethanol production far cheaper and more efficient than it is today. One of those technologies is a genetically-engineered microbe that allows us to make ethanol from more sources than just corn:

Most intriguing of all is switchgrass, a hardy North American plant that can be raised without irrigation and harvested with a low-labor process similar to mowing the lawn. In other words, it requires very little energy to bring to harvest compared with ethanol’s traditional corn. According to Cornell’s [David] Pimentel, roughly 15 percent of the North American continent consists of land that is unsuitable for food farming but workable for switchgrass cultivation. Given the typical energy yield of switchgrass, a rough calculation indicates that if all that land were planted with switchgrass, we could replace every single gallon of gas consumed in the United States with a gallon of inexpensive, domestically produced, and more environmentally-friendly cellulosic ethanol.

Fine. But how do we get automakers to sell cars that can run on “flex-fuel” combinations of ethanol and gasoline? And how do we get gas stations to sell the stuff? From our friends on the right comes one possible answer: just force them to do it. Robert Zubrin writes in The American Enterprise:

This year, Detroit will offer some two dozen models of standard cars with a flex-fuel option available for purchase. The engineering difference is in one sensor and a computer chip that controls the fuel-air mixture, and the employment of a corrosion-resistant fuel system. The difference in price from standard units ranges from $100 to $800.

….The only sticking point is the non-availability of high alcohol fuel mixes at the pump. Filling stations don?t want to dedicate space to a fuel mix used only by 1 percent of all cars. And consumers are not interested in buying vehicles for which the preferred fuel mix is unavailable.

This chicken-and-egg problem can be readily resolved by legislation. One major country has already done so. In 2003, Brazilian lawmakers mandated a transition to [flex-fuel vehicles]….By 2007, 80 percent of all new vehicles sold in Brazil are expected to be FFVs, producing significant fuel savings to consumers, a boost to local agriculture, and a massive benefit to the country?s foreign trade balance.

There’s more in both articles. Jaffe thinks ethanol could be used to directly power hydrogen fuel cells, for example, while Zubrin dismisses hydrogen as a chimera and thinks we should look to methanol rather than ethanol for the bulk of our needs, since methanol can be produced using coal, something we have in abundance. The drawback of methanol made from coal, however, is that it does nothing for global warming. Alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel are far more environmentally friendly.

I suspect that both authors have overstated the case for their preferred alternative, but both are worth reading nonetheless. I don’t know if George Bush loves switchgrass because he got a visit from the switchgrass lobby or because someone just whispered the word in his ear, but who cares? If the left loves ethanol for environmental reasons and the right loves it so we don’t have to buy so much oil from Saudi Arabia, maybe there’s a deal to be made.