What comes after the ethanol?

Monday, January 21, 2008

The question above will earn you a quick kick in the behind just about anywhere in Iowa, and no wonder - the amazing ethanol "gold rush" has almost overnight given us $4 corn, a source for new jobs in a state with otherwise limited prospects, and hiked up tax base in a way many rural cities and towns previously couldn't have imagined.

Iowa has put a whole lot of its eggs in the ethanol basket.

I can't help but wonder, though, what could happen if ethanol isn't the end-all of the alternative energy wave.

What if those government subsidies for ethanol refining dry up? What if something else becomes the vogue?

I was checking some foreign sources around the web tonight. In Germany, they refer to ethanol as "a novelty," and in Russia, investors are encouraged to get their money out of the industry, quick. "That train has left the station," one supposed expert has written. The world opinion seems to be, it won't last long.

Don't tell it to Sweden, though, it is running cars on E85 - gas that is a whopping 85 percent ethanol.

It is not as if there are not other possibilities - some say that similar fuel can be created more efficiently from switchgrass or willow, without compromising the supply of a food crop (I believe there may be some issues still with finding ways to easily break down the cellulose in woody plants.)

Some are finding ways to produce energy from all sorts of waste, oils or fats.

I recall reading where ecology professor David Tilman got national exposure for his years-long study that showed a mixture of prairie grasses, with no fertilizer or irrigation, stored a lot more energy than corn or soybeans on a per-acre basis and should require far less energy to synthesize into fuel. Imagine that - replanting the prairie that our great-great grandparents worked so hard to plow under?

Also, I see where a Canadian company believes "bio oil" is the next big thing. Using wood chips normally discarded from sawmills and other businesses, Vancouver-based Dynamotive (Charts) employs the decades old technology of pyrolysis - heating organic materials without oxygen - to create fuel. The technique separates the carbon from the fuel, reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Okay, but could that provide for the mass amounts of fuel needed? (even ethanol can only provide for a sliver of that pie.)

American cars, of course, haven't done much about the problem, because we haven't demanded it.

Hard to believe, but the current passenger car average mileage standard is only about 27.5 miles per gallon. We did better than that in some cars in the '70s! Consider this - 21 years ago, a Honda Civic CRX got 52 mpg city/57 highway. This past year, a Honda Civic DX was rated at 30 mph city, and at best managed 40 on the highway. Progress? In power, not mileage.

This week I was reading of carmaker's plans to launch plug-in electric vehicles again. That's been on and off since the '60s. Maybe it'll work for eco-proud celebs tooling about on Rodeo Drive, but on long, isolated Iowa county roads?

I test-drove the first hybrid vehicle sold in Storm Lake a couple years ago, and it worked fine. (It is weirdly silent until the gas engine kicks in at a higher speed - I wonder how many bikers, joggers, skateboarders, playing children and whitetail deer you would collect around here with a no-noise SUV?)

Hybrid numbers are relatively very low. People don't know if they will stick around. They wonder if the electric stuff will give out ("The more crap you put on a car, the more crap there is to break," my mechanic grandfather was known to say.) Will you be able to get parts down the line, and will you be able to find someone who knows how to fix it? Will you be able to resell it?

A friend of mine directed me to a video of Jay Leno testing a hydrogren hybrid BMW from Europe. A very knowledgeable car collector, Leno found performance no different between gas and hydrogen-running in the Beamer (in fact, they use the same standard pushrod motor - you can switch with a button on the steering wheel and feel no difference at all.)

The beauty - zero emissions, as in none! Just a little clean water vapor. Jay collected the water in a glass and drank it.

The downside, almost no hydrogen stations yet east of California, expensive conversions, high prices on the few available new models until production on them ramps up - and if you leave a car sit for a month, hydrogen will dissipate.

In case you wonder, hydrogen tanks sell for anywhere from $1 to $20 a kilo in the U.S. since they don't make much yet - a kilo of hydrogen has the same energy as a gallon of gas, but hydrogen is generally good for two to three times the mileage.

Yeah, it is a coming thing. Clean, high mileage, potential to be affordable, independent. Honda's coming out with one. Every automaker is working on it, but none of the U.S. Big Three say they can do it in less than a decade.

Today, it seems as if ethanol may be nearing the max in Iowa - there is only so much corn. I wonder is that's why that plant still hasn't materialized at Alta. Biodiesel's boom may have eased slightly too, based on the slower-than-expected response from investors in the proposed plant at Storm Lake.

Still, farmers are pushing the corn envelope while the sun is shining, and both the public and politicians seem to be continuing their support for the alternative fuels that are revolutionizing the Iowa crop marketplace.

I get nervous though, with the absence of a real national energy policy, or even a strong long-term sense of direction. What would happen in Iowa if the gold rush suddenly waned?

Iowa farmers might no longer see markets fighting to give $4 a bushel, or see land valued at $5,000 an acre.

As reality has it, if crop prices ever fall - I'll bet the increased cost of production growers face does not. So whatever the future holds in energy development, whatever comes next, I sure hope Iowa is helping make it happen - not having it happen TO us.