Tuesday, November 6, 2007

e2: Episode 4

The fourth episode of e2 is now available online, and should be airing on local PBS stations this week.

In this episode, an examination of growing crops to reduce the use of petroleum products is examined. The first half of the episode examines the conditions that led to the creation of the sugarcane based ethanol industry in Brazil, as well as technological improvements that were introduced by auto manufacturers when ethanol availability became an issue. The episode seems to present Brazil's sugarcane industry as a panacea, and doesn't discuss any of the costs or trade-offs of growing sugarcane, its impact on the rain forest, its sustainability as an industry. I pretty sure that Brazil has to keep cutting more rain forest in order to make room for more sugarcane as the older fields become less productive. Another cost, as is pointed out later in the discussion of US ethanol, is the energy required to grow the crops in the first place. Is it the case that sugarcane is an "easy" crop to grow and only requires planting and harvesting and doesn't require intensive care as corn does?

The second half of the episode discusses the US responses to the oil shocks of the 1970's, and how there has been no lasting impact on US government or energy policy to address the growing use of petroleum. The 70's oil shocks saw the creation of the CAFE standards, which are a popular topic for the current energy bill, and campaign rhetoric, yet once the oil shocks were over, average fuel efficiency went lower than Henry Ford's original Model T.

The episode doesn't directly discuss issues of using food for fuel, but
does acknowledge that this issue does exist, and suggests that corn may
simply be a temporary product while cellulosic ethanol sources are
perfected and industrialized. The commentators do point out that it is primarily political clout that has shaped energy policy and subsidy systems that have led to the inefficient and questionable corn based ethanol industry of the US. As one commentator pointed out, we don't have enough land to grow a corn crop large enough to replace gasoline as the fuel of choice in our vehicles.

Assuming ethanol is the right answer for our dependence on gasoline to fuel our vehicles, automakers are going to need to implement the "$15" change to all engines to make them capable in same way that Brazil's are of running any fuel blend. And it begs the question, if it is so inexpensive to implement in Brazil, why isn't it a standard part of every vehicle sold? Why isn't congress making a requirement of flex fuel compatibility part of energy policy? The technology already exists, and would probably only take a few years (under 4?) to deploy to every vehicle sold. if there is a commitment to an ethanol future, wouldn't it make sense to lower the bar for fuel makers to know that there is a guaranteed market for ethanol blends?

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