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Tim Kern, Talking Sense

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Location: Anderson, IN, United States

Monday, August 21, 2006

Ethanol: The Unmentioned Drawbacks

It's tiring to hear just half the story about ethanol as our salvation, and an article in the online aviation publication AvWeb (to which I am a sometime contributor) was another cheerleading exercise. Not being able to keep my mouth shut, I sent the following letter to the editor (and it was published: http://www.avweb.com/news/avmail/193001-1.html).
All the hype about ethanol, so far, has ignored several facts. One (and you finally mentioned it -- AVwebFlash, Aug. 17) is that it's low on energy, requiring 20-30% more fuel to go the same distance. The problem is that, even having mentioned that little drawback, the quick answer your crusaders mentioned is that ethanol is cheaper, so it's a wash. (Not if you need a 30% bigger fuel tank, or have to make extra fuel stops en route, it isn't.)

The power deficit of ethanol is more troubling. We'll need longer runways for takeoff, our MTOWs will probably have to be reduced (and this, while carrying more fuel), and climb performance will suffer.

As your story also mentioned, the U.S. can't supply enough ethanol to meet all its fuel needs. Big deal; we don't produce enough oil to do that, either. What your story failed to mention is that ethanol's prices are kept high by the lobbying efforts of ADM and other agri-giants and their Congress. The U.S. has (up to) a 100% tariff on imported ethanol.

Further, the U.S. subsidizes domestic crop production for ethanol, crowding out natural (market-driven) crop production and raising prices of other crops, while using everybody's tax dollars, again, to help the agri-giants.

If ethanol's so good, let's have it find its own way; and if it's too expensive to become interesting on its own, let's cut the tariff.

Then the biggest problems we'll have to worry about are dramatically reduced range, lower payload, and crummy performance. And the inconvenient fact that most of our existing engines and fuel systems would be grounded.

If it were only about fuel costs ... hey, if we flew 20-30% less, we'd have fuel cost savings, too. Problem solved.