Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Wonder of Ethanol: Lower Gas Mileage, Higher Food Prices, and Now Bonus Car Death!

Author: Nick
Category: Money

comic 30 - alternative energy

You’ve probably heard all about ethanol fuel by now—the “miracle” biofuel made out of corn that will transform our reliance on foreign oil into a reliance on foreign corn, or something. According to some pro-ethanol scientists, ethanol is cleaner burning than regular gasoline, it’s a lot cheaper (around here, a gallon of 85% ethanol fuel goes for a buck less than a gallon of good old American gasoline), and it’s the only thing saving the U.S. from terrorism and Asian bird flu.

Despite the alleged benefits of ethanol, it has some pretty serious drawbacks that have been known to fuel experts since day one:

  • It lowers fuel economy. That 10% ethanol being mixed into your gasoline might be helping to keep it 10 cents a gallon cheaper, but you’re probably getting 10-30% fewer miles per gallon because of it. Since all the gas stations around here switched to a 10% ethanol blend, my gas mileage has dropped by about 15%!
  • It makes food more expensive. Rice is to Asia what corn is to America. Since the government subsidizes farmers to sell their corn as fuel instead of food, it’s pretty obvious that corn and anything made of corn will go up in price. But even foods not made of corn are experiencing skyrocketing prices. That’s because a lot of animals eat corn. So when corn’s price goes up 50%, Mr. Moo Cow’s own price (both meat- and milk-wise) won’t be far behind.
  • Ethanol’s future is uncertain. You can find a study to support virtually every stance on ethanol. Some studies say that even every pound of U.S. corn converted to ethanol would still only power a tiny percentage of our automobile fleet. Others say that the U.S. landscape could be transformed into an ethanol factory to power every car, though yet other studies say such a conversion would destroy the ozone in two seconds flat. It’s not even certain whether corn ethanol produces a net energy gain or loss, and ethanols from other crops may eventually replace corn ethanol altogether.

One thing is becoming more and more certain about the mysterious biofuel: ethanol is likely ruining your vehicle’s engine. Because ethanol-blended gas doesn’t burn as hot, the vapors usually emitted by fuel aren’t burned up and instead deposit themselves into your engine and other vital car components. Mechanics are seeing a big uptick in expensive repairs caused by gunked-up engines in ethanol-driven cars.

So what can you do about this conspiracy to kill your car? Well…

  • Uhh… You could, like, not drive? Ethanol is making its way into just about every gas tank nowadays, and fuel station owners love the stuff because it’s temporarily keeping gas prices in the realm of affordability.
  • Hmm… Drill your own oil field, perhaps? Build your own refinery?
  • Er… Flex fuel vehicles? Well, those use 85% ethanol, so your engine might gunk up eight times faster than with 10% ethanol.
  • What about… Electric cars? Hydrogen fuel cells? Solar power? Even if they were a viable alternative today, they’d probably have even more mechanical problems than the occasionally gunked-up engine.
  • Or maybe… Nope, that won’t work either. Face it, your car is screwed.

Okay, so maybe you do have one option: bump up the frequency of those oil changes and other car-cleansing maintenance intervals. Unfortunately, whichever route you choose for your fuel needs, you’re going to be throwing more and more money at your car’s problems. Soon your best bet will be to just sell your car, stay home, and eat your foreign-grown, $5-an-ear corn with the rest of us.

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