Sugarcane Ethanol Is in Your Gas Tank’s Future

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I asked scientists and economists about sugarcane ethanol and whether it could out earn corn ethanol should the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) expire at the end of 2011.  Without fail, a resounding “yes” was the answer.

“Because of the perennial nature of sugarcane, the higher yield than corn, and the lower energy input in cultivation and processing, cane is just better,” University of Minnesota bioengineer Jason Hill said.

In addition, plant waste (bagasse) from the cane plants is used to power the ethanol manufacturing process.  A similar process mentioned above dealing with corn, but Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell points out that soil erosion becomes a huge problem in both scenarios, especially for corn, which causes the most erosion and requires the most pesticide and fertilizer of any crop.

Corn stover -- reddydairyfarms.com

The “carbon footprint” of corn ethanol production is much higher than that of ethanol production from a simpler carbohydrate–sugar, which ferments relatively quickly and easily.  All arguments for corn ethanol and its subsidization have been thoroughly rebuked for years.  While sugarcane ethanol is not perfect, it appears to be the most economically viable alternative.  Brazil now has cars that can run on any blend of gasoline and ethanol.

“We know this is not a simple or quick process, but the introduction of Flex-Fuel vehicles (FFVs) around the world is something that has to be considered, and it can only happen with decisive support from automakers and the government. FFVs helped Brazil replace 50% of its gasoline needs with ethanol,” said Leticia Phillips of UNICA, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry .

“I’m a conservation nut,” Iowa State economist David Swenson said.  “I don’t take anyone seriously if they are talking about increasing energy production or positing an untested or false technology.”

UNICA President and CEO Marcos Jank released a statement in response to the VEETC tariff extension.

“It is clear that the United States is not committed to open and fair trade in clean energy, particularly ethanol,” Jank said.

Importing mass quantities (billions of gallons per year to meet RFS) of Brazilian ethanol will likely to be done once VEETC expires.  As ethanol-gas blending will persist in the decades to come, importing sugarcane ethanol will be a cheaper alternative to both fossil fuels and corn ethanol, with many fewer pitfalls.

Brazil’s struggles in the 1970s led them down a path to energy independence.  Where will our current struggles take us today?

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About Joe Doolen

I am a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. My aim is to write on science and international issues with a focus on environmental policy and justice. Topics range from local and domestic politics to international communications and culture, and anything cool about science really!!
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