Bio-Diesel, Gasohol, And the Energy Bill

Since I was so enamored by my friend’s new Prius last week, I’ve been thinking a lot about gasoline and alternative fuels. So I was surprised by a letter to the editor in today’s Pacific Daily News about developing bio-diesel resources here on Guam. The letter states that other Pacific island nations like Fiji, Kiribati, and Vanuatu are using copra as a substitute for diesel fuel. It sounds like a good idea, at least for existing government vehicle fleets, school buses, trucks, and heavy equipment. But I seriously doubt that Guam has the amount of coconuts available to produce sufficient quantities of bio-diesel. Development of residential lots destroyed most of the coconut plantations on Guam, and any new efforts at raising coconuts locally will take decades before the trees will bear fruit. Maybe we could import coco-diesel from the Philippines?

But then why bother with bio-diesel at all? Most cars and trucks built in the last decade can handle almost pure grain alcohol instead of gasoline with a few tweaks of the fuel system. Make your own Fuel details the particulars about producing ethyl alcohol, ethanol, in a home still using corn, molasses, or any other feed crop. Most cars can burn ethanol with no problems, only requiring a redesigned O2 sensor and fuel system computer to adjust the air/fuel mix. Many models are already equipped with the necessary software, including Ford Taurus, Explorer, Chrysler Sebrings, Dodge Ram trucks and minivans, and some Chevy trucks and SUV’s.

Of course ethanol has its problems too. Critics say it takes more energy to create ethanol in sufficient quantities than it releases, primarily when the use of petroleum products in fertilizers, farm equipment and transportation are included in the equation. As such, it represents nothing more than a multi-billion dollar subsidy to the nation’s corn farmers while adding to the complexity of the nation’s energy infrastructure. More significantly, converting the country’s entire corn yield into ethanol would only cut the United States’ consumption of gasoline by 20%. Yeah, we use that much gasoline. So is ethanol worth the effort? Well, I guess we’re about to find out.

The House passed a monumental energy bill last week that will double the amount of ethanol produced in the nation by 2012, to nearly 8 billion gallons. With oil prices hitting $61 today, I think exploring our fuel options with ethanol and bio-diesel will at least stretch the current petroleum reserves and give up some breathing space before the “Long Emergency” comes crashing down upon us. Regardless, it is pretty obvious that growing our fuel on farms will not replace our dependency on oil, either in Illinois or here on Guam. What we need to do is cut back on demand, car pool to work, take the bus, ride a bike, or even walk where we need to go. It is a shocking idea in America, a country that loves its automobiles. But I am afraid we better get used to walking again, because there is an energy crunch coming.