Growing Our Own Fuel

In his State of the Union Address, President George W. Bush identified a wide variety of hybrid and alternate-fuel technologies for development in the nation's effort to free itself from the vagaries of relying on foreign sources of fuel. But a former Executive Director of the Maryland Public Service Commission suggests the solution could and should be far simpler. Ken Hurwitz, who is now a partner at Haynes and Boone, LLP, a law firm with an influential energy-related practice, says President Bush's "continued rhetoric" on research and development as to alternative energy sources is doing little to help wean the country from foreign sources of oil.

According to Hurwitz, "The marketplace will drive the development of new sources of energy in the future, but alternative fuels such as ethanol are available today and can be readily exploited with some minor improvements in the distribution infrastructure and, of course, some vision on the part of the domestic automobile industry."

To Hurwitz waiting to develop infant alternative-fuel technologies will simply waste precious time. 

"We know how to make ethanol from corn already," he said. "Let's focus on diversifying energy supply now by putting ethanol into our gas tanks."
 
What will it take to lessen our energy dependency? Hurwitz says we need to ensure that we have facilities with the capacity to produce a commercially viable supply of ethanol to supplement our current gasoline supply. Unlike other technologies, ethanol produced by corn is already a proven commercial technology and can be placed into the channels of commerce now. Hurwitz also makes a distinction between the processes that derive ethanol from corn and those that seek to derive ethanol from other sources.

"The capacity to manufacture ethanol from switchgrass, wood chips and other agricultural waste could be years away," he said. "We need to energize the movement away from over-dependency on foreign oil by encouraging further use of proven, market-ready approaches like producing ethanol from corn."

Equally important are creating a strong distribution chain for ethanol and the availability of vehicles that can use ethanol as fuel. Right now the latter seems to be outpacing the former. General Motors and Ford Motor Company made strong stands in favor of ethanol at the recent Chicago Auto Show, noting that they offer a wide variety of so-called Flex-Fuel vehicles that can run on gasoline and various gasoline-ethanol mixes, including E85, which is 85% ethanol. Between them GM and Ford say they will build 650,000 Flex-Fuel vehicles this year. But having all these vehicles on the road won't do much good is they are fueled with gasoline instead of E85, and right now E85 is hard to come by.

Estimates indicate that there are just 600 E85 fuel stations in the United States, and some regions (the Northeast, for instance) and states (Alaska, Hawaii, Louisiana, among them) have no E85 stations at all. This, of course, runs counter to any hope that ethanol will be a solution to our oil dependency.

"Completing the final distribution leg must make access to ethanol as simple as making an alternate selection at your local gas pump," Hurwitz said.

That scenario is possible -- and to many it is a more appealing solution than gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, which are much more expensive to develop and build than Flex-Fuel vehicles. But currently ethanol has its drawbacks as well, the most obvious being price. Right now E85 is more expensive than gasoline, and vehicles using it require more fuel to go the same distance as a gasoline-powered car, adding to the overall cost. Persuading the average American to pay more for a vehicle that will, in turn, require she or he to pay more at the pump will require quite a marketing campaign.

Cleveland-based Driving Today Contributing Editor Luigi Fraschini writes frequently on alternative-fuel technologies.