When the new president takes office, he or she will have many issues to deal with. One that’s sure to be contentious is the use of ethanol as an alternative fuel
Ethanol, used in place of MTBE as an oxygenator in gasoline, has a future as a renewable fuel. The question is which form of ethanol will emerge as the preferred choice.
Most ethanol added to U.S. gasoline is corn-based. Corn ethanol has been around since the late-1970s, but it wasn’t until states mandated that it replace MTBE 10 years ago that demand took off. It has since been a boon to farmers, refineries and rural employment.
But corn ethanol is also criticized for rising food prices in the U.S., food shortages worldwide and for receiving agricultural subsidies.
Nevertheless, valve manufacturers and suppliers have found a strong market for new and replacement equipment in ethanol refineries, most of which are in the Midwest. There are 147 ethanol biorefineries in operation, which produced 13.6 billion gallons in 2007 (some for export). Fifty-five more are under construction, and six are slated for expansion.
But there is uncertainty about corn-based ethanol. Jim Schiller, a territory manager for Dresser Consolidated who covers the upper Midwest, sees a slowdown in plant construction—as many as 20 projects are stalled. Some of this is attributable to a glut in production, but he also believes companies are taking a wait-and-see attitude until the new administration’s commitment to ethanol is clear.
While Dresser still sees strong demand for replacement and safety valves in refineries, Schiller notes that a lot of people don’t like the chemical. “There’s growing opposition to production, not only from the oil companies but environmental groups. There are also political issues. It’s hard to say where the issue is going.”
Ethanol has always had critics who complained about its inefficiency—it takes more energy to produce per gallon than it supplies. But it has lately come under attack from environmentalists who maintain that the land and pesticides needed to grow corn for ethanol harm ecosystems; aid groups who claim that diverting corn to refineries aggravates food shortages worldwide; and economists who don’t believe the industry needs subsidies.
The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates production of 7.5 billion gallons per year of renewable fuels (not just ethanol) by 2012, and 36 billion gallons per year by 2022, commits the U.S. to ethanol production. But with nagging questions about its value as a fuel and the harm it may be causing to croplands and global food supply, support for ethanol could change.
Some of these concerns may promote new technologies. Ethanol doesn’t have to be made from corn, and alternative techniques are being developed. Gregory M. Hausmann, vice president of ICM Inc., says these are based on cellulosics.
Speaking in March at the Valve Manufacturers Association’s Technical Seminar, Hausmann said that however the debate goes over corn ethanol, demand for biofuels will pick up to meet targets established by the Energy Independence and Security Act. In 2022, ethanol consumption will be 15 billion gallons of the projected 36 billion gallons per year of renewable fuels. While this will probably max out ethanol production in the U.S., it will create the need for an additional 21 billion gallons of biofuel, which means more refineries—and more valves and related equipment. As it is now, “virtually every type of valve can be found” in ethanol refineries, Hausmann says.
So, no matter what the ext president—or the next few presidents—decides about ethanol production, the trend to renewable fuels seems unchangeable. Ethanol could be corn-based or cellulosic, but it seems certain to remain part of the formula for renewable energy.