The New York Times has jumped onto the ethanol bandwagon with both feet. Today's lead editorial highlights ethanol as the likely best answer to reducing our oil dependency. While they admit that ethanol is not the entire solution, they suggest that it may trump the prospects for a hydrogen economy, at least in its practicality of implementation and its environmental improvement over fossil fuels. While I concur with some of the points they raise, I do not agree with the tone, or with the notion that advanced ethanol technologies are sufficiently well-proved to derail other possible energy solutions.
The main caveat in reading this piece, which could easily be lost in the gloss of current ad campaigns for ethanol and flexible fuel vehicles, is that it is premature to bank on the benefits of cellulosic ethanol conversion. This is an exciting technology, and it has the potential to reduce the cost of ethanol production, greatly improve the balance between ethanol's energy inputs and the energy content of the resulting fuel, while minimizing the future competition between food and fuel crops. But as of this point, the first large-scale cellulosic ethanol plant has not come on line. The cost of the enzymes required to convert cellulose to sugar, the critical step before fermentation, is still high and must come down before it even competes with traditional ethanol processes.
I am a big fan of this technology and its potential, but we have to keep it in perspective. Ethanol from corn currently accounts for about 2% of our transportation fuel. The ethanol industry will have its hands full doubling this over the next several years, in line with last year's energy bill. That still leaves plenty of room for other alternative fuels such as biodiesel, non-conventional hydrocarbons such as oil sands, gas-to-liquids and even shale, and additional supplies of petroleum from new fields and enhanced recovery from existing fields, as well as oil refinery expansion. In other words, ethanol is an important component of a solution, but it shouldn't distract us from the many other aspects of energy supply and conservation that require urgent attention.