Ethanol's on the way, but it will take awhile to get here and won't help Floridians cut their gasoline consumption substantially for years.
Another potential Florida source of ethanol -- sugar cane -- holds less promise for the moment. Brazil, the world leader in ethanol production, produces about 4 billion gallons of ethanol every year from sugar cane. But Brazil has more land for sugar and has a longer growing season than Florida's. "To be cost-effective, you would have to have a feedstock you would use on a year-round basis," explains Barbara Miedema, vice president of public affairs for the Sugar Cane Growers Cooperative of Florida.
Meanwhile, state agencies and elected officials continue smoothing the way for ethanol. The Agriculture Department's Division of Standards, which regulates the sale of gasoline, is promulgating new rules to enable greater use of ethanol by amending the definition of petroleum fuels. Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson acknowledges that the move toward E10 will take time. "As far as ethanol at the pump, we're looking at more than likely two years before we get enough plants and get some mixture facilities," he estimates.
As for E85, the 85% ethanol blend that would more sharply reduce gasoline consumption, Widmer, for one, isn't holding his breath. "As a replacement for gasoline, that's a very, very long way off."
How Efficient Is Ethanol?
Is ethanol worth the effort? Cornell University professor David Pimentel and University of California Berkeley professor Tad Patzek have argued consistently that the energy outputs from ethanol are less than the fossil energy inputs it takes to make the ethanol -- approximately 1.3 gallons of oil, they argue, go into producing one gallon of ethanol.
Included in their equations are everything from the energy inputs in the labor and machinery used to harvest the corn to the energy expended on removing wastewater from the ethanol during the distillation process. The duo frequently rails against the $3 billion in annual federal and state subsidies steered toward the ethanol industry. Pimentel doesn't buy the argument that ethanol can lead to an independence from foreign oil. "I wish it were so because we need a liquid fuel source, but when you're having to import oil and natural gas to produce this resource, that's not going in the right direction. It's making us more vulnerable and less secure internationally," says Pimentel.
Brad Krohn of U.S. EnviroFuels says the Pimentel/Patzek studies are "myth," not science, and questions Patzek's prior connections to the oil industry. Pimentel's own colleagues dealt his research perhaps the biggest blow when they refuted his ethanol research in the January issue of Science magazine. In that issue, Daniel Kammen, professor in the Energy and Resources Group and director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at UC Berkeley, and other researchers reported that negative net energy studies "incorrectly ignored co-products and used obsolete data." The report concluded that ethanol significantly reduces petroleum use but cuts greenhouse gas emissions "only moderately," by about 13%. "We think it's settled," says Kammen.