Monday, April 12, 2010

Wisdom - Conventional or Divine, part 2

There are many ideas in our society that have recently become part of conventional wisdom. Some of them are just human foolishness and wonderful-sounding ideas and things that just seem like they would be good solutions in the real world.

But when we test them in the real world we find out if they are truly practical or if they are not all that they are cracked up to be. In this blog we will discuss the use of ethanol (fuel make from corn) to use in running car engines. Now I must confess that I fell for this one and supported it for some time until it was clearly shown to be a terrible idea.

The basic idea is this: it is better to use renewable resources like corn we can grow rather than the limited resources like oil which must eventually run out. Sounds good, so far. Then we should make an abundant crop like corn to burn in car engines while at the same time making new car engines burn different kinds of fuel - gasoline and ethanol, for example. In the end, all engines will run on ethanol and similar fuels, and we will never run out of fuel. Energy problem solved.

Or not. First of all, to make ethanol from corn, it takes about 3/4 of a gallon of oil or more to make it. It takes a lot of energy to make ethanol, far less to make gasoline. Perhaps if we had a lot more nuclear energy we would overcome this, though the same environmentalists who have been touting this, object to nuclear power.

Anyway, even if we took all the corn in the US and made it into fuel, we could only produce enough fuel for 16% of our vehicles. (Remember that we not only use corn for food but for many other things as well, like various kinds of plastics.) We also must keep in mind that the corn we produce feeds much of the world. The poor, especially, rely on it. If too much goes to fuel, then the price will rise and the poor of the world will starve. This happened a couple of years ago when corn prices rose dramatically and poor countries did not get theirs.

Then there is the issue of efficiency. I and others have noticed that when we put 10% ethanol in our gas tanks (notice the sign at most service stations) then our mileage is reduced by more than 10%. So ethanol causes us to use more oil (gasoline) even if we used nuclear power to produce it. It is very wasteful.

So, what sounded like a great idea is really a disaster, and, unfortunately, it has become government policy. Even with the revelation of recent years that this ethanol is a complete debacle, the government is subsidizing it and supporting it.

The auto industry, responding to market forces, is going in the direction of hybrid vehicles, combining big batteries with traditional engines backing them up. We are not seeing too many of the flex-fuel vehicles.

So, knowing this, what has the government done? Stop supporting or subsidizing ethanol? No. It continues its policies because farmers like it. And when a small and powerful constituency benefits from subsidies, then politicians give them what they are now used to getting.

This is why we need to examine conventional wisdom, especially from so-called experts, and why we need for government to keep out of it.

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