Ethanol: Miracle or Mistake?
Florida is sinking millions into ethanol research and grants. But nobody
is even close to making it profitable.
Florida Trend, for publication on 7/01/08

"At his global warming summit in Miami last year, Gov. Charlie Crist
held out ethanol as a major tool in reducing greenhouse gases. No state,
he said, can match Florida’s capacity to produce ethanol. Since
virtually all the ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn, Crist was
anticipating a time when Florida entrepreneurs could take various forms
of cellulose that are plentiful in the state — citrus waste, sugar cane
waste, plants and trees — and distill ethanol from them.

Following Crist’s green lead, the Legislature this year mandated that
all gas sold in Florida have at least 10% ethanol by the end of 2010.
That translates into Florida needing some 861 million gallons of ethanol
annually in less than three years. To spur production in Florida, the
Legislature allocated $8 million this year for bioenergy project grants
and another $7 million for renewable energy and efficiency grants.
That’s on top of the $60 million the state already has given to would-be
ethanol developers and other biofuel researchers in Florida.

The federal government, which has been pushing cellulosic ethanol for
more than 30 years without so much as one commercial refinery to show
for it, has mandated 36 billion gallons of ethanol — 16 billion from
cellulose — in use by 2022 and is funding a host of research efforts
around the country.

Aside from the now-debated question whether ethanol may actually be
worse for the environment than fossil fuels, cost and risk remain a big
issue, even with oil spiking northward of $130 a barrel.

Now, just as the ethanol arithmetic has started to make economic sense,
the rising price of corn has driven the price of animal feed upward,
making citrus waste more attractive in the short term financially for
growers to sell as a feed source. Producing ethanol also can require
copious water - an issue in a state already struggling with the demand
on its water resources.

In June, Florida agribusiness firm and land developer Alico announced it
was abandoning plans to build a plant in LaBelle that would have turned
yard, wood and agricultural residue into ethanol, hydrogen, ammonia and
electricity. The company said it wouldn’t take the $33-million federal
grant that would have helped build the plant because the risks
outweighed “any reasonably anticipated benefits for Alico.”

Transporting the source crop for ethanol to the refinery drives up its
costs, so Florida will need a score or more of small refineries
scattered throughout the state to efficiently exploit timberland as an
ethanol source. But just because a technology carries a “green” label
doesn’t mean local residents will welcome an ethanol refinery.

With the state and federal government dictating ethanol use, an ethanol
process doesn’t have to prove cheaper, more efficient or more
environmentally friendly than gas; it just has to prove superior to the
other alternatives to meet the government-required demand. And so it’s
inevitable that Florida entrepreneurs and researchers will continue to
chase ethanol development."

Dr. Ann C. Wilkie                          Tel: (352)392-8699
Soil and Water Science Department          Fax: (352)392-7008
University of Florida-IFAS
P.O. Box 110960                         E-mail: [log in to unmask]
Gainesville, FL 32611-0960
Campus location: Environmental Microbiology Laboratory (Bldg. 246).
BioEnergy and Sustainable Technology Society