When Policies Require People to Drive with Garbage Fuels

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 like many laws accomplished many good things but also brought into being colossal failures. This piece of legislation is what really brought corn ethanol into mainstream usage in the United States. In this essay I will describe this policy, and draw comparisons with a similar policy mandating the blending of ethanol in Canada.

Not only did the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandate the usage of ethanol, it also provided a number of other requirements, grants, R&D funding, and more to support these efforts. On the other hand, the legislation also established many beneficial programs that had the affect of reducing some of the affects of human consumption - including lighting, energy standards on appliances, R&D budgets and more. Perhaps the greatest success of this legislation was the advancement of the EPA’s Energy Star program. “Any class A external power supply manufactured on or after the later of July 1, 2008 or the date of enactment of this paragraph shall be clearly and permanently marked in accordance with the External Power Supply International Efficiency Marking Protocol, as referenced in the ‘Energy Star Program Requirements for Single Voltage External AC–DC and AC–AC Power Supplies, version 1.1’ published by the Environmental Protection Agency”. [1] Here we can see in a single clause how policy can make vast sweeping changes across all of society. This clause has a date limiting when compliance must occur. The clause calls out that all manufactured power supplies be Energy Star regulated. Legislation like this closes loopholes in previous legislation and makes those targets enforceable. By requiring the Energy Star label to be applied, it creates a marketing incentive and a culture that energy star is the only viable product and other products of the same type are wasteful and not cost effective. The clause redirects to the EPA and this will provide the EPA additional empowerment through the authorship and interpretation of their regulation. Additionally the EPA will execute a greater level of scientific rigor on the requirements than legislators could – primarily because legislators are largely JD’s whereas organizations like the EPA employs engineers, scientists and JD’s in a community. Whenever you see a yellow label in a store showing the energy cost savings for an energy star product this legislation can be credited with that victory. As a result energy star appliances have grown to dominate the market share in almost every category of service.

In contrast to the building on the success of the Energy Star label, the legislation also had bad effects. Most prominently, this is the bill that enshrined into law the usage of ethanol in fuels. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 here states these blend requirements “For the purpose of subparagraph (A), the applicable volume for any of calendar years 2006 through 2012 shall be determined in accordance with the following table:”[1]


While this law does not ever specifically target corn ethanol as the type to be blended into gasoline, the mandate, perhaps inadvertently, created a massive industry for ethanol. This usage, while starting relatively low was characterized by a set value that must be blended into gasoline – and this value ramped up over time. In 2007, as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, the required goal value was raised to 36 billion gallons by the year 2022, but has since been amended as there was no market for 36 billion gallons of ethanol.

Industry acceptance of this level of ethanol is not possible as a result of the blend wall. The blend wall refers to the engineered limitation in which the fuel can still operate in most cars without going beyond this limit. At 10% of ethanol being blended into gasoline, sales throughout the United States led to 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol blended into 130 billion gallons gasoline. As 13.3 billions already represents 10% of gasoline fuel, it is apparent that in order to achieve a 36 billion gallon of ethanol fuel target that E-10 fuels will not be adequate. To reach this mandated level would require the scaling of such fuels as E-85.

While the establishment of the corn ethanol industry may have shocked some, there were definite factors in this law that also propagated its development.

[1] In this clause we see the mandate to fund and propagate corn ethanol as an energy source, irrespective of any scientific merit behind its value as a fuel. This is not only providing funding for its development, it is providing the royal treatment for producers, bypassing scientifically meritorious prototypes, theory, and technologies worthy of scale. By committing these entrepreneurial incubator services to corn ethanol a vast opportunity cost was accepted - the Department of Energy was forced to redirect vast amounts of resources to scale a technology best described as a failed prototype.

By comparison, Canada has a 5% ethanol blend requirement that came into effect as of 2010, and a 2% blend requirement for biodiesel that came into effect in 2011. Despite the federal mandate there are actually even higher mandates at the province level requiring higher rates of ethanol blending. The following list shows the actual blend requirements throughout some provinces in Canada [4]:

British Columbia, Ethanol 5%; Biodiesel 4%

Alberta, Ethanol 5%; Biodiesel 2%

Saskatchewan, Ethanol 7.5%; Biodiesel 2%

Manitoba, Ethanol 8.5%; Biodiesel 2%

Ontario, Ethanol 7.5%

As we can see by the considerable variance province-to-province, optimal levels of ethanol were chosen with a clear lack of input from the fields of engineering and energy economics. This is a similar case with the ethanol blend mandates in the United States.

To illustrate some of the issues with the scientific merit of ethanol, consider the example of photovoltaics as a comparison. In Scientific American [3] an attempt is made to show that there is a reasonable value to be had through the usage of ethanol biofuels. The article states “Photosynthesis (conducted by algae) turns roughly 3 percent of incoming sunlight into organic compounds, including yet more plant cells, annually.”[2] The author attempts to explain that photosynthesis and corresponding biofuels are good options, however it fails to overcome photosynthesis’s main limitation – only converting 3% of solar radiance to energy.

A number of considerable flaws exist beyond this 3% base energy conversion ratio of solar radiation. First the 3% refers to the rate that photosynthesis creates biomass as a whole. Only a small portion of this biomass will be the starches and sugars capable of being turned into ethanol. The production of energy is limited to months with plant growth, and the availability of irrigation water, equipment, and fertilizer. Even then its ability to capture this energy is limited until foliage covers adequate area where it is planted. In addition the abysmal 3% photosynthetic conversion – those organic molecules must still be converted into energy for an end user to do work. So the final step is to convert biofuels into electrical power on the power grid or into a biofuel for mobile consumption. If the biomass is converted to fuel it will experience a great loss in the transition, additional loss in transportation as it is delivered to a fuel blender and shipped to a gas station. When the fuel finally reaches a car it will be consumed in a small internal combustion engine with a power conversion ratio around 20%. This figure represents less than half the industry average for efficiency in power generation, and 4 times less than the energy efficiency of Combined Heat and Power systems. The final energy consumed by the end user will be many times less than the 3% photosynthetic energy it started with. As an energy converter photosynthesis is truly abysmal, even when compared to a very standard 8-10% conversion rate of a photovoltaic solar cell.

While solar power does have its own losses, they are much less pronounced than those of ethanol. For example, the primary loss for a photovoltaic is that generated electrical power must pass through a DCAC inverter in order to deliver power. These losses, however, are only 2-5%.

In short, ethanol is a loser. It perpetuates cultural acceptance that power sources need to be mobile instead of tied to high efficiency turbines with combined heat and power regimens. Both the United States and Canada now have the problem on how to descale ethanol production without alienating farmers, infrastructures holders, and the public, a difficult task indeed.


[1] https://courseware.e-education.psu.edu/downloads/geog432/2007.pdf

[2] http://www.biofuelnet.ca/2013/09/26/canadian-federal-and-provincial-biofuels-mandates/

[3] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/plants-versus-photovoltaics-at-capturing-sunlight/

[4] Canadian Environment Protection Act; http://www.gazette.gc.ca/rp-pr/p2/2010/2010-09-01/html/sor-dors189-eng.html

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