GM Announces Pilot Ethanol Plant as Criticism of Ethanol Fuels Mounts
The push for ethanol based fuels has begun to derail, as it comes under increasing public and political criticism as the cause of rising food prices and third-world food shortages. A widely circulated editorial in the Wall Street Journal has pointed out that fully 30% of the United States grain crop is now going to ethanol production and many critics are blaming ethanol for both rising food prices and food shortages which have caused recent riots in third-world countries.
Gasoline is beginning to look better as a fuel. At least, automobiles fueled by petrochemcials don’t compete with the food chain for humans.
General Motors, while steadfastly denying that ethanol contributes to higher food prices – a position increasingly hard to justify – has been pioneering an alternative: cellosic ethanol. The idea is that ethanol can be refined from stuff you’d never dream of eating, including garbage and old tires. To that end, it announced a venture with a start-up company called Coskata at the Detroit Auto Show this past February to pursue that goal.
Now, GM and Coskata have announced that they will be building a pilot plant to produce cellulosic ethanol, locating it in Madison, Pennsylvania. Building that plant is on schedule with the timetable GM has previously announced, one which envisions rapidly moving from pilot production to large-scale production.
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While GM claims that Coskata is an independent venture and that the role of GM itself is merely collaborative, it is clear that GM is dead serious about this project. The timing may be right for once for GM. As gasoline prices increase, the attraction of ethanol fuels increases, as well, if the price can be kept down.
The idea of Coskata and its new process is to do just that, though the price won’t be all that low. A basic $1.00 per gallon of ethanol cost at the refinery would translate to at least $2.50 a gallon at the pump, which isn’t much of an advantage as long as gasoline is priced below about $3.25 per gallon. That’s because ethanol is a markedly less efficient fuel, packing much less thermal power per gallon than gasoline. But, with gasoline marching toward $4.00 per gallon, GM might get lucky.