Blog: Dave LeggettThirsty ethanol

Dave Leggett | 4 March 2008

I think we're all well aware now that biofuels come with a few strings attached. There is an unwelcome incursion into the food chain (eg tortilla riots in Mexico) and the net CO2 benefits might not be as big as they appear at first sight when everything is taken into account. But at least their use in transportation holds out the promise of second generation biofuels and maybe synthetically produced ethanol beyond that.

There's also the energy security aspect and a political dimension involving subsidies to farmers in the US that adds momentum there.

Yes, there are a few issues to be worked through, but biofuels are undeniably an interesting development as far as the auto industry is concerned. Biofuels are here to stay and in the mix, even if they are not a panacea.

But I must confess there's another issue connected with biofuels that I wasn't fully aware of and it throws another potentially large spanner in the works. Apparently, ethanol production uses vast quantities of water. An article in The Economist caught my eye last night.

Here's an extract:

'OFFICIALS in Tampa, Florida, got a surprise recently when a local firm building the state's first ethanol-production factory put in a request for 400,000 gallons (1.5m litres) a day of city water. The request by US Envirofuels would make the facility one of the city's top ten water consumers overnight, and the company plans to double its size. Florida is suffering from a prolonged drought. Rivers and lakes are at record lows and residents wonder where the extra water will come from.'

It may well be that ethanol plants can become more efficient, that the whole picture improves with the so-called second generation biofuels, but the water thing might be coming more into the public eye in the future as critics draw attention to it.

Here's a link to the full article (you may need a subscription to The Economist to see it).

Ethanol and water don't mix


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