Louisiana has lots of green things. We have foliage, swamps, reptiles, and sometimes even the water. Yet Louisiana is hardly a state often equated with the Green Movement.
Maybe it should be.
Across state metro areas, urban agriculture initiatives are cropping up, pun intended. Local food sourcing is the latest major enviro-health movement to take hold. Solar power panels can be spotted all over New Orleans on new and old houses. There are even electric car charging stations attached to choice Whole Foods parking spaces. You can get all this in a state that is better known for its oil and gas industry. Whoever would have thought Louisiana would embrace alternative fuels? But the truth is that we are not only embracing alternative fuels, we are encouraging them.
There are tax incentives for owning an alternative energy vehicle (AFV) or converting an existing vehicle to operate on alternative fuel. According to the DMV, LA registered and dedicated AFVs can earn 50% of the cost to convert the vehicle from traditional gasoline; 50% of fueling equipment costs, and even 7.2% (up to $1,500) of the AFV purchase cost. Best part is that the list of alternative fuel sources includes a variety of options such as biofuel and biodiesel, methanol, ethanol, propane, natural gas, and electricity.
So we can pick our poison.
Ethanol is a familiar alternative fuel that is commonly made from corn biomass. First used as 100% fuel in Brazil in the late 70s, US interest grew over time fueled by federal tax incentives, grants, and mandates. Look to the Energy Policy Act (EPAct) of 2005 that included the first renewable fuel volume mandate with a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS1) provision requiring 2.78% (that is 7.5 billion gallons) of the gasoline sold or dispensed by 2012 be renewable fuel. Fast forward to the 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act which codified the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) and we see the RFS program expanded. Most compelling is the federal ethanol mandates requiring gasoline refiners to blend from 9 billion gallons of ethanol in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
But what does that even mean for the consumer now that we have decided to go green?
Department of Energy published the lifecycle of ethanol and in it are impressive kernels of information. First, the use of ethanol reduces greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions when coupled with petroleum because ethanol burns cleaner. Additionally, ethanol can help to reduce petroleum use in the transportation sector. However, the total energy used to produce ethanol is greater than the total energy used to produce gasoline. So though it was a great early quasi-renewable energy source, these days it may not seem terribly efficient.
Conversely, the electric car is a very popular option for alternative fuel vehicle right now and it’s no wonder why. According to fueleconomy.gov, not only does the all-electric vehicle emit no tailpipe pollutants, it converts between 59% and 62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels. Alternatively, conventional gas vehicles only convert 17% to 21% of the energy stored in gas to power at the wheels. Best of all, it is a domestic energy source and reducing dependence on foreign oil is always a hot topic.
So this begs the question: is electric green or quite green enough?
The rise of ethanol increased the need for monoculture growing and brought with it a whole host of concerns. Genetically modified (GM) agriculture boomed in order to support the increased need for corn. According to Robert Hahn’s Stanford Law and Policy Review article, Ethanol: Law, Economics, and Politics, ethanol uses 15% of US corn supplies and makes up 3% of gasoline consumption. On top of that soaring (corn based) livestock feed prices plagued ranchers, who were thrilled with the passage of the 2011 Affordable Food and Fuel for America Act that phases out government support for ethanol production over 5 years. Thus, it seems there can be some not so earth-friendly side effects sometimes in going green.
That brings us to the question of the sourcing of the electricity. That is to say, if the power coming from the grid is generated from solar sources, then it is the most excellent of excellent things. On the other hand, if the power is coming from a coal burning plant, then we may not be doing as well as we think.