Investing in ethanol – the daily reckoning list of electricity usage by appliances

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Like I promised, I am continuing my series on the alternative fuel ethanol and its potential rise as a major source of energy in the United States. Today, I’m going to look at some of the obstacles the ethanol market faces — and will need to address — in order to become a more viable source of energy in the coming years. And I’ll tell you what to look for in what will inevitably be a long line of small-cap ethanol companies that you’ll be looking at in the months and years to come.

First, in case you didn’t know, ethanol — which is made from the sugar of corn or sugarcane — is basically grain alcohol that can be mixed in varying amounts into gasoline. Despite what some of its critics think, ethanol will emerge as the alternative fuel of choice in the U.S. In fact, the government has already picked ethanol to move to the head of the alternative energy fuel class .

The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005 requires that ethanol production increase to 7.5 billion gallons a year by 2012. Right now, production is at 4 billion gallons annually. And with demand for ethanol outstripping supply at this point, the future for ethanol producers looks bright. However, arguments over the viability of the fuel remain.

E-85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, is more expensive than traditional gasoline and can only be used in flex-fuel vehicles. A price of $2.75 a gallon was quoted to me this morning (it’s probably cheaper in the Midwest where they have easy access). Where ethanol is used as an additive (a 10% blend is common and can be used in any vehicle), the cost per gallon is about the same you would pay for a gallon of traditional gas.

But ethanol proponents have made the argument that there are more costs associated with gasoline production than with ethanol. Some ethanol freaks will argue the “true cost” of a gallon of gas… one telling MSNBC.com it would be more accurate to assume prices to be around $5 a gallon (that is, if you choose to include things like the money it takes to support the military forces that are protecting our overseas oil supplies).

Think about it this way: The population of North Dakota is about 640,000 people, whereas the population of the Washington D.C. area (including the Maryland and Virginia ‘burbs) is almost 6 million. So an ethanol plant in North Dakota’s corn country would have to be able to get its product to the relatively corn-free capital.

This feat would be simple if the ethanol-gasoline mixture could be piped straight from the refinery to the populated East Coast like pure gasoline. But an ethanol-gasoline mixture can’t be piped, because the two ingredients separate, which could cause the fuel to damage a car’s engine. Ethanol has to be transported on the road, a much more costly endeavor than sending it through a pipe.

“‘Corn is in the center of the country and gasoline consumers are on the coasts,’ he [Dr. Darren Hudson, a professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University] said. ‘So transportation costs can be quite high — roughly double the cost of shipping gasoline’ or about $1.20 per gallon of ethanol.”

Then there’s the ongoing problem with “reformulated gasoline” — required in some areas that have strict clean air standards. There is a cheaper additive, called MBTE, which has been widely used, and even required in some states (Maryland used MTBE for years). But as it turned out, gas companies found that MTBE had the ability to creep through underground gas tanks into the groundwater. Some have tried to link MTBE with cancer, especially in rural areas where residents rely on well water. So much for cleaner air…

And the EPA has already recommended that MTBE be phased out nationally… and a buyout is in the works which will pay oil companies and refiners some $1.75 billion to phase out production — further cementing ethanol’s fate as MTBE’s replacement.

• The most obvious of the three: Look for a company that can make ethanol cheaper than the 3 to 1 ratio mentioned earlier through a new or improved process. This could include using a mix of products, like ethanol from corn along with a bioethanol made from various waste products. There will always be a cost argument associated with ethanol, but the main argument for its implementation is to reduce dependence on foreign oil. So making the fuel on the cheap is an added bonus — and one that will naturally give the ethanol producers the most customers.

• Solving the transportation dilemma should be right up some small-cap chemical company’s alley. Finding an economic way to transport an ethanol-gasoline mixture through a pipeline will be a huge breakthrough — whether through a special chemical additive or an improved blending/manufacturing process. This would naturally solve the price argument as well by eliminating a majority of the transportation costs. If you find a company that can do this, you’ve found a winner.

• Create a cleaner-burning ethanol blend. A company needs to come along that can silence the critics and cement ethanol as the only option for MTBE replacement. Ethanol reduces a lot of emissions, but Dr. Hudson noted that if it does not burn properly, burning the fuel can increase nitrous oxides. Again, this is something that could be within reach for a small-cap chemical or ethanol company over the next few years.

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“…And like ethanol, you don’t need crude to make biodiesel. Animal fats or soybean oil and even waste food oils (think of the vats of this stuff cooking those fast-food French fries) are used to make the fuel. Biodiesel advocates will tell you that advancements in the process will allow biodiesel facilities to use almost any fat or oil to make the fuel within five years (now, most use soybeans) …”

“…Here’s EAA’s take: Ethanol is unfairly criticized, like when all the energy attributed to grow a bushel of corn and process it is counted. The report calls ethanol a co-product of corn, and that means that the corn should only be charged with the energy that was used to turn it into ethanol …”

“…I’ve been spending a lot of time reading e-mails about ethanol the past couple of weeks. I’ve heard from ethanol advocates, the anti-ethanol/biofuels crowd and some very inquisitive (and maybe brilliant) skeptics. And let me just say now that I appreciate the incredible response to the ethanol series …”

“…The Wall Street Journal featured ethanol on the front cover last week. Here at home, The Baltimore Sun touted ethanol as an ’emerging energy star.’ Even our president called in an interview earlier this year for the U.S. ‘to not only advance that technology of deriving fuel from corn, but also deriving fuel from waste materials’ …”

“…Nine grand is how much it would probably cost you to buy a used Volkswagen Jetta TDI with about 150,000 miles on it. Then for a mere $2,000 you could equip the diesel burning engine with a contraption that allows you to fill up a separate tank (stored in your trunk, by the way) with used vegetable oil …”