New Fuels: Minds Are Changing

This London Comment was written by Up To The Minute contributor Ed Boyle.

What's the price of a gallon of gas these days? More than three dollars? Well, don't complain - here in Britain, we pay around seven and a half dollars. That's silly money. But what can we do about it?

The environmentally friendly answers look simple. Take E-85 or 'ethanol', a cocktail of grain-based alcohol with a dash of gasoline thrown in. U.S. sales reached three billion gallons in the last five years, but that's still chicken feed in your national oil consumption terms.

I'm told you have 180,000 gas stations. Only 500 of them sell ethanol. Now it may be cheap and your motor may still run on it without big alterations. But it isn't as efficient as gas.

Over here, there are cars already running on liquid gas, electric cars, even cars that burn french-fry grease. But not very many. That's the problem.

The alternatives are decades away. One recent American study reckoned the entire U.S. countryside would have to be planted with corn just to satisfy fuel demand. And doing so would push up food prices. Catch 22.

In Brazil, however, they have taken to ethanol. En masse. But the Brazilians use sugar cane, a widely grown local crop, and more than a quarter of new cars there can run on it.

It doesn't need a hurricane to bring these energy arguments home to us. We pay double your price for gasoline and far more for electricity, too.

Which is why the British Government is now offering farmers a subsidy to grow miscanthus giganteus – that's elephant grass to you and me. Twelve foot tall, spreads like wildfire and completely useless for any other purpose except burning.

You can also get a grant for burning it in special new power stations, the first of which will be built in the English county of Staffordshire next year at a cost of 14 million dollars.

All of which makes us sound like goody-goody greens doing our bit to save the planet while America guzzles gas like there's no tomorrow.

But pump prices are now changing even attitudes in your country, and, by the way, guess where the British elephant grass idea came from?

By Ed Boyle