Ethanol, a type of alcohol, has been getting a lot of attention as an alternative fuel for vehicles. It’s produced domestically, it’s a renewable resource, and it’s cost-competitive with other fuels. However, ethanol plants create some problems. Ethanol production consumes enormous quantities of water, the plants have been accused of creating air pollution, and it affects the corn markets, driving up the price of food.
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has accused several ethanol producers of compliance problems with air quality standards. Making ethanol industrially creates air pollutants such as volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide. The EPA has taken legal action against ethanol producers found in violation of the Clean Air Act.
According to a report by Sea Stachura of Minnesota Public Radio, ethanol plants use large amounts of water to process corn into alcohol. Three gallons of water are consumed for every gallon of ethanol produced. One Minnesota plant used 146 million gallons of water in 2005, enough for a small city. While the better plants clean and recycle water for their own reuse, local governments must closely monitor the plants’ water consumption.
While you can make ethanol from several different biological sources, ethanol plants currently use corn for the majority of the fuel they produce. In a paper published by the University of Wisconsin, authors T. Randall Fortenbery and Hwanil Park analyzed the effects of the use of corn by ethanol plants and found it increases the price for corn. Since corn sees use in many food products, including indirectly as beef, this makes many of the foods you see at the supermarket more expensive.