I was deeply impressed a couple of days ago by GM boss Rick Wagoner’s crisp and lucid explanation of the reasons why his mammoth company was announcing it was to take an interest deal with a tiny, start-up company. Coskata, an outfit from Warrenville Illinois, has discovered a quick, efficient process to make ethanol from waste, and I’m disappointed that its breakthrough has not had a bigger impact on the motoring community. It hardly made headlines in the US, and other hacks and industry execs I discussed it with were lukewarm at best, mostly cynical.
Yet Wagoner’s speech laid out, in a way I’ve never seen done, the stark gap that will exist within a few years between the oil we’ll need and the oil we’ll have available. We’re currently using 1000 barrels a second. By 2030, says a US government study, we’ll need 70 per cent more energy than we did in 2004. Chuck in our 96 per cent dependence on oil for automotive propulsion and our rising desire not to depend on unstable oil suppliers, and you have — I believe — good reason for wanting to find fuel alternatives. Urgently.
GM has checked out the processes of Coskata and found them to be the real deal. They don’t interfere with the food chain. They produce up to 7.7 units of energy for every one unit used in the production process - much more than is produced by producing grain-based ethanol. And get this: Coskata will have a plant working this year, and could be making 50- to 100-million gallons of ethanol for sale by 2011. Clearly, what’s needed is a general recognition that this is a great short-term way of reducing the energy gap, and some fast moves by our various governments to promote the establishment of a distribution network.
Some more figures. If all the flex-fuel vehicles on the road now, plus the ones GM, Ford and Chrysler are committed to make between now and 2020, ran on nothing but ethanol, 29-billion US gallons of petrol — 18 per cent of the country's total projected consumption — would be saved. If all manufacturers who operate in the US made the same commitment, the saving would be 53-billion gallons, or 32 per cent.
Wagoner and GM believe nothing else can be so effective at reducing our dependence on oil in the short-term, while car-makers work with undiminished speed on battery, hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems as a longer-term solution. And by the way, research has already shown that on a well-to-wheel basis, Coskata’s ethanol process can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 84 per cent.
Of course, perfectly drawn scenarios never come to pass. There will be no such clean and rapid adoption of bioethanol. But I’m impressed by GM’s faith in the Coskata process, and in the practical action it is taking. I trust GM’s — and Wagoner's — judgement. And I do reckon every one of us - especially those of us who enjoy driving - should be thinking more about how we can help meet the energy challenges of the future.