Biofuel: green saviour or energy sink hole?

Rating: NNNNN Q I drive a 2005 SUV and would love to convert its gas-guzzling engine into a more eco-friendly machine..

Rating: NNNNN

Q I drive a 2005 SUV and would love to convert its gas-guzzling engine into a more eco-friendly machine. Can it be made ethanol-compatible?

A Where’s my genie when I need him? I’d make three wishes on your behalf. One, that biofuels were clear-cut success stories. Two, that I could magically convert your car into a super-duper hybrid. And three, that I had a simple answer for you. Alas, I lost the magic lamp in a poker tournament so I’ll have to give you the long answer.

Biofuels have been media darlings for a while, and they seem like a fantastic idea to anyone with a brain, right? If we can get fuel from fossil-free sources that don’t involve invading countries and destroying Canada’s chances at meeting our Kyoto targets (yeah, I’m talking about you, Alberta oil sands), why wouldn’t we?

But according to multiple research sources, including a study by Cornell and the University of California, Berkeley, converting corn into ethanol sucks back 29 per cent more fossil fuel energy than it actually produces. Warped, I know. But that’s what happens when you factor in all the energy that goes into growing the crop (modern fertilizers, for instance, are fossil-fuel-based), not to mention ploughing, grinding, transporting, distilling and refining it.

Even if you don’t buy Cornell’s stats, using the starchy food as fuel is also being morally challenged. In January, thousands of Mexicans took to the streets protesting the rising price of the staple grain in the face of ethanol demands. Should our cars really be taking food from the mouths of the hungry?

Then of course there’s the whole issue of corn being a highly genetically modified crop, which is another can of worms.

Brazil’s sugar-cane-based ethanol fares a little better energy-wise, but the mad fuel rush is leading to rampant rainforest destruction and the expulsion of poor people from their land – all to clear the path for more sugar cane fields.

And those E85 cars (designed to run on blends of 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent gasoline) that Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s suggesting we build here in Ontario might cough out fewer emissions from their tailpipes, but they deliver fewer miles per gallon so you need more of the stuff. Translation: you need a bigger tank. That’s why E85 cars tend to be big mamas like Grand Cherokees.

Technically, you can indeed convert any car to run on E85 gas. Just google “converting to E85” and you’ll turn up countless websites that say it can be done for a few hundred bucks. But, (and this is a big one), even if, despite everything I’ve just said, you still want to convert your car or SUV, there are only two pumps in the whole damn country that sell E85 fuel. One’s in Ottawa (where the politicians tank up), the other in Guelph. Not very useful to 99 per cent of us.

And sorry to be a downer, but biodiesel’s not much better. Indonesia’s last remaining rainforests are being razed to make way for palm oil destined to be refined into what? That’s right, biodiesel. You can kiss the poor orangutans inhabitating those forests goodbye. Soy-based biodiesel is another rainforest killer.

There is some hope in getting fuel from what we’d otherwise be trashing – namely agricultural waste, used cooking oil and the like. But that’s not where most of the money’s going. A long, hard look at all these facts and more was enough to convince George Monbiot, author of the bestselling climate-change eye-opener Heat , to call for a five-year moratorium on biofuels in his Guardian column just last week. Do you think governments around the world now pouring funds into biofuels in an attempt to paint themselves green will even take a breath? Not likely. But all this info should give us pause before we applaud biofuel funding. After all this bad news, can I tell you anything encouraging? Well, I’d stop and consider whether you really need an SUV.

And if you do, start saving up for a hybrid version. Hybrid SUVs may not make it into the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s top 10 greenest cars of the year, but the Ford Escape hybrid and Toyoto Highlander hybrid both score well (see

Also, pressure your MP to follow BC’s lead and build hydrogen stations here if we want a green future.

In the meantime, try to keep your tires well inflated, aggressive driving in check and AC off and you’ll optimize your car’s fuel efficiency. And, of course, don’t forget that the TTC’s just around the corner.

Adria Vasil’s new book, Ecoholic: Your Guide To The Most Environmentally FriendlyInformation, Products And Services In Canada, will be available in April.

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