Last Sunday, history was made. Rookie driver Trevor Bayne took the chequered flag at Nascar's Daytona 500, making him, at 20 years of age, the youngest driver to win the storied race.
There was another bit of history being made at the oval track in Florida. For the first time, Nascar was running on a blended ethanol fuel. The race series had made a deal with Sunoco and American Ethanol, an industry advocate group for producers of the fuel in the US, to sponsor the series and supply E15 ethanol blend (15 per cent corn ethanol and 85 per cent petrol) for its race cars.
"This whole effort is really a centrepiece of what Nascar's 'green' initiative is all about," said Mike Lynch, Nascar's managing director of green innovation, when the deal was made. "We're about conservation of the environment, job creation and strengthening of American energy independence."
On the surface, it all sounds so warm and fuzzy. Ethanol producers tout its fuel as more environmentally friendly than buring pure petrol, and the corn to make it is grown right there in the good ol' US of A, helping farmers and creating other jobs. It seems to be a win-win situation for everyone.
The problem is, there are only a select few who win, but so many more who lose considerably in the long run.
Corn-based ethanol does burn cleaner than pure petrol, but it actually needs more energy to produce, litre for litre, than it delivers as a fuel. That production involves electricity from coal-based generation stations, petrol-powered tractors on farms, copious amounts of water and other uses of non- renewable energy. And it's fair to mention the acres and acres of farmland needed for the growth of the corn in the first place, land that could have been forested, which would be better for the environment and cleaning up greenhouse gases in the first place.
To make matters even worse, ethanol doesn't even hold the same energy as petrol does. In test after test, cars running on ethanol fuels get between 15 per cent and 25 per cent worse fuel economy (depening on the mix) than running on pure petrol alone. So, you're actually burning more ethanol than you would petrol.
The final point to consider is one that will affect far more people than those who drive: food prices. Corn isn't just eaten alone, it is used in feed for livestock as well as for ingredients in starch, sweeteners, beverages and other foodstuff. And as the price for corn rises with demand for fuel, prices for many types of food will also rise with it; we're already seeing sharp increases in food prices, along with sharp drops in supply; do we really need to use food as fuel at this point?
Those who think Nascar's foray into ethanol is borne out of concern for the environment and America couldn't be more naive; it's a business deal, pure and simple, worth millions and millions of dollars to both parties: in (undisclosed) cash payments and fuel to Nascar, and mass advertising to the ethanol industry. And the sad thing is, fans of the series are notorious for fervently consuming the products of Nascar advertisers and sponsors; they'll eat M&Ms because the candies are on Kyle Busch's car; they'll use Quaker State motor oil because it's on Jeff Gordon's overalls; and they'll end up putting E15 ethanol in the tanks of their pickup trucks because "if it's good enough for Nascar, it's good enough for me".
Don't get me wrong; we need to find alternatives to petroleum-based fuels for many reasons. But corn-based ethanol isn't one of them.