Fuel Talk

Energy paints a complicated picture. Everybody’s got an opinion, but most are centered around getting prices back down; especially for gasoline but also for gas and electric. And the construction industry is caught in the middle.

For years, construction equipment emissions from powerful diesel and gasoline engines have been targeted as heavy polluters. The program to steadily decrease those emissions through the “tier” program have reduced pollution from the construction industry.

Off-road engine manufacturers have been doing an amazing job of making each “tier” threshold – usually ahead of schedule and exceeding performance requirements. A bonus is that often those new engines are more fuel efficient while maintaining or even increasing power and productivity.

But that increased fuel efficiency is a by-product. The purpose of the tier compliance program was aimed at emissions. Most major pieces of construction equipment still use diesel. Fuel efficiency has rarely been the primary design goal when building construction equipment. Now, that all has to change.

There have been some efforts to convert specific pieces of equipment to flexfuel or even hybrids. But those efforts have been spotty at best and the research and development into fuel efficient engines is just now catching fire.

I have no doubt, however, that major off-road engine manufacturers such as Deere, Cat and Case, will rapidly adapt to higher fuel prices with better performing machines capable of utilizing different types of fuel. But the pressure is on to accomplish that sooner rather than later.

Corn, corn everywhere, but at what cost?

Speaking of alternative fuels, the Association of Equipment Manufacturers recently sided with the EPA in a ruling against a request by Texas Governor Rick Perry. He was seeking a 50 percent waiver of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) for ethanol production.

AEM said it agreed with the EPA reasoning that there was not enough evidence to support Texas’ claim that the RFS is causing undue economic harm. Texas filed the request earlier this year with EPA.

AEM listed many reasons for siding with the EPA. Some of those reasons make sense, but others are questionable. Of course, there is the fundamental question: since when has the EPA become an expert in agriculture? Much of their decision was based upon studies and trends in the ag industry.

Two AEM points stood out. First, that an RFS standard reduction would harm the environment because ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline.

That is absolutely true; alcohol burns cleaner. It also burns less efficiently. Burning ethanol reduces substantially that all-important miles-per-gallon standard. Your vehicle may be emitting lower emissions but will be burning more fuel. I remember an old study (back in the days of cheap gas), that basically said it was a wash. Ever wonder why ethanol is just now becoming popular again? The economics just didn’t work.

AEM also stated: “The fundamental basis of their (state of Texas) claim that corn used for ethanol production diverts corn from food production, primarily livestock feed, fails to acknowledge a few realities. First, only the starch from the corn produces ethanol, leaving the co-product distillers grain. Distiller’s grains are a valued high-protein livestock feed which is significantly higher in protein by weight than corn. As a result, almost one-third of each ton of corn used for ethanol production is used as feed.” While I’m sure that’s a correct statement, the fact remains that serious amounts of corn are being taken out of the huge livestock bulk feed market.

Corn is not a natural food for livestock. But it is an acceptable “bulk” food that fills stomachs and adds weight to animals standing around a feedlot. Though corn concentrate by-product from ethanol production may still meet some of the nutritional needs of livestock, it is now costing ranchers, according to estimates by several livestock groups, about 30 percent more for less product. Bottom line, livestock producers, cattlemen especially, are experiencing substantially increasing costs from both rising fuel costs and an increasing shortage of corn – bulk or concentrate. The kicker is that corn is already rapidly losing its luster as a bio fuel as more efficient, plentiful and cheaper alternatives are being realized.

Truth is, we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of bio-fuels, flex-fuels and who-knows-what’s-next fuels – especially as it relates to the construction industry. We need to press the new president and Congress to finally come up with a concerted, sensible approach to energy.

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