Producers of ethanol have pumped nearly $14 billion into a wide array of businesses, and the resulting economic boost has created more than 40,000 jobs since the corn-based gasoline additive gained popularity two years ago.
Ethanol plants currently require about four gallons of water to produce a single gallon of ethanol, Mr. Greene says.... One ethanol plant designer, Delta T Corp., based in Williamsburg, Va., says it has created a system that will reduce consumption to just one-and-a-half gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, down from four gallons of water.
To further reduce the plants' impact on drinkable water, engineers also can route more low-quality water -- even waste water -- to functions where high purity is unnecessary.
The U.S. can currently produce about seven billion gallons of ethanol a year, a little more than the amount required federally. New production to come online by the end of this year, and additions in the years that follow, should increase capacity by about 5.5 billion gallons by 2009.
But if the energy bill pending in Congress passes, more than 35 billion gallons of alternative fuel production will be mandated. And with ethanol as the most easily available renewable fuel, there could be a dramatic upswing in new cornfields and ethanol-production facilities.
The ethanol industry, for its part, is quick to point out that failing to accept the mandate might still result in a drain on water. Canadian oil reserves, seen as a possible source of conventional fuel for the U.S., produce a thick grade of oil that requires just as much -- if not more -- water for refining than ethanol does, says Mr. Hartwig.
"The water from that [refining] process is so toxic that it has to be put into holding ponds so large they can be seen from space -- and it takes 200 years to separate," he says.