The previous issue of "Energy Mailbag," along with other recent energy articles, has resulted in a number of thoughtful questions and comments dealing with a host of energy-related subjects. With crude prices still atop $90 a barrel and gasoline prices boosting the nation's latest inflation numbers, energy is clearly on Fools' minds. For that reason, I'll include in this issue a portion of those comments, and will quickly follow up with another Mailbag edition that will include other topics.
The subject that easily unleashed the most emails from Fools was my recent article about ethanol, with pro- and anti-ethanol comments roughly equally represented. For instance, Ted said:
I grew up on a farm and farmed for many years. I remember when the 1970s oil embargo came about and ethanol was going to replace oil...Several well-off farmers in the area were going to build an ethanol plant and get even richer. Most of those same farmers lost almost everything they had.
Thirty-five years later I see the same scenario. Farmers and corporations will spend billions building ethanol plants, and when the people and government realize that it will not work in the long run, they will lose billions...
Algae's the goal
But Scott believes that alternative sources of ethanol will benefit the product:
Keep the corn out of ethanol. Now we can use non-edible sources like the jatropha or cellulose processes, with the eventual goal of using algae. Pilot plants are now producing biodiesel and ethanol, not little labs, but pilot plants.
Darrel, who obviously has looked into advances in the production of ethanol, took me to task:
Oil, David, is imported. Ethanol, David, is grown and renewable ... Twenty-eight to thirty-five percent of the production cost of ethanol is consumed by the drying process -- the production of D20. If you solve the drying process, you lower the cost of the production or ethanol and you ultimately lower the price of corn.
Having read the article, Sean "... got to looking at more ideas in ethanol ... but I am worried that ethanol will become essentially voided out by other substitutes, e.g., hydrogen cells. Please give me your thoughts on ... the overall outlook on ethanol if there is one."
Sean, hydrogen has lots of promise, but it'll clearly be years -- perhaps decades -- before it crowds out current fuels. Beyond that, my assessment on the ethanol producers is that the jury's still out. Certainly, the new energy bill can't hurt them, but with the market being anything but stable these days, I'd suggest waiting a while before jumping headlong into the group.
Similarly, I mentioned some other ethanol producers in my article, including Aventine Renewable Energy
Particularly amid our current paranoid market, I'd let a little more water flow under the bridge before bellying up to any of these companies. I'd rather see you put long-term money into Tesoro
Fueling the debate
The ethanol debate will surely continue, if not intensify, especially with Congress's passage of the new energy bill. Before moving on, I want to emphasize to my Foolish friends that I have no particular axe to grind here. My only concern is that, regardless of whether you line up for or against ethanol -- or maybe you don't particularly care one way or another -- you should be concerned that our global crude oil supply/demand balance is tightening almost by the day.
The seriousness of this situation notwithstanding, ethanol, which should be just one solution among many, represents the lion's share of the energy program proposed by the administration and far too many members of Congress. I think they're fiddling while Rome burns.
Lastly, Fools, please continue to send on your energy questions or comments!
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Fool contributor David Lee Smith has lots of energy, but doesn't own positions in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your questions or comments. The Motley Fool also has a highly energetic disclosure policy.