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All Things Considered: October 2006

Diesel Engines, Chicken Coops and My Scottish Aunt


Diesel Engines, Chicken Coops and My Scottish Aunt.  “ As the ethanol industry grows, poultry producers will be competing for corn
with people who drive luxury cars.”

I think my next car will have to be a diesel. Unfortunately there isn’t all that much of selection out there and they tend not to come with a price tag I might like, but some recent internet research convinced me that for the next decade or two diesel is likely the way to go.

If you’re not a regular reader of car magazines or your newspaper’s automobile section and I admit I’m not – they tend to end up in a heap on the floor before being transferred to the blue box – you likely haven’t kept up with changes in automobile technology.

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I gave up way back in the late 1980s when I was in the market for a car and started looking under the hoods. The carburetors were gone replaced by fuel injection – I could live with that– but the things were stuffed with computer chips and the engines were packed in so tight I had neither the tools nor the inclination to wrestle in such a confined space.

About 10 years and 250,000 kilometres later my mechanic threw in the towel on that car and I bought another which has now bounced over the 200,000 km mark and to my chagrin I’ll soon have to buy another.

Being part of the “drive them ‘til they drop” school of car ownership, I’d considered diesel before, but was put off by the reputation for difficult cold weather starts, and the clunky, smelly brutes of old.

That, it seems, is ancient history. Modern European designed diesel engines bear as much relationship to the old diesels as a new poultry barn does to your grandfather’s chicken coop.

They are clean and quiet, they start easily in cold weather and retain one of the best things about diesels old and new – the engines are virtually indestructible. They are also very fuel efficient.

Another benefit is that modern diesel engines love low sulphur fuel and can easily adapt to biodiesel.

The last point is, I think, fairly important. It’s a dead certainty that we’re going to be putting more plant-based fuels in our tanks. Governments have decided that, depending upon the jurisdiction, gasoline must contain five per cent ethanol or more.

The emphasis on ethanol, as opposed to biodiesel, is simple to explain. The vast majority of the motor vehicles in North America have internal combustion engines designed to burn gasoline. If governments want to make drivers and themselves less dependent upon petroleum-based fuels they have to deal with what people already own and drive and that means making greater use of ethanol.

In Europe the situation is significantly different. According to some surveys diesels make up about 50 per cent of European vehicles. One of the reasons for the popularity of diesels in Europe is fuel prices there have been much higher than in North America for at least 60 years. As a result buyers were looking for the most fuel-efficient vehicles available and diesel was the way to go.

Another reason for going diesel, at least according to my Scottish aunt is that your mechanic will hate you. She says her little German-made diesel is so reliable that she can barely remember her mechanic’s name. She also loves the mileage she gets between fill ups.

For me that pretty much makes the decision a lock. If you can’t trust the advice of a thrifty Scotswoman on affordability, who can you trust?

Having had the Scottish part of my gene pool activated I discovered a few other benefits. If I’m going to be burning some form of plant-based fuel it might as well be the most efficient fuel.

It seems biodiesel is head and shoulders ahead of ethanol when it comes to the amount of energy you get compared to the amount of energy you put in. One U.S. study says that for every unit of energy you put into the production of biodiesel you get 93 per cent more back. For ethanol you get 25 per cent more back. Neither compares well with oil, but oil took millions of years to make and is, as we’ve all be endlessly told, nonrenewable.

Eventually the energy yield advantage of biodiesel will show up at the pumps. I fully expect that as more and more renewable fuels are added to petroleum based fuels the price gap between diesel and ethanol-laced gasoline will widen.

There is another factor to consider that is especially relevant to poultry producers. North American ethanol is mostly made from corn. Chickens eat corn. As the ethanol industry grows, poultry producers will be competing for corn with people who drive luxury cars. Who do you think will win?

One study out of Purdue University says that it will be Cadillacs over chickens. It forecasts rising ethanol production from corn, rising corn and other feed grain prices and a drop in North American (U.S.) chicken production. Another study forecasts increased grass fed beef production and increasing pressure on feed lots and hog producers.

Meanwhile a Canadian study foresees rising prices for all grains and even predicts that this could lead to farm incomes high enough that government income support programs would no longer be needed. It doesn’t, however, discuss how much indirect support would flow to grain producers from the ongoing tax breaks and subsidies to the ethanol producers.

Biodiesel would affect prices of vegetable oil, but that would have a much smaller impact on poultry producers than the forecast increase in corn prices. That might give poultry producers one reason more than I have for considering a diesel engine for their next vehicle.


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