OK, I’ll admit, I like movie stars as well as the next guy. And when two of them, Ed Begley, Jr. and Daryl Hannah, are up in front of the room, it’s sometimes hard to concentrate on what they’re actually saying. In this case, the setting was the Petersen Auto Museum in Los Angeles, and the occasion was the “Alcohol for Sustainable Living” press conference.

David Blume, who wrote the book Alcohol Can be a Gas, is a passionate advocate of ethanol fuel for everything from powering hybrid cars and motorcycles to running furnaces and barbecuing tofu. He did nearly all these things (as well as make the fuel in a still) on the roof of the Petersen.

Begley’s much-traveled 2001 Prius (one of the first made) was up there to get converted to “flex fuel,” enabling it to burn E100, or 100 percent alcohol. This is simpler than it appears, requiring no more than a 10-milimeter socket wrench and a couple of screwdrivers to install a small device made by Blume’s company.

Also on hand was the 6.6-liter Trans-Am from Kill Bill, which Hannah has also converted to alcohol with Blume’s help. It looked incredibly dangerous, and according to Hannah was actually the backup car (the good one went to Michael Madsen). “I’m a big fan of non-petroleum ways of moving ourselves around,” Hannah said, “including electric cars running on renewable energy and biofuels, which is why I was a cofounder of the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance.”

Begley is, of course, an old hand at this kind of thing, having bought a Taylor-Dunn electric car in 1970. As viewers of Living With Ed are well aware, his home is thoroughly green. MNN was able to pay him a visit, and saw such amenities as a four-kilowatt solar array, a solar cooker, a Toyota RAV-4 EV that’s been in the family for many years, and natural lighting. I missed the bicycle he pedals to power his toaster, though. Here’s Ed showing off his RAV-4:

 

Blume outlined some compelling visions of an alcohol-fueled future that would reform our current corn-based production. Ethanol has to get holistic, and take advantage of the system’s epic amounts of waste. In particular, he said that stale doughnuts make great alcohol because of how much sugar (10 teaspoons) they contain. And I loved his vision for a closed-loop “living machine” that would produce alcohol from grain, then use the highly nutritious leftovers to feed fish, whose poopy water is great for growing cabbages. Don’t think it can work? Archer Daniels Midland did it profitably for many years, Blume said, until the program was killed by a CEO from the oil industry.

The urgency of renewable fuels was underscored by Hunter Lovins of Natural Capitalism Solutions, who said that GM’s meltdown was a sign that “business can’t go on as usual. Our underlying non-sustainability is behind the collapse, and we’re borrowing $2 billion a day to buy oil.”

In contrast, Brazil runs its cars on ethanol made from sugarcane. Lovins said the country was importing more oil than the U.S. in the 1970s, but became net energy independent in 2006.

Blume said running cars on E85 ethanol would eliminate the need for imported oil in a few years. He took on every complaint about ethanol, including its lower energy content and the “food vs. fuel” controversy. Our higher corn prices, he claimed, are not based on an actual shortage, since we’ve had a surplus of the stuff for the last several years. Did you know that 87 percent of the U.S. corn crop is fed to animals, and that 20 percent is exported?

Like Daryl Hannah, I see a smorgasbord of renewable fuels in our future, and a definite place for living machines with alcohol at their center.

Check out the car channel on MNN and read more of Jim's transportation posts

MNN homepage image includes photo of Begley by Jason Merritt/Getty Images and photo of Hannah by WENN

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