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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ethanol's false promise

Ethanol is supposed to be the great American replacement to fossil fuels. Congressmen and Senators from the "heartland" (including my own here in Minnesota sadly) all flock to the "promise" of biofuels. However, the "promise" may be a false promise, at least according to this Washington Post article.

"Biofuels such as ethanol made from corn, sugar cane, switchgrass and other crops are being touted as a "green" solution for a large part of America's transportation problem. Auto manufacturers, Midwest corn farmers and politicians are excited about ethanol. Initially, we, too, were excited about biofuels: no net carbon dioxide emissions, reduction of oil imports. Who wouldn't be enthusiastic?But as we've looked at biofuels more closely, we've concluded that they're not a practical long-term solution to our need for transport fuels. Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn't supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025. And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating."

This is the part I love...

"Using the crop residues (called corn stover) from corn production could provide about 10 billion gallons per year of ethanol, according to a recent study by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The net energy available would be greater than with ethanol from corn -- about 60,000 Btu per gallon, equivalent to a half-gallon of gasoline. Still, all of the U.S. corn wastes would produce only the equivalent of 5 billion gallons of gasoline. Another factor to be considered: Not plowing wastes back into the land hurts soil fertility."

Do you know the main reason why corn stover was first plowed back into the ground every year? Ever heard of a little phenomonon called the Dust Bowl??? HELLO ENVIRONMENTAL LOBBY!!!!!

The article even addresses the "Brazil" buzz:

"Recently, there has been lots of excitement and media coverage about how Brazil produces ethanol for its automobile fuel and talk that America should follow its lead. But Brazil consumes only 10 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually, compared with America's 170 billion. There are almost 4 million miles of paved roads in America -- Brazil has 60,000. And Brazil is the leading producer of sugar cane -- more than 300 million tons annually -- so it has lots of agricultural waste to make ethanol."

All of that is well and good, but this paragraph address the one thing that the ethanol cheerleaders (my governor included) never talks about...

"Finally, considering projected population growth in the United States and the world, the humanitarian policy would be to maintain cropland for growing food -- not fuel. Every day more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes -- one child every five seconds. The situation will only get worse. It would be morally wrong to divert cropland needed for human food supply to powering automobiles. It would also deplete soil fertility and the long-term capability to maintain food production. We would destroy the farmland that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will need to live."

Governor Pawlenty, Senator Coleman, Congressman Kennedy...any comment?????


Anonymous Sundog said...

Hiya LL: I posted this in response to your questions to me on the residual forces blog, and am posting it here (in case you miss it over there!).

Sundog Says:

July 9th, 2006 at 9:36 am
Sure thing, LL:

1. Do you realize that even if we converted every square acre of tillable land into corn to produce ethanol, how are going to feed our families?

This is a false dilemna — no one (and I mean, no one) is talking about “converting every square acre” to corn-ethanol production. Long before we get to the issue about corn for people food, corn-ethanol raises livestock feed issues. Beyond a certain point, turning corn into ethanol will increase the price of livestock feed, something that the ag community is very aware of. We won’t get anywhere near that level.

2. If we take every bit of the corn plant, including the stover, and put it into ethanol production are you willing to put up with the increased use of chemical fertilizers that will be needed to keep the land fertile and growing corn? Do you realize how much corn we would have to grow in order to produce enough ethanol to make a dent in our current gasoline consumption? Do you realize how much energy is used (in the form of fertilizer, transportation, processing etc) to make 1 single gallon of ethanol?

Again, a false dilemna: In Minnesota, and I’m sure elsewhere in the Midwest, taking a good portion of the stover off the field (not all) will actually allow farmers to put less nitrogen-fertilizer onto their fields. Large nitrogen amounts are necessary to counteract the carbon that’s in the stover. Taking a good amount of the stover off, and turn that into ethanol (or gasify it or pelletize to offset natural gas use for process heat) will allow many more Midwest farmers to utilize “no-till” farming techniques, which would be HUGELY beneficial for conservation and land preservation. This enhances the ability of the soil to “stay put” rather than result in a “dust bowl”. Also, the net energy balance of ethanol (energy used to make ethanol) is slightly positive for corn-ethanol (more energy produced than is used in production), but much, much better for stover-based ethanol.

3. If we take every bit of the corn plant, including the stover, and put it into ethanol production - which goes against common environmental land management - what are you going to suggest we do to prevent the next dust bowl? You see, aside from naturally fertilizing the land, plowing the stover back into the ground helps prevent erosion…

No, that’s incorrect — see answer to #2.

Ethanol is not the silver bullet to our energy independence issues, but it is one of a handful of alternatives that we can and must rely on in the short to mid-term. Energy conservation (increased fuel efficiency) is another. Biodiesel is a third. Plug-in hybrids, especially those that run on E85, are a promising technology and must be encouraged.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My biggest complaint is that our supposedly REPUBLICAN elected representatives-- Coleman and Kennedy-- are treating biofuels as an "either-or" issue with ANWR. Why can't we do both? If a little bit of ethanol helps, wouldn't a little more oil help, too?

Another thing is obvious about the "energy equation." All you are doing with corn ethanol is capturing a tiny fraction of the solar energy which strikes that cornfield, and converting it to liquid form. To get it you input tractor fuel, truck fuel, fuel to distill the ethanol, and oil-based fertilizer. If you took the whole corn plant you would get more, but not nearly what you would get from a stand of tightly-packed, 13-foot-high sugar cane. Biofuels are only "promising" if we can get the economics (reflecting the true cost) down to what the cost of gasoline is. The market has a way of working these things out. Subsidizing ethanol distorts that process. When gasoline gets costly enough, we'll produce more ethanol, somehow. When it gets a little higher, we'll be building more fuel-efficient cars because the public will demand them. A little higher still, and we'll make the harvest of our oil shales a paying proposition.

The more I look at it, the more I think the wisest "national energy policy" as far as petroleum, anyway, would be to simply get government the heck out of the way.

J. Ewing

7:03 PM  
Blogger The Lady Logician said...

Sundog - I saw your responsed over at RF and I answered there. There has to be a dialog for sure because right now the options that are being given by our elected officials is incomplete.

J. Ewing - You said it....we need to get the government the heck out of the way and let the market come up with workable solutions.

1:44 PM  

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