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Ethanol: "Neither Renewable Nor Reliable":

Speaking of corporate welfare, the cover story in new issue of Regulation, "Neither Renewable nor Reliable" by James Eaves and Stephen Eaves, devastates the environmental and "energy security" arguments for corn-based ethanol. According to Eaves and Eaves, corn-based ethanol is simply not capable of displacing a significant proportion of gasoline consumption, nor would a shift to corn-based ethanol protect markets from volatility due to supply disruptions. They conclude as follows:

When we assume the ethanol production process is fully renewable, it would take all the corn in the country to displace about 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption — only slightly more than we could displace by making sure drivers' tires are inflated properly. There are also ethical considerations. In particular, the United States is responsible for over 40 percent of the world's corn supply and 70 percent of total global exports. Even small diversions of corn supplies to ethanol could have dramatic implications for the world's poor, especially considering that researchers believe that food production will need to triple by the year 2050 to accommodate expected demand. Furthermore, ethanol would not necessarily be a more reliable source of fuel. By displacing gasoline with ethanol, we are displacing geo-political risk with yield risk, and historical corn yields have been about twice as volatile as oil imports. Finally, because high temperatures can simultaneously increase fuel demand and the cost of growing corn, the supply response of ethanol producers to temperature-induced demand shocks would likely be weaker than that of gasoline producers.

Note: The Regulation article is based upon a longer study forthcoming in Energy Policy.

Mike Gallo (mail):
As a chemist (and engine builder), ethanol has never held weight as a viable widespread fuel option. It's nice to see that economists have found even more reasons not to use it. Unfortunately, here in Wisconsin, we're going to be hearing about it for a loooong time because it's a great talking point for the politicians looking for the farm vote $$$$$$$.
10.23.2007 11:15am
Dan Weber (www):
In particular, the United States is responsible for over 40 percent of the world's corn supply and 70 percent of total global exports. Even small diversions of corn supplies to ethanol could have dramatic implications for the world's poor,

Oh man.

We are hurting the poor by dumping cheap subsidized corn onto the global market.

Y'know why Africa's farmers can't grow food? Because we've destroyed their agriculture economy by "helping" them with free food (which also enabled the warlords to continue on their own agendas).

There are good arguments against ethanol. That it would stop the US from destroying the African economy isn't one of them.
10.23.2007 11:32am
Halcyon (mail):
I dislike Ethanol for a number of reasons, but I do fee the need to point out that articles like this falter because it's not just corn that Ethanol supporters push, but also sugar beets, Jerusalem Artichokes (Which for some reason are supposed to be very good), sugar cane, etc. And when articles like this just focus on Corn it allows them to come back with, "But we're not talking about corn, item X is much better and would solve all our problems."
10.23.2007 12:19pm
Lior:

There are good arguments against ethanol. That it would stop the US from destroying the African economy isn't one of them.


Well, raising the world price of corn will certainly help poor corn growers worldwide. However, I'm pretty sure the poor farmers are vastly outnumbered by poor corn consumers who'd rather buy cheap US-made corn than more expensive local corn.
10.23.2007 12:24pm
Dan Weber (www):
If the US were pricing this corn at market rates, I might agree with you.

However, the US subsidizes corn significantly, over-producing what the market would naturally want.

And of course then Africa can't pay for the food, because they haven't been able to develop an economy. If you can't develop cash crops, you can't mature to a more advanced economy.
10.23.2007 12:40pm
JOe:
Ethonal got its big boost during the Carter adminstration as an alternative fuel due to the second arab oil embargo, not as a better fuel but as second choice fuel. It then got its second boost from the "greens" nder the questiontable argument that the fuel burns cleaner - While it may burn cleaner per gallon, it burns far dirtier per mile due to the lower gas mileage. This does not take into account the additional eviromental costs of production, growing the crop, transportation (ethonal has to be trucked or shipped vs sent through pipelines).

Did anyone take a basis course in economics - specifically dealing with the concept of cost vs benefit or the concept of marginal cost vs marginal benefit
10.23.2007 12:49pm
procrastinating clerk (mail):

There are good arguments against ethanol. That it would stop the US from destroying the African economy isn't one of them.

Also the article seems to be anticipating a rapid shift from using corn for food and using it to produce ethanol to respond to a oil market shock. If the switch were rapid it wouldn't matter that local Africans could have grown the corn because they wouldn't have grown it, because they couldn't do so profitably competing against US subsidized corn. Therefore when this rapid shift occurs there will be a major shortage of corn that will take time to remedy because you can't magically produce corn, it needs to be grown.
10.23.2007 1:01pm
newt:

it's not just corn that Ethanol supporters push


Bingo. On top of which, there are significant efforts to increase the efficiency of plant matter as an input for biofuels manufacture through genetic expression (basically turning ON the genes that express sugar content).

How do I know this? I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. Actually, I married a research molecular biologist whose job is to do exactly that: Increase the efficiency of grasses (not corn) as an input into biofuels development through genetic engineering (yes, I know the GM thing scares some people).

So, I'd love to know if James Eaves and Stephen Eaves have studied how efficiency and scientific advances change the analysis. Really though, this analysis looks like fear-mongering hysterics.
10.23.2007 1:06pm
jdh (mail) (www):
Not to mention that the current corporate farming model itself involves a massive amount of petroleum, both in doing the work of farming and in fertilizer.
10.23.2007 1:16pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Wow... Regulation Magazine and Castro are in agreement:

"The danger of a massive world famine is aggravated by Mr. Bush's recent initiative to transform foods into fuel," Castro wrote in Cuban news media, referring to U.S. support for using corn and other food crops to produce gasoline substitutes.


Not sure what to make of that.
10.23.2007 1:51pm
G-unit:
The main problem with the article is that it assumes that the energy consumed by the ethanol plant will come out of the net ethanol energy. Ethanol is talked about as a substitute for gasoline, not for use in electrical generation. The majority of the energy used would come from the electrical grid (aka other sources of energy produced domestically). While that extra energy use still hurts the "sustanability" argument over the long run, it does not negate the viability of ethanol as a substitute for other transport fuels. Especially when, as others point out, there are better inputs than corn, such as sugar beets or (soon) plant cellulose.
10.23.2007 1:52pm
LXJenkins:
liberty said:


Wow... Regulation Magazine and Castro are in agreement:

Not sure what to make of that.


Are you suggesting that Castro can never make an accurate point?
10.23.2007 1:54pm
devin chalmers (mail):
Ethanol (especially corn ethanol) is the biggest energy boondoggle of recent years. It's just another kind of ridiculous farm subsidy, and it makes my milk more expensive.

As noted above, it's not even a very good energy crop. I did some research on this last year--ethanol only very recently became a net energy gain, over the amount of fuel invested to produce it. (The most recent data I found had the figure of 1.3 energy units out per unit put in.)

Biodiesel, on the other hand, which can be derived from any vegetable oil, has something like a net 320% return on energy investment (much more if it is cultivated from oil-rich algae). And, it can be burned in ordinary diesel engines without conversion. It's cheap, realistically producible domestically in quantity, burns cleaner--for the most part--than petro diesel, has a closed carbon cycle, is renewable, and has a great energy density. Really just a fantastic fuel.

It's a shame this issue doesn't get more attention. Old .gov report on biodiesel with some details.
10.23.2007 1:57pm
Mark Field (mail):

Regulation Magazine and Castro are in agreement


Obviously, Regulation is a Communist front.
10.23.2007 2:03pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
The article assumes that most ethanol is used as E85 and makes its assumption of the mileage effects accordingly. However most ethanol is used as E10, and the mileage effects are different. My own car gets about 4 percent better mileage with E10 than with straight gasoline (25.5 mpg vs 24.5). That probably will vary according to model of car, but there are a lot of Tauruses out there.

The article also neglects the weather effects on gasoline refining. When the gulf gets hit with a hurricane, the price of gas increases as refineries are shut down for the storm and for repairs after.
10.23.2007 2:04pm
Mike Keenan:
You can expect about 2% worse gas mileage with E10 over straight gasoline. E10 is about 100 KBTU/gallon and gasoline is 104. I think the gas mileage is roughly proportional to the square root of that, but maybe some engineers could correct.
10.23.2007 2:15pm
Curt Fischer:

You can expect about 2% worse gas mileage with E10 over straight gasoline. E10 is about 100 KBTU/gallon and gasoline is 104. I think the gas mileage is roughly proportional to the square root of that, but maybe some engineers could correct.


This is only part of the story. The reason you get less energy per gallon is that ethanol is less dense. The right metric isn't miles per gallon but rather dollars per mile.

Ethanol in this country, especially from corn, loses out to gasoline big time in the dollars per mile category, at least without all the various subsidies ethanol currently enjoys.

In Brazil, however, ethanol and gasoline compete on price, because the vast majority of cars in Brazil are flex-fuel. Ethanol is no longer heavily subsidized by the government, and at the pump, ethanol is priced at 70% or so of gas prices, per gallon, because consumers have figured out how to account for the energy difference.
10.23.2007 2:27pm
Piano_JAM (mail):
Did anyone take a basis course in economics - specifically dealing with the concept of cost vs benefit or the concept of marginal cost vs marginal benefit

Isn't that a requirement to be a Senator/Congressman? err, I mean, to not have taken any basic courses :)
10.23.2007 3:07pm
Tom Practical:
If ethanol is so great, why the $.51 subsidy? People ask that question all the time and you either hear crickets or some nonsense about speeding up the process. The government can speed up the process by funding basic research or making a law that by, for, example, 2020 a certain proportion of cars have run on alternative fuel. That way we let the market complete to find the best alternative, rather than a bunch of politicians and the ethanol lobby, who know nothing about energy, declaring ethanol is the only alternative fuel that should be produced. Bush is always raving about how good the free market is. Why is he undermining it in the case of ethanol? Ethanol supports are communists- They don't like the free market. they want the government to decide.
10.23.2007 3:23pm
Curt Fischer:

Biodiesel, on the other hand, which can be derived from any vegetable oil, has something like a net 320% return on energy investment (much more if it is cultivated from oil-rich algae). And, it can be burned in ordinary diesel engines without conversion. It's cheap, realistically producible domestically in quantity, burns cleaner--for the most part--than petro diesel, has a closed carbon cycle, is renewable, and has a great energy density. Really just a fantastic fuel.


This biodiesel stuff is nonsense. Biodiesel suffers from all the same problems that ethanol does, except for the need for vehicle conversion.

If it's so great, why does biodiesel need twice the subsidy per gallon that ethanol does? On a BTU basis, it gets 33% more, about $12 / mmBTU for virgin biodiesel, but ethanol only gets $9 / mmBTU in federal subsidies.

In the US, soybean yield is about 2800 kg per hectare, vs. about 9800 kg / ha for corn. (Get FAOStat data here.) Factor in that soy oil is a lower percentage of the soy crop than starches are of the corn crop, and it gets even worse: if biodiesel is to be made from oil crops like soybeans, the "food vs. fuel" issue is far more pressing than it is even for corn ethanol.

As you allude to, the situation would improve with oil-producing algae. But that technology lags behind the development of cellulosic ethanol.

So today's soy biodiesel is no more an energy panacea than today's corn ethanol. In fact, in many respects it is worse. Some say using waste vegetable oil is cheaper, and they are right, but far too little waste vegetable oil exists in the country to make a significant dent in our national fuel usage patterns.

Corn ethanol may be a bad idea, but it is better than soy-based biodiesel.
10.23.2007 4:01pm
Toby:
Diversity, guys. This is one area where it actually matters.

If we attempted to do all the transportation in North America on Biodiesel specially made from [pick your crop], it would quickly croud out every other cropt we have. Biodiesel is a niche solution based upon the niche use of a key waste product. As such it is a very good idea. Once its main ingredient is no longer an adaptive re-use, it is not so good.

One Solution / One Size fits all it the classic mode of big government problem solving. Which is a very good reason to leave this stuff to markets and let a hundred solutions flourish.
10.23.2007 4:11pm
K Parker (mail):
ChrisIowa,

Maybe so, but then E10 only replaces about 1/4 as much hydrocarbon fuel as E85 does.
10.23.2007 4:32pm
ChrisIowa (mail):

Maybe so, but then E10 only replaces about 1/4 as much hydrocarbon fuel as E85 does.


Huh? expound a bit.
10.23.2007 4:59pm
JohnAnnArbor:
These guys want to take trash and use pressure and heat to turn it into fuel, kind of like a faster way than waiting for geologic processes to do it.

They're making fuel already. It would be cool if the process scales up.....
10.23.2007 5:30pm
JBL:
Here in the Midwest, one of the arguments in favor of ethanol is "it will help local corn farmers". That's not a very good argument, but people really do make it.
10.23.2007 5:58pm
ChrisIowa (mail):

You can expect about 2% worse gas mileage with E10 over straight gasoline. E10 is about 100 KBTU/gallon and gasoline is 104. I think the gas mileage is roughly proportional to the square root of that, but maybe some engineers could correct.


The KBTU is actually, totally, and completely irrelevant.

What matters is mpg. What the fuel actually does in use. My own results have shown mpg is better with 10% ethanol than without. I'm open to the results of a comprehensive experiment, but anything other than results based on actual use is just Aristotelian Philosophy.
10.23.2007 6:05pm
Owen Hutchins (mail):
Ethanol is not the problem. Corn-derived ethanol is.
10.23.2007 6:40pm
devin chalmers (mail):

Corn ethanol may be a bad idea, but it is better than soy-based biodiesel.


You are correct that soy is a poor crop for biodiesel production. Rapeseed/canola oil, for example, yields 3x as much biodiesel by area as soybean crops. But even with soybean oil, the energy yield (as pointed out in my first post) is at least two and a half times that of ethanol.

Ethanol as a fuel source in this country is a joke, existing only to cater to the farm subsidy crowd. It is a costly band-aid that does little to offset CO2 production and foreign fuel reliance; biodiesel has the potential to be an actual solution.
10.23.2007 9:03pm
Brandy C:
"Bingo. On top of which, there are significant efforts to increase the efficiency of plant matter as an input for biofuels manufacture through genetic expression (basically turning ON the genes that express sugar content). "

99% of U.S. ethanol is produced using corn. Yes, research is being conducted related to using other feedstocks but those are years away, optimistically. Perhaps, we should be using the $6 or $7 billion in subsidies and tax credits to investigate other options? The article focuses on corn for the obvious reason that where the ethanol comes from.
10.23.2007 10:23pm
SFBurke (mail):
What I find odd about the ethanol debate is how it is promoted as a 'green' energy source. Sure it doesn't produce the dirty products that coal produces but it is still producing CO2 (and water). So if we are worried about global warming (and it seems like many of the proponents of ethanol are), it is unclear to me how ethanol solves the problem of a world allegedly being warmed by CO2 emissions.

Furthermore, firing up a coal plant to produce electricity so that one can make ethanol seems twice as ludicrous. Sure the ethanol burns clean (give or take the CO2), but how clean was the energy that was produced it? (last I checked there were not a lot of solar generation stations in Iowa).

As people point out, it may be possible to produce ethanol from sources other than ethanol. Fine. When those sources are available (and they may be 5 to 20 years away), we can talk about the benefits of ethanol. Until then, can we please stop subsidizing corn based ethanol? Or, if we must have ethanol, can we please just remove or tarrifs on imports from Brazil, so that we can buy it inexpensively.

Ethanol as it stands today serves no purpose other than to subsidize farmers in Iowa (why do we care about Iowa? :) ) and Archer Daniels Midland. Anybody who thinks otherwise is not thinking seriously about the issue.

SFB
10.24.2007 1:39am
devin chalmers (mail):
What I find odd about the ethanol debate is how it is promoted as a 'green' energy source. Sure it doesn't produce the dirty products that coal produces but it is still producing CO2 (and water). So if we are worried about global warming (and it seems like many of the proponents of ethanol are), it is unclear to me how ethanol solves the problem of a world allegedly being warmed by CO2 emissions.

You are right that burning any organic matter will release CO2 into the atmosphere. The nice thing about ethanol/biodiesel/biomass fuels is that they don't add to the total amount of carbon in the cycle. The carbon emitted into the atmosphere when you burn a gallon of ethanol was removed from the atmosphere just a little while before when the corn grew. The net impact on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is nil. (Burning petroleum products releases carbon stored millions of years ago back into the atmosphere, when things were warmer.)

There are complications--the chemicals released back into the atmosphere from biofuels are not necessarily the same as the atmospheric chemicals used in its growth. The amount of CO2 released in combustion is essentially the same as absorbed during the growing cycle, but other chemicals--you mention water, and one of the major issues with biodiesel is the high amount of greenhouse gas NO it releases--are a different matter. (There is also the issue of the specific chemical processes used to make the biomass combustible, which can have its own byproducts--notably methanol for biodiesel.)

Consuming dirty energy to create biofuel can also be a problem, and is the main reason hydrogen fuel cells are also something of a boondoggle. Ideally the system would be efficient enough that we could use the produced ethanol in the production process. (Tangentially, this is another practical advantage of biodiesel over ethanol--farm equipment and many electrical plants already burn diesel, making it more realistic to close the cycle.)

In any case, burning coal to produce ethanol is a net gain (energetically and environmentally) over burning it to produce our energy directly, because the ethanol has a (slightly) positive energy yield. The bonus energy comes from the sun--biomass is essentially a very clever, self-contained solar panel and battery.

(Compare this with burning coal for electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen: here there is no external source of energy, and thermodynamics dictates that we get less energy back out of the hydrogen than we put in to get it.)

I threw together a (very very rough and) simple diagram to illustrate the closed carbon cycle and why using traditional fuel to produce alternative energy sources can be a net win.
10.24.2007 4:22am
cathyf:
...using traditional fuel to produce alternative energy sources can be a net win.
In VA, there is a proposed dual nuclear plant and ethanol distillary. There are a couple of unique advantages to using a nuclear plant this way:

1) Demand for electricity is highly variable (much higher during the day than at night, basically), while the power output of a nuclear plant is pretty much constant. Using the otherwise waste energy produced at night for ethanol production while using the plant to produce electricity for generation during the day is "free" energy.

2) Because of the engineering peculiarities of nuclear plant operation, a nuclear plant needs to operate using water that is heated to boiling, and then cooled down a lot and then reheated. (That's what those cooling towers are for.) This wastes lots of heat. The boiling point of alcohol is about 160 F, so a still works at much lower tempuratures. So this is another opportunity to capture waste heat -- grab heat from the water to run the still while it is going through the cooling part of the process. Less heat will be going out the tower, or into a nearby river, and again, using otherwise waste energy is free energy.

I haven't had time to read the article, but there are two errors in general which I've seen in them:

1) They use out-of-date calculations of corn yields. Corn yields have gone up quite smartly over time because of continuous technological innovation.

2) They overestimate the amount of fuel used, mainly by making assumptions which are not dependent upon the price of fuel. (Kind of like revenue-neutral tax estimates.) If the price of fuel goes up, then farmers will use more no-till, and other premium-priced seed and techniques in order to be able to avoid driving into the field. Especially as the older no-till seeds move out of patent and become much cheaper, people shift their usage of no-till to a point which makes economic sense, and that is always shifting to substituting seed engineering for fuel consumption.
10.24.2007 1:47pm
Brandy C:

You are right that burning any organic matter will release CO2 into the atmosphere. The nice thing about ethanol/biodiesel/biomass fuels is that they don't add to the total amount of carbon in the cycle. The carbon emitted into the atmosphere when you burn a gallon of ethanol was removed from the atmosphere just a little while before when the corn grew. The net impact on the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is nil. (Burning petroleum products releases carbon stored millions of years ago back into the atmosphere, when things were warmer.)


This is not correct. Studies out of Stanford and Harvard have shown that if we use substantial amounts of ethanol (equivalent to 20% of our gasoline consumption) we would increase our greenhouse gas emission. Again, this is because the increase in CO2 doesnt come from burning the ethanol it comes from producing it (natural gas used in fertilizer diesel used for farming and transportation, coal used for producing electricity for ethanol plants...). And to produce significant amounts of ethanol we have to start planting corn, or soybean, or beets on marginal lands that are less productive, which will require more water and fossil fuel inputs per unit produced. Moreover, these lands are currently capturing CO2, preparing them farming will release large quantities of co2 into the atmosphere. As ethanol prices go up, more rain forest in goes down.

Ethanol does not reduce greenhouse gases. It does not produce meaningful amounts of fuel. Its not more secure (as the article points out) than gasoline. Its simply a gigantic giveaway to the first primary state (Iowa).
10.24.2007 5:12pm
ChrisIowa (mail):

...using traditional fuel to produce alternative energy sources can be a net win.

In VA, there is a proposed dual nuclear plant and ethanol distillary.


In Northeast Nebraska there is also an ethanol plant fueled by methane from a landfill.
10.24.2007 8:30pm
Owen Hutchins (mail):

Yes, research is being conducted related to using other feedstocks but those are years away, optimistically.



It's being done right now in other countries, not "years away".
10.24.2007 9:23pm
Mike Gallo (mail):
ChrisIowa- I'm sorry, but if you're getting better gas mileage on E10 than pump gas, something else has changed also. It's simple chemistry - ethanol burns at nearly half the air:fuel ratio of gasoline. If you displace gasoline with ethanol, you will need to burn more for the same amount of total fuel in a given engine at a given condition. This is not a "maybe," or a "sometimes," this is always, in every case. I'm not saying you haven't seen an increase in gas mileage, I'm saying it is an impossibility that it happened because of the E10, period.
10.25.2007 5:40pm
David W. Hess (mail):
The energy density of E10 is not quite as high but the increased octane rating could allow higher efficiency if the engine has the compression ratio to take advantage of it. There could be a tuning issue as well although I would not expect that for a modern fuel injected engine unless something was out of calibration.

I have a flex-fuel pickup truck myself but given the price of E85 gasoline or E10 is cheaper per mile.

There are processes that can go from nuclear energy to hydrogen to fertilizer to bio-fuel without fossil fuel input but without serious nuclear power plant construction they are ineffective on an industrial scale. Wind, solar, and tidal have their places but without an order of magnitude improvement in efficient collection they will not suffice.
10.27.2007 1:44pm
Brandy C:
Tom Practical said "If ethanol is so great, why the $.51 subsidy? People ask that question all the time and you either hear crickets... "

He was correct: we only heard crickets. I might add would automakers even build E85 cars if they didnt receive a CAFE credit of a value that far exceeds the $200 it costs to convert a car to E85? Why wont producers participate in this "ethanol revolution" without billions of dollars of giveaways?
10.28.2007 1:23am