The Ergosphere
Sunday, October 15, 2006

Open letter about the ethanol lobby

While "The money-grubbing mendacity of the ethanol lobby" has been linked to Alpha Centauri and back, it doesn't make the concise case for discounting ethanol as a solution to the USA's petroleum woes.  The people coming here through searches are probably looking for that, so here it is as a public service.

There are plenty of reasons that we can't replace - or even meaningfully displace - petroleum gasoline with domestic ethanol.  Here are a few of them, with supporting info:

I hear your question:  "If that's true, why is the conventional wisdom so wrong?"  That deserves an answer.  Several answers, actually, because there are a lot of different groups with different interests converging to the same point of emphasis.

There are some voices on the other side.  For instance, the CEO of AutoNation has called for the automakers to produce vehicles which can run at least partly on electricity.  This would cost in the short term, but be much better for the health of the industry and the nation in the long term.  Think about energy security:  if you depend on corn or switchgrass for your fuel, a drought or period of grass fires (like Kansas through Texas this year) could jeopardize the nation's fuel supply as badly as a bunch of hurricanes in the Gulf.  But if your "extra" fuel is electricity, you can make it from wind, sun, coal or even splitting atoms.  The supply of electricity is much more secure than the supply of gasoline or ethanol.

And that's why YOU, dear voter, should be skeptical about ethanol or even opposed to it.  There are benefits from it, but those benefits aren't for you.

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You speak for me EP. Thanks for taking the time.

I think, too, that a big reason not to expend national resources on corn ethanol is that even the most optimistic energy return figures I've seen simply are not worth it in comparison to greater energy returns elsewhere. If cash were unlimited, fine, but its not.
EP, despite the fact that I think my first exchange with you was a dispute over the harshness of your criticism of ethanol (I belive I wanted you to give more credit to cellulosic ethanol's potential), I think we've come to agree on just about all of your criticisms of ethanol at this point.

Obviously, corn ethanol is over-hyped and can never really be more than a fuel additive. You've always done an excellent job laying out the reasons why that is the case, and even hypothesizing about why the hype persists nonetheless.

We also seem to agree 100% that plug-in vehicles and the electrification of transportation are much preferrable to the use of biofuels, and could actually scale to the levels necessary to make a serious dent in transportation related greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use.

However, I think you still seem to discount the potential role of cellulosic ethanol. You wrote, "Even if we could use all our waste biomass to make ethanol, it still wouldn't come close to replacing gasoline (and leave nothing for diesel, jet fuel, heating oil...)."

While this is largely true, I don't think that means we ought to discount a partial solution to a very big problem, simply because it's not a full solution. This is precisely the issue that we debated about over a year ago now in your post on The money-grubbing mendacity of the ethanol lobby.

I agree that biomass cannot yield more than 1/3 to 1/2 of our total current light duty vehicle fuel consumption. Biofuels from biomass will never be a complete solution to the dual problems of oil addiction and climate change.

But a partial solution that contributes a sizable amount of energy - 1/3rd to 1/2 of current vehicle fuel consumption is NOT insubstantial - is worth consideration. As we've discussed in the past, there may be better ways to utilize our available biomass resources - i.e. as carbon for direct carbon fuel cells or for use in the carbonaceous solar-zinc process for zinc air fuel cells - but the point is that the United States' billion tons per year or more of potential biomass resources should not be dismissed in the same breath as you dismiss corn ethanol.

Putting aside the potential for a more efficient use of biomass (if we find one, let's do that instead), if we convert available biomass resources to liquid biofuels through biomass-to-liquids or cellulosic ethanol refining processes, we can probably produce up to 1/2 of our current LDV fuel by mid century (as the DOE/USDA lay out in their 'billion ton vision' report). Of course that's current demand, so say biofuels can provide perhaps 1/3rd of demand in 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario. Clearly that doesn't solve the whole problem.

But if we double vehicle fuel efficiency, we can now replace 2/3rds of petroleum-based LDV fuel. If we instead switch to plug-in hybrids that not only double fuel economy, but also drive 1/3rd of all vehicle miles on electricty, we've just replaced all petroleum-based liquid fuel use in the light duty vehicle sector, while diversifying our energy sources and drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the light duty vehicle fleet (on the order of 75%).

Of course we've still got to develop strategies to tackle heavy duty vehicles, air and sea tranport, etc., but I think you see my point: the United States' available biomass resource is SIGNIFICANT and the potential for biofuels cannot be dismissed as easily as we can dismiss the potential of corn-based ethanol.

That being said, I agree with everything else you've said here about corn ethanol. This is an excellent summary of why corn ethanol, and those who promote it so vocally, are full of shit.

(BTW, all of those numbers I threw out were clearly just off the top of my head, and are quite rough. I've obviously done more detailed analysis than that in the past, and my thesis is available here which addresses much of what I've said here.).
"I don't think that means we ought to discount a partial solution to a very big problem, simply because it's not a full solution."

I would agree with you except for three things:

1.  A full solution appears to be possible.
2.  Given the ME religio-political situation and the phenomenon of AGW, a full solution is a national and moral imperative.
3.  Investment in bio-ethanol does not merely delay progress toward a full solution, it continues the constituency for the status quo.  The sunk costs will create a pressure for more subsidies and preferences for ethanol to the exclusion of full solutions.

If you have any doubts about #3, look at the E85 loophole (created specifically for guzzler-makers and ADM) and the extreme resistance to retiring ancient, filthy coal-fired powerplants.

"the point is that the United States' billion tons per year or more of potential biomass resources should not be dismissed in the same breath as you dismiss corn ethanol."

If that's the impression you got, I wasn't clear.  Those billions of tons should be directed differently, toward paths which eliminate not just a fraction of gasoline demand but 100% of petroleum, 100% of coal and 100% of natural gas.  We need to go carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative.  This actually looks possible!  And as I said, if it's possible it is a moral imperative.

Let me emphasize this:  I do see a continuing role for liquid fuels such as ethanol.  For instance, processes like Greenfuel's CO2-enhanced algae growth system will take CO2 from anything and turn it into carbohydrates or oils.  The CO2 could come from one or another bio-fuel off-stream [1].  However, the amount used as fuel will be vastly lower than in a system based primarily on energy from liquids, and the price will probably be much lower too [2].  This will cut the amount of interest-group politics behind its production and use, and lead to a more efficient (market-driven vs. politically-driven) system.

[1] My current model starts with biomass conversion to charcoal, which yields about 25-30% of the original dry mass as charcoal and the balance as hot, combustible medium-BTU gas.  The CO2 fraction of the off-gas or its combustion products are the first stream.  The charcoal fraction is perfect for use in direct-carbon fuel cells; the CO2 from DCFC's is another stream.

[2] Liquid fuels are mostly used for transport.  If electricity becomes the primary energy supply for all non-aviation vehicles, the ability of producers to hike fuel prices will be seriously constrained.  This will reduce investment by speculators (e.g. Vinod Khosla) and keep the overall system cost down.
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