Ethanol Lameness

I can't speak to the "future technology" that Bush alluded to in his SOTU address, but the history of ethanol gives me no confidence that there is anything here.  Ethanol is all about rent-seeking, not energy Independence.  Quality studies have consistently shown that the whole life-cycle energy use of ethanol is far higher than what it provides.  In other words, at least with current technologies, every gallon of ethanol used actually INCREASES total petroleum use.  Its hard to find any scientist outside of the ADM boardroom or the state of Iowa that takes ethanol seriously.  If we took the small step of moving the Iowa caucuses out of the first primary position in the presidential race, ethanol might go away.

Right now, I am running out the Phoenix Mardi Gras, where a golf tournament often breaks out mid-party, so I don't have a lot of time.  However, trust me that this USA Today article has bent over backwards to cherry pick scientific studies in favor of ethanol.  The figures mentioned for ethanol providing 26% more energy than it consumes are the absolute most optimistic study, not the consensus average, of scientific studies.  Also, the Berkley study is on "potential" technologies, and even it admits that using current technologies actually deployed ethanol consumes more energy than it provides. But even at 26%, note that this means that more than 4 gallons of ethanol substitute net out only 1 gallon of gasoline, which is pretty pathetic.  Anyway, more later.  I am sure others in the blogosphere will be hacking away at this mess today, and I will try to link some of them tonight.

Update: I am in sports heaven today, at the golf tournament all day and watching the Superbowl tonight, so I still have not gotten back to this topic in depth, but our commenters have taken over for me on this one anyway, so I may just kick back with another beer let y'all do the work for a while.  No one would be happier than me to find that we could grow things cheaply to net increase our supply of clean fuels.  Unfortunately, I am not optimistic about the interaction of the government with any market for things that grow.

For some time, I have secretly harbored the theory, without any scientific knowledge to back it up, that somehow bioengineering might long term lead to the most efficient solar conversion technology.  And in a sense, this is what we are talking about here -- finding a
biological solution to converting sunlight into energy in a usable form.  I suspect we are on the cusp of an exponential growth curve in biology like we experienced with thermodynamics, electromagnetics, and semiconductors over the last two centuries.  But if we are at such an inflection point, it just highlights how hopeless it is for government in general and George Bush in particular to pick winners at this point.  What combustion technology might the government have locked us into in 1800?  What computing technology might we have been locked into in 1950?

More at the Knowlege Problem.

 

  • http://chocolateandgoldcoins.blogspot.com/ Michael H.

    Ethanol from corn is probably a boondoggle but ethanol from sugarcane (in Brazil) is showing real promise:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_fuel

    One major point here: you are assuming that all of the energy necessary to grow crops and to brew alcohol comes from petroleum. This is not necessarily true. If you take 5 BTUs of coal and turn it into 4 BTUs of ethanol, you lose energy, but who cares, you cannot put coal in your gas tank. Btw, the energy balance for gasoline is negative in the sense that that it takes much more than 1 BTU of oil to make 1 BTU of gasoline.

    The whole issue of energy balance would be of no interest to anyone outside academia if there were no subsidy for ethanol. Ethanol simply would not be produced unless it made economic sense to do so.

  • Lee

    Wisconsin farmers are all hot to get their Democrat friends in Madison to award them an ethanol windfall. These farmers and Democrats are the sons of men who once made margarine a controlled substance in Wisconsin. Oh, for the good old days when butter was gold and cows could vote.

  • http://www.arizonawatch.com BridgetB

    Obviously the real answer is windmills. Wind generatd by the hot air produced in abundance by the Congress.

  • http://www.knowledgeproblem.com Mike Giberson

    I've posted a brief reaction to the President's ethanol plug at http://www.knowledgeproblem.com.

    As Michael H. notes, some approaches to ethanol may have real promise. But given our current set of wacky ethanol rules -- a mish mash of federal and state level tax breaks and other incentives, subsidies for corn growers, but import duties on, for example, cane-based ethanol from Brazil -- well, we won't know if it is any good until it gets tested in the market.

    I'm not per se opposed to taxpayer funding of research, but as I mention in my KnowledgeProblem posting, we already fund a lot of ethanol research.

  • Chris Thompson

    Heard an ag professor on NPR discussing switchgrass as a methanol crop. Yields 5-10 tons/acre with remarkably minimal fertilizer/pesticide input. It's practically free once it's established, and it's drought-proof. An acre producing 10 tons will yield about 1,000 gallons of fuel and leave the farmer a profit of $1,500.

    For you non-farmers, that's a big number. Far, far greater than corn or soybeans. The stuff is adapted to grow nearly everywhere, and actually performs well on droughty soils. This could be a real winner, and it's practical. Has the added benefit of building organic matter in soil and preventing erosion.

  • Flyfish

    Brazil switched over years ago. They don't import oil. Obviously all the fuss claiming that ethanol/methanol take more energy to produce than they yield is inaccurate.

  • TJIT

    Chris,

    "Heard an ag professor on NPR discussing switchgrass as a methanol crop. Yields 5-10 tons/acre with remarkably minimal fertilizer/pesticide input. It's practically free once it's established, and it's drought-proof. An acre producing 10 tons will yield about 1,000 gallons of fuel and leave the farmer a profit of $1,500."

    Take it from someone who knows farming there is at least one whopper of a misstatement in that paragraph, nothing is drought-proof. There is great regional variability in farmground quality and I suspect the 10 ton per acre production figure was used to make the production math easy not as an average production figure.

    Furthermore if the numbers are so good why are more farmers not raising switchgrass? Because it is vaporware the technology to make this work does not currently exist. Any company that could make the technology work would make a mind boggling amount of money. The fact that the technology has to be subsidized indicates that it is not currently feasible and is not likely to be commercially feasible very soon.

  • TJIT

    Flyfish,

    You said

    "Brazil switched over years ago. They don't import oil. Obviously all the fuss claiming that ethanol/methanol take more energy to produce than they yield is inaccurate."

    Brazil produces a tremendous amount of oil locally, according to the EIA they have the second largest oil reserves in South America, second only to Venezuela.

    According to the same Aug 2004 EIA document Brazil was still importing oil in 2004. Same document lists estimated fuel share of energy consumption in 2002 as oil 51%, hydro 33.2%, natural gas 5.7%, coal 5.2%, other renewables 1.7%, nuclear 1.7%. So if the report is accurate ethanol is a tiny portion of their energy mix.

    They may run a lot of their transportation sector on ethanol but it looks like it is not a significant number in comparison to their other sources of energy. It sounds like most of Brazil's reduction in oil imports was a result of increasing oil production, not ethanol production. The US and Brazil are very different countries in term of development, geography, climate, economy, and transportation so it pays to use caution when comparing the two.

    I welcome correcting evidence, but if the report below is correct it appears that most of your statements are incorrect.

    Energy Information administration 2004 brazil report http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/cabs/brazil.pdf

  • Chris Thompson

    TJIT:

    I'm not really trying to hype switchgrass as a solution to our energy problems, don't misunderstand me. I'm not necessarily a proponent of methanol either, unless it is cost-efficient. It matters little which species we grow on the land, provided it is cost-effective. Switchgrass appears to be such a plant, since it requires little fertilizer input. Fertilizer/pesticide is one of the big costs in agriculture, so that makes it potentially more interesting than corn/beans and other traditional crops. If it is this efficient, then it will reduce the cost per gallon to the end consumer at the pump -- compared to methanol produced by other means. I wish I had a sense of the numbers here, but I don't.

    Regarding per-acre production numbers, let's use 5 ton per acre which I agree is more reasonable - it still works out well financially. The question is what is the farmer's net profit per acre, and in a free market he will grow what profits most. Switchgrass is not something most farmers look to plant, since most are unfamiliar with the species. The professor (an Ag. guy, and very practical -- unlike most of what you hear on NPR) I quoted was simply spreading the word to the farmers to consider the species for commercial production -- he wasn't proposing it as a wacky solution for our fuel woes.

    Regarding drought-proof: I respectfully disagree. I have 15 years experience growing switchgrass in mine reclamation situations, on coarse sands and the worst dirt you can imagine and have seen it pull through anything nature threw at it (USDA zone 3A). It is widely-adapted to soils and most regions. It is a warm-season grass, native to our prairies, and simply goes dormant when drought hits. Now, you get no crop when it goes dormant, but you don't lose it either. The cost of re-establishing grass crops after drought is significant. The professor suggests this could add considerable marginal farmland into production. Make the farm marketplace aware of it, and let's see if it works financially. In the final analysis, it's the price of methanol that will determine it's practicality. The cost of raw materials is only part of that equation.

  • TJIT

    American farm policy has caused an enormous amount of environmental destruction within the United States over the years. Biomass energy sources (biodiesel and ethanol)sit at the intersection of farm and energy policy.

    I am certain that the push for more biomass energy sources is going to cause an enormous amount of environmental destruction internationally. The sad thing is many environmental activists are going to stand on the sidelines, cheer for and actively support policies that will cause this destruction.

    Links below provide some good examples of this. Comment from the first link sums it up pretty well

    "And so the mask drops again. Ethanol and biodiesel are nothing more than clever subsidies for midwestern farmers and the ag conglomerates. Should anything threaten to actually make biofuels sustainable from an economic or carbon perspective it will be vigorously fought by the farm state senators. Every. D_mn. Time."

    http://www.greencarcongress.com/2005/07/us_biodiesel_an.html

    http://www.smh.com.au/news/World/Brazil-fails-to-halt-farmers-march-through-Amazon/2005/05/19/1116361678362.html

  • TJIT

    Chris,

    Thanks for the thoughful comments.

    Point taken on dormancy, but that does not sound like being drought proof to me:-) In any case same thing would apply to a non perennial crop when the drought ended it would just be replanted.

    I know lots of farmers and if there was any kind of market for switchgrass they would be planting it. The fact is the market does not exist and they are not planting it.

    It would be nice if biomass fuels worked and maybe some day they will. However, they currently exist only as a massive, environmentally damaging subsidy to big agriculture and multinational grain processing companies. If biomass supporters want it to be taken seriously they need to be coming up with ways to move it beyond being a massive subsidy for big agriculture and multinational grain processing companies.

  • TJIT

    Chris,

    I appreciated your earlier comments and hope to hear more from you so please take this in the good natured way it is intended. The statement below requires its own comment.

    "The professor suggests this could add considerable marginal farmland into production."

    Does that &*^&%$#$@ idiot of a professor have any idea how much environmental destruction was caused by trying to raise crops on marginal farmground in the first place? Does he have any idea how many billions of dollars have been spent in programs to take marginal farmground out of production?

    Does he have any idea how much environmental destruction and habitat loss would be caused by trying to bring more marginal farmground into production?

    This is what is starting to really *&%%$^^ me off about biomass boosters in a general sense. They think the equation is not oil = saves energy + good for the environment. Most of the time that is definitely not the case.

    You were involved in mine reclamation so you have some appreciation for what it takes to recover damaged environments. I assure you the area of landmass that can be wrecked by ag producers looking for a subsidized profit would be difficult for you to comprehend even with your background.

    Cheers,
    TJIT

  • Chris Thompson

    TJIT:

    I don't have many comments on farm subsidies other than I'm opposed in principle. I suppose they may have some value as a short-term measure to move the market in a certain direction, but I'm a free-market proponent.

    I don't really want to be stuck defending switchgrass specifically, but I suppose it's a good example of alternative biomass crop as used for ethanol production. Specifically, it's an alternative to the corn-soybeans agriculture as practiced in the midwest and South America (I speak with no specific knowledge of South America). They usually don't rotate to grass crops, require considerable fertilizer/pesticide input, and leave bare soil exposed to the elements for much of the year. There are all kind of erosion and chemical runoff problems associated with this type of agriculture. I suspect that your emphasis on environmental harm is based on experience with something of this sort.

    Permanent, perennial crops such as switchgrass eliminate much of the harm you are concerned about. There is no annual tillage, no semi-annual mechanical cultivation, and minimum chemical input. A tiny fraction of what's required to grow corn. A fraction of the energy cost of growing corn or beans, annd less labor. The land is maintained in grass which stabilizes the soil, and adds organic matter. The roots grow up to 15 feet into the earth. Grass crops can increase soil quality and fertility, unlike the corn/beans rotation. Look, the stuff isn't magic but it clearly has less impact on the environment than other crops. The argument that all farming is harmful isn't completely correct, and regional farming practices in the US vary a lot depending on soil and climate. Some are more harmful than others, and some may have positive qualities in certain areas.

    I think it's important to understand that 'marginal farmland' is a relative term. Marginal for the production of corn may not be marginal at all for the production of switchgrass (or other yet untested species). It comes down to financial yield in the end. The corn farmers in the midwest are trapped -- they can't afford to practice the rotation systems that they know will preserve healthy and fertile soils. They go broke if they stop growing corn/beans, but will go broke in the long-term if they don't. Farms that once had three feet of topsoil now have only a foot, reduced by erosion. I have read that annual erosion losses are estimated at thirty tons per acre per year in the midwest! There will be no farm to hand to the kids if they don't stop what they are doing, and many understand that. They would gladly adopt alternative crops were it possible to sell them. That would be the easiest way to reverse harmful trends in farming.

    We need alternative crops, prferably something along the lines of switchgrass, and markets for them. I suggest that biomass is such an opportunity, with the most likely market being for ethanol. The reason nobody is growing switchgrass except for the seed market is that there is no market -- it doesn't mean it's not feasible. If our future energy policy will incorporate massive ethanol production, then a potential market will exist. My point is why get stuck on basing that market on corn/beans as raw material? I have no more use for the Soybean Association than you do, but I propose that one way to limit their influence is through competition by means of alternative crops. If alternatives exist, why not choose ones that are that are profitable in both the short and long-term? I don't really care what the crop is, but switchgrass incorporates what many agree are the most beneficial attributes.

    Habitat for wildlife is another complex issue, and you mention that in context of marginal farmland. I think it's important to understand that any type of habitat favors some species and disfavors others, both in terms of cover and feed. Even the clean agriculture you dislike provides habitat; deer for example just love those vast bean fields -- but you won't find many porcupines or mountain lions there. The 'marginal farmland', as it either returns to grass or pioneer tree species, and eventually forestprovides habitat -- better for some than others. The species inhabiting the land rotate as their habitat needs are met by evolving conditions. The abundant rodents and their predators, such as would benefit from switchgrass cover, would not be found in abundance in a forest, for example. Is that good or bad? The marginal farmland I refer to is mostly in pasture or light brush at this time (hence supporting similar wildlife species as switchgrass would), I'm not suggesting that we clear our forests.

    Returning unused farmland (potentially millions of acres in the US) into production only makes sense if it's economically feasible or environmentally desireable. Obvioulsly, it requires new markets since it probably would still be in production if it were financially feasible. At present, the land sits unused and costing the owners taxes. Many are selling, or hoping to sell, to developers for lack of better use. There is considerable economic potential in this land if returned to agriculture.

    My concern is that we approach the ethanol business (should that ever become a significant consumer of farm crops) in the traditional corn/beans manner -- and worse yet by propping up their price through subsidy. I don't know whether an ethanol plant can easily digest both corn and switchgrass, or whether it requires dedicated processes. Not my field. Assuming that it's not technically complicated, it opens a free market for the plants to purchase the most efficient materials at the lowest cost. Let beans and switchgrass compete in the market. Heck, if one wanted to subsidize crops, why not subsidize the switchgrass because of it's commendable environmental attributes?

  • Chris Thompson

    Sorry for the long previous post, folks. For anyone interested in switchgrass, or the production of ethanol thereof, here are some links:

    http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/papers/misc/switchgrass-profile.html
    http://www.switchgrass.nl/

    The reason it might interest you is because it may lower the cost of ethanol production. It may make it possible for millions of acres of otherwise unused land to be placed into production in an environmentally suitable way. This can have significant economic impact, far beyond just lowering the cost of ethanol production. Agriculture was once a major employer in this nation, and it may hold a lot of potential jobs yet.

    I suspect that when economists calculate our ethanol production capacity that they assume the use of only the available prime corn/soybean-type land. In fact, the bulk of our national ethanol production is centered in the midwest, and it's the only place where E85 is widely sold. Alternative crops such as switchgrass, widely adaped to climate and poor soils, permits the rest of the USA to join in production. Saves a lot of distribution cost, among other possible benefits.

    Just a thought...

  • TJIT

    Chris,

    A couple of your statements indicate you don't understand the ecosystem that exists in much of the United States. You said "The 'marginal farmland', as it either returns to grass or pioneer tree species, and eventually forestprovides habitat" and "The marginal farmland I refer to is mostly in pasture or light brush at this time (hence supporting similar wildlife species as switchgrass would), I'm not suggesting that we clear our forests."

    Your statement seems to indicate forests are the only valid ecosystem worth preserving, and that as long as a native ecosystem is not forested it is OK to destroy it and replace it with a monoculture crop.

    Big sigh:

    In a lot of the Western United states pasture land (prairie grass)is the climax ecosystem. The land will never support the growth of trees and brush. A lot of ag subsidy money was spent converting this ground to farmground. A lot of ag subsidy money was spent converting it back to grass because of the massive erosion from wind and water. Ironically this cycle happened at least twice often times on the same acerage.

    The cycle has been: Government pay to plow the grass and convert to farmground, massive erosion occurs so government pays to convert back to prairie, commodity prices go up so government pays to plow prairie again and convert back farmground, massive erosion so governement pays !!again!! to convert back to prairie. What is the next step in the cycle? It is beginning to smell like get government subsidy for switchgrass production, plow up prairie and convert to monculture farming again. Switchgrass is better then corns or beans, however, it is still a monoculture and provides a less diverse habitat then native grasses do.

    This is why I made my statement that the environmental community is going to end up supporting massive environmental destruction in the name of green energy policy.

  • TJIT

    Chris,

    I've enjoyed the discussion so far. Honestly, I hope switchgrass works I know a lot of people who will really benefit from switchgrass production if it does.

    The reason I am very cautious about government policy regarding biomass fuels is that history and experience shows time and again that really massive environmental damage most always is a byproduct of government policy and unintended consequences of same. You can see many great examples of this in the former Soviet Union, the destruction of the Aral sea is a great example of this. In the United States most environmentalists would point to the Water projects in the West, the draining of the Everglades, the changes in water chemistry and habitat caused by the construction of the intracoastal canal, and any number of projects by the army corps of engineers. And we can add my favorite (if you haven't noticed yet:-) government farm policy.

    So when I see the usual agribusiness processing (ADM) and production(corn and soybean) nexus embracing alternative fuels it sure appears that we are going to pursue another environmentally destructive fleecing of the taxpayers to enrich a few ag producers and processors.

    There are times profitability can be a fair gauge of whether and enterprise is economically and environmentally sustainable. If biomass "worked" in both those areas it should not require subsidies. The fact it requires subsidies indicates to me that it is neither economically or environmentally sustainable.

    So how should we move forward? I would suggest replacing subsidies for biofuel production with research grants biofuel technologies would in the long run provide better results and do much less environmental damage. Areas where research would help are, crop science (plant types, fiber composition, growing regimes, etc), production (bacteria stocks for fermentation, enzyme profiles, reactor processes, catalysts, etc) and transport (mechanisms, stability, compatibility with other fuels, etc)

    Lets try and have at least a rudimentary working mechanism before we jump into biomass production.

  • Gary Dikkers

    Chris Thompson said, "I suspect that when economists calculate our ethanol production capacity that they assume the use of only the available prime corn/soybean-type land. In fact, the bulk of our national ethanol production is centered in the midwest, and it's the only place where E85 is widely sold."

    Chris,

    You are correct. When industrial agriculture now talks about ethanol, what they are really saying is "corn-based ethanol." The other organic matter from which we could make fuel alcohol (switch grass, energy cane, sugar cane, and elephant grass) hardly appears on the radar screens of the corn and corn-based ethanol lobby.

    There actually is a future for alcohol-based motor fuels, but that future is not in corn-based ethanol. Making ethanol from corn simply uses too many resources to be profitable without mandates, subsidies, and tax credits.

    It's true that making corn ethanol returns more energy than it consumes, but the excess energy it produces is not in a form that can be used to make more ethanol. That means corn ethanol is neither sustainable nor renewable. Growing corn and turning it into ethanol is utterly dependent on using fossil fuels, and that is not likely to change in the near term. (The biggest fossil fuel input to corn ethanol is natural gas. Modern corn growing operations could not exist without nitrogen fertilizers and by far the bulk of that nitrogen is made from natural gas. What's even worse is that more and more of that nitrogen is imported after being made overseas from foreign natural gas. That means making corn ethanol is actually dependent on foreign natural gas.)

    The one alcohol fuel that offers real hope is methanol made from coal. Wyoming and Montana are the world's Saudi Arabia of coal. Making methanol from that coal would cost about two-thirds per gallon of what it costs to make corn ethanol.

    In the near future, ethanol made from organics other than corn, and methanol made from coal will offer stiff competition to corn-based ethanol.

    Corn ethanol has already demanded and received a $0.54 a gallon tariff against Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane. It will be interesting to see if the Corn Belt has the political clout to also demand a tariff against methanol made from Wyoming/Montana coal.

    Regards,

    Gary Dikkers

  • Chris Thompson

    Gary -

    Interesting point, throwing ethanol from coal into the mix.

    Frankly, I don't see why we should commit ourselves to producing ethanol from just one source -- particularly so early in the game. Let coal and various plant-based ethanol production schemes compete in an open and free market. The lowest-cost solution should prevail, including environmental costs (which can be a little hard to calculate). I expect that the capital for ethanol plant construction will flow toward areas providing the lowest production costs.

    Since the cost of fuel transportation is significant, it is possible that the there are regional solutions: possibly coal in the west, corn in the midwest, and switchgrass (or other lignocellulosic material) in the southeast.

    The big question is whether to go with bio-fuels or to choose another technology. We'll see what our leadership has in mind soon enough, but it's my hope that it doesn't include subsidies.

    You said:

    "It's true that making corn ethanol returns more energy than it consumes, but the excess energy it produces is not in a form that can be used to make more ethanol. That means corn ethanol is neither sustainable nor renewable. Growing corn and turning it into ethanol is utterly dependent on using fossil fuels, and that is not likely to change in the near term. (The biggest fossil fuel input to corn ethanol is natural gas. Modern corn growing operations could not exist without nitrogen fertilizers and by far the bulk of that nitrogen is made from natural gas. What's even worse is that more and more of that nitrogen is imported after being made overseas from foreign natural gas. That means making corn ethanol is actually dependent on foreign natural gas.)"

    Switchgrass requires considerably less energy input at lower environmental cost than corn. It has unusually low fertilizer requirements (think fossil fuel input) and miniscule energy input from tillage and cultivation. A stand, once established, lasts for over 10 years with no plowing or cultivation, and needs only a few light applications of fertlizer -- a fraction of what corn uses annually. The Oklahoma State University study says:

    "...Ethanol is blended with petrofuels to increase combustion and decrease pollutants. The problem is, most ethanol now in use is made from corn, and the total energy output/input ratio is about 1.2. This means the net energy gain from corn ethanol is about 21 percent. The energy output/input ratio for switchgrass is estimated at 4.4, representing a net energy gain of 334 percent..."
    http://www.westbioenergy.org/july98/0798_01.htm

    As I mentioned in earlier posts, an advantage to switchgrass is that it is widely adapted. Regions not well-suited to corn agriculture could produce alcohol fuel by planting switchgrass on the millions of acres of abandoned farmland in the eastern US. The family farms died long ago, and the land is just sitting there. There's considerable economic potential in this agriculture -- far beyond just producing ethanol -- if one considers the creation of jobs, equipment sales, etc.

  • Chris Thompson

    TJIT -

    You said:

    "A couple of your statements indicate you don't understand the ecosystem that exists in much of the United States. You said "The 'marginal farmland', as it either returns to grass or pioneer tree species, and eventually forestprovides habitat" and "The marginal farmland I refer to is mostly in pasture or light brush at this time (hence supporting similar wildlife species as switchgrass would), I'm not suggesting that we clear our forests.""

    I assure you that my professional training and experience include a solid understanding of the 'various ecosytems' in the US. You perhaps did not understand that the example I gave represents an example of marginal for corn, unused, farmland on most land east of the Mississippi River. This is a very considerable area of land that is not as well suited for corn production as the midwest. The grasslands of the west will obviously remain covered with grass and not forests. Much of the grass growing there, by the way, is swith
    Look, I understand your concerns regarding federal subsidies. I share them as well. The best way to beat the corn-bean lobby is by providing competing crops. Should an ethanol industry emerge, switchgrass will give them a run for their money since there is much more land available to its production than there is corn land.

    It is true that putting erodible land INTO CORN (or other row crops) increases erosion, messes with the carbon cycle, and causes non-point source pollution from fertilizers and pesticides.

    I reject your premise that putting idle land under the plow ALWAYS causes massive environmental harm. It does not if the crop is perennial grass. Also, switchgrass is far preferable to corn production for reasons already mentioned.

  • Chris Thompson

    TJIT -

    Unused farmland is nearly always covered with various indiginous grass or herbaceous species. Placing that land into the long-term production of switchgrass will, under many circumstances, provide far better erosion control than the native species. It unquestionably stores more carbon in the soil than other grasses because of the extensive root system. The few light applications of fertilizer over 10 years are absorbed efficiently by the crop. There is little potential for runoff. It provides abundant wildlife habitat -- similar but superior to native grasses.

    If I owned unused pasture and had the cash, I would establish switchgrass in a heartbeat for no other reason than superior erosion control and carbon storage. It builds soil and reduces the need for fertilizer (think fossil fuel) if the land is rotated into other crops.

    I don't think you understand switchgrass. It is impossible to create a monoculture. Dormant grass and other herbaceous seeds in the soil germinate and fill in the gaps between the clumps of switchgrass and will comprise a significant portion of the stand. If the stand were permitted to decline it would simply revert to native grasses again. Not that I'm opposed to monocultures if managed correctly.

    If your beef is with subsidy policy, then fine, but the environmental concerns you express regarding establishing perennial grasses are not well-founded. You will find that the environmental impact of conversion to switchgrass has less negative impact than you think, and in the case of converting corn to grass it's a no-brainer. As to whether industry profits or not: I hope they do. I hope ADM and agribusiness makes a pile. I just want to see them do it without subsidies.

    I don't mind seeing some more studies, but the corn-ethanol science is mature. The agricultural understanding of perennial grass culture is thorough as well. Let's study more efficient means of lignocellulosic plant-based ethanol production and whether to commit to this or coal, for example. Why not first let's study exactly where to focus our research now that we've hopefully committed to energy independence from the mideast. I'm open to ideas.

  • Evans Nash

    The state of California has only four E85 stations. There are none within a 100 mile radius of LA. California is very interested in the environment and it seems very unlikely that the owners of the 500,000 (est) flex-fuel cars would not be demanding E85 stations. In spite of this the market is not responding. That should be a warning. Some say the public doesn't know that they have flex-fuel vehicles. 500,000 people aren't going to miss this if they are interested. There are 6,000,000 flex-fuel vehicles across the country, but only the corn producing states show any interest. This suggests that subsidies and politics are playing a strong hand there.

    Flex-fuel vehicles are designed to operate efficiently on E85. In spite of this they typically will only go about 70% of the distance (based on government published mpg data) as compared to gasoline. They do have larger tanks however. This means that to be competitive the ethanol has to sell for 70% of the price of gasoline. So far this hasn't happened. Most ethanol costs about the same price per gallon even with the 51 cent Federal subsidy at the wholesale level. I have yet to hear this fact mentioned on the news. I think that this is why California is not supporting it. If you don't like $2.50 gasoline, you probably won't like the equivalent $3.75 cost of ethanol when you have to buy an extra 50% to go the same distance. Ethanol has only about 70% btu content with respect to gasoline. That is the main source of the problem.

    The other problem is that the processing of the corn uses more than the amount of energy that it produces. There are pollution effects and without some major government laws it is likely that we would actually use more rather than less foreign oil processing the corn. Gas is expensive and coal has pollution problems. Most forget the processing polution and energy costs.

    There is a significant risk that a lot of infrastructure is going to be pushed on the public and producer/distributors. There may be a significant backlash when users realize the extreme high cost of the fuel. A lot of producers could end up taking a beating. For you and me it could mean that the government would try to subsidize 50% or more of the ethanol. Then you would be paying these high prices as they raise your income taxes. Any time the government starts messing with markets, bad things tend to happen. They have already induced the auto manufacturers to build flex-fuel cars by allowing them to pretend that they get better mileage than they do.

    Surprisingly the public hasn't yet realized that their E10 (10% ethanol) fuel has even higher costs per gallon. When used on non-E85 vehicles, the effective cost per gallon is $4.50 to $6.00 because the non-flex-fuel vehicles can't burn the fuel efficiently resulting in a loss of mileage on the 10% that is ethanol. If one had to drive 9 tanks of gasoline and then 1 tank of ethanol, they would be screaming bloody murder when they found that they could only go 180 miles vs. 400 miles. They just don't notice the 4-6% loss when mixed 90/10.

    Another problem is that an ethanol plant is an alcohol plant. Ethanol is alcohol. This could end up in the government supporting cheap alcohol if ethanol in vehicles doesn't fly. Our children already have a problem in this area. They don't need the government's help in becoming alcoholics.

    Sugar beets take about half of the energy to create ethanol as compared to corn.

  • Evans Nash

    Here is some other interesting information. In spite of the fact that the ethanol futures price is about 50% more than gasoline, the following suggests that wholesale prices may be less although there may be unstated subsidies:

    "Ethanol was selling for 30 cents less a gallon than gasoline this month in the Chicago wholesale market, even before refiners deducted the federal tax subsidy. Drivers in parts of Minnesota were paying $1.59 for a gallon of E85, compared with $1.99 for regular gasoline."

    Brazil has a huge advantage over the US as it uses sugarcane as the sources of ethanol. In spite of this the following indicates essentially little advantage pricewise:

    "(Recent)at pump prices (2006) of up to Real$2.43 ($1.15) per liter last week in Rio de Janeiro state, ethanol wasn't much cheaper than gasoline selling for as much as Real$2.74 ($1.29) per liter. About half of new car sales last year were flex-fuel, meaning they can run on either gasoline or ethanol. However, motorists say mile-per-gallon ratings can be significantly higher for gasoline."