A Thought on Cellulosic Ethanol

I am exhausted by people making policy suggestions by looking at small parts of complex inter-related systems in isolation.  One such example is the recent response of some ethanol mandate defenders to recent charges that corn-based ethanol is net harmful to the environment and its mandated and subsidized use is driving up world food prices.

The response by some (certainly not in the corn lobby, of course) has been that our problems would all be solved if we switched to cellulosic ethanol, which is generally made from non-food plants.  Supporters argue that this eliminated the food for fuel problem.

Huh?  Sure, in the narrowest possible sense, I guess, since we are no longer using food crops but rather grasses and such to make ethanol.  But at any reasonably holistic level of analysis, this is simply absurd.  Food prices rise not because food is converted to ethanol per se, but because the amount of grains going into the food supply decreases.  The issue is the use of farmer's time and resources and the use of prime cropland to grow plants for fuel rather than food for consumption.  The actual crop used to make the fuel, whether corn or switchgrass, does not matter to food prices -- it is the removal of farmers and cropland from food production that matters.  The only way cellulosic ethanol is likely to improve food prices in substitution for corn is by being more efficient per acre in fuel yields than corn  (which may turn out to be the case, but has not yet been proven in this country).  But even so, incremental improvements in yield don't help much, because we are talking about enormous (40-50% or more) amounts of US cropland that would have to be dedicated to fuel, whatever the plant technology, to meet the current ethanol mandates.  And remember, the net effect on fossil fuels may still be zero no matter how much land is dedicated, since no one has demonstrated large scale ethanol operations in the US that don't use more fuel to produce the ethanol than they produce. 

Postscript:  Related to this topic of thinking about economic systems narrowly, Lubos Motl discusses the supposed positive green impact on the economy in light of the open window fallacy.

  • morganovich

    cellulosic ethanol looks even more ludicrous when compared to some of the bio-diesel programs that might actually work.

    jatropha is the hot one right now. plants yield at 18 months, produce seeds all year, and last 25 years. they need very little water and can grow in marginal soil not suited for food crops. projects ongoing in china, thailand, laos, ghana etc.

    algae is the holy grail, but no one really has it working yet, though the big boys (like exxon) are investing significantly there.

  • Gorgasal

    "open window fallacy" = "broken window fallacy" 🙂

  • Indur Goklany
  • Indur Goklany
  • bill-tb

    The free market would solve the problem -- No one takes into account the land use and farmer effort it takes to produce fuel crops. The forest destruction alone should be enough to give everyone pause, but since the push is on for astronomical energy taxes and world socialism, no one speaks up.

    Consider how old you have to be to remember Jimmy Carter and what he actually accomplished as President.

  • Dan

    I understand your points arguing against cellulosic ethanol, but it is a lot better than ethanol from corn, and apparently there is a lot of empty land that's not good for other crops where this sort of plant could be grown. It's not necessarily the entire solution, but it demands further study.

  • Energy return on investment from cellulosic ethanol is about 6 times better than from maize ethanol. Switchgrass and other cellulosic crops can be grown on marginal soils--not suitable for cropland--with minimal water, cultivation, and fertilizer.

    It is a mistake to look at biofuels as a complete replacement to the entire fossil fuels industry. Instead, it is a profoundly rational solution to local and regional energy/economic problems--in regions where biomass is plentiful and easily grown.

    The transition from fossil fuels to bio-energy (and other non-fossil fuels) will be incremental, and hopefully based upon market forces rather than government mandates.

    But anyone who chooses to write about cellulosic energy without doing their homework first risks appearing the fool--like the folks at Cato. And I was once a big L libertarian, contributor to Cato myself. Since then, they've become stuck on stupid and show little sign of moving beyond.

  • diz

    I don't object to "high hopes for cellulosic ethanol" nor people having the opinion that such hopes are wishful thinking.

    I just object when you want me to subsidize it.

  • Kum Dollison

    2.1 Billion Acres in the U.S. 1.2 Billion classified as Arable.

    We rowcrop about 250 Million of that. We PAY farmers NOT TO FARM a little over 34 Million Acres. We could probably average 8 tons of switchgrass/acre on this land that we're paying farmers NOT to farm.

    This would yield about 600 gallons/acre. 600 X 34,000,000 = 20,400,000,000 BILLION GALLONS OF FUEL Not Imported from Countries that hate, and want to bankrupt us.

    No $150 Billion/Yr to guard the Iowa Cornfield, and no 7th Fleet to keep the Mississippi open to Navigation.

    199 Million Metric Tonnes/yr. That's the amount of increased Corn Demand from China to support it's increased Meat demand since 1995. That's an amount about equal to 60% of our total field corn demand.

    http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/MeatvsFuel.pdf

  • Dan

    Diz,

    You object when someone suggests that you "subsidize" (through your taxes, I suppose) the development of cellulosic ethanol.

    Would you prefer to continue subsidizing our dependence on petroleum, which costs U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions a year for the Iraq war and other military manuevers in the Middle East? After all, why else are we there if not to have access to crude oil?

  • Kum Dollison

    Why not, Diz. You've been subsidizing everything else.

    For years, you have subsidized Chinese Hog Producers through price supports for field corn (in fact, I've subsidized you every time you ate a steak.) The Good News is, your Costs have gone down in that regard by about $11 Billion in the last couple of years. You've subsidized deep-water drilling by oil companies, and you've paid 3 times the world price for sugar for years.

  • Indur Goklany

    Dan -- Al Fin has it right. Farmers can do what they want, including plant corn or cellulose for fuel (or food for that matter), so long as it's not subsidized.

    Also, just because we subsidize some uneconomic activities doesn't mean we should subsidize all uneconomic activities.

    But if we are to subsidize something, better to subsidize farmers to grow food than fuel.

  • Kum Dollison

    Yeah, Vietnamese Pigs are Much More Important than poor ol' me getting to work. My kids won't mind starving (as long as I explain to them it's for the betterment of Singaporean Swine.)

  • diz

    For years, you have subsidized Chinese Hog Producers through price supports for field corn (in fact, I've subsidized you every time you ate a steak.) The Good News is, your Costs have gone down in that regard by about $11 Billion in the last couple of years. You've subsidized deep-water drilling by oil companies, and you've paid 3 times the world price for sugar for years.

    I don't want to subsidize anything, really. I don't want you to have to subsidize these things either.

    I think we'll all be better off if the government acts like an impartial referee than trying to help one team win. The team the government picks to help win probably wouldn't spend so much time and effort lobbying the government to help if it was the better team.

  • Kum Dollison

    Diz,

    every bone in my body agrees with that sentiment.

    BUT, every brain cell I have left (both of'em) tells me that the game is rigged, and, that the only way those that own the distribution sytem (the oil companies) will ever let biofuels survive is if a little (lot) of muscle (Mandates) is applied to their better angels, and if enough help is given the baby that the OPECs, and Seven Sisters of the world can't strangle it in it's crib.

  • Kum, big oil is heavily invested in bio-energy. They'd be stupid not to be. Sometime in the next 5 or 10 years some joker is going to develop a process or catalyst or micro-organism that will turn some fast growing shrub or tree into crude oil or better at very little cost (under $30 a barrel). Choren's BTL process and Bio-coal (torrefied wood) and cellulosic electricity and biomass CHP are all big-time workable bio-energy processes now.

    As long as you have diesel and jet fuel you can run any freight and heavy machinery you need for agriculture and distribution. Diesel and jet fuel are already being made from algal oils. Not economically yet, but we have a few decades before we run out of oil. Long before that, we'll be making liquid fuels from coal which gives us an extra 200 years or so. Sooner or later we need to go sustainable fuels. Bio-energy is doable, but replacing infrastructure takes time.

    The fake climate crisis creates an urgency which actually does not exist. Anyone who allows himself to get caught up in this faux crisis (climate catastrophe + peak oil + food crisis) is doing himself a disservice.

    Current high food prices come mainly from high oil costs (and fertilizer) and the big appetites of China (and to a lesser degree India). Speculators drive prices up even further. Biofuels are accountable for less than 10% of the increased food prices. The more fossil fuels that bio-energy can replace, the less upward pressure on food prices there will be due to limited fossils.

  • TJIT

    Kum Dollison, you said,

    This would yield about 600 gallons/acre. 600 X 34,000,000 = 20,400,000,000 BILLION GALLONS OF FUEL Not Imported from Countries that hate, and want to bankrupt us.

    And when you take out all of the petroleum used for fertilizer, pesticides, tractor fuel, ethanol distilling, transport of the refined ethanol, etc, etc, etc, the actual reduction in petroleum usage provided by ethanol is a fraction of that.

    It is in fact possible that the amount of petroleum needed to produce ethanol exceeds the amount of petroleum ethanol displaces.

    Which means ethanol usage increases the power of OPEC.

    Which means the national security ethanol boosters are shooting themselves in the foot.

  • Kum Dollison

    A couple of Midwestern Universities actually, you know, raised (well, paid farmers to raise) a couple of thousand acres of switchgrass, then applied current technology to the production of ethanol.

    They came up with a life cycle of about 4.5 units of energy out, for every unit in. My guess is that in the Southeast it will be quite a bit better.

  • diz

    BUT, every brain cell I have left (both of'em) tells me that the game is rigged, and, that the only way those that own the distribution sytem (the oil companies) will ever let biofuels survive is if a little (lot) of muscle (Mandates) is applied to their better angels, and if enough help is given the baby that the OPECs, and Seven Sisters of the world can't strangle it in it's crib.

    Having worked for a big oil conpamy at one point, it's incredibly amusing to me that people think they are the puppet masters of the universe. They aren't even much in control over their own industry, which is dominated by the oil arms of foreign governments. Big oil companies mostly focus on finding, producing, refining and marketing oil and oil products.

    There is nothing that prevents you from entering the oil business or the biofuels business or the wind business or the solar business. I know quite a few people who have. Indeed, the big players in renewables include names like General Electric and Siemens.

    Are you going to argue that General Electric needs a wind power subsidy to sell wind towers because it lacks the means to compete with big companies? Cause that strikes me as delusional. The reality is that there is enormous amounts of capital available for alternative energy now, and there is little oil companies can do to prevent alternatives from entering the marketplace. (Heck, observable reality is that oil companies are so bad at blocking alternatives that we are subsidizing alternatives that don't make sense, not prohibiting alternatives that do.)

    The reason biofuels need subsidies to survive is that they do not currently meet our need for transportation fuel as cost effectively as gasoline.

  • The reason that biofuels need subsidies is that the whole concept is straight unadulterated bullshit.

    Show me a subsidy, any subsidy, and I'll show you a program mired in bullshit forehead deep.

    Wake up!

  • Dan

    AlFin,

    You seriously over-estimate our coal resources when you say we can convert the coal to liquid fuel and still have a 200-year supply.

    Yes - there is a 200-year supply of coal in the U.S. But that's estimated based on current use, which is mostly for heat/electricity. If you start liquifying it and pumping it into cars, you'll go through it a lot faster, especially since we'll still need it for electricity and heat.

    Also, the U.S. has already gone through most of the best quality and easiest to mine coal, and a lot of the "200 years" of remaining supply may not be economical to extract. Then there's the environmental destruction caused by the kind of coal mining that will need to be done to extract this hard-to-reach coal. Even if you don't believe in global warming, you can see for yourself the destruction caused by open cut and mountaintop removal mining on our forests and rivers. Needless to say, none of us would want that in our backyard.

  • diz

    there is a 200-year supply of coal in the U.S. But that's estimated based on current use

    It takes a fair amount of hubris to talk about the suply and demand of things 200 years in the future.

    Technology changes we can't conceive of will affect how we use energy and how we acquire it long before then.

    When the price of coal or oil tells us it no longer makes sense to use coal or oil to meet our needs, we will stop using it and use other things (or get by with fewer needs met).

    Technology and the market have already given is Peak Horse (or, is it Peak Oat?) with respect to meeting our transportation needs, and Peak Whale when it comes to illumination.

  • Dan

    Diz,

    I beg to differ: We never reached peak horse or peak whale. It isn't as if we ran out of either and were forced suddenly to make a massive switch in technology. Instead, over a long period of time, the whale and horse technologies were abandoned in favor of more powerful ways to get around and provide light.

    This is not so cut and dry in our current situation. Oil is becoming unaffordable due partly to steep economic growth in Asia but also due to inelasticity of supply. Just because we want our economy to grow 4% a year doesn't mean we can wave a wand and add 4% to oil production every year (and increased oil production is key to the success of every facet of our economy).

    Peak oil presents a challenge unlike any other we've faced, and there is no easy solution. We can't flick a switch and move to a hydrogen economy, or a wind economy, or a cellulosic economy, or some combination. These technologies are all in their infancy even as cheap fossil fuel sources run down (Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Russia all saw declines in production last year; the U.S. has seen steadily declining oil production since 1970 despite massive attempts to raise it).

    It's not going to be so cut and dry as to just "stop using it" and "move on to other things," as you suggest. Oil is entrenched in almost everything we use, from the keyboard I'm typing on to the buttons on my shirt to the fertilizer that helped grow the tomato, cheese and lettuce sandwich I had for lunch. See how easy it is to "stop using it."

  • diz

    I beg to differ: We never reached peak horse or peak whale. It isn't as if we ran out of either and were forced suddenly to make a massive switch in technology. Instead, over a long period of time, the whale and horse technologies were abandoned in favor of more powerful ways to get around and provide light.

    The amount of whales we harvested peak, and the number of horses we used peaked. One day the barrels of oilwwe use will peak too. It won't be because we "ran out" of oil. We only produce a small fraction of the oil in existing reservoirs now where we produce oil.

    When Peak Oil comes it will be because given then-current technology and then-prevailing prices it won't make sense to produce as much oil as we used to. Just as it was for Peak Whale and Peak Horse.

    I'm not saying it will "be easy" to stop using oil.

    But peak oil will come when it is easier to stop using it than it is to keep using it.

  • TJIT

    Cellulosic ethanol has many technical hurdles to overcome. It is primarily used as an excuse to keep the ethanol mandatres in place so ADM and the corn farmers can stuff a few more taxpayer dollars into their pockets.

    One problem most people overlook is that fact that much farmground needs the organic materials left in place after harvest to prevent erosion and improve the soil condition.

    The link below fleshes out a few of the technical hurdles cellulosic ethanol.

    The Logistics Problem of Cellulosic Ethanol

    The logistics of collecting and storing a million tons of corn stubble each year for an ethanol refinery are mind-numbing.

    It would take 67,000 semitrailer loads to haul the baled stubble out of the field. That's 187 truckloads a day, or one every eight minutes. To complicate matters, the need for trucks, machinery and manpower would come during harvest, already the busiest time of the year on the farm. And that's where a massive federal initiative into cellulosic ethanol may find its biggest bottleneck - on the farm.

  • Funny how people get so upset when 15 million acres are used to grow corn that is converted into ethanol in 2007, but I have never heard anyone mention the first word about the same amount of acres being used to grow cotton in 2006. Cotton is a non food crop and is grown on land that could otherwise be used to grow food. Same goes for nursery crops, floraculture crops, tobacco and forestry crops.

    Makes me wonder if food is the real issue here.

  • diz

    Makes me wonder if food is the real issue here.

    The issue is not the food, it's the subsidy.

    In the normal course of events people make trade-offs between producing food, consuming food and all the other sorts of possible uses of time and resources.

    The ethanol subsidy artificially drives resources to be consumed where they shouldn't be, and thus makes us worse off collectively.

  • Your assumption is that all cellulosic feedstock would come in the form of crops and that those crops would displace food crops. Not so sure about that. Bluefire Ethanol is building a plant by a landfill. All the biomass (grass clippings, etc) will be diverted to them. They can handle paper, too, which has a lot of cellulose. Besides, a lot of fallow land can be opened up for cellulosic crops. Last, an awful lot of cellulose byproduct comes from food crops, esp corn. That bears consideration. Haven't studied it much, but those are my thoughts on it.