By on February 13, 2008

pumpphoto.jpgPoliticians around the world were up against the wall. The World Trade Organization (WTO) was slowly picking away at all their fancy ways of sidetracking public funds into hopelessly anachronistic and inefficient agricultural subsidies. And the agribusiness beats the mil/industrial complex when it comes to lobbying skills. Even French politicians, famous for ignoring the plight of their people, tremble at the thought of another tractor phalanx of mad farmers pulling up in front of the National Assembly and launching putrid brie at their doorstep. Enter Peak Oil.

The WTO rulings are in place to regulate reasonable and equal trading practices between nations. But they cannot proscribe internal actions designed to protect the national infrastructure against potential disruptions. Running out of oil is one such potential downer. Enter a substitute that "solved" two problems at once:

1) How to keep moving money to the agribusiness without the WTO getting pesky.

2) Providing a palliative against Peak Oil. "See, we'll be driving on corn on the cob instead. Nothing has to change."

Well, now maybe it will have to. Bioethanol is a wildly inefficient way of propelling anything, whether aqua, auto or aero. Even in the most benign scenarios, the energy efficiency is pretty much 1:1. Add the fact that you're converting land from growing crops for food to growing fuel for cars, and you have a potential problem on your hands. To wit: rising food prices.

Turns out ethanol is bad in so many ways you don't even want to BEGIN thinking about it. Fortunately, we have people who are willing to do both the thinking and the research for us. The journal Science has just published two papers indicating that clearing land for biofuels will aid global warming.

Wouldn't you know it, the very thing that is going to cure us will kill us faster? Researchers from Princeton University, Woods Hole Research Center and Iowa State University (smack dab in the heart of E85 country) have all concluded that over 30 years, the use of traditional corn-based ethanol will produce twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline.

In the words of the report’s lead author, “this is not good news.” Surprise! There are hidden environmental costs to producing biofuels. "The land we're likely to plow up is the land that we've had taking up carbon for decades," Tim Searchinger at Princeton pronounced. "We can't get to a result, no matter how heroically we make assumptions on behalf of corn ethanol, where it will actually generate greenhouse-gas benefits."

Meanwhile, the governementos of the world are sleeping soundly in the knowledge that they have done a good thing, keeping rotting agricultural produce off the Capitol steps and letting people motor as usual.

Over at the Casa Blanca, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality isn’t surrendering the federal tit without a fight. James L. Connaughton says biofuels' benefits remain tangible.

"Like any issue, there are ways to do it right and there are ways to do things wrong, and the same is the case to biofuels. We move as rapidly as we can to second-generation [biofuels] because those offer the best opportunity for a low environmental profile."

And the Executive VP of the Biotechnology Industry Organization couldn't agree more. "It is much more logical to produce biofuels that recycle carbon,” Brent Erickson insisted. “Even if a short-term carbon debt is created. Even if it's 167 years, you're still better off than burning oil that can never be paid off."

He could have added that biofuels also offers the best opportunity for an abysmal energy ROI. Kind of like buying Eli Manning out of the Giants because you need someone to throw warmups to your starting High-School quarterback.

Michael O'Hare, who really knows his biofuels, is glum. Yes, another academic, from Berkeley of all places. What does he know?

"The bottom line of these complicated chains of events is that using crops for biofuels anywhere induces land use changes somewhere, and while the effect isn't a simple acre-for-acre replacement, and we don't know exactly how big the land-clearing carbon hit should be for a generic gallon of biodiesel or bioethanol, betting now is that it is most unlikely to be small enough to view crop-based biofuels as green substitutes for petroleum."

Well, doesn't that throw a wrench in the spokes of politicos and car honchos alike? Not to mention members of the green mafia who have been seduced by the notion they were supporting agriculture over oil wars.

It's worth restating. All those of us now alive have enjoyed an extended period with ridiculously effective energy readily available at an unbelievably low price. There are no viable substitutes to the energy efficiency of petroleum, and demand is outstripping supply, and faster than we'd like to think. What next? Sorry, but there is no easy answer.

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64 Comments on “Ethanol Causes Global Warming...”


  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    I haven’t read the Science articles, but I saw the summary in the NY Times. The study appears to be blind to technology advancement. Cellulosic refinement, genetic manipulation and other improvements on the near term horizon will mean much more efficient biofuel production, meaning that producing energy will not long mean displacing crop production or natural land.

    I see the glass as half full because all of the earth’s energy comes from the Sun (except fission) and the technology to tap that energy source, directly through solar cells or indirectly through biofuels improves every day.

    Besides, Honda now makes solar cells. If they can improve their efficiency the way they’ve improved internal combustion over the last 20 years, we’ll be fine.

  • avatar

    The links to the Science Magazine abstracts:
    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1152747
    http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/1151861

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    Stop stealing Al Gore’s thunder! He invented and took the initiative in creating global warming.

  • avatar
    franz

    There’s two different socio-political arenas that the move away from petroleum touches upon, global warming and energy independence. Domestically produced biofuels will have to be debunked for both of these before this discussion (and the government subsidies) will end.

  • avatar
    jaje

    Anytime GW proposes what he believes we need to do – I get very skeptical. But I’m probably not being fair. It’s not like he’s mislead us before, ignored more important problems/disasters, pushed certain agendas/issues that all but a small, wealhty, fanatical faction cared about. Why would we question him?

  • avatar

    @guyincognito

    While I know you’re having fun, it’s worth thinking about the shortsightedness of our politicians. It appears they have offered us a gun to cure a headache with.

  • avatar
    BuckD

    Franz:
    I like your logic. Personally, I’m trying to debunk gravity and STD’s so I can have unprotected zero-gravity sex.

    Let’s say, for the sake of argument, you could “debunk” global warming and energy independence. You still have the problem of fossil fuels being a finite resource. No one’s arguing that the dino juice will eventually run out, and most likely sooner rather than later. Doesn’t it make sense to pursue other avenues of energy production?

  • avatar
    franz

    BuckD,

    I just edited my original comment for clarity. I was trying to say that Biofuels need to be debunked as solutions to the issues of both global warming and energy independence.

  • avatar

    @BuckD

    I like your project. Gravity-free sex while earth(un)bound. There must be some gummint money lying around for a serious project into that? Makes about as much sense as growing carfuel – and it’s got a lot of voter appeal, to say the least.

  • avatar

    I dimly recall a scifi story about newlywed astronauts trying to manage zero-gravity coitus, but only pushing each other away, or banging (so-to-speak) into the bulkheads.

  • avatar
    franz

    Donal,

    That’s just newlywed inexperience.

    Now, what were we talking about before?

  • avatar
    alex_rashev

    IMO, biofuels have place as a secondary fuel source. We can definetely save some serious cash (= oil) by creating an extensive, efficient network of recycling organic matter and oils into ethanol and diesel. But there’s no way we can keep running the whole nation on Jim Bean or McDonalds alone. We simply can’t grow enough corn or eat enough fries :)

    Having proper capability to turn whatever into fuel is great – you can shave your excess farming capacity into fuels when it’s not needed. And when SHTF, we won’t starve to death. So, the government is actually doing the right thing – they maintain agricultural capability at a cheaper cost, now that they don’t have to pay farmers not to plant anything. It’s just that their excuse is pathetic (or at least I hope that it’s only an excuse).

    BTW, cars, buses and trains can be almost completely electric in the very near future, but you’d be hard-pressed to fly an airplane on electric power at any significant speed or distance. Oil is not going to disappear overnight :)

  • avatar

    For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction force – or as Newton put it:
    Lex III: Actioni contrariam semper et æqualem esse reactionem: sive corporum duorum actiones in se mutuo semper esse æquales et in partes contrarias dirigi.

    Yes – sex in space may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

    Shearborn Sean correctly identifies Honda as the company to look at when it comes to energy efficient solutions. There’s a carmaker that got the plot at an early stage, and which is way ahead of everybody when it comes to providing alternatives. To their dismay, Toyota has stolen the powder and the flint from their accomplishment, but Honda is the company to watch.

  • avatar

    @alex_rashev

    The scientists’ report wasn’t all bleak. They consider that wood shavings, bark and small branches from forestry operations can contribute without creating problems; and that areas already cleared can be exploited.

    One thing though, to avoid committing the same mistake Mr Lutz keeps committing. It doesn’t matter whether cars or buses are electric – the energy to propel them has to come from somewhere, and it’s that energy we’re having trouble finding substitutes for in a post-petroleum infrastructure. The curse is that petroleum gave us the shortcut of all shortcuts, and we’re finding winding our way back is troublesome, to say the least.

  • avatar

    Here’s a thought experiment – to the “oil isn’t going to disappear overnight” rationale:

    You have a well stocked store of food in the house, and your neighbor comes over asking to borrow some. You don’t hesitate, as you know you can pop down to the supermarket and replenish it, and you take it that this is exactly what your neighbor will do.

    Then your supermarket announces that food supply is running low, that prices will go up, that inventories will be unpredictable.

    Now what are you going to say when your neighbor comes calling?

    While running up the Peak Oil Hill, we weren’t aware of the coming problem, and we have kept thinking oil would always be there.
    Already, there is energy nationalism (with nations reneging on contracts to deliver gas and petroleum, holding out for better deals, or thinking about reserving it for themselves.)
    Recently, Chevron announced they had only managed to replenish 1/5 of their production with new finds, and in the weeks ahead we’re going to get some gruesome statistics from the oil majors as they announce their shortfalls.

    Then strategery will kick in, and we may not feel so neighborly any more.

  • avatar
    BuckD

    OK, I admit more research is needed in the field of zero-g sex. I’ll happily volunteer as a test subject.

    The same is apparently true of biofuels. Corn isn’t the panacea for our energy woes, but clearly there’s enough potential for biofuels that it’s worth continuing to R&D.

  • avatar

    @BuckD

    I recently bought one of those biofuel mobile fireplaces you can light up indoors. Thought it was really smart, and environmentally sound.

    Damn you, Science!

  • avatar
    alex_rashev

    Interesting how nobody ever complained about the world running out of coal.

    Seems like the industrial world is getting it, though: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Nuclear_power_stations.png

    Everyone can claim to be green, but nuclear is what’s going to take us through the 21st century. Say Hi to Mr. Fusion ;)

  • avatar

    I’m staying cheerful in the face of adversity!

    BTW – it takes 26.1 pounds of corn to make 1 gallon of ethanol.

    And the fuel efficiency relationship between gasoline and ethanol is about 1:1,5

    Now you have the numbers you need to calculate the corn equivalent of a full gas of tank in your car. Should we maybe call this the flapjack-factor? (Just multiply the fuel capacity of your tank with 1,5, and then multiply that number by 26.1. You now know how many pounds of corn it will take to BIOfuel your car. That’s a lot of flapjacks.)

    In case you’re wondering, it takes about a half-acre of corn to fuel a car across the Continental USA. There are 243 million registered passenger vehicles in the US. That cross-country trip is 2.774 miles, tip-to-tip.

    That half-acre figure is really handy (vehicle gets 20 miles/gallon, which may be a little optimistic), thank god we have CAFE standards.

    Hey, where can we find 122 million acres that are just kind of lying there, waiting to make some juice, I wonder? Total farmland in the US is 945 million acres.

    And – the average vehicle in the US covers 12.000 miles per year. Ooops – no wonder those farmers are smiling. (Of course, all our fuel won’t come from home grown bioethanol – but if we tried, we’d need 525 million acres of farmland to let people stick with their driving program.)

  • avatar
    guyincognito

    When I think I’ve run out of certain herbal remedies I first become depressed and accept that I’ve begun a dry spell and start the adjustment to my less full life. A little later, however, I decide not to give up and begin to notice the crystals in the bottom of my jar, the tar in my pipe, and the green bits on my table. Two to three weeks later, I’m still smoking and I’ve got a damned clean apartment.

  • avatar
    Eric_Stepans

    I think the big mistake here is politicians (and the average consumer) buying into the notion that any single solution will eliminate our dependence on oil, stop global warming, enrich family farms, etc.

    Ethanol is a part of the solution. So are hybrids, so is bio-diesel, so are engineering advances like multi-displacement engines, HCCI technology, and compound drivetrains like the Volt.

    As a society, we’ve become so addicted to cheap oil that we’re looking for a plug-and-play option that will let us just keep living in our 4,000 square-foot McMansions and driving our Nimitz-class SUVs to the grocery store.

    That’s not going to happen. To get to our necessary sustainable future, everything is going to have to be rethought. Zoning laws, land use patterns, agricultural policy, building codes, transportation networks, education and employment practices, and on and on.

    Those who think the future will look basically like today except that the pumps will say “E85″ or “H2″ are being severely myopic.

  • avatar

    I see the glass as half full because all of the earth’s energy comes from the Sun (except fission) and the technology to tap that energy source, directly through solar cells or indirectly through biofuels improves every day.

    land-based photosynthesis is remarkably inefficient. A land plant uses about 500 molecules of water to fix one molecule of carbon. This is why agriculture uses a huge amount of water.

  • avatar

    Thank you, Eric_Stepans. You are exactly right.
    However, we’re all part of this leviathan supertanker behavioral mode where we’re quite comfortable thank you, could you please fix my nails? And that supertanker is headed for the rocks while we’re checking the fingerwork.

  • avatar

    @David Holzman

    In this “the sky is falling, the sky is falling” thread I’ve initiated, is it really necessary of me to point out that the fertilizers we use to grow our crops come from oil?

    Shouldn’t I let up just a little bit? In Brazil, the tropics have conspired to make photosynthesis a little more efficient, up here in the north, not so, as you write.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Nice piece Stein.

    Also, thanks for the Latin refresher, I could almost read that after almost 30 years of not using that part of the brain.

    It would seem that there is actually a reasonable consensus on this thread so far: Don’t give up on ethanol research, but stop subsidizing the hell out of corn based ethanol production. If only our government would get around to this realization.

  • avatar
    Redbarchetta

    nuclear is what’s going to take us through the 21st century. Say Hi to Mr. Fusion
    Nuclear is not fusion its fission. If we could crack the fusion problem all our energy needs would go away, there would be a mini-sun in every state.

  • avatar

    @Landcrusher

    I actually know the latin for “Wouldn’t nuclear winter cancel out the greenhouse effect?”*

    Fusion would be a good thing to have, and there are scientists working hard on the problem. Keep those grants flowing – that would solve the ‘where does the replacement energy come from?’ problem. (Do make scientists feel you take them seriously, though. This ‘there’s no such thing as evolution’ chatter isn’t playing too well in their circles. Makes them feel it’s all in vain.)

    Fission is not so good, chiefly because we’re running out of easily fissionable materials. There’s a reason why the commodity market has been taking off on those (and corn and wheat).

    I think though, Landcrusher, that what we should really expect from government is a realistic attitude to weaning ourselves of our profligate ways when it comes to using automobiles.
    Sir Mark Moody Stuart, former head of Shell Europe, has called for a ban on cars getting less than 35mpg – that would be something. Too bad for Lutz, though.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/main.jhtml?xml=/earth/2008/02/04/eacars104.xml

    * Nonne hiems, quae incendiis magnis multisque belli inter gentes omnes tertii inducatur, inhibeat orbem terrarum ne nimium calescat?

  • avatar
    AKM

    Thanks for the interesting piece. I also completely agree with Eric_Stephans.
    Thankfully, all 3 runners for the presidential election are more serious than the current administration when it comes to energy issues.
    Also, like many habits, changing can be fun, if done the right way. But most people are instinctively reluctant to change, because they prefer the safety of what they have now rather than the unknown they face.

    @BuckD

    I like your project. Gravity-free sex while earth(un)bound. There must be some gummint money lying around for a serious project into that? Makes about as much sense as growing carfuel – and it’s got a lot of voter appeal, to say the least.

    Incorrect, unless it appears on the web or on TV. Americans spend more time watching TV in bed than doing it. No figures for surfing the web, but I wouldn’t be surprised either.

  • avatar
    Redbarchetta

    To get to our necessary sustainable future, everything is going to have to be rethought. Zoning laws, land use patterns, agricultural policy, building codes, transportation networks, education and employment practices, and on and on.

    I completely agree. Unfortunately our “leaders” are usually looking for easy quick was to fix things that make them look good now, and are masked with alterior motives. We need some real visionaries willing to think outside of the box and change peoples perceptions for the future, I dont see that in the current crop politicos.

  • avatar
    franz

    I haven’t heard much about being low on fissionable raw materials, Stein. After all, breeder reactors can create plenty of it; and we have lots of uranium assets in the US and other places around the world. Fission tech is fairly mature, although there’s plenty more work to be done in the areas of safety and the disposal of radioactive byproducts.

    Fusion is the ultimate goal, IMHO. We should have started plowing billions into basic research grants many years ago, and kept growing that line of action. Fusion is quite clean, and it is technology that could be shared without the risks of weaponization. I’m certain that the technical hurdles to practical fusion power generation can be achieved with concerted human effort, and that the sole missing ingredient is the willingness to invest. Then, we’ll have all the electricity we could want, and all we’ll need to worry about is “heat pollution”

  • avatar
    lprocter1982

    You know, a coworker at the grocery store I work at has a saying that describes this situation perfectly:
    “Yeah, fuck, eh.”

  • avatar

    @franz

    Uranium peaked in 2001 as to existing mines – opening new ones has a ten year window.

    http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/industrials/article555314.ece

    Here’s MIT in March 2007:

    Limited supplies of fuel for nuclear power plants may thwart the renewed and growing interest in nuclear energy in the United States and other nations, says an MIT expert on the industry.

    Over the past 20 years, safety concerns dampened all aspects of development of nuclear energy: No new reactors were ordered and there was investment neither in new uranium mines nor in building facilities to produce fuel for existing reactors. Instead, the industry lived off commercial and government inventories, which are now nearly gone. Worldwide, uranium production meets only about 65 percent of current reactor requirements.

    That shortage of uranium and of processing facilities worldwide leaves a gap between the potential increase in demand for nuclear energy and the ability to supply fuel for it, said Thomas Neff, a research affiliate at MIT’s Center for International Studies.

    “Just as large numbers of new reactors are being planned, we are only starting to emerge from 20 years of underinvestment in the production capacity for the nuclear fuel to operate them. There has been a nuclear industry myopia; they didn’t take a long-term view,” Neff said. For example, only a few years ago uranium inventories were being sold at $10 per pound; the current price is $85 per pound.
    http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2007/fuel-supply.html

  • avatar
    CarnotCycle

    Stein X Leikanger,

    There is much to the potential of fission that most overlook, even the eggheads at MIT. For one, there are currently operating reactor designs such as the CANDU technique which use natural uranium which has not been enriched in any way, through the creative use of D2O as a neutron moderator.

    These are actually ideal reactors because you can change fuel rods easily while the reactor is running, eliminating a huge capital cost of operating a PWR which involves tearing down the core to re-fuel it. If these reactors start to overheat, the heat increase will steam out the D20 and change the geometry of the reactor, both of which quench the chain reaction and prevents a meltdown. Of course they are making plutonium while they run, itself which in turn can be burned up in the reactor after some re-processing. These handy attributes also unfortunately makes CANDU reactors a nuclear weapon proliferator’s dream machine.

    There is also a whole unexplored (technically anyways) nuclear fuel cycle using the Tho-232 -> U-233 process, and there is lots and lots of thorium laying around comparatively. Outside of weapons, there has been no real research in nuclear energy technology for some time, really. Just like the missiles that carry the warheads, all the civilian, actually useful applications of these technologies are leveraged from military hardware and it is a poor fit. Once governments around the world had perfected both ballistic rocket vehicles and the thermonuclear explosives they could deliver, the governments of the world lost interest in any future use of the technology. Sad but true.

  • avatar

    Yes, Thorium reactors are an option, and its being looked into as a safer alternative, in addition.

    We really are going to be changing things quite a lot in the years ahead, as far as the energy accounting is concerned.

    To get back to biofuels – they are not the solution. Essentially, they must be the least effective way of achieving the energy required to move a car, short of using hamsters.

  • avatar
    philipwitak

    re: “We need some real visionaries willing to think outside of the box and change peoples perceptions for the future, I dont see that in the current crop [of] politicos.”
    Redbarchetta – February 13th, 2008 at 3:54 pm

    [enter: al gore / stage left]

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Stein,
    Allow me to commend you on a great article. I notice your active participation in the following debate. Good to see!

    However, I feel the one thing missing in your “sky is falling” scenario is the economic effect: When prices go up, production goes up and demand goes down. If, as you suggest, and you may be right, we are getting to the point where demand can no longer increase, then price will continue to go up until demand gets back to the level where it is inline with supply. It’s that simple. Not pretty, but simple.

    It is also worth mentioning that at this stage, we have nothing to complain about. As this article from the LA Times put it: Still, current gasoline prices have already prompted 13% of those surveyed to cut back on driving.
    13%? Already all of 13%? LOL! For all the noise, it’s only 13%! And of that 13%, probably half made a completely insignificant reduction.

    And then there is this: The tipping point for the average consumer to cut back on gasoline use is $3.71 a gallon, the survey of 1,215 Americans found.
    Remember how GM always said that @ $3/gal Americans would change their driving habits? Now $3/gal is here, and only 13% of people have made any changes. I predict that “tipping point” keeps getting punted down the road, as gas prices go higher.

    Of course, the survey apparently did not include questions about vehicle purchasing decisions. Those are being affected, and the longer gas stays at (what is perceived to be) high prices, the longer those decisions will get affected.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Let’s take a second and consider what a sensible energy policy would look like. I know, in the current political climate it’s a bit like talking about the tooth fairy’s hair color. But here it is:

    I have a big problem with the implicit idea in current energy policy that ethanol is the new holy grail of fuels. What makes ethanol so great? Specifically, compared to an existing fuel (say gasoline), how does ethanol compare. On the plus side, ethanol has a high octane number. That’s about it.

    On the negative side, as Stein pointed out, ethanol has only 2/3rds of the energy (per unit volume) that gasoline has. Ethanol burns with a colorless flame (dangerous!), which is why E85 contains 15% gasoline. The problem is that ethanol increases the vapor pressure of the mixture, leading to more evaporative loss and emissions. Ethanol also has this nasty habit of absorbing water, causing all sorts of corrosion issues. Hence, you need to replace pretty much the entire fuel-related infrastructure (storage tanks, pipelines and vehicles) for widespread ethanol use. Before Uncle Sam starts signing those checks, it is worth asking: Is there an alternative? Let me rephrase that: What does the ideal fuel of the future look like?

    Well, of course, the ideal fuel would be renewable, and available in significant quantities, unlike any food-based fuel. It should also be miscible with existing fuels; in other words, it shouldn’t do any of the things ethanol does. It should also not change the physical properties of the blended fuel; unlike the way, biodiesel can cause gelling even at low fractions. In a word, the ideal fuel looks like something we are all familiar with: gasoline (or better yet, diesel).

    Hang on, you say, gasoline isn’t renewable. No, but it can be. And it looks increasingly like (plain old crude-based) gasoline is at least as renewable as corn ethanol. Clearly, the challenge is not to come up with some new fuel: Ethanol! Biodiesel! Bio-butanol! Or the dumbest of all: Hydrogen! No, the real challenge is to make pretty much the same fuels from a different feedstock than crude. Preferably a renewable feedstock. So, what does the ideal feedstock look like?

    The ideal feedstock should be plentiful, cheap, and renewable. And by renewable, I mean that using it should not involve taking the food of somebody’s (anybody’s) table. BTW, it does not have to be carbon-free. Even Al Gore will agree, as long as it’s renewable you are only returning CO2 to the atmosphere that was there to begin with. And, as our ideal fuels showed, there are many benefits to carbon-based fuels.

    Here’s the good news: the ideal feedstock is everywhere. It is often cheaper than zero dollars per gallon: we typically pay people to take it off our hands. The ideal feedstock is WASTE. And other than metals, glass and other inorganics, any waste would work. So how much waste are we talking about?

    According to USEPA (quoted indirectly) Americans dump 232 million tons of municipal solid waste a year. If you add up paper, food waste, wood and yard trimmings, the renewable (biomass) fraction is ~61%. Seeing as “other” includes rubber and textiles, the bulk of that would be organic (if not renewable). So subtracting metal and glass, the organic fraction is just over 87%. The EPA estimates that approximately 6.9 million [dry] tons of sewage sludge biosolids were generated in 1998. Then there is of the order of 35 million tons per year of manure. Lots of waste.

    I know what you are thinking, and here I have to disappoint. All these wastes combined can only produce about half the oil the country uses. Still, it’s a lot of oil.

    Critics may point out that much of these wastes go to composting and other recycling facilities. It should be remembered that even after one has converted these wastes to liquid fuels, much of the fertilizer value remains in the char – available for use.

    And no, this isn’t perpetual motion. We are not going to waste our way to independence from our “allies” in OPEC. For every kWh (or BTU if you must) of waste that goes into waste, one can only recover ~60% as liquid fuel, at best. So, conservation still beats any other alternative.

    By now, you should be thinking: yeah, but where is the technology that’s going to do all this? Surprisingly, the technology is at least as developed as cellulosic ethanol (I know, that sets the bar pretty low. I just couldn’t resist).

    In the town of Carthage, MO, is a stinking plant that converts turkey waste (all the inedibles) into a heavy diesel fuel. They used to refine it to a vehicle fuel quality, but as you can imagine, at 500 bbl/d you can’t operate a refinery at a profit. The cost? $80/bbl. And that’s after paying the equivalent of $20-30/bbl for the feedstock. We really should stop feeding this crap to farm animals.

    In Freiberg, Germany, a company by the name of CHOREN, is building a facility that will produce ~2,000 bbl/d of diesel from forestry waste.

    In Soperton, GA, Range Fuels is busy building a facility that will convert forestry waste into mixed alcohols (including some ethanol). For political (subsidy?) reasons they are calling it cellulosic ethanol. But the process is miles away from the inefficient fermentation-distillation process that most cellulosic ethanol researchers are working on.

    You should also bear in mind that none of this will work if oil sells for $10/bbl. So, as I tried to explain in a previous post, we really need expensive oil for renewable energy to fly.

  • avatar
    Eric_Stepans

    Engineer wrote:

    It is also worth mentioning that at this stage, we have nothing to complain about. As this article from the LA Times put it: Still, current gasoline prices have already prompted 13% of those surveyed to cut back on driving.
    13%? Already all of 13%? LOL! For all the noise, it’s only 13%! And of that 13%, probably half made a completely insignificant reduction.

    And then there is this: The tipping point for the average consumer to cut back on gasoline use is $3.71 a gallon, the survey of 1,215 Americans found.
    Remember how GM always said that @ $3/gal Americans would change their driving habits? Now $3/gal is here, and only 13% of people have made any changes. I predict that “tipping point” keeps getting punted down the road, as gas prices go higher.

    This gets back to the ‘holistic’ problem. If you’re a Southern Californian with a house in the exurbs and a job in an older suburb, you HAVE to drive to work. Short of selling your house (good luck with that…:-P…) and moving closer to your job, you’re stuck with the status quo.

    If the price of gasoline goes up, you might eat out less, postpone upgrading your Ipod or rack up your credit card balances even more. But you won’t stop driving.

    This intractable situation is true of most of the United States, except for a few cities with well-developed public transportation infrastructure.

    We live in interesting times….

  • avatar
    Engineer

    But you won’t stop driving.
    True. But you can:
    1. Drive less. Don’t tell me you are down to an absolute minimum already.
    2. Buy an 80s diesel Mercedes, and convert it to run on used cooking oil – that’s right, for free!
    3. Invest in a fuel efficient car, even a hybrid. As the gas prices go up, the payback on that investment gets better and better.
    4. Build a homemade sill, produce your own moonshine, strictly for the car of course.
    Etc. Etc.

    As you say, interesting times, indeed.

  • avatar
    97escort

    The title “Ethanol Causes Global Warming” must be the clue that you are joking, at least I hope so. If you really believe half the stuff you’ve written, I’ve got some dessert land outside Lake Havasu, Arizona I’d like to sell. Seriously though, I’m glad to see posters finally addressing the dire problem Peak Oil presents to the auto industry and auto consumers. Being an Iowa corn farmer, I’m pretty sure we’ll be driving E85 guzzlers while the city folks are riding bicycles. Good luck to ethanol slammers, they’re going to need it.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Being an Iowa corn farmer, I’m pretty sure we’ll be driving E85 guzzlers while the city folks are riding bicycles. Good luck to ethanol slammers, they’re going to need it.
    LOL! Good one! What are you going to use to work the land? You still got a team of oxen?

    And BTW, the ethanol (and all other fuels) will flow to the highest bidder, as it always has. Wanna bet who’s going to outbid who?

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Excellent article.

    My two bits:

    Fusion is a joke, a pipe dream, a job-creation scheme for physicists, always just 20 years from fruition, no matter which year it is.

    On ethanol, the UK’s Economist magazine points out the amazing statistic that “the demands of America’s ethanol program alone account for over half the world’s unmet need for cereals.” So, the magazine editorializes that food price rises are “the self-inflicted result of America’s reckless ethanol subsidies.”

    Yes, reckless. And this is coming from a magazine that (originally) supported GWB’s war in Iraq. No lefties, they.

  • avatar

    And let’s not even begin to outline the effect of growing fuel on the water table …

    Thanks, Engineer. Interesting input. In Denmark there’s a city where they’ve placed their municipal recycling plant next to their power generation and heated water distribution plants, and where fuel is being recovered as you indicate.
    And the Germans must have sat down and taken a long term look at things about 30 years ago – their green recovery and recycling program is outstanding, with the number of zero energy houses going up increasing every year. (Houses that generate as much energy as they consume, with some actually contributing to the power grid.)

    And yes – fusion is not a joke, the science is pretty clear, but getting it to work in a manageable way is hard, no doubt about that. Impossible? I’m not the one to answer that one.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Martin,

    I would counter the cereal argument quite strongly, even though I agree with the idea that the corn ethanol subsidy is harmful.

    The shortage of food is presently due to the lack of private property rights, personal liberties, and capitalism unfettered by government and judicial corruption.

    Any society which has those things will learn to feed itself in a only a couple generations. OTOH, we have poured billions worth of resources at peoples without those things, and it only prolongs the suffering.

  • avatar

    Fusion has not even reached the stage cars were at when the wheel was invented at least 5,000 years ago. John Holdren, last year’s pres of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, got his PhD in plasma physics in the late ’60s because he worried about energy, and hoped this would be a huge source. He quickly realized it wasn’t going to happen, and has focused his career elsewhere. The problem of containing a fusion reaction has been compared to holding water in a bunch of rubber bands. The other option for fusion is to have steady controlled explosions, the nuclear equivalent of internal combustion.

    Counting on fusion is like waiting for Godot.

    Furthermore, fusion is not even necessarily clean. Anyone interested in some of the details can email me your address and I’ll snail you an article I wrote about that years ago. (email motorlegends@aol.com) Bottom line: the reactor vessel would become radioactive over time in most fusion schemes. It is, to be sure, not as difficult a problem as fission wastes.

    The billions of dollars some posters seem to want to go into fusion research would be much better spent buying existing photovoltaic and wind technology to generate electricity now. The resulting mass production would bring down the capital cost. You can throw money at a pie in the sky or you can thrown it at something that actually works now, even if it’s more expensive than coal.

  • avatar

    Breeder reactors are great for nuclear proliferation and stuff. Plutonium makes terrific dirty bombs. The liquid sodium coolant is great for accidents.

    Engineer mentioned making gasoline renewably. Its being done. Not ready for prime time yet, but promising.

  • avatar

    For all those who keep advocating putting tons of money into some pet technology, I say TAX CARBON and then let the market decide where to put the investments.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    And let’s not even begin to outline the effect of growing fuel on the water table …
    Stein,
    That problem has been solved – let’s just say you shouldn’t be eating while reading this. Drought-proof water indeed. They have been doing this in Windhoek, Namibia for fifty odd years, back to the days when Namibia was South West Africa.

    And, of course, it’s been going on all over the place: thought you knew where that tap water came from? Knew that Las Vegas discharges treated wastewater to Lake Mead – the same Lake Mead that’s a source of drinking water?

    Gotta love technology…

  • avatar
    alex_rashev

    David, I don’t see anything wrong with fusion investments. Sure, solar or wind will give you better short-term returns, but if we’re hoping to get off this little space rock anytime soon, we’ll need fusion, period. So there’s nothing wrong with investing into the great minds that can make it happen.

    Just because we can meet our demands with current technology doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go for better stuff. An advanced civilization needs retardedly cheap energy, otherwise we’re just going to overpopulate ourselves to the point of stagnation, and stall. You can’t build million-ton spaceships when all your energy (=production output) is being put into sustaining your increasingly uneducated, self-loathing population.

    As for redirecting funds, I think more funds should be put into all areas, including conservation.

    Get this: if 10% of the upcoming tax rebate were to be put into buying CFL’s, EVERY US HOUSEHOLD would have nothing but CFL light bulbs. That’s at least 5% cut out of each household’s electricity consumption. Which is equivalent to giving an average household a $50 tax cut. EVERY YEAR. Solar panels take 10-30 years to break even; those little buggers take several months, tops. IMO, they give better-looking light, too, as long as you pick the right kind.

    But no, we’re gonna pour a couple billion into fuel cells that will never ever be viable, and call it a day. Unbelievable.

  • avatar
    pdub

    We need fertilizer to grow the corn. To make the fertilizer, we need petroleum products. So instead of putting petrol into our car, we will be dumping more of it on the ground to grow more plants that can then be processed to put ethanol in our cars.

    This is a stupid plan.

    If the fertilizer was organic, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue. But we all know that won’t happen.

    Also, we shouldn’t be using corn to do this. Hemp yields 10 times the biofuel per acre that corn does.

  • avatar

    Alex,

    Regarding fusion, if you think fuel cells are hopeless, but that fusion is not, you don’t realize the technological difficulty of fusion. Furthermore, the notion that it would be gobs of cheap energy is nonsense. It wouild be hugely capital intensive. Solar PV, and wind costs are dropping as we speak; and fusion has yet to produce any energy for more than fractions of a second, and it has yet to produce anywhere near as much energy as is put into the reactor to make it happen. If you email me your address to motorlegnds@aol.com, I’ll be happy to mail you something I wrote years ago that will give you some idea of the complexity of fusion.

    Bottom line: fusion is A LOT MORE UNLIKELY THAN FUEL CELLS. The difference in complexity is like the difference between sending a horse and carriage across town and sending a rocket to the moon.

    Agree about the importance of CFLs and LEDs, and conservation and efficiency measures generally.

  • avatar

    @pdub

    Yes – I’ve never been able to look at Biofuels as anything but a poor excuse to keep farming, because it has nothing to do with environmental energy efficiency. It’s a harebrained scheeme.

    @engineer
    You write:
    And let’s not even begin to outline the effect of growing fuel on the water table …
    Stein,
    That problem has been solved – let’s just say you shouldn’t be eating while reading this.

    Sorry, I don’t share your enthusiasm. While “grey” water is becoming a staple around the world, in urban areas – I’m speaking of something entirely different.
    The fact that farmers in Windhoek have been able to work around evaporation doesn’t mean the solution is being implemented. And water tables are sinking precipitously – a tip, in case you’re worried about the market price of your house: check the status of the water table. That’s going to be a dealbreaker in a few years.

  • avatar
    alex_rashev

    David,

    Fuel cells are not hopeless – for starters, they already exist. They’re just not as useful as some claim them to be. They certainly won’t solve the transportation problem.

    As for fusion, sure, it requires enormous investments. So does everything of that caliber. It’s just that the long-term gains are even greater. And there’s no way in the world that we can get enough power to fuel humanity’s endless ambitions simply by scavenging sun’s rays.

    BTW, IIRC JT-60 Tokamak almost doubled it’s record of holding plasma for 16 seconds a couple year ago, bringing it to ~28, and also managed to get more energy out of fusion than the amount of energy inserted. Still not economically viable, but making good progress. Now, wouldn’t it be funny if the Japanese were to beat us AGAIN, because of their (apparently superhuman) ability to plan beyond the next quarter?…

  • avatar

    Great: half a minute of fusion. I’d say fusion is not as useful as some claim it to be. Fusion may happen, but it well may not. A half a minute of fusion after 60 years research is, uh, not very impressive. You can do the same sort of hand-waving regarding PVs on your roof supplying your electricity 10 years from now with much more optimism. There are already houses that can do that–it’s just not yet worth the cost compared to coal or natural gas fired electricity.

    And aside from getting off the planet, I don’t see why solar and related technologies can’t fuel the world, unless you’re imagining truly endless ambitions, including endless population growth. We won’t be able to feed that world, fusion or not.

    We fed the world of 50 years ago when it was 1/3 the current population pretty much with solar energy. On a per land basis, solar and wind are much more efficient methods of capturing the sun’s rays than plants.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    David,

    If you really want to get called names, point out that endless population growth is a problem. The S— storm is amazing. You would think the greens would be the first to agree, but instead they always disagree or distance themselves from the idea.

    I am not sure what you mean about feeding the world on solar power, but I would say that 50 years ago in the US you had lots of petro in the mix, and the diet was less than ideal. My parents grew up adding fats to their diets to increase the calories, and were still doing this after I was born.

    I want solar and wind and all the rest. I want many solutions so we don’t have the problems we have now again in 50 years when we decide the solution has it’s own problems. However, solar and wind are likely limited without population reduction or a reduction in standard of living.

  • avatar

    Landcrusher,

    I truly don’t understand how so many of the greens can avoid addressing the popultion problem. It’s madness. But they act like it’s radioactive. Even ZPG changed its name to Population Connection (and lost my support).

    The problem is especially bad if you try to point that the US population is a problem. There, the radioative third rail is immigration. That’s — as yo uprobably know — where the biggest increases are, and if yoiu say we need ot limit immigration, you get branded a racist.

    Actually, I think a lot of greens have gotten so politically correct that they feel uncomfortable about even hinting that other countries shoiuld stabilize their populations. Although to be sure, not all of them have a problem with this. But it is so fundamental that it should be tops on the agenda. The notion that the world population is going to increase by another 50% is downright scary.

    Regarding ag, my impression is that it was only after wwii that the amoiunt of fertilizer and pesticides in ag went way up. And fertilizer is where dino juice makes its biggest contribution. So, presumably, you had mostly solar feeding 2.5 billion.

    Your parents adding fats to the calories? How so? What decade? I was born in ’53, and no-one was adding fats. In fact, in the early ’60s they began avoiding them after a friend’s brother, probably in his 30s or 40s, died of a heart attack. (The friend was a doc, and already suspected fats were a problem, and lived at least into his 70s, but that’s another story).

  • avatar
    Engineer

    I hate to break it to you guys, but Malthus has been wrong for almost 200 years. Population growth is not the problem. Never has been, never will be. I know, I know, tomorrow will be different. It’s not going to happen, guys.

    The way I see it, more people force us to develop better technology. But then more people means that there are more brains available to develop new technologies. Earth could not support 6.5 billion hunter-gatherers. But it can support us, because we have agriculture, industries and we have developed rudimentary ways of cleaning up our wastes. Not ideal, but good enough, for now.

    As more people keep arriving, we will need to keep doing better. And we will.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    David,

    You need to check your calender. 50 years ago was closer to the Korean conflict than WWII. I know the feeling, the years just move faster and faster don’t they?

    A lot of the traditional foods we ate were full of added fats. No one eats them anymore, at least not as staples, and they prepare them differently. Biscuits were made with added fats, they were then topped with gravy made from the grease collected during the week (we did not throw out grease, we ate it one way or another). My mother never makes the gravy anymore, but by the time I was a teenager she had radically changed the ingredients to reduce the fats. Most everything used to be cooked in the fry pan so that the animal fat would get in the food. My parents cooked that way until the late seventies.

    Outside of this country it is still common for people to use lard as an additive. They will put the stuff on toast like it was butter. Now butter may be added for taste, but lard?

    A proper diet without meat is tough to have without a lot of infrastructure unless you live in the right place. Lot’s of the world still doesn’t have a good diet. I always enjoy seeing second and third generation asians who are a foot taller than their parents or grandparents.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    Engineer,

    Bringing up Malthus is popular, but usually irrelevant. Marx was wrong about a lot of things, too, but we don’t throw out all of economics because he made incorrect observations on economics.

  • avatar
    rashakor

    Engineer,

    Actually Malthus has never been proven wrong since his theory was put forward.
    In fact it is because his theory is so politically incorrect that it has always been decried and ridiculed even if everybody deep inside them know that he was cruelly right.

    The argument that technology can forever keep Malthusian forces at bay is wishful thinking at best…suicidal at worst.
    The near future will certainly test your assumptions.

    Blessed (Cursed?) is the one that lives in interesting times.

  • avatar

    Engineer,

    Darfur and Rwanda are basically examples of where Malthus was absolutely tragically right.

  • avatar

    Landcrusher,

    My parents never did the fat added thing, at least as far back as I can remember meals (1957). But now that you mention it, I do remember that other people did this sort of thing. In fact, members of the tribes (Jews, of which I am one) had their own version of this sort of thing, around chicken, but this (and anything of this genre) was definitely not part of my mother’s repertoire.

  • avatar
    Landcrusher

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of SW…

    I talked to a guy from the Phillipines this weekend who said his family was like mine. He is close your age I suspect. He said his parents grew out of it as well, but that in the Phillipines there are lots of staples they still do it in many ways. He thinks it’s just a matter of poverty.

  • avatar
    Engineer

    Darfur and Rwanda are basically examples of where Malthus was absolutely tragically right.
    How to put this politely? BULL MANURE!

    Rwanda had a lot to do with people getting swept up in mass hysteria. And, of course, there was that cowardly reaction from the UN. Not to mention the deciding part of the Clinton duo, you know the one who couldn’t keep his pants up.

    Notice that Rwanda is actually doing pretty well, at present. The economy has been growing at about 10% per year in recent years. Perhaps Rwandans realized that they can’t wait for outsiders to solve their problems. Let’s hope the rest of Africa is watching.

    Darfur is about ethnic cleansing by the Arab government. Nothing that proves Malthus right. This time we get the Decider at his most indecisive, and, of course, the UN is ready for another debate on the issue…

    Neither Rwanda or Darfur had/has anything to do with limited resources. It is about brave but evil leadership, and it’s ability to overpower well intentioned cowards. It’s political, nothing else.

    Actually Malthus has never been proven wrong since his theory was put forward.
    LOL! What 200 years isn’t long enough to conclude that he was an idiot? Remember, we were supposed to run out of food within a decade of his predictions. What do you want? Another 200 years? A thousand? Will anything convince you?


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