Corn ethanol – bad for the environment and bad for gas mileage

Blighted harvest: The American corn ethanol disaster:

Basic chemistry dictates that gallon for gallon, burning ethanol produces only 2/3 as much energy as burning gasoline.  In recent years, Americans have become accustomed to E15 “gasohol” (15% ethanol) at the pumps. Due to government regulations, it’s now extremely rare to find a gas station with ethanol-free gasoline in the US.

This means that the efficiency of E15, measured in miles per gallon, can never exceed 95% of the efficiency of regular gasoline. In actuality, it tends to be far lower. For most cars, ethanol mixes are detrimental to fuel efficiency. For example, the EPA tested 2006 flex-fuel models and determined that with E85 there was an average MPG reduction of 26%. Vehicles advertised as 30 MPG for regular gasoline typically get 22.2 MPG with E85 at the pump.

Person I’m thinking of as I blog this: Michael Silence. He’s been a big promotor of local sources of ethanol-free gasoline.

Shorter Al Gore: “Corn biofuels were a boondoggle I used for political gain”

No kiddin’:

Algore apparently had a “Biden Moment” and unwittingly admitted the truth by accident.

…”First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.”……”One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.“…

PreviouslyBiofuels – a vote-buying farm subsidy since 1930

Biofuels – a vote-buying farm subsidy since 1930

News from 1930: “Germany requires gasoline to be blended with 2.5% alcohol to benefit potato farmers.”

There wasn’t any environmental rationalization for Germany’s decision in 1930 to require gasoline to contain 2.5% alcohol. The politicians were just throwing the farmers a bone. That’s the the same reason politicians support biofuels today. The environmental patter is for the suckers.

Previously

Leading biofuels company goes under; Congressmen demand more biofuels

CleanTech BriefGreenFuel Algae Company Calls It Quits:

GreenFuel Technologies, the Harvard-MIT algae company, is ending operations.

“We are closing doors. We are a victim of the economy,” Duncan McIntyre at Polaris Venture Partners, which invested in Greenfuel, told Greentech Media.

The closing comes despite millions of dollars raised – over $70 million in venture funding since its inception in 2001, from investors, including Polaris, Access Private Equity and Draper Fisher Jurvetson – and a deal with Auranta to build test facilities in Spain. GreenFuel says it could not get the funding to complete the project. In January, it laid off half its staff – 19 people.

Meanwhile…

Ace of SpadesCongressmen Demand ‘Biofuels’, Science Be Damned:

In a nutshell, the EPA in 2007, after enabling legislation by Congress, issued rules about how to count the greenhouse gas emissions produced during the production of biofuels. One of those rules required that the agency consider indirect land use when calculating the emissions associated with biofuels. But it turns out that if you calculate emissions in this manner, biofuels actually produce more emissions than plain old gasoline.

The Democrats (and greedy, faithless, pathetic worms like Republican Frank Lucas from my former district in Oklahoma) have an easy solution: we just won’t count indirect land use! Science be damned, they want biofuels and they’re not going to take “no” for an answer.

Previously

Ethanol production creates 15% of Iowa’s greenhouse gases

Gas 2.0Iowa’s Ethanol Plants Create 15 Percent of its Emissions:

The Des Moines Register reported the other day that Iowa’s ethanol plants contribute 15 Percent — 7.6 million metric tons out of a total of 52 million metric tons — of greenhouse-gas emissions found in the state’s new inventory of major manufacturers, businesses and power plants.

Iowa’s Department of Natural Resources found that the largest portion of the state’s overall emissions came from fermenting grain at the plants and not from burning natural gas or coal. In addition, burning biomass such as switchgrass at various industrial plants added another 0.13 million metric tons.

The emissions generated by ethanol production are one reason why some environmentalists downplay the benefit of renewable fuels, while others insist they are far more beneficial than burning fossil fuels

It’s hard to say how this would compare to an equivalent amount of gasoline production, but it does point to the fact that biofuels aren’t magically free of pollutants. (Assuming, of course, that global warming is even caused by greenhouse gases.)

New Scientist: “Forget biofuels – burn oil and plant forests instead”

From the August issue:

The reason is that producing biofuel is not a “green process”. It requires tractors and fertilisers and land, all of which means burning fossil fuels to make “green” fuel. In the case of bioethanol produced from corn – an alternative to oil – “it’s essentially a zero-sums game,” says Ghislaine Kieffer, programme manager for Latin America at the International Energy Agency in Paris, France (see Complete carbon footprint of biofuel – or is it?).

What is more, environmentalists have expressed concerns that the growing political backing that biofuel is enjoying will mean forests will be chopped down to make room for biofuel crops such as maize and sugarcane. “When you do this, you immediately release between 100 and 200 tonnes of carbon [per hectare],” says Renton Righelato of the World Land Trust, UK, a conservation agency that seeks to preserve rainforests.

Righelato and Dominick Spracklen of the University of Leeds, UK, calculated how long it would take to compensate for those initial emissions by burning biofuel instead of gasoline. The answer is between 50 and 100 years. “We cannot afford that, in terms of climate change,” says Righelato.

Rolling Stone: “Ethanol Scam: Ethanol Hurts the Environment And Is One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles”

Even the pinko liberal Democrat hippies at Rolling Stone* admit ethanol as fuel won’t work and will do more harm than good:

This is not just hype — it’s dangerous, delusional bullshit. Ethanol doesn’t burn cleaner than gasoline, nor is it cheaper. Our current ethanol production represents only 3.5 percent of our gasoline consumption — yet it consumes twenty percent of the entire U.S. corn crop, causing the price of corn to double in the last two years and raising the threat of hunger in the Third World. And the increasing acreage devoted to corn for ethanol means less land for other staple crops, giving farmers in South America an incentive to carve fields out of tropical forests that help to cool the planet and stave off global warming.

In Brazil, ethanol made from sugar cane has an energy balance of 8-to-1 — that is, when you add up the fossil fuels used to irrigate, fertilize, grow, transport and refine sugar cane into ethanol, the energy output is eight times higher than the energy inputs. That’s a better deal than gasoline, which has an energy balance of 5-to-1. In contrast, the energy balance of corn ethanol is only 1.3-to-1 – making it practically worthless as an energy source. “Corn ethanol is essentially a way of recycling natural gas,” says Robert Rapier, an oil-industry engineer who runs the R-Squared Energy Blog.

Under the Senate bill, only 15 billion gallons of ethanol will come from corn, in part because even corn growers admit that turning more grain into fuel would disrupt global food supplies. The remaining 21 billion gallons will have to come from advanced biofuels, most of which are currently brewed only in small-scale lab experiments. “It’s like trying to solve a traffic problem by mandating hovercraft,” says Dave Juday, an independent commodities consultant. “Except we don’t have hovercraft.”

The most seductive myth about ethanol is that it will free us from our dependence on foreign oil. But even if ethanol producers manage to hit the mandate of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, that will replace a paltry 1.5 million barrels of oil per day — only seven percent of current oil needs. Even if the entire U.S. corn crop were used to make ethanol, the fuel would replace only twelve percent of current gasoline use.

* Is that better, Steve?

“Results 1 – 10 of about 4,370,000 English pages for hubris”?

It’s official: Google is buying YouTube for $1.65 billion in stock.

Last week HDNet founder Mark Cuban said that “anyone who buys YouTube is a moron” because of the copyright infringement liability. “They are just breaking the law,” Cuban told a group of advertisers in New York. “The only reason it hasn’t been sued yet is because there is nobody with big money to sue.” Google, of course, has lots of money.

Bear in mind that Google already has legal troubles because of its book-indexing project. Do they really need this amount of liability?

As Napster proved, popularity and neat technology aren’t the same as a good, legal business. I question Google’s decision to buy what may be the world’s biggest copyright infringer.

This wouldn’t be the first time Google has made a cockeyed move out of left field. Last month Google announced a number of philanthropic initiatives, one of which is to “develop an extremely fuel efficient, plug- in hybrid car engine that runs on ethanol, electricity and gasoline. The philanthropy is consulting with hybrid engine scientists and car manufacturers, and has arranged for the purchase of a small fleet of cars with plans to convert the engines so that their gas mileage exceeds 100 miles per gallon, or about 42 kilometers per liter. The goal: to reduce dependence on oil while alleviating the effects of global warming.”

That’s swell, but remind me again what a search engine company knows about developing cars? Sure, Google has smart people and money, but so do Toyota, Honda, Ford, BMW, Daimler-Chrysler, et al. Thinking that they’re smart enough to conquer non-search technologies may be nothing but hubris on Google’s part.

WSJ Calls for Congress to Eliminate Ethanol Tariff

Big discussion over at Slashdot. Editorial here.

One irony of the current gas panic is that big oil companies are being pilloried for their profits, but domestic ethanol producers get a pass. Yet the ethanol makers receive more government subsidies and are responsible for far more of the current gasoline price spike. Congress doesn’t have to bash ethanol makers; all it has to do is allow more foreign supply, which will do more to reduce gasoline prices more quickly than any other single idea.

As you probably know, oil companies were using MTBE for reformulated gasoline that reduced smog and complied with EPA regulations. It was discovered that MTBE from underground gasoline storage tanks was showing up in groundwater, and MTBE was pulled. Ethanol is now being used as a reformulant to comply with emissions rules, but domestic ethanol producers are having a hard time keeping up with demand during the transition, and that’s apparently one reason for higher gas prices.

A Critique of Agricultural Ethanol

Ethanol: A Tragedy in 3 Acts, in Business Week, takes a critical look at the history of using agriculturally-derived ethanol as a fuel adjunct in the U.S. Via Instapundit.

Shortly thereafter, in yet another attempt to broaden the product’s usage, Congress enacted a law that allowed car manufacturers to take excess mileage credits on any vehicle they built that was capable of burning an 85% blend of ethanol, better known as E85. General Motors (GM ) took advantage of the credits, building relatively large volumes of the Suburban as a certified E85 vehicle. Although in real life that generation of the Suburban got less than 15 mpg, the credits it earned GM against its Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) ratings meant that on paper, the Suburban delivered more than 29 mpg.

Other manufacturers also built E85-capable vehicles — one such car was the Ford (F) Taurus. Congress may have intended simply to create a market for this particular fuel by having these vehicles available for sale. But what the excess mileage credits actually did was save Detroit millions each year in penalties it would have owed for not meeting the CAFE regulations’ mileage standards.

Energy Return on Energy Investment (Energy Net Yield)

The recent spike in gas prices has people talking about alternative energy again. Here’s a concept I was vaguely aware of: energy return on investment – the ratio of energy outputs to entergy inputs. For oil, the ratio is around 10 to to 1, meaning it takes the energy in 1 barrel of oil to pump, transport, and refine 10 barrels of oil.

Any energy source with a EROEI of less than one isn’t an energy source at all, since it taks more energy to produce the fuel than the fuel can deliver. See the link for an explanation of the “emergy” thing. I’m not sure how windmills and solar cells can have EROEIs of less than one. Is he really saying they produce less energy than they make to manufacture?

Dependent Sources, No Emergy Yield
Farm windmill, 17 mph wind
0.03
Solar water heater
0.18
Solar voltaic cell electricity
0.41
Fuels, Yielding Net Emergy
Palm oil
1.06
Energy-intensive corn
1.10
Sugarcane alcohol
1.14
Lignite at mine
6.8
Natural gas, offshore
6.8
Oil Mideast purchase
8.4
Natural gas, onshore
10.3
Coal, Wyoming
10.5
Oil, Alaska
11.1
Rainforest wood, 100 years growth
12.0
Sources of Electric Power, Yielding Net Emergy
Ocean-thermal power plant
1.5
Wind electro-power
2-?
Coal-fired power plant
2.5
Rainforest wood power plant
3.6
Nuclear electricity
4.5
Hydroelectricity
10.0
Geothermal
13.0
Tidal electric, 25 ft. tidal range
15.0

Some researchers find that ethanol produced from corn has en EROEI below one, others think it’s slightly more than one. Even with the free energy input from photosynthesis, it takes energy to raise the corn, harvest it, transport it, and ferment it into ethanol. Industrially-produced ethanol using coal as an energy source may make more sense as a gasoline adjunct. You lose energy in the process, but it converts abundant coal into something you can put in your gas tank.

UPDATE: Related Popular Mechanics story on alternative fuels. Via Instapundit.

An Alcohol Energy Economy?

AEI is touting the potential of alcohol as an automotive fuel to supplement oil.

The largest producers of both ethanol and methanol are all in the western hemisphere, with the United States having by far the greatest production potential for both. Ethanol is made from agricultural products. Methanol can also be made from biomass, as well as from natural gas or coal. American coal reserves alone are sufficient to power every car in the country on methanol for more than 500 years.

Ethanol can currently be produced for about $1.50 per gallon, and methanol is selling for $0.90 per gallon. With gasoline having roughly doubled in price recently, and with little likelihood of a substantial price retreat in the future, high alcohol-to-gasoline fuel mixtures are suddenly practical. Cars capable of burning such fuel are no futuristic dream. This year, Detroit will offer some two dozen models of standard cars with a flex-fuel option available for purchase. The engineering difference is in one sensor and a computer chip that controls the fuel-air mixture, and the employment of a corrosion-resistant fuel system. The difference in price from standard units ranges from $100 to $800.

(To clarify those numbers a bit: later in the article the author notes that “Ethanol contains about 75 percent of the energy of gasoline per gallon, compared to 67 percent for methanol. Both thus achieve fewer miles per gallon than gasoline, but about as many miles per dollar at current prices, and probably many more miles per dollar at future prices.”)

There’s some question as to whether producing ethanol from biological materials is energy-efficient, but producing methanol from coal could work, and the U.S. has plenty of coal. The path to an alcohol economy is a lot easier than the path to a hydrogen economy. Is there some downside or barrier not mentioned in the AEI article?

Energy Bill and Ethanol

The new energy bill that passed the House has subsidies for ethanol. Ethanol is a renewable energy source made from grain. It can be made in the U.S. from excess corn.

Sounds good, right? But ethanol has lots of problems. For one thing, it encourages engine corrosion. For another, it takes more energy to produce ethanol than ethanol delivers, due to fertilizers, farm equipment, transportation, and processing. Bummer. Lynne Kiesling has a summary of objections to ethanol. Via InstaPundit.