January 5, 2007

Ethanol: The Saga Continues

The big issue with ethanol recently has been a debate about how much of our crop - corn in particular - should be used for fuel and how much should be sold as feed for livestock and humans.

Apparently, the Renewable Energy Association is not being altogether truthful with the public about just how much ethanol is being or being produced (big surprise):

The Earth Policy Institute says that 79 ethanol plants are under construction, which would more than double ethanol production capacity to 11 billion gallons by 2008. Yet late last month, the Renewable Fuels Association said there were 62 plants under construction.

The lower tally has led to an underestimate of the grain that would be needed for ethanol, clouding the debate over the priorities of allocating corn for food and fuel, said Lester R. Brown, who has written more than a dozen books on environmental issues and is the president of the Earth Policy Institute. “This unprecedented diversion of corn to fuel production will affect food prices everywhere,” Mr. Brown said.

Bob Dinneen, the president of the Renewable Fuels Association, said the group had not intentionally tried to play down the number of plants under construction. “It has been a moving target,” Mr. Dinneen said in an interview on Thursday. “We are not trying to hide the ball. We are trying to keep up with a growing and dynamic industry as best we can.”

I'm curious. Has everyone forgotten the estimates of Cornell Ecologist Dave Pimentel? Corn and many other biofuel resources ain't it:

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

    Ethanol from these sources does not seem to be the answer, so why are we allowing the government to pursue another dead end? Pimentel also estimated that the country would have to be literally covered with corn fields to meet the fuel needs of the US, not to mention the food needs. Imagine what that would do to our native ecosystems.

    If anything, we should be reducing the production of corn in our country. Most of it goes to feeding livestock, which in turn is slaughtered, and rots in pieces within our cavernous grocery stores. It takes far more land and energy to support our beef habit than just about any food product. Sprawling agriculture of this level destroys our forests and wildlife and is quickly draining our fresh water resources. All for a steak? A piece of chicken? How much meat do we need to eat?

    Couple that with the desire for energy independence, and the impatient move toward ethanol as a solution, and we are in a tight spot. How much more land needs to be cleared? How many more animals will we drive to extinction by habitat loss?

    Here we have another example of big business and government ignoring the facts, trying to capitalize on the panic induced by high gas prices. We will never be Brazil. (Remember that Brazil needs to clear rain forest for sugar cane plantations.)

    Just because GM and BP slaps a green and yellow label on their products doesn't mean the production is green.


    1. Dr Nicholas George3:31 PM

      The problem is that other work contradicts Pimentel's. Starch-based ethanol certainly produces a small amount of energy compared with how much is used in its production. Lignocellulosic ethanol is another story. I have read studies that say Switchgrass can produce 10 times the energy required to produce it. I haven't sat down and worked through the methods used in these papers so I don't know whom to believe.

      I should declare that I have recently been hired as the coordinator of the NC State University biofuel crop development program.

    2. Well, Dr. George, I would greatly appreciate it if you could keep me informed through your position. Sounds promising.

      Thanks for the comment.