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In Search of the 'Flex-Fuel Freeway'
Joel Makower, 5 Feb 06

The seemingly sudden elevation of ethanol in the national consciousness -- capped this past week by the "addicted to oil" admission in George Bush's State of the Union address -- shows the value of persistence and patience for those promoting alternative energy resources, and underscores the notion that every underdog has its day.

But it also points out that no matter what petroleum alternatives you choose, there will likely be plenty of critics out there. It took barely a single 24-hour news cycle following Bush's speech before enthusiastic headlines gave way to pessimistic reports detailing why the president will likely have a tough time pushing his vision past everyone from environmental activists to Big Oil.

Perhaps. But I'm far from ready to run this idea into a ditch.

A few weeks ago, I wrote of General Motors' growing efforts to fuel a national ethanol infrastructure -- what I've dubbed the "Flex-Fuel Freeway," in contrast to the much ballyhooed (and much longer-term) Hydrogen Highway that California and other states have been pursuing with varying degrees of hope and hype. And, indeed, GM (a client of GreenOrder, a consultancy with which I am affiliated), continues its aggressive push. This weekend, for example, it is using the Super Bowl to launch a Web site and advertising campaign promoting E85. The tagline: "Live Green, Go Yellow." The color yellow refers, in this case, to corn, the principal feedstock of ethanol, as well as to the color of gas caps GM will be putting on the more than 400,000 flex-fuel vehicles capable of running on 85% ethanol (known as E85) that it will produce in 2006.

The Web site is just a beginning. The company will be making additional announcements on ethanol this coming week at the Chicago Auto Show. I'll be attending and will report further on what they, and other car companies, are up to in the flex-fuel arena.

But it's not just GM that's paving the way for the Flex-Fuel Freeway. Ford, too, is touting flex-fuel vehicles, and attempted to one-up GM recently by unveiling plans for a flex-fuel Escape Hybrid. The prospect of such a vehicle is tantalizing -- the Escape Hybrid's EPA-estimated 36 miles per gallon pencils out to about 240 miles per gallon of oil when run on a mixture of 85% ethanol -- but don't bother placing your order quite yet. Ford's flex-fuel Escape Hybrid is still a concept car, and it doesn't even meet current emissions standards. Nonetheless, Ford plans to make a quarter-million or so non-hybrid flex-fuel vehicles this year.

All of this is promising, but questions remain: From what will we manufacture ethanol? Who will build the infrastructure to ensure that E85 fuel is easily available to American drivers? And how can all this be done with maximum benefits -- not just in kicking our oil addiction, but also in mitigating climate change?

Indeed, the on-ramp to the Flex-Fuel Freeway is pocked with several such challenges.

Bush himself addressed the what-shall-we-make-it-from question in his speech. Corn is the current default ingredient for ethanol, at least in the U.S., and studies suggest that the fossil-fuel inputs needed to grow corn negate much of E85's oil-saving benefits. In his speech, Bush announced plans (or at least ambitions -- it's unclear whether there's actual money authorized) to:

fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.

This is laudatory, albeit hardly a stretch goal. (Quick aside: In remarks at last week's Clean-Tech Investors Summit, former Bush-the-senior EPA administrator Bill Reilly cracked that in his recent State of the Union address, George W. managed to pronounce "cellulosic biomass ethanol" more accurately than he does "nuclear.") Many experts suggest that cellulosic ethanol -- derived from plant waste and other fibrous materials -- can be ramped up rather quickly. And, since it can be sold through gas pumps at any of the 19,000 or so existing U.S. fueling stations, infrastructure problems are minimal (or at least far less than for hydrogen distribution).

And cellulosic ethanol makes the most climate sense, since using waste products requires few, if any, fossil fuels to grow, and even growing special "bioenergy crops" can be done with far fewer petroleum and petrochemical inputs. According to a recent study by Dan Kammen of U.C. Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (Download - PDF), the greenhouse gas (GHG) improvements of cellulosic over corn-based ethanol are dramatic. Kammen's review and analysis of various studies concluded that:

The impact of a switch from gasoline to [corn-based] ethanol has an ambiguous effect on GHG emissions, with the reported values ranging from a 20% increase to a decrease of 32%. . . . However, current data suggest that only cellulosic ethanol offers large reductions in GHG emissions.

The other big question is how to grow the infrastructure -- the classic chicken-and-egg question of which comes first: the demand for E85 fuels, or the widespread availability of E85? At present, E85 is available at only about 600 fueling stations around the U.S. And there are just over 2 million E85-compatible vehicles on U.S. roads -- a tiny fraction of the roughly 200 million vehicles registered.

Creating a robust network of E85 fueling stations in a given region would require a concentration of flex-fuel vehicles near those pumps. But there are many unanswered questions: How many vehicles and how many fueling stations would it take to create a tipping point in a given region? What can state and local governments do to facilitate this? What industry players would need to be engaged, and in what ways? What kind of driver education would be required? What are the policy barriers that would need to be overcome? So many questions, so little time.

But help may be on the way -- at least in California. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that Hollywood mogul Steven Bing and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla are bankrolling a campaign for a ballot initiative that, if approved, could raise as much as $380 million a year to develop alternative fuels. Dubbed the Clean Alternative Energy Act, the initiative would place a small tax on all oil produced in California -- the U.S. third-biggest crude oil-producing state -- much like taxes already levied in Alaska, Louisiana, Texas, and other oil-rich states. The initiative would bar oil companies from passing the tax on to consumers in the form of higher pump prices.

The money would go to a new independent agency that would earmark 60% of the money for programs aimed at developing alternative vehicles and fuels to reduce gasoline and diesel use, 27% to pay for related research at California universities, and most of the rest to help companies put new products on the market.

Such an initiative could go a long way toward powering the Flex-Fuel Freeway. But don't get your hopes up. The Times noted that:

A coalition of oil companies and anti-tax activists is already organizing a counter-campaign, arguing that the alternative energy initiative is "nothing more than a hidden tax which could cost consumers and businesses hundreds of millions of dollars every year in higher gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel prices."

All of this controversy and debate is enthusiastically welcome, as far as I'm concerned. Compared with more recent skirmishes around energy independence -- whether to drill for oil in the Alaskan tundra, for example -- this debate holds much more promise to significantly address our energy needs in relatively short order. If we can ramp up E85 -- using corn at first, then biomass, aggressively increasing the fuel's availability and reducing its price -- it could be the first genuine opportunity we have to break our now-acknowledged addiction.

Do you agree? Is E85 the way of the future? Should we be aggressively pushing it? Let me know what you think.

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From Spain I would say: 85% yes!

Posted by: David de Ugarte on 5 Feb 06

I'm afraid that ethanol is another example of codependency -- making it easier for the addict to continue his addiction. It's as if all the problems we face are collapsed into one simple-minded question: how do Americans keep their cars running?

Some basic problems:
1. How does this solution scale to the hundreds of millions of cars to be driven by the newly affluent Indians and Chinese?
2. What does this do to the price of sugar and commodities? This may not be a problem for the affluent, but what about the majority of the world's population?
3. How is this a sustainable process? It requires inputs of petroleum, fertilizers and pesticides. It depletes the soil of carbon and other nutrients.

Without a long-term vision of the future, we constantly jump from one enthuasiasm to the next. We are so overjoyed at the prospect of acceptance by Republicans and The Market that we lose our critical abilities.

Posted by: Bart on 5 Feb 06

Bart, you sound as if you don't know to much about E85, and how it is being used today. Here's some feedback from someone who has actually filed a tank with E85:

1) This is a national response, not a global plan. However, Europe and Brazil are now using E85, China and India also wish to expand their ethanol fuel industries. So we are not alone.
2) Most fuel ethanol in the US is made from surplus corn. It has no impact on corn price that I know of. In Brazil, they are making ethanol from sugar cane. In Poland, it's surplus wheat.
3) Sustainable? Perhaps not, in the strict definition. Certainly more "sustainable" than oil. The term used most often (and acurately) is renewable.

Ethanol will never replace petroleum -- but it can help it last longer, and burn cleaner, until a true, sustainable solution can be found.

Posted by: Bob from ALAMN on 5 Feb 06

A mini mall in every small town? At one time there was a similarity in villages everywhere and not much purpose in driving elsewhere. In 1900 there were many who never, in their entire lives, found the need to take the trolley to the nearest community, which had no more to offer than home.

The swarming of iron locusts, morning and night, is made possible in the automobile, facilitated by petroleum.

Let us hope that the supplies of fossil fuels will run out just in the nick of time, before the atmosphere is permanently damaged.

Stay Home! Why not? At the rate of present population growth (about 256,000 per day) Detroit must be salivating at the market opportunity.

Condoms could prevent condominiums.

Posted by: Charles Mac Arthur on 5 Feb 06

You missed the right exit on the Flex Fue Freeway, Joel. Instead, of wondering whether the oil patch will make nice with the corn patch, you could have asked, "But where is the plug?"

Posted by: jcwinnie on 5 Feb 06

> (Bob:) you sound as if you don't know to much about E85

None of my points has to do with the specifics of the technology.

> [price of food affected by ethanol]

Elementary market economics. Greater demand for carbohydrates and sugars, greater demand for farmland, higher prices. Already, there are reports of higher sugar prices (link).

> Sustainable? Perhaps not, in the strict definition.

Not in any definition of the term. It's another example of mining the environment. Ethanol is probably one of many technologies that would make sense on a small-scale in a low-energy future. But until we address the underlying problems, it's just another form of heroin.

> until a true, sustainable solution can be found.

That's the problem, Bob. True solutions have been around for many years. Cultaral taboos and these technofix solutions distract us from thinking about them.

Technofixes lull us into thinking that we can ignore efficiency and conservation. We need to restructure our lives, processes and expectations for low energy. Not the happy-face solution, but the truth.

Ironically the centrist-Democrat Jimmy Carter had a deeper analysis of energy 30 years ago than most environmentalists nowdays: see Jerome a Paris on President Carter (link).

I keep thinking about the remark by Donella Meadows (link) that the most effecive leverage point for changing a system is:

The mindset or paradigm out of which the system -- its goals, power structure, rules, its culture -- arises.

That's why having a vision of sustainability is important. With a vision, it's possible to put ethanol into perspective -- good as a starting point for discussion, but a potential trap for the unwary.

Posted by: Bart on 5 Feb 06

Charles – if you and the other Greens want to move back to the village and live that lifestyle please go.
Ring me if you need airfare for a flight to Africa. If the village life is so great, why have millions of people moved from the village into the city for 100s if not 1,000s of years? The village life only works today if a city is nearby to support it. Lets not forget about the >2 billion people in the world who live on maybe 1 or 2 dollars a day and still have no or very little electrical power, clean water, healthcare, education or job opportunities. Do you have any idea what the unemployment rate is in Eastern Europe, Middle East or Africa for that matter?

Global Warming - The last Ice Age ended something like 10,000 years ago and since then the planet has been warming up and the ocean sea levels have been going up as well. If mankind is responsible for Global Warming during the last 200 years or so what was the cause of the Earth warming up the other 9,800 years before that?

Before the Greens offer advice as to what needs to be done to fix the many problems and issues facing this Earth, they need to volunteer to be sterilized beforehand. Don’t they claim the earth in over populated by a few billion people? Time to take your own advice!

Posted by: Jag on 5 Feb 06

Aye, it be a troll captain. Screaming talking points at the top of its lungs.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 5 Feb 06

Here in Brazil it's being done for some time already.

Our flex-fuel cars use alcohol as gas (it's taken from sugarcane) along with gasoline. Alcohol is cheaper,cleaner and lasts longer, reducing consumption. It's so sucessful that around 70% of the cars sold in Brazil last year had this technology and countries like Japan are starting to add 5% of alcohol to their gas.

Not to mention our natural-gas-powered much more economic (compared to gas) cars and the biodiesel researching that is being done here. Biodiesel is oil taken from fruits and other renewable sources, but that's another story...

Posted by: Alan on 5 Feb 06

I'd to say three things:

1) If producing ethanol is cheap enough, it WILL BECOME sustainable. If we start using ethanol instead of petroleum I'm pretty confident that by the time the world oil reserves are finished we would had been able to find a different way to produce fertilisers.

2) Now and advice FREE TRADE. Brazil can produce ethanol so cheaply that it would be cost competitive if oil stays a $45 a barrel or over (I got this from a The Economist article). That is just using current technology, imagine what could be done with cellulose ethanol. By the way that's much cheaper that producing corn ethanol.

3) Although I don't have data and is just a guess, I'd say that sugar is a comodity in the rich world. I don't see way poor people could care about buying sugar (I might be wrong though). And the solution is to produce more sugar, easy enough done (again free trade would help).

Posted by: Aran Ramo on 5 Feb 06

Joel, thanks for this post. I think the question of ethanol depends on the scale of energy supply being contemplated. Our current energy scale depends on stocks of solar energy stored over eons, stocks we consume at a rate infinitely greater than their replenishment rate. Ethanol, and other biomass fuels, will depend on an annual flow of solar energy. World primary energy consumption is at least 13 terrawatts. Terrestrial photosynthesis can convert solar energy at the rate of about 0.7 watts per square meter. So 1 terrawatt, produced from biomass, would require an are of land that turns out to equal about 1/7th of the United States. That's a lot of land!

I think we keep tricking ourselves into thinking that we're trying to find new sources of energy. Instead, I think we should be looking at viable, sustainable ways to provide the necessities and decencies of a sufficient life.

Um, Jag - I had the vasectomy. How about you?

Posted by: David Foley on 5 Feb 06

Wow, I guess WC is finally hitting the big time. An official troll! I just wish he was using the latest talking points, instead of the ones from 2003.

I'd take his claims down one by one, but really, what's the point? It's not like the facts are that hard to find.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 5 Feb 06

Ethanol seems the best alternative for the immediate future. But depending on research alone and wait ten or twenty years to develop methods to produce 60 billion gallons/year that we need seems to me ludicrous. We can solve the problem now. We currently produce some 5 billion gallons/year of ethanol. While we encourage farmers to produce more corn, increase ethanol production, and research for methods of producing ethanol from cheaper sources, we should import the difference of ethanol needed from Brazil and other countries, giving the priority to our domestic production; so that as we increase our production, we decrease our imports. It is better to import ethanol from friendly countries than oil from rogue countries. This is the best way to defeat terrorism: by cutting their financial support.

Posted by: Joseph Miglietta on 5 Feb 06

I think it's foolish to disregard energy options simply because they are less than perfect. It seems most practical that several 'solutions' will be provide a net improvement economically, strategically, and environmentally. That said, I'd just like to respond to this:
"Creating a robust network of E85 fueling stations in a given region would require a concentration of flex-fuel vehicles near those pumps. But there are many unanswered questions: How many vehicles and how many fueling stations would it take to create a tipping point in a given region? What can state and local governments do to facilitate this? What industry players would need to be engaged, and in what ways? What kind of driver education would be required? What are the policy barriers that would need to be overcome? So many questions, so little time."
Perhaps it won't be so hard. I immediately thought of the many uses of Google Maps & Google Earth to point people in the direction of useful information. I can imagine people buying E85 cars and using the web to find the ethanol stations, thus pushing competition and demand. Maybe the day will come when Google can sell ads for E85 pumps! It's like the long tail in reverse...
Just a little quick thinking optimism.

Posted by: Doug on 5 Feb 06

I see the following problems with ethanol as a fuel:

Can the US agriculture produce ethanol cheaper than any other foreign source? If not, then we'd become slaves of a different master.

If ethanol requires more cropland to produce more and more of the fuel, are we not inviting the distruction of more of our unspoiled areas to support it? The price of oil is high enough now that they are looking at oil shale again. Those vast areas of Colorado and other parts of the West that were left untouched only becuase of the uneconomical nature of the natural resource within it are now again up for development and destruction. Often Brazil is cited as being a good model for ethanol, but isn't Brazil also chopping down the Amazon forest at an unbelievable pace to make way for farmers? I'll be there is a correlation.

IF we can limit the purchase of ethanol to sources in the US, and IF we can cap land useage only to the point where we don't have to pay farming subsidies AND we don't have every farmer switching from potatoes to switchgrass because the profits are higher, thus leaving us with high priced food from other places, ethanol could be the right power source. I can't see how you can control all these factors successfully.

Posted by: Erik on 5 Feb 06

Interesting insight, Doug! In fact, we have an ad on Google right now to lead people to the website. There you will find an interactive map (although not quite so sophisticated as you envision) of the Upper Midwest, where most of the country's E85 pumps are now located. You will also find the world's only E85 proce forum, to help FFV drivers find the best price on the alternative fuel.

Bob Moffitt
American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest

Posted by: Bob from ALAMN on 6 Feb 06

Hi all

Further to David's post I think the following article (below) from Cornell makes an important point.

The production of ethanol consumes more energy than the fuel delivers.

In 2003, biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota.”

ie every year we use four centuries’ worth of plants and animals.

Renewables are the only alternative I think, combined with radical behavioral change - no more hummers, lots of local food and good design patterned on natural systems.

cheers Mark
"Cornell ecologist's study finds that producing ethanol and biodiesel from corn and other crops is not worth the energy
17/Dec/2005 22:51
By Susan S. Lang, Senior Science Writer ?Cornell University News Service
ITHACA, N.Y. -- Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

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.

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis.

"The United State desperately needs a liquid fuel replacement for oil in the near future," says Pimentel, "but producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products."

Although Pimentel advocates the use of burning biomass to produce thermal energy (to heat homes, for example), he deplores the use of biomass for liquid fuel. "The government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production when it does not provide a net energy balance or gain, is not a renewable energy source or an economical fuel. Further, its production and use contribute to air, water and soil pollution and global warming," Pimentel says. He points out that the vast majority of the subsidies do not go to farmers but to large ethanol-producing corporations.

"Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, economy or the environment," says Pimentel. "Ethanol production requires large fossil energy input, and therefore, it is contributing to oil and natural gas imports and U.S. deficits." He says the country should instead focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion."

Posted by: Mark Moody on 6 Feb 06

Reading through the comments on ethanol production, there is a distinct oversight of the mention of production from cellulosic biomass, ie, waste wood, paper waste, switchgrass, and millions of tons of other woody biomass sources.

I live in the west and suffering from misguided notions that the forests should not be managed and the results are that with fire suppression, our forests are 70 to 90% over-grown. Too many straws in the bucket for whatever water might be available. This situation is just as bad as over harvesting of the forests.

We have a much better idea of how to manage the forests now, but the biggest problem still remains, how to eliminate the waste from thinning (slash and undersized/suppressed trees have little or no current value to encourage use) without burning (with it's potential for getting out of control) or leaving on the forest floor to suppress grasses and other plants that would naturally exist in a healthy forest floor where sunlight is allowed.
Many people are struggling to develop economical means to utilize this valuable stream of renewable cellulose, but distance to potential refineries is the biggest problem. Investment in multiple smaller bio-refineries will be the answer.

Posted by: Mike on 6 Feb 06

While I have seen some pretty convincing critiques of the Pimentel and Patzek studies - things like them assuming a level of fertilizer use more typical of the 1980s and efficiency of the conversion process typical of older plants - I don't really hold too much hope for biofuel as a big part of our energy mix in the future. This is for the simple reason that even if we were able to convert biomass into liquid fuel with 100% efficiency and no fossil fuel inputs, the efficiency with which solar energy is converted to biomass in the first place is rather low.

While I can see a place for some biofuels (especially biodiesel that can be made from wastes like used cooking oil) in the mix, I see much more of a contribution to our transport system being made by plug-in hybrids and pure electrics alongside with some major conservation efforts. The advantage of introducing electric into the mix is that those kW can be produced by any available source, including solar and wind, and most of these, even taking into account inefficiencies of power plants, transmission lines, and battery charging, net you far more energy than biomass. Going electric, in effect, makes all energy sources fungible, so that you can truly convert over from fossil fuel inputs as power plants are completed.

Posted by: Scott on 6 Feb 06

GM is pushing biofuel so hard because they want no part of downsizing their automobiles and supporting a government mandated plan that would radically reduce fuel consumption. Unfortunately, ethanol will be used as an argument that we can just simply perpetuate our SUV dominated economy, our "regional" shopping centers and big box stores, our traffic infested cities, our clogged freeways, our dependence of this iron monster we call the automobile.

While there is a continuing debate about the net return of energy, if any, from ethanol, it is still true that reliance on ethanol will still make us hyper dependent upon petroleum, imported and otherwise, for the indefinite future. I don't object to ethanol, per se, but I fear that it is supported by people like President Bush because he doesn't want to be appearing to threaten the sacred American lifestyle, regardless of how wasteful.

We want our monster trucks and we want ethanol as a way to perpetuate our love affair with gigantism and power.

I think it makes more sense to focus on hybrids, PHEVs, and electrics. Especially, if we can increase our reliance on wind and other green sources of electricity, these technologies offer greater promise for reduction of greenhouse emissions. Ethanol should be an adjunct and a complement to a national policy to reduce energy consumption, not a substitute. GM and others would prefer that we continue business as usual with ethanol as a centerpiece. That is a losing proposition, but they don't care.

Posted by: t on 6 Feb 06

Scott - I was under the impression that all those inefficiencies from power plants and transmission meant that you only end up with 10% of the energy at the end of the pipeline. Add in the charging of batteries and the number gets worse. That's more efficient than biomass?
I think, greenhouse gases aside, that thermodepolymerization is more promising than, say, switchgrass or wood chips. Converting the waste we're already producing into oil, pure-enough water, and mineral solids at 85% efficiency (100 BTUs go in, 85 BTUs come out in useful form) is a first step, if not an infinitely sustainable proposition.

If we converted just our agricultural waste using the TDP process, we'd be a net exporter of oil. TDP was producing No. 2 heating oil a little while ago, and is now making diesel. Add in sorted municipal waste and a host of other carbon-based feedstocks, and you've got a good way to make use of the waste that required so much oil input in the first place. Let's start by recovering the oil we're already dumping.

That's not to say there aren't any difficulties. The plants stink to high hell, for example. But the technology is already working.

Posted by: OrneryWP on 6 Feb 06

Jamais, are you calling me a troll? I'm surprised, since I've posted on WC before and have linked to many WC articles from

I am disappointed to see how the WorldChanging community approaches ethanol. The approach is strong when it comes to technical details, but weak when it comes to overall analysis -- the ecological, economic and political ramifications.

I don't agree with uncritical enthuasiasm for ethanol, but I have read papers and articles from both sides of the debate. Ethanol and biomass have been discussed at length in peak oil circles, and the points I'm making are standard fare.

Posted by: Bart on 6 Feb 06

It's unfair to lump all biofuels together and evaluate them as if they are the same. The production inputs for corn ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and biodiesel are all drastically different. Critics are quick to slam corn ethanol, and rightly so, it does very little to mitigate GHG emissions and its production is fairly energy internsive.

Cellulosic ethanol produced from wood, stalks, or grasses is much much more energy efficient. While corn ethanol only yields about 350-400 gallons per acre, ethanol derived from switchgrass yields about 1000 gallons per acre. Corn requires much more fertilizer, herbicide, and water than switchgrass. Corn is refined into sugar to produce ethanol, an extremely energy intensive process. While switchgrass can be catalyzed with enzymes or produced through synthesis gas fermentation, both processes significantly more efficient than acid-catalyzed hydration used to produce corn ethanol. So while corn ethanol has an underwhelming 1 to 1 or slightly positive net energy balance and only reduces CO2 emissions by 10-20%, cellulosic ethanol has a much higher 4 to 1 positive net energy balance and reduces CO2 emissions by ~85%.

It doesn't do justice to the fundamental differences and benefits of cellulosic ethanol to lump it together with corn ethanol. One holds very much promise for our energy future while the other does not, in my opinion.

NRDC believes that cellulosic ethanol has an enormous upside, read for yourself:

I think it's a cop out and too idealistic to say that we shouldn't focus efforts on renewable fuels because it perpetuates a fuel-hungry culture. We have created a world of roads and automobiles, a paradigm not soon changing. Pure electric automobiles may be possible someday but are simply too costly and frankly too radical to really catch on today (not that this technology shouldn't be pursued). Renewable fuels, hybrid technology, and more efficient vehicles are available today, although no one is a silver bullet, and shouldn't be evaluated as such.

Posted by: Dave on 6 Feb 06

(Bart, no -- not you. There was a comment a few down from your first one that dredged up tired and long-ago refuted claims about global warming. That was what I was reacting to.)

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 6 Feb 06

In the context of socially responsible investing, which is what my blog is all about, I recently wrote about the options of investing in Ethanol (

To me, the beauty of cellulosic ethanol is that it can be made from agricultural waste. The energy has already been expended to create it. Have you ever wandered where all the corn stalks, wheat chaffs, and canes go after the edible stuff is extracted? Usually, it gets incinerated or made into animal feed. Likewise, all the wood chips that are wasted when converting a tree into useful wood products can be re-used.

Not to minimize the debate on how environmentally benign the process is, but what will resonate with most Americans is our ability to drastically reduce our reliance on Middle Eastern oil. The proponents of ethanol should frame the debate this way first.

Mark Brandon
Sustainable Log - News and Views for Socially Responsible Investors
When you subscribe to Sustainable Log, we give $1 to Alternative Gifts International in support of a cause of your choice.

Posted by: Mark Brandon on 6 Feb 06

There are blogs, shock horror, where contrarian trolls all hang out and mostly agree with each other. While the trolls shelter under a weathered bridge of their own construction, the world is changing around them. If you put a troll in a cauldron of ambient temp water and then gradually turn up the heat, does it notice?

Posted by: Flannel Flower on 7 Feb 06

"Scott - I was under the impression that all those inefficiencies from power plants and transmission meant that you only end up with 10% of the energy at the end of the pipeline. Add in the charging of batteries and the number gets worse. That's more efficient than biomass?"

Well, considering that the overall efficiency of photosynthesis is only 3 to 6 percent, and then you need to deal with the inefficiencies of converting the resulting plant matter into the biofuel, yes - even if that 10 percent figure is accurate. On that, there are solar and wind systems with efficiencies on the generation side of 30 to 40 percent, and on the transmission side, *losses* run at between 7 to 8 percent across the grid, so better than 90% of that energy is getting to your plugs at home. Charging efficiency of most types of batteries is better than 50%, and while I'm not sure about the efficiency of the electric motors in hybrids, I'm pretty sure that they're at least no *less* efficient than the systems in a regular IC vehicle. So, at worst, you're looking at 30 x 0.9 x 0.5 = ~13.5% efficiency in the entire chain, vs. 3%-6% in just the *first link* for biomass.

Now, photosynthesis is great for producing certain types of energy - dietetic calories consumable by humans and other animals, and possibly burning of waste matter for heating or cogeneration purposes - but doesn't really seem suited for anything except a supplementary fuel source...

Posted by: Scott on 7 Feb 06

Just a quick note to those who say that ethanol fever has no price effects on commodities. This is very wrong. Over the last year sugar prices have increased tremendously (up to 35%) on ethanol forecasts. The same holds for the big five oil complexes, on biodiesel buzz.

My main point: it is very likely that ethanol, biodiesel and bioenergy feedstocks will be traded on an international market, with transcontinental exchanges. This is already being discussed heavily on the international policy front.
The EU's CAP-bioenergy policy -- which is looking at how the CAP countries will become bioenergy feedstock exporters with the EU as their main market -- is one example. The WTO's policy work on 'environmental goods' (which includes bioenergy feedstocks) is another.

In short, the international trade disputes regarding agricultural subsidies will extend to bioenergy feedstocks. The tropics can produce much more biomass at much lower costs, and they will push for trade liberalisation. Brazil is already a net exporter of ethanol. And it has much more capacity for the future. The same is true for sub-Saharan Africa. Both South-America and sub-Saharan Africa can produce more biomass than all other regions on the planet combined. Therefor, the logical step is to start a trade relationship.

Of course, the US and EU agro-lobbies don't like thi. So we will see vicious trade battles, very soon. The EU and the US are likely to close off their markets, while China and India will gladly become importers of cheap fuel produced in Brazil and Congo.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 7 Feb 06


Yes Pimentel and Patzek are negative about ethanol whereas others are perhaps overly optimistic. A recent meta study at UC Berkeley concluded that ethanol from corn was positive energy, but just so, whereas cellulosic seemed much more promising.

Posted by: jcwinnie on 7 Feb 06

Aran Ramo claims:

If producing ethanol is cheap enough, it WILL BECOME sustainable.
Wishful thinking; it didn't work for oil, coal or even wood.

Doug writes:

I think it's foolish to disregard energy options simply because they are less than perfect.
Excellent thought, but there's more downside to ethanol than that:
  1. It already has a huge constituency for a very wasteful system, and that constituency will grow along with its sales.
  2. There are ways of using renewables which are far more efficient than conversion to ethanol + internal combustion engines, and these may be able to satisfy 100% of the nation's needs.  The issue is that a constituency for ethanol may succeed in blocking a transition to superior methods, and have legal mandates which give it priority for feedstocks.

Mark Moody:  Please stop citing Pimentel.  Those studies have been discredited.  Ethanol (even from corn) is energy-positive, just not by enough to be the salvation its proponents claim it is.

E-85 gets about 20% of its energy from gasoline, and the balance from ethanol.  If the best USDA figures for corn ethanol EROEI are used (1.66:1), about 60% of the energy of each gallon of ethanol is also of fossil origin.  This yields 1-(0.2+(.8*.6))=0.32=32% savings in fossil fuel from using corn ethanol, at best.  We should not encourage such non-solutions.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 7 Feb 06

Living under a bridge as a troll isn’t so bad after awhile. Anyway, I did read something about growing Algae with the help of CO2 gas produced from the power plant on the MIT campus. Per Mr. Briggs, from University of New Hampshire, states it would be possible to produce both Bio-diesel and Bio-ethanol at same power unit. Wouldn’t this help the nation with its motor fuel flexibility without covering the whole countryside with energy crops? Yes! A 1000MV fossil fuel power plant could produce something like 90M gallons of Bo-fuels (40/60 split between the two types) per year. Greenfuel Technology believes there’re about 1000 of these ONE GW power plants round the country that have enough surrounding acreage to make this economically viable. So the whole EROEI debate for or against Ethanol changes with this new production method. So do you want a practical solution to our nation’s energy needs or a perfect one?

Posted by: Jag on 7 Feb 06

I think the US should allow free trade to dominate the biofuels exchanges. Corn ethanol is extremely inefficient and expensive compared to Brazilian (and soon Central-African) sugar cane ethanol, which now sells for US$ 25 a barrel, beating crude twice and corn ethanol thrice.
The "EROEI" of corn ethanol is somewhere between 0.8 and 1.3, while that of Brazilian sugar cane ethanol is somewhere between 13.2 and 10.9 (about ten times better: ).

If the US wants energy efficiency and sustainability, it should import ethanol (feedstock) from places where it makes sense to produce it, that is: outside the US. It would also help millions of dead poor farmers.

Posted by: Lorenzo on 8 Feb 06

I'm glad the last few comments here swung to what is happening in the markets with regard to biofuels. Thankfully because of these markets, we will have a biofuel future weaning us off fossil fuels. Although it's not the final answer, I'm glad it will make for a better world all the way around.

Also, I think it's funny how the near destruction of the domestic car makers is the only thing that has finally caused them to take alternative fuels seriously.

Posted by: Friday on 9 Feb 06



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