Saturday, July 22, 2006

Maybe Biofuels Are Not An Answer

In an earlier series I wrote on energy, I advanced the thought that we must reduce our dependence on foreign oil immediately and on oil altogether in the long run by: 1. drilling for domestic oil, 2. switching temporarily to biofuels, 3. building the new, safe, hydrogen-producing PBR nuclear plants by the hundreds, and 4, creating a hydrogen-based fuel system for vehicles. The need for reducing as fast as possible our dependence on foreign-supplied fuel becomes more evident every day:, April 26, 2006

“After the war against global Islamic terrorism, there is no more important issue facing America today than our dependence on foreign oil. This is not an academic debate. Every American family who spent 40-50-60 dollars to fill up their car for an Easter visit to grandma's house already knows this.

Dependence on foreign oil threatens our national security and distorts global diplomacy. Whether it is bandit kidnappers in Nigeria, two-bit Communist dictators like Chavez in Venezuela, or the former student-hostage-taker turned President of Iran – it is not in our interest to remain dependent on those who don’t share our interests.

Each year we are sending tens of billions of dollars to regimes that are using that money to undermine us in our own hemisphere, to fund the forces of terrorism in radical mosques and suicide bomber schools across the Middle East, and now to build the "Islamic bomb" in Tehran’s nuclear plants.

Oil is also the Achilles heel of the American economic miracle. It supplies over 98 percent of our transportation fuel and yet we own a mere 3 percent of known global reserves.

Remaining this addicted to other folk’s oil puts our economy at risk to acts of man like terrorism and acts of God like the hurricanes that shut down the Gulf Coast’s oil infrastructure last year and still has large parts of it struggling to recover just in time for this year’s hurricane season.

And if this were not bad enough, the burning of oil-based fuels contributes to many of the environmental challenges our communities face.”

One of the major problems that has become more evident as biofuels are studied more closely is that biofuels cannot be counted upon to supply more than a tiny fraction of our fuel requirements. With further study, what seemed a real possibility at first has shown itself to be a false hope, and more and more articles such as are excerpted below are starting to appear:

Washington Post, June 30, 2006

“But as we've looked at biofuels more closely, we've concluded that they're not a practical long-term solution to our need for transport fuels. Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn't supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025. And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

It's difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addiction. Agriculture Department studies of ethanol production from corn -- the present U.S. process for ethanol fuel -- find that an acre of corn yields about 139 bushels. At an average of about 2.5 gallons per bushel, the acre then will yield about 350 gallons of ethanol. But the fuel value of ethanol is only about two-thirds that of gasoline -- 1.5 gallons of ethanol in the tank equals 1 gallon of gasoline in terms of energy output.

Moreover, it takes a lot of input energy to produce ethanol: for fertilizer, harvesting, transport, corn processing, etc. After subtracting this input, the net positive energy available is less than half of the figure cited above. Some researchers even claim that the net energy of ethanol is actually negative when all inputs are included -- it takes more energy to make ethanol than one gets out of it.
But allowing a net positive energy output of 30,000 British thermal units (Btu) per gallon, it would still take four gallons of ethanol from corn to equal one gallon of gasoline. The United States has 73 million acres of corn cropland. At 350 gallons per acre, the entire U.S. corn crop would make 25.5 billion gallons, equivalent to about 6.3 billion gallons of gasoline. The United States consumes 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually. Thus the entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of the demand….” Washington Post

This is not a majority view, but some scientists have come to believe that biofuels actually consume more energy than they produce:

"Biofuels don't make much sense unless they are a net energy source, and some experts question that assumption. The corn-to-ethanol program, which now makes about 1.5 billion gallons per year, is a politically motivated effort that makes no net energy, according to David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University.
Pimentel, who formerly chaired a U.S. Department of Agriculture panel on the energy aspects of biofuels, says, "With ethanol from corn, there is no net energy production. It actually takes almost 1.5 gallon of oil per gallon of ethanol."

Pimentel calculates that the average U.S. auto, driven 10,000 miles a year on pure ethanol, would require corn from 11 acres -- enough land to feed seven people. If all U.S. cars guzzled pure ethanol, he adds, corn would have to cover nearly the entire U.S. land surface."

The behavior of those US Senators, mostly Democrats, in stopping domestic drilling for oil and the building of more refineries is not only stupid, it is criminal. Their votes ensure that many more American soldiers will go to their deaths making sure Middle East oil keeps flowing, and also ensure that more billions of American dollars will flow into the hands of people who will use them to kill us. In addition, all the talk about biofuels may just be a ruse to cover their inaction on an energy program that makes sense for America’s future – an energy program that must include drilling and the rapid building of nuclear plants.

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At 2:10 PM, Blogger Bob Dahl said...

I find it interesting that your plan for reducing our dependance of foreign oil does not address conservation.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger RussWilcox said...

In my original series on energy, I mentioned conservation, but it's a matter of emphasis. I don't believe anyone thinks conservation can have more than a minor effect - especially compared to the major efforts that need to be faced and put into place.

At 10:17 AM, Anonymous steve said...

I strongly disagree with both the comments on conservation and statements from your blog.

Not that I'm a proponent of leaving the middle east (for other reasons), my hunch is that IF we did leave completely, oil would drop $20 a barrel.

The whole US has been on snooze for decades on this issue. We could have long ago mandated higher minimum mileage stds, we didn't.

I understand your premise, but drilling anwr/florida is a short term drop in the bucket.

Nuclear may be a partial answer but not on autos...and even the new pebble beds have enormous logistical issues to deal with like the waste materials.

At 3:41 PM, Blogger Normandie Wilson said...

I strongly disagree with the negative views on biofuels. How is it that (for example) South American countries have effectively powered their entire country with ethanol and now we say that we can't do it here in America, with better technology...? This is just another ridiculous example of our "friends" in big oil trying to control our lives and now, even our opinions of technology that hasn't even had a chance to be TRIED yet, much less put into action by millions of Americans.

There is also a difference between ethanol and biodiesel or cars that run on SVO and WVO. I'm disappointed to see that in this blog "biofuels" = "ethanol." That's not the case.

I myself drive a biodiesel car and I will admit that yes, there is lots and lots of room for improvement, especially in the area of supply/demand, but to already decide that biofuels are "not the answer" seems very premature to me. The truth is, most Americans (liberal, conservative, whatever) feel a strong need to reduce our dependence on foreign oil... And in order to do that, we're going to have to do it in a lot of ways. I myself prefer to imagine a future in 10-20 years where fuel stations provide a myriad of energy sources, everything from biodiesel to SVO and WVO, ethanol, E85, electric charging stations for electric cars, and who knows, maybe even service the needs of solar or hydrogen-powered cars. There's not just one answer for solving it. There are several.

And what about OTHER non-fuel related solutions for solving the oil crisis such as increasing the efficiency of the rail system, followed by beefing up public transit in major cities and working our way outwards? There are a lot of options. The option which I'd really like to see... is Americans actually taking responsibility for a change and making the choice to drive smaller vehicles with better MPG... and understanding that our brave new future is not going to mean that we're going to be able to drive the 4MPG Hummer to take the kids to soccer practice. We should also give incentives to people to live closer to work, give incentives to businesses to lump themselves together so that people and live, work, and get the things they need in one area. In CA, there has been talk of building housing units next to large office buildings. I think this is a great idea, not only improving the quality of life but also making work/life more energy efficient. Don't even get me started on all the changes we should all start making in our homes as well....another major source of fuel consumption........all little changes that will have very little effect on our lives right now but a BIG effect on our planet and on our fuel consumption as a country.

We need to wake up and start acting in a more conscious fashion to stop this crisis. There is no "one-cure" fix for this crisis.

At 4:13 PM, Blogger RussWilcox said...

As in the United States, the Brazilian biofuels usage depends heavily on government subsidies and also on the fact that they produce enormous quantities of sugar cane. It's interesting also that their biofuels consumption dropped markedly when they discovered a huge oil deposit.

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