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WILLIAM TUCKER: Biofuels – Still Searching for a Benefit

By William Tucker

When Amory Lovins first proposed biofuels in 1976, he did so by comparing our oil consumption to the output of the beer and wine industry.  We already processed 1/20th of our oil consumption for these alcoholic beverages.  

Gasoline has 1.5 to 2 times the fuel value of alcohol per gallon.  Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale (in gallons of fluid output per year) of U.S. cellars and breweries, albeit using different processes, would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States . . .. The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable…

It was only unreasonable if you didn’t calculate the amount of land that would be required to grow the crops.  Lovins never did but it’s easy enough.  The hops and vineyard industries occupy about 40 million acres.  Using Lovins’ estimate of “roughly ten to fourteen times the scale” of the beer and wine industries, we can multiply by 12, giving us 480 million acres – about half the cropland in the United States.  That would be to produce one-third of our gasoline consumption in 1976.  (That figure has since increased 50 percent.)

These numbers have hardly changed.  Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, James Jordan and James Powell, two research professors and former biofuels enthusiasts at the Polytechnic University of New York, noted:

It’s difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addition. . . . [T]he 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 demand. . . .   And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

The original intent of all this was to replace foreign oil.  Yet the amazing thing is that no one has ever been able to prove convincingly that growing crops for fuel saves any energy at all.  We now divert more than 40 percent of corn output – our largest crop – into replacing 3 percent of our oil consumption.  But growing corn is highly energy intensive.  David Pimental, a Cornell agronomist, has long argued that substituting corn for oil actually loses energy – most of it in the form of oil for tractors and transportation and natural gas for fertilizer. The Department of Energy has made a valiant effort to prove that something is being accomplished but the best studies have found an energy gain of only 30 percent.  A 2000 DOE study concluded, “The production of ethanol from corn is a mature technology that is not likely to see significant reductions in production costs.”

The holy grail of biofuels has always been cellulosic ethanol.  This would allow the conversion of all manner of stalks, stems and crop wastes to ethanol instead of just the sugars in corn seeds, sugar beets and sugar cane.  But industrial techniques for breaking down cellulose molecules require huge amounts of heat – i.e., energy.  The only practical route would be to domesticate the microorganisms that digest cellulose in the gut of termites or the stomach of cows.  This has been done in the laboratory but never successfully expanded to an industrial scale.  In 2007, after George Bush, Jr. persuaded Congress to mandate 250 million gallons of cellulosic alcohol by 2011, a company named Range Fuels claimed to have mastered the process.  The Department of Energy sunk $50 million into the project and the Department of Agriculture added another $80 in loan guarantees.  Range built a plant in Georgia but found the process didn’t work and closed its doors in 2011 without ever producing a single gallon of ethanol.

The biofuels effort probably would have been abandoned long ago if it hadn’t picked up the rational that it is somehow reducing carbon emissions.  The idea is that biofuels represent “young carbon” – carbon taken out of the atmosphere only recently, while fossil fuels represent “old carbon” – carbon buried in the earth for geological ages.  Burning wood and crops may produce more carbon emissions in the short run, since the molecules contain less hydrogen, but it is “carbon neutral.”  

But the real comparison should be between growing a field of corn to put in gas tanks and growing the same field for food consumption or leaving it to lie fallow.  In February 2008, Science published two papers showing the practice was anything but “carbon neutral.”  One showed that diverting agricultural land to biofuels almost anywhere in the world would lead to further deforestation. The other showed that it would take 93 years before the impact of converting grasslands to biofuels was neutralized by any reduction in fossil fuel consumption. All this has been borne out by the increase in carbon emissions that have occurred by clearing land for biofuels in the tropics.

In short, there is no rationale for biofuels whatsoever, except for a dreamy sense that it is more “natural” than burning fossil fuels.  And it pales when compared to the best source of carbon-free energy – nuclear power.  

The biofuels effort is reminiscent of the hapless Civil War general Jubilation T. Cornpone whose legendary career was celebrated in the Li’l Abner cartoon.  As the song in the Broadway show recounted:

With our ammunition gone and faced with utter defeat,

Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing to eat?

Someday someone should erect a statue of General Cornpone in front of the Department of Energy to celebrate America’s adventures in biofuels. 

  • Carney3

    Any attempted debunking of biofuel that cites David Pimentel or his collaborator T. Patzek is instantly discredited by just doing that.

    Read Chapter 7: “The Charlatans Strike Back” in “Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free from Oil” by nuclear engineer and rocket scientist Dr. Robert Zubrin, or Zubrin’s article “In Defense of Biofuels” in The New Atlantis which is free online.

    Pimentel and Patzek are notorious and isolated in the peer-reviewed literature, routinely swiftly refuted by the entire rest of the field over glaring errors or distortions such as:

    -assuming that all corn is irrigated when only 16% of corn is and almost no ethanol corn is;
    -using statistics that are from primitive Third World nations or 40 years out of date to exaggerate the energy input needed, or minimize the energy output obtained, from ethanol crops;
    -carefully ignoring the reality that an important ethanol byproduct called distillers grain is used as a high-protein high value animal feed for meat livestock, feed that would need to have been grown anyway;
    -etc etc

    But oil-funded “free market” think tanks continue to spam out their factually discredited papers long after they have been refuted and are no longer taken seriously. These “free market” think tanks do so without informing their Congressional, media, and grassroots readers that Pimentel not only has no credentials in agriculture or energy (he’s an “insect ecologist”) and is thus like Noam Chomsky best known for extreme writings outside his field of expertise, but also that Pimentel is an extreme-green crackpot who opposes beef production and ALL modern agriculture, who wants to cut world population by two-thirds via “democratic” population control methods, who wants to reduce the US standard of living by half, and even rails against cats and dogs as “alien species” to North America.

    The reality is that only half our arable land is farmland and less than half our farmland is even cultivated. Corn ethanol has significant capacity for expansion, and while it cannot solely replace gasoline, the FUD directed toward it is false and misleading, intentionally so. Still, the real game-changer is not corn ethanol nor cellulosic ethanol, but methanol with an M, which can be made from natural gas, coal, or ANY biomass without exception, including crop residues (such as the stems, cobs, leaves, etc. from ethanol corn farms), weeds, trash, even sewage. A fully flex fueled vehicle that can run equally easily on gasoline, ethanol, or methanol thus has such a diversity of source materials open to it that its driver is no longer a helpless captive market, forced to pay whatever price the oil cartel sets.

    The benefit of breaking oil’s monopoly power over transportation is obvious and needs no “searching” to find. Our crazed status quo of cars that are unnecessarily locked in to only being able to run on petroleum-based fuel empowers our enemies who control the world oil market. OPEC has 78% of commercially recoverable oil reserves while we have less than 2% COUNTING Arctic and offshore. Of all available alternative energy sources for transportation, the transition to alcohol fuel in flex fuel vehicles is the easiest, cheapest, and fastest to do. It only costs automakers about $130 per new car at the factory most to add methanol and ethanol compatibility in a gasoline car. Methanol is cheaper than gasoline without subsidies and even after taking mileage into account. Given the nearly infinite array of source materials that low price is sustainable amid rising demand. Within a few years of alcohol compatibility being as standard feature like seat belts, a sufficient critical mass of flex fuel cars will exist such that gas stations will find themselves racing each other to switch at least one pump over to alcohol so as to avoid being undercut by their local competition. Suddenly OPEC’s ability to demand and get radically artificially high prices for fuel crumbles, our economy improves drastically with the fear of oil price spikes and Arab oil embargoes fading, and extremist regimes’ mischief budgets are drastically curtailed.

    There are benefits all right, for anyone who cares to actually look.