Undercurrents: beneath the obvious

December 30, 2006

Ethics of Biofuels (Ethanol) – or lack of ethics as the article makes clear

Filed under: Ethanol — nemo @ 9:26 pm

Found this at Energy News and just had to write about it:

Anyone who tells you that we can run all our cars on biodiesel or ethanol is out of their minds. The issue is simple arithmetic.

Lester Brown points out that the average fill up of a 25 gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will requires the same amount of grain as it takes to feed a person for year. Every person in the US, man, woman and child, uses 500 gallons of gasoline per year. So, that means that every American would use enough gas to feed 20 people over the course of the year.

There are 300 million people in the US, and 300 million people, each using enough food to feed 20 people to run their cars, would require enough grain to feed 6 billion people. Perhaps that number sounds vaguely familiar. Back in 1999, that was how many people were alive on the earth. We’ve added a few since then, of course, but let’s be realistic. A) We don’t have enough grain to use 6 billion people’s food for our cars for a year and b) it would be obscene if we even tried to come close. …

So realistically, we are not discussing replacing 75% or 50% of our imported oil with biodiesel or ethanol – period. It isn’t possible. And if we are talking about a more realistic number, like 10-15%, that can only happen with policy programs designed to create, encourage, and perhaps require conservation. And it may not be possible at all, if petroleum and natural gas production are near their present peaks.

There’s much much more there. In fact, there are 11 principles explored, the above was a part of principle #1.

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  1. The commonly quoted production values are a wild overstatement.

    They represent gross production. When the energy inputs are subtracted, the maximum net energy production is equivalent to less than 1% of our 2006 gasoline energy consumption, ~141.8E9 gallons.

    They all neglect the reality of:

    Net Production = Output – Input

    The principle is not obscure.
    The joke is on the taxpayers.
    The delay in addressing the real problem is deadly.

    Comment by Russ Brown — December 30, 2006 @ 11:17 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks Russ. I started these posts on the subject of Ethanol because I was interested in the water consumption rates necessary to convert corn into fuel. What an eye opening education this has been for me. The more I read the more I see how ethanol is being exploited by:

    – Corn farmers in higher corn prices
    – Politicians in the promise of more jobs
    – The auto industry to sell more cars
    – Even some of the traditional conservation organizations who seem to have bought the Ethanol = Renewable line

    All at the expense of the everyone else.

    Comment by nemo — December 31, 2006 @ 8:06 am | Reply

  3. The ethanol industry is part of the cure to our “addiction to oil”, global warming, and pollution. It is only in its first phase of production – sugar fermentation – which does have some limitations. The second and third phases will have an immense impact on mitigating the problems of the fossil fuel energy paradigm. So think twice before throwing out the baby (ethanol) with the wastewater. There is nothing “unethical” about it – certainly not in comparison with the status quo.

    Los Angeles, where I live, has engaged a 20-year plan to begin converting its vast amounts of municipal solid waste (which does not require water or any cultivation) into biofuels, including ethanol. The technology will not involve sugar fermentation.

    Instead the process most often cited is called an emerging technology called “syngas fermentation” – emission-free gasification of the waste into syngas (CO and H2) which is then fermented into biofuels using anaerobic bacteria. A by-product of the converstion process is electricity from the gasification heat. The best explanation of the process can be found at http://www.brienergy.com/pages/process01.html.

    I publish 3 Blogs about the variety of biomass available for conversion (BIOstock Blog), the processes (BIOconversion Blog) available and the struggles to deploy them, and the products of conversion (BIOoutput Blog). I invite you to read them and provide me with your comments. You can subscribe to a free monthly digest of article titles at any one of the blogs.

    Comment by CSMiller — December 31, 2006 @ 10:32 am | Reply

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