Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Alternative Fuel: Ethanol Fuel Production Subsidies

I was recently taken to task by a reader for not giving more coverage to ethanol fuel (alcohol). I replied that I am yet to be convinced that ethanol is either energy positive or economically viable. I then forwarded her reply to the Engineer Poet who continued the correspondence resulting in a post entitled "the money-grubbing mendacity of the ethanol lobby" with accompanying calculations. In reply the original emailer sent me a press release from the "grassroots voice of the U.S. ethanol industry".

The Slate recently ran an article entitled "the ethanol subsidy is worse than you can imagine".

In it Robert Bryce reports that for the last generation, ethanol has been America's fuel of the future. But there has never been more hype about it than there is today. Green-energy analysts like Amory Lovins, environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, neoconservatives like James Woolsey, and farm groups like the American Coalition for Ethanol are all touting the biofuel.

Making ethanol, they claim, will help America achieve the elusive goal of "energy security" while helping farmers, reducing oil imports, and stimulating the American economy. But the ethanol boosters are ignoring some unpleasant facts: Ethanol won't significantly reduce our oil imports; adding more ethanol to our gas tanks adds further complexity to our motor-fuel supply chain, which will lead to further price hikes at the pump; and, most important (and most astonishing), it may take more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than it actually contains.

The greens, hawks, and farmers helped convince the Senate to add an ethanol provision to the energy bill—now awaiting action by a House-Senate conference committee—that would require refiners to more than double their use of ethanol to 8 billion gallons per year by 2012. The provision is the latest installment of the ethanol subsidy, a handout that has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars during the last three decades, with little to show for it. It also shovels yet more federal cash on the single most subsidized crop in America, corn. Between 1995 and 2003, federal corn subsidies totaled $37.3 billion. That's more than twice the amount spent on wheat subsidies, three times the amount spent on soybeans, and 70 times the amount spent on tobacco.

The stickiest question about ethanol is this: Does making alcohol from grain or plant waste really create any new energy?

The answer, of course, depends upon whom you ask. The ethanol lobby claims there's a 30 percent net gain in BTUs from ethanol made from corn. Other boosters, including Woolsey, claim there are huge energy gains (as much as 700 percent) to be had by making ethanol from grass.

But the ethanol critics have shown that the industry calculations are bogus. David Pimentel, a professor of ecology at Cornell University who has been studying grain alcohol for 20 years, and Tad Patzek, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, co-wrote a recent report that estimates that making ethanol from corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel itself actually contains.

The two scientists calculated all the fuel inputs for ethanol production—from the diesel fuel for the tractor planting the corn, to the fertilizer put in the field, to the energy needed at the processing plant—and found that ethanol is a net energy-loser. According to their calculations, ethanol contains about 76,000 BTUs per gallon, but producing that ethanol from corn takes about 98,000 BTUs. For comparison, a gallon of gasoline contains about 116,000 BTUs per gallon. But making that gallon of gas—from drilling the well, to transportation, through refining—requires around 22,000 BTUs.

In addition to their findings on corn, they determined that making ethanol from switch grass requires 50 percent more fossil energy than the ethanol yields, wood biomass 57 percent more, and sunflowers 118 percent more. The best yield comes from soybeans, but they, too, are a net loser, requiring 27 percent more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced. In other words, more ethanol production will increase America's total energy consumption, not decrease it. (Pimentel has not taken money from the oil or refining industries. Patzek runs the UC Oil Consortium, which does research on oil and is funded by oil companies. His ethanol research is not funded by the oil or refining industries.)

Ethanol poses other serious difficulties for our energy economy. First, 8 billion gallons of ethanol will do almost nothing to reduce our oil imports. Eight billion gallons may sound like a lot, until you realize that America burned more than 134 billion gallons of gasoline last year. By 2012, those 8 billion gallons might reduce America's overall oil consumption by 0.5 percent. Way back in 1997, the General Accounting Office concluded that "ethanol's potential for substituting for petroleum is so small that it is unlikely to significantly affect overall energy security." That's still true today.

Adding more ethanol will also increase the complexity of America's refining infrastructure, which is already straining to meet demand, thus raising pump prices. Ethanol must be blended with gasoline. But ethanol absorbs water. Gasoline doesn't. Therefore, ethanol cannot be shipped by regular petroleum pipelines. Instead, it must be segregated from other motor fuels and shipped by truck, rail car, or barge. Those shipping methods are far more expensive than pipelines.

There's a final point to be raised about ethanol: It contains only about two-thirds as much energy as gasoline. Thus, when it gets blended with regular gasoline, it lowers the heat content of the fuel. So, while a gallon of ethanol-blended gas may cost the same as regular gasoline, it won't take you as far.

My latest post (July 2006) on ethanol and flex fuel vehicles can be found here:
Ethanol E85 Fuel

To support a real solution to our transportation energy challenges I encourage you to sign this online plug in hybrid campaign urging automakers to produce plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).

If you have comments I suggest the debate continues here.

Full Slate Article

American Coalition for Ethanol Press Release

Star Phoenix article criticising Pimental and Patzek's research

Rocky Moutain News' Coverage of the National Corn Growers Association Opinion

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation's Coverage

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Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Atomic Power Creates More Greenhouse CO2 Emissions than Natural Gas Plants?

Osprey Natural Gas Combined Cycle Power Plant in Florida

It's been excellent to see the debate going on in the comments section over the recent posts on atomic power. One of my main aims in establishing this blog was to help promote debate on our energy future, it would also be nice to see posts on other energy sources stimulate as much discussion!

I suspect the article which is the subject of this post may further stimulate the debate.

The Australian reports that according to an Australian scientist atomic power generates more damaging greenhouse gas emissions than gas-fired power.

As federal and state politicians debate the merits of starting down the atomic power path to help reduce Australia's contribution to global warming, scientists say it may not be so clean after all.

University of NSW Institute of Environmental Studies senior lecturer Dr Mark Diesendorf says atomic power stations do not emit carbon dioxide (CO2) themselves, but the processes involved in creating atomic energy do.

Mining, milling, uranium enrichment, atomic fuel production, power station construction and operation, storage and reprocessing of spent fuel, long-term management of radioactive waste and closing down old power stations all require the burning of fossil fuels, he says.

"Most of the energy inputs to the full life cycle of atomic fuel come from fossil fuels and are therefore responsible for CO2 emissions," Dr Diesendorf writes in this month's edition of the Australasian Science magazine.

Atomic power stations using high-grade uranium ores would have to run for seven to 10 years before they created enough power to cancel out the energy required to establish them.

Wind power takes just three to six months to do the same.

For lower grade uranium ores, greenhouse gas emissions outweighed those produced by an equivalent gas-fired power station, Dr Diesendorf said.

Full Newspaper Article in the Australian

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Monday, July 04, 2005

Micro Wind Power Turbines for UK Office Building

The BBC reports that an miniature urban wind farm is being built on top of a 13-storey building in Manchester city centre using micro wind turbines.

The 24 turbines, which will stand 3m tall, will be erected on top of the CIS building on Portland Street.

The turbines will produce 56,000 units of renewable energy each year, enough electricity to service about 5% of the energy needs of the building.

Co-operative Financial Services (CFS) are currently covering another of their bases, the CIS Tower, in solar energy panels.

The CIS Tower is one of the tallest buildings outside London in the UK and is being clad with three solar panels.

Once completed, it will be among the largest vertical displays of working solar panels in Europe.

CFS said its plans for an urban wind farm will make its Portland Street building the largest-ever commercial application of micro-wind turbines in the UK.

The company said it is now looking into placing the wind power micro-turbines on more of its 200 sites.

Gary Thomas, head of property and facilities at CFS, said taking a greener approach to business also had financial benefits.

"Embedding renewable energy in buildings reduces the need to buy electricity and I anticipate a payback on the initial investment within around three years," he said.

Ken Lewis, resources director added: "Forty per cent of Europe's energy use is associated with buildings and this project, along with the Solar Tower development, demonstrates that these piles of steel and concrete have tremendous potential for future energy generation."

Councillor Neil Swannick, Manchester City Council executive member for planning and the environment, has applauded the move saying CFS have made a practical contribution to energy conservation.

"The Manchester Energy Strategy endorses the view that wind turbines are not just for rural sites," he said.

"A world-class city such as Manchester has a responsibility to use energy more efficiently and to generate it from renewable sources where we can."

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