Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Is Ethanol / E85 Fuel the Solution?

I've recently received a number of emails calling for me to Kick the Oil Habit by supporting E85 which is a liquid fuel made up of 85% ethanol and 15% regular gasoline. Having previously had my doubts about ethanol I emailed fellow blogger the Engineer Poet seeking his opinion. A large part of this resulting post is based directly on his reply and as such the credit belongs to him.

So is E85 fuel the answer to America's (and the world's) addiction to oil?

E85 fuel is not the solution. It is not even a part of the solution, it is a part of the problem. Here's why, in a nutshell:

All US vehicles can burn 10% ethanol (E10), but the US does not even produce half as much ethanol as universal E10 would require. We make about 5 billion gallons of ethanol, but use 140 billion gallons of gas.

E85 and "flex fuel" is a loophole for the automakers to sell guzzlers without having to pay CAFE penalties. It makes the problem worse. Ending the loophole probably means ending E85, because there is no other reason for it to exist.

Since the best estimate is that every gallon-equivalent of ethanol takes about 4/5 of a gallon-equivalent of other fossil fuel to make it, each gallon of E85 really represents about 0.6 gallons-equivalent of various fossil fuels. Since most flex-fuel vehicles get roughly 2/3 the mileage on E85 as they do on gasoline, they burn about 90% as much fossil energy even at their best.

Even if we can use "cellulosic ethanol" to reduce the inputs of fossil-derived fertilizer and whatnot, we can't make enough no matter what we do. The efficiency of the average gasoline-powered vehicle is about 15%, and we just can't grow enough inputs to make up for throwing 85% of our produced energy away. The most efficient use of biomass is in local combined heat and power plants, not as a feedstock for ethanol.

Low corn prices and high oil prices, and a government subsidy of 51 cents per gallon have fuelled unprecedented growth of the ethanol industry. In the case of the U.S. ethanol industry, fossil fueled trucks ship the fuel halfway across the country from the population sparse corn belt to population and car dense states like California and Texas. Science magazine found only a 13% reduction in CO2 emissions for bioethanol over gasoline (and only 11% for E85 fuel). U.S. government federal records show a single ADM corn processing plant in Clinton, Iowa generated nearly 20,000 tons of pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds in 2004. The EPA considers an ethanol plant as a "major source" of pollution if it produces more than 100 tons of any one pollutant per year. From an emissions standpoint it is far preferable to drive a fuel efficient gasoline car than a low efficiency flex fuel vehicle running on E85.

E85 fuel is not a solution. It is a distraction, like hydrogen vehicles. Further, every E85 vehicle is also a gasoline-compatible vehicle. It will maintain demand for petroleum as long as it is on the road. If you want to end oil addiction you have to get rid of the things which use it.

E85 ethanol fuel may make a small contribution now, but it is a dead end. If we want to really be free of fossil fuels (including imported oil), we have to re-think things as completely as changing from riding horses to driving motor cars.

Ethanol has already created an addiction of its own. The farmers and agribusiness interests which got into it found it hugely profitable, and they have big investments in its continuation. Even if you developed a better way of using corn today, you'd still have a lot of money lobbying to use it for ethanol, and even force it to be used for ethanol.

This is already a race between technologies which can make us independent of fossil fuel, and technologies which get subsidy money. In that race, the subsidy seems to win every time. At least 43 percent of Archer Daniels Midland's annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the American government. For every $1 of profit earned by ADM's ethanol operation (the largest in the U.S.), it costs taxpayers $30. If you subsidize a technology which can only replace half our gasoline (and none of our diesel, jet fuel, or anything else), you're probably going to be stuck with it.

A hobbyist wrote an article about his home-built plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). He published this article in Mother Earth News... in 1978.

We don't need any new technology. We could be building these cars today. Heck, we could have been building them in 1995 (when the CARB ZEV mandate came in)... or maybe even 1985. They would have been crude, but they would have gotten the job done. We can do far better today, of course.

People finally got fed up and started building their own PHEV's out of Toyota Priuses. It's time to quit the excuses, both making them and accepting them.

CAFE regulations utterly failed to contain U.S. motor-fuel consumption. This is not opinion, this is historical fact. Now the E85 fuel campagin wants to do the same thing again, but "reduce" consumption with E85 instead of directly cutting gallons-per-mile. You'll get the same result as before - if driving doesn't cost more, people will continue to drive as much or more.

There are roughly 200 million light-duty vehicles in the USA. One recent news item says that there will be all of 6 million flex-fuel vehicles by 2007. That's a whole 3%.

The average flex-fuel vehicle is a guzzling truck (because they get the biggest CAFE preference from it). If those trucks get 13 MPG on E85, and they drive the national average of 13,000 miles/year, those 6 million vehicles would consume 5.1 billion gallons of ethanol. That's roughly the same as the total production capacity of the nation.

The E85 fuel campaign is currently sponsoring a road trip to highlight the usage of E85, but also the difficulty of driving a car solely on E85 due to its lack of availability.

the electric Tesla Roadster - 250 mile range, one cent a mile, 0-60 in 4 seconds, 130 mph top speed - photo from Autoblog Green

However, had this trip been made in a Tesla Roadster or tZero from AC Propulsion, it could have instead highlighted how EASY it is to get electricity wherever you are... even if you never stop at a filling station! Using non-toxic lithium-ion batteries they have a 250 mile range, charging overnight from an electric outlet.

E85 fuel is a distraction, a diversion, a red herring. Just as the switch to "hydrogen economy" (remember that?) was before it. Both require huge investment, new infrastructure and will not lead to a post-oil economy. The hydrogen economy was promoted principally by both automakers and oil companies as a stalling strategy to avoid having to change the way they currently do business. Oil companies were also aware in the unlikely event that the hydrogen economy did take off (with huge taxpayer subsidies) that they would be supplying hydrogen produced from natural gas which they were already profitting from. The automakers sat around lamenting the fact they couldn’t start to build cars as there are hardly any hydrogen filling stations and the energy companies would not open commercial hydrogen filling stations as there is no demand for them. While appearing to want to do something, both the automakers and energy companies continued for a few more years with business as usual.

The Nissan Armada promoted on the E85 fuel site - with no fuel economy figures indicated

The campaign for E85 fuel is somewhat similar. The automakers are eager to produce flex fuel vehicles which require a relatively cheap modification to the highly profitable gas guzzling SUVs they already produce. By backing E85 fuel they can continue to produce the highly inefficient vehicles while appearing to be green (as seen in GM's Live Green Go Yellow campaign). Car and Driver magazine estimates the CAFE loophole could have saved GM more than $200 million in fines in 2005 alone.

As GM admits the consumer can choose “to operate on gasoline or on a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. So, you can choose the fuel that's best for you. That's good to know, because E85 fuel is not yet widely available.” In other words in the vast majority of cases your new flex fuel vehicle will still be running on regular gas. Charter members of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (NEVC), which promotes E85 fuel, when it was set up in June 2000 include GM, DaimlerChrsyler, and Ford.

Meanwhile E85 fuel is also been promoted by organisations such as the National Corn Growers Association, as well as regional and state corn growers organisations, associated agribusinesses and biofuel companies. All of which have a commercial interest in promoting E85 fuel. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a clearinghouse on political donations, the agribusiness sector has funneled more than $190 million into federal election campaigns since the 2000 election cycle. In the NEVC’s bylaws its purpose is described as to "ensure that as decisions regarding the future of America’s use of alternative forms of transportation fuels are being made, ethanol has a role in the nation’s alternative transportation fuel market and support the expanded use of ethanol" and to "advance legislative proposals" to this effect. This seems to be regardless of whether ethanol/ E85 fuel is the best or is even a good solution to our energy challenges.

As the Engineer Poet points out in this post, burning fuel for transportation is very inefficient way of using energy. Whether you are fed up with the current use of petroleum for transportation for environmental, political or financial reasons E85 fuel is simply not the answer. What we need is a step change, as represented by moving from using gas burning vehicles to electric vehicles.

To encourage this, I urge you to sign this online plug in hybrid campaign asking automakers to produce plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs).

Autoblog Green's exclusive interview with Tesla Motors' chairman

Tesla Roadster Video

Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) - the Largest U.S. Ethanol Producer

Vinod Khosla Debunked

Car and Driver Magazine on the Promise of Energy Independence through Ethanol

USA Today on the Ethanol Debate

Cutting Down Borneo's Rainforests to Make BioFuels

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Blogger James said...

"This vehicle can no longer drive from Minneapolis to Chicago in a day, due to charging cycles! And you can see how impractical large, massive trucks would be."

There is a confusion between what people might want to do (and may only end up doing a few times a year if that) and what they actually do.

Longer distance travel can be served by high speed rail.

The vast majority of people don't drive hundreds of miles on a daily basis and are at home (and/or their place of work) for at least eight hours a day. I can remember to charge my cellphone and can also remember to charge my car.

And as you yourself point out freight can be moved by rail rather than road.

As far as I'm concerned none of the points you're raised are serious objections to moving towards post-oil transportation utilising electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and high speed rail.

Alternative Energy Blog

2:03 pm, July 26, 2006  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

(Let me state up front that I was surprised at how many of the words in the above are straight from me, without paraphrase.  Color me shocked at how quotable some people think I am.  I guess it is the sincerest form of flattery.)

Dave, I kind of wonder about you.

"Electric energy is best measured in kilowatt-hours."

Why not joules, if you're talking about MOV ratings?  Why not petajoules, if you're talking about world consumption?

"Assuming high efficiencies, this means the Tesla has about 50kwh of energy on board, a little less than the eergy of a gallon of gasoline."

Well, no.  A gallon of gasoline has roughly 126,000 BTU of energy, or about 37 kWh; the Telsa is carrying closer to a gallon and a third.  But if the Tesla can put it to the ground at 80% efficiency vs. the 15% of the typical ICE, the equivalency rises to over 7 gallons.

"Double the mass, double the energy."

Only for acceleration.  Most energy is spent on drag, and at highway speeds most of that is aerodynamic drag.  Open-top cars have a much higher Cd than sedans, and the hatchback Insight is one of the cleanest designs ever to be sold.

"Now we're talking seven hours to charge. This vehicle can no longer drive from Minneapolis to Chicago in a day, due to charging cycles!"

You're assuming that no charger can run at more than 15.4 kW.  There's one hell of a lot of stuff that pulls more than that; the house I just sold was wired for 220 V at 200 amps, or 44 kW.  Charging time went down to just over an hour.

"you can see how impractical large, massive trucks would be."

Somehow I missed that.  Were you assuming truckers would charge them at home?

"Accelerating mass requires energy. 100-200kwh for a family vehicle with a 250 mile range seems about right."

Not to me.  The Prius is quite a roomy vehicle, and qualifies as "family" for reasonable values of "family".  The published figures for the Prius+ are, IIRC, around 252 Wh/mile at the charger (somewhat less at the battery terminals).  50.4 kWh for 250 miles is dead-on.

I don't know where you get the 100-200 kWh figure from, but I get the notion that you just don't like the idea of electric propulsion.

Your next claim reinforces this impression:

"A 100kw power supply (charge your sedan in one hour) is about the power of a large radio station! We're talking custom-fitted cables as big as your arm, and high voltages that can jump the length of a car with fatal consequences if there is even a slight insulation leak."

Uh, yeah.  Right.  Look, some hand-held electric tools take 440 volts 3-phase (to make them unattractive to steal).  The insulation is not overly heavy, and ground-fault detection can shut off power before leakage current gets dangerous.  Welding cable can handle over 500 amperes through wires a little thicker than your thumb.  440 volts at 500 amperes is 220 kilowatts, enough to charge a Tesla Roadster in about 15 minutes (assuming the other parts can handle it).

I just don't see the problem.  AAMOF, I think you're making it up.

"I think we could at reduce fuel use by at least 50% without sacrificing any functionality by using more efficient (hybrid) cars, and moving long-haul shipping from semis to rail."

Hybrids give closer to 1/3 savings, but PHEV's appear to offer more like 80%.  Changing semis from diesels to zinc-air fuel cells would make them electric as well.  Trains appear to be able to run on zinc-air or direct wires without difficulty.

The US uses about 9 million bbl/day of gasoline, and another ~2.7 million bbl/day of distillate for diesel fuel.  If we can replace 80% of both with electricity in various forms, that slashes US petroleum demand by almost 9.4 million barrels/day right there - almost half of consumption, and about 2/3 of imports.  That is without touching a drop of biofuels.

My conclusion:  electricity should be our #1 priority for transportation energy.

7:59 pm, July 26, 2006  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

Error in the above:  250 miles at 252 Wh/mile is 63 kWh, not 50.4 kWh.  OTOH, that's at the charger, not energy released from the battery.

8:03 pm, July 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If we cut our tariffs on brazilian ethanol products and eliminated our subsidies to the corn industries, we would end up with ethanol that was actually worth paying for, as even the original post acknowledged that ethanol helps clean up the emissions of the fuel, not to mention that without the tariffs the ethanol might currently be cheaper than gasoline, and so a help in that direction as well.

I would point out to all the previous posters, however, that fuel consumption isn't an issue if you're talking about the pollution caused by a car. Production and disposal dwarf fuel consumption in terms of the waste generated, which is why a humvee is actually about 30% more environmentally friendly than a hybrid over the course of their respective lifetimes: the humvee is a big hunk of iron (easily obtained, easily recycled) made using efficient, well refined techniques. The hybrid is made using new composites, new techniques, and lots of harsh battery materials such as lithium. I'm not saying that hybrids won't be more friendly eventually, when the technology is a bit more mature.

7:06 am, July 27, 2006  
Blogger James said...


"Production and disposal dwarf fuel consumption in terms of the waste generated, which is why a humvee is actually about 30% more environmentally friendly than a hybrid over the course of their respective lifetimes"

Care to cite a source for this?

As far as I'm aware in terms of the total lifetime energy consumption of a car about a third is used in its production.

Alternative Energy Blog

7:38 am, July 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi all-
My colleague David Morris posted the following column, Ford Should Build Flexible Fueled, Plug in Hybrids, as part of a Point/Counterpoint on Ford's Bold Moves site...thought you might find it interesting as part of this discussion.

John Bailey
Institute for Local Self-Reliance

1:22 pm, July 27, 2006  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

Ian claims "Production and disposal dwarf fuel consumption in terms of the waste generated, which is why a humvee is actually about 30% more environmentally friendly than a hybrid over the course of their respective lifetimes...."

Sir, the production of a vehicle is only about 10% of its lifetime energy consumption.  That makes you either a dupe or a liar.

And then we get back to "dave".

Having backed away from "100-200 kWh" and the other hard claims, he's reduced to nitpicking.

"You can't handwave the extra energy problem away by saying drag is the only problem at constant speed, AND handwave away the range problem by saying most driving is local."

Ahem.  You were the one who claimed that twice the mass required twice the energy.  Would you care to cite just how fast energy demand actually grows with weight (in similar vehicles, not Insight vs. SUV) or would that further undermine your position?

"The amperage of arc welding equipment was mentioned, again with some handwaving."

You forget that your words are on record here.  You said, and I quote:  "We're talking custom-fitted cables as big as your arm, and high voltages that can jump the length of a car with fatal consequences if there is even a slight insulation leak."

Reality is just a little different.  Here is your refutation, off the shelf:  4/0 welding cable rated at 600 volts and good for up to 600 amperes.  That's 600 volts to the environment; two such cables could handle 1200 volts line-to-line, good for 720 kilowatts at rated voltage and current.  De-rate 50% on both for safety and you're still carrying 180 kW over wires a child could lift.  180 kW charges your Tesla roadster in 20 minutes, less time than it takes to get and eat your fast-food lunch.

"(I think the Tesla's charger at 15kw is the practical limit for home charging)."

Wait a minute, you were just complaining about being unable to go from Minneapolis to Chicago in a day because of charging limits.  Are you unable to distinguish between home chargers and commercial chargers?

It's the same story with CNG.  Home CNG pumps take hours to fill a car, but commercial ones take minutes.  Next, you'll be telling me that pizzerias can't possibly do business because home ovens can't make pizzas fast enough.

"I'm not opposed to electric cars. I'm just trying to be practical..."

Strange that you are making up bogus objections instead of addressing the practicalities.

"I think way too much practicality gets handwaved away"

Like the PHEV, which cuts out 80% of fuel demand with efficiency + electricity, and no impact on utility?

"if the electric grid is the primary source for power, it's going to need some serious rethinking and re-engineering to handle the extra load."

The average power demand of road vehicles - ALL vehicles, not just cars and light trucks - is less than 20% of the peak capacity of the grid's generation systems.  The grid has problems handling afternoon peaks, not wee-hours charging.  The more load gets shifted to night by e.g. EV's and PHEV's, the more base-load generation is attractive to utilities and the more robust the grid will be.

9:05 pm, July 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is GM throwing itself behind E85? Replace a few hoses, tubes, and seals, reprogram the ECU a bit, and swap out a part or two and voila! You've created a "green" image without actually *doing* anything!

9:43 pm, July 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A coal fired power plant (about 50% of electricity in the US comes from coal, another 20% from natural gas) is about 30% efficient ... this must be put into the equation when comparing electric with gas unless you have some access to a clean source (which is sadly coming on line too slowly)... There is also the issue that coal has about 20% more CO2 per BTU than oil (which is bad enough).

again . unless you have a clean source of electricity, an EV linked to a coal plant or even the US average, may be worse than oil...

I've managed to cut my driving from 16,000 to 7,500 miles a year (through the use of a bike and careful planning) ... not a great solution, but every bit helps.

11:35 am, July 28, 2006  
Blogger Robert Rapier said...

EP writes:

My conclusion: electricity should be our #1 priority for transportation energy.

Agree 100%. There are just so many sources, many of them renewable, that we can use to produce electricity.



8:30 pm, July 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Just wanted to post that no one has mentioned the effect of climate on battery life here yet. It should be noted that most of the electric cars were tested in California and other temperate-year-round states. With the current battery technology, a car's battery life can get reduced to as little as 20 miles/day during a typical New England Winter.

Which is not to imply that I think electric cars are useless. On the contrary, I myself would certainly purchase an electric car for my day-to-day commute, and I live in the Northeast where 10 mile commutes are normal.

However, as you increase the size of the car to, say, a semi and then ask it to lug cargo half way across the country, it becomes obvious that electric-engine technology has some ways to go before it is practical in this context (as some of your commenters have noted). In the meantime, I think it's perfectly acceptable to use cellulosic ethanol fuel sources for this vehicle population (NOT Corn; even I know corn-based ethanol is the wrong way to go).

So yes, the support of an 100% electricity based fuel economy. Stating that any technology is the solution for such a wide-ranging problem always strikes me as a bit naive.

Wait, you don't work for the electric company, do you?

I any case, I predict that this problem will be solved using a combination of energy technologies, each with its own advantages for particular situations.

6:51 pm, July 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Face it, we in west, as citizens of the world, have to kick our the large-scale energy comsuming energy habits. Two examples: No alternative fuel sources, just habit change. No driving to the mall: walk, bicycle, use energy-efficient public transport. No air con, use natural ventilation and cooling stacks. Scary, yes, because, frankly I don't see westerners reducing their energy consumption by 50-60-70-80% And we will be stuck with greenhouse gasses and eventually-fatal climate change, or an immense nuclear waste problem.

1:36 am, July 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When considering Electric cars one must consider how we make the electricity.

Also Corn based fuels are not the answer since I doubt that farmers can yield the needed crop production year to year. We already have seen a failure in small grain crops here in North Dakota. Corn is growing despite the dry soil but is struggling. Who knows what will be in years to come when likely it will be even drier.

2:45 pm, July 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush should be supporting companies like Amtrack instead of cutting its funding. This ofcourse applies to long distance travel. I take the train cross country often. Although it takes longer, it is a beautifull ride. they do, however, need to convert many of their rails to elecrticity.

2:55 pm, July 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe we should rethink our dependence on motor vehicles, period.

5:38 am, July 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
Maybe we should rethink our dependence on motor vehicles, period.

Yeah I think you have the right direction. However, it will not be easy. It will be even harder for families, which is why the Post mentioned family sized cars. Your average Joe single guy or Jane single girl can easier adjust to some other mode of transport like mass transit, walking, or a bicycle. It is not as easy when you have to get a one and three year old out of the house. In time we will figure something out.

6:16 am, August 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That car is really cool! Nice to see engineers working on the problem. However, price is a tremendous barrier to the gas guzzling public. I wish the U.S. car companies would come up with a cheap electric car for use around town, maybe like a glorified golf cart, throw in some PV paint, a few Nascar stickers, they'd have a hit

6:39 am, August 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few comments:

* Tesla is counting on improved battery technology for their future sedan. Battery technology is improving. (Would be very neat if EEStor pans out.)

* GM can talk E85 all they want. As long as mileage is bad, fewer people will buy their vehicles in the first place. That will place a larger onus on them than anything else.

* Toyota and Ford coming out with a plug-in hybrid would further momentum and mindshare about plug-in technology. Current hybrid owners will be attracted to the idea of staying in electric-only mode longer.


10:35 am, August 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Today, I have found this blog and I think that it is great that at least there are some people concern with alternative energy and are not political zealots. Congratulations to all specialy James

E85 might not be the answer short term in the US, but we should consider the example set by Brazil.

By investing during the last decades in ethanol, now they are in a position were most of the cars are ethanol driven.

I think that the best way to reduce dependency of oil is to use less of it. I have read the comments of several of you and I think that if 1/2 the Americans reduce their car usage. The price of oil will start droping (I have not done the numbers).

About Amtrak - The best thing the US goverment can do is to privatize the Amtrak rail systems. There are a lot of European companies that can do a better job at managing Amtrak than the US goverment (ie. Richard Branson´s Virgin)

9:22 am, August 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone care to comment on the viability of Butanol?

I've read some pretty interesting stuff on the topic and it appears there is or will be a breakthrough in the processing technology to allow it to be competative.

4:50 pm, August 08, 2006  
Blogger Total Issues said...

There is an alternative fuel that does work - ammonia. Cheaply made from nitrogen and hydrogen easily transported in liquid form, and suprisingly good as a fuel in both internal combustion engines and gas turbines. Moreover good reasons to think that it could be cheaply made from solar thernmal power - more on this at

3:04 pm, August 09, 2006  
Blogger RonV said...

I don't know who to believe.
Take a look at
and debate who is right.
In short, Vinod is claiming:
* E85 is economical if barrel is > $40
* E85 is better for the environment
* E85 can be better for corn producing farmers
* E85 compatibility for cars can be as little as ~ $100 per each.

6:42 pm, August 09, 2006  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

RonV:  "Better" does not equal "good enough".  Dying of cancer in a year is better than dying of cancer in a month, but I'd want a cure.

And diving into the meat of the issue, the ethanol astroturfers write:

"This technology put together by Prime BioShield in Nebraska, dramatically reduces fossil fuel inputs, captures methane – one of the most noxious GHGs from an existing cattle lot – to fire the plant and fertilize the fields, and uses excess ruminant from the plant to feed the cattle. That's a fully closed loop – meaning that cartoon is way out of the loop."

It's a closed loop?  Where's the place that their output creates the nitrate to fertilize the corn?  Extract the phosphate from rock?  Run the machinery to plow, plant, and harvest the crop?  Create the petrochemicals which control the pests?

Oh, right.  They really DON'T do that with renewable inputs.  Stee-rike one!

"James and the Engineer Poet make a tautological argument that there is both not enough ethanol at the moment and that they do not want to make more."

You disinform the readers again.  The claim I made is that you CANNOT make enough ethanol to replace gasoline even if you use all the inputs which are hypothetically available.  Stee-rike two!

"It is also undeniable that engineers are finding ways to re-tool engines to maximize the gains from the BTUs in ethanol by making use of its high octane."

And even if they manage to get down to a 15% mileage penalty with higher compression, turbocharging (which I'm all for!), and other tech, it still won't fully replace gasoline!  And it won't even touch demand for:

- Diesel
- Jet fuel
- Heating oil
- Petrochemicals
- Natural gas
- Coal

You exhausted the biomass resource and didn't manage to get to the biggest threats to national security via e.g. global warming.  Stee-rike three, YOU'RE OUT!

You're already in the hole.  But keep digging, it's amusing.

"We will stick with the numbers from NRDC"

You probably didn't notice that those "numbers" were bogus.  A gallon of gasoline is about 6.2 pounds, of which maybe 5.3 pounds is carbon.  It would burn to make about 19.5 pounds of CO2, not close to 30.  And the justification for those two negative bars; where's the analysis which shows net carbon sequestration from cellulosic ethanol?

Oh, right.  You won't cite it, because it doesn't exist.

"In fact, at the Car Show in Washington this year Ford had a hybrid FFV."

I find it screamingly funny that when I click through that URL, I get a page with the Ford Shelby GT500 on it.  I'm not sure if everyone will see the same thing, but that guzzler's just a hoot.

Only funny because of the irony, of course.  It's a tragedy for the nation and the planet.

"And everyone from Gal Luft to Jim Woolsey to Tom Daschle have been arguing for plug in hybrids and FFVs for years."

So why the f**k can't I go to a showroom and buy a plug-in hybrid?

Oh, right.  That would require three scarce resources (and in a company I once worked for, no less):  marketing, engineering and foresight!  Flex-fuel sensors and mixture-management code (which I've written) don't require nearly as much thought.

My last car was a Ford.  My current car is a diesel Volkswagen.  You might be able to say why, if your paymasters don't keep you from admitting it.

"Bottom line is this: the only distraction in this debate is oil. The oil companies would love for us to fight amongst ourselves while they reap record profits and have the field to themselves."

And Vinod Khosla and ADM would love for us to bet on an unworkable scheme and wind up in situation of ethanol scarcity where their margins are as good as Saudi Arabia's.  That's where their money is invested, after all.  Gee, do you think they might be trying to force the adoption of what's good for them, not us?

"Let's turn our focus where it belongs: on every workable solution... not against one another."

Are you claiming ethanol is workable?  You should know better by now.

9:09 pm, August 09, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in reply to the points raised by the KicktheOilHabit campaign

1. Reference to a plant run by BioShield in Nebraska which apparently reduces greenhouse gas emissions:

I would like to know whether this is still at the R&D stage or fully commercial. There are some models and research plants for biofuel
production, including for bioethanol which sound extremely promising. We
will shortly be adding some positive examples under ‘sources’ on our website (e.g. an interesting research plant making ‘bio-petrol’ from algae in Spain, which promises to replace quite significant amounts of oil with minimum environmental impacts, although we are not aware of any independent evaluation as yet). The problem is that there is a huge difference between the potential of best-practice models, which may not be commercially available for perhaps another decade, and the realities of the biofuel market just now. A closed-loop system, for example would undoubtedly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (though other environmental impacts and effects on food prices may still be of serious concerns.

The reality, however, is that the greenhouse gas balance from US ethanol appears to be worsening. The trend seems to be towards more ethanol refineries running on coal (without carbon capture). See here

Again, this shows the need for strict government regulation of the biofuel market.

I also note that there are concerns about residue from corn ethanol not
providing enough starch to replace other types of animal fodder. I know nothing about the cattle fodder, but it worries me that the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association say that ethanol residue is not suitable as a complete diet for ruminants since it lacks starch. See here

2. ‘By 2015/16 there will be enough corn for 15 billion gallons of corn
based ethanol.’
This statement relies on the present technology, not the second generation bioethanol which may not be commercially available for another decade or so. Right now, 55 million tons of corn are used for ethanol in the US, the equivalent of 20% of the entire corn harvest. It supplies 4 billion gallons of ethanol, the equivalent of 3% of automobile fuel.

Increasing this figure to 15 billion gallons will mean either a massive agricultural expansion (presumably at the expense of natural ecosystems, since I cannot think of any other scope for expansion), or, more likely, displacing most of the corn for food. Rising temperatures and water scarcity are already reducing yields throughout the US. I recommend that you look at this article

3. Cellulosic ethanol should be supported to raise yields even further:
There is no doubt at all that cellulosic ethanol will be far more energy efficient than the present corn-based ethanol. There are strong arguments for supporting research and development into this technology. At the same time, production methods using cellulosic techniques could also be extremely detrimental, unless accompanied by government safeguards. Here is an interesting debate on sustainable biofuels, which highlights some concerns

4. NRDC insist on carbon savings from ethanol:
NRDC are certainly optimistic about the potential of ethanol, although you will see in the Christian Science Monitor article above (point 1) that they look at the particular production method and are also concerned that, in the absence of environmental safeguards, a switch to coal-firing may cancel out greenhouse gas savings.

The most up-to-date research can be found here

It finds indeed that there is a potential for greenhouse gas savings from ethanol, but that it will be relatively small until cellulosic techniques are available, and that greenhouse gas savings depend on adopting best practice. The article makes it clear that corn-based ethanol only has a positive greenhouse gas balance if there are low emissions during the refinery process, if the use of fertilizers is minimized, and if a significant amount of other cattle fodder can be replaced by ethanol residue. See above (2) why this may not be the case. This is perhaps the most important point: If corn based ethanol is not suitable as a complete cattle feed then, according to this study, there will be no greenhouse gas savings compared to petrol.

5. Oil companies oppose ethanol:
Quite to the contrary, many oil companies are now cashing in on biofuels.

12:29 pm, August 10, 2006  
Blogger Total Issues said...

Yes, ethanol is crazy, and direct use of hydrogen not much better, and in theory the direct use of electricity is more efficient and therefore should be cheaper.

The key if somewhat unfortunate fact is that there will be a continued need for chemical storage of energy . Most renewables are intermittent and some of the best solar and wind sites are a long way from the consumer, given long distance power transmission losses. Direct distribution and storage of hydrogen is a nightmare. There seems no potential alternative for planes to a chemical fuel, and the elites of the world would rather wreck the world’s climate than give up flying. I have suggested ammonia from solar or nuclear here; yes, oil is a better storage medium than ammonia, but if anyone can come up with a better alternative that does not have those dratted C atoms somewhere in the molecule, please let me know.

Theoretical efficiency isn’t everything, otherwise the internal combustion engine and the steam turbine would be long gone. We have been promised fuel cells and high capacity traction batteries for decades – where are they? The world has got to change its whole energy systems and transportation fuels within two decades or we are climatically wrecked - the less technological change or technical risk involved, the more likely this is to happen. This path minimises the risk, even if it less than ideally efficient. As so often, the best is the enemy of the better

3:45 pm, August 10, 2006  
Blogger RonV said...

To engineer-poet -

You made no strikes because you did not show any support for your many words and your argument are not convincing.
You can claim all you want but all it is talk. Show us proof, or otherwise you are at most equally convincing as Mr Vinod.

11:00 pm, August 10, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Youre devil's advocating, right???

1:46 am, August 11, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I've come across a very interesting article about ethanol hybrid cars and how they work at and I found that information useful. Now in regards to biomass, can you explain your view on the switch from trucks to trains for long haul shipping?

11:35 am, August 11, 2006  
Blogger donald said...

it seems like we worry too much about ideals and ideals transformations of behavior and because of that neglect intermediate technologies. cellulosic ethanol isn't perfect, but realistically, it's much easier to push in the middle range (the next few decades) than trying to convince americans to suddenly like rail transit again.

i think one of the issues people should discuss more in cellulosic ethanol debates is the actual main crops you'd use. the main one being switchgrass, which is essentally prairie grass. i'm curious if decentralized, organic or even permaculture-based cultivation of switchgrass would be cost-competitive with industrial methods. i would honestly expect this to be the case.

meaning switchgrass cultivation for ethanol could be used as a way of both replacing petroleum fuels and progressively rejuvenating prairie ecosystems away from industrial grain production.

it seems that rather than act like government and corporate bureaucrats and fight one another over which single solution is best, we interested in long-term sustainable economics should feel free to assemble and promote mixes of technologies. plug-in hybrid electrics, awesome, plug-in hybrid electric flex-cars, even better, combined with better public transit systems even better, etc.

12:50 pm, August 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Electirc cars could really be the answer to the problem? Another thing,if this could really be the car of the future. Then what would be its' cost? And do you think people will spend much for a car like this than spend for their basic needs?

9:22 pm, August 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

yeah, i agree with tina. Electirc cars could be the answer to all these..

12:25 am, August 21, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that E85 will not solve the problem of high gas prices. To make one unit of ethanol it took one unit of energy and ethanol plants are more pollutant than refineries.

10:54 am, August 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great discussion.

While we're all talking about Tesla, why not create electric vehicles that use Tesla's wireless transmission of energy scheme? Certainly Nikola Tesla's ultimate goal can now be realized? We simply have to unearth his papers, sealed in secret U.S. vaults. . .mwooohahahahah.

Seriously, though. All the talk about the Tesla auto, little talk of Tesla the man. We may want to revisit some of his works.

11:40 am, August 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great article. Some of the comments make good criticisms though - next gen bio-fuel generation has the potential for a lot more yield. Still, as it is now, this is a total smokescreen from the automakers.

One thing that gets me is that everyone is so distrustful of Big Oil, but they want to hand this over to ADM, one of the most historically corrupt companies in American history (read largest price-fixing fine ever levied for global price fixing) and a major lobbyist, who will fight tooth and nail to keep ethanol coming from corn and biodiesel from soy because those are markets they dominate.

I wrote "Where’s The Big Algae Lobby? (or The Ethanol Smokescreen)" on my blog ( but since I have almost no readers, I'm glad to see it here.

11:53 am, September 01, 2006  
Blogger Barbosa said...

Great Article. Great blog.

8:47 pm, September 03, 2006  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

First, you've messed up your calculations:  a "unit" of what you cite at the link is 2 cells, not one.  This cuts the cost in half right there.  Second, there are superior cells out there.

The advanced chemistry electrodes do much better.  Thousands of cycles from 0% to 100% is not atypical.  Calendar life is years, and the power ratings are way beyond supercar territory.

But the Tesla roadster is a sports car, for playing.  A working car would use something like the A123Systems cells (now shipping in DeWalt contractor-grade tools) to get maybe 20-30 miles of electric range and all the power you'd ever need.  Figure 30 miles @ 200 Wh/mile = 6 kWh, 6 kWH @ 40 C discharge = 240 kW = ~320 HP.  The kinetic energy of a 1750 kg car moving at 60 MPH is 630 kJ; 240 kW gives 630 kJ in 2.62 seconds.

Assume for the sake of argument that you are paying about $.70/Wh for 6 kWh, or $4200 for a battery.  If it lasts you 5 years and saves you 70% of a typical motor fuel consumption of 600 gallons/year, you save 2100 gallons.  The price of that much fuel is around $6000 and probably heading nowhere but up.

So yeah, the Tesla is an expensive toy.  The replacement batteries will still be expensive, but they'll last a lot longer and be much cheaper per mile.  And the version for every-day cars looks to be cheaper than gasoline is today.

6:28 pm, September 05, 2006  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

And FWIW, some of us have been watching the life-cycle cost of batteries since we started writing for the web.

6:30 pm, September 05, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

why does E85 cost more than regualr gas now that gas prices have dropped? E85 cost way more to burn, always has, the only thing it is good for is our economy which is good but still very pricey to use.

8:51 am, September 11, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Replying to the original blog, I agree that ethanol is only a small part of the answer, due to limitations of feedstock. However, there are other feedstocks than those you've listed: municipal waste, which is mostly yard waste, has great potential as a source of ethanol- with the added bonus of reducing landfilling.

Even corn ethanol plants are not all the same- some get their process heat from coal (bad) while others get it from various renewable resources (manure, landfill gas, etc.) And ethanol production technology is becoming more efficient, which is reducing the gas emissions per ethanol produced.

The most important thing step we can take for transportation is to imporve efficiency, and ethanol is a major distraction from this, but even corn ethanol is better than nothing.

Ironically, I chose the same cartoon to illistrate my blog entry on the same subject... with a slightly differnet take.

8:39 pm, September 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I see lots of comments on the amount of oil used to produce E85. How do you think the oil gets to your local station from Saudi Arabia, by pack mule?
E85 is produced and burned completely within the borders of the USA. The money you pay goes to workers, corporations, and farmers in the USA. How much of your gasoline money goes to the Middle East, home of mullahs and ayatollahs?
Besides, gasoline stinks and causes cancer. Ethanol smells like vodka and causes intoxication.

2:44 pm, September 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good.

I am a little disappointed that everyone seems to think that theirs is a perfect solution.

Plug-in cars are not a solution for everyone.

Neither is E85. Or trains. Or the subway. Or Taxis for that matter.

The only thing everyone here seems to agree on is that gasoline sucks.

The real problem is that gasoline works, it's everywhere you want to be, it's easy, it's entrenched.

Hybrids, E85, PHEV, Diesel Hybrids, Fuel Cells are all trying to do the same thing. Provide a better solution than gasoline.

The Tesla is a proof point that you can have a VERY high performance electric car. And it's sexy. Despite what the "Who Killed The Electric Car" people, the EV1 sucked and was a failure in the market.

Hybrids get me 25% better mpg (give or take). But I have to burn about 1,000 gallons of gas for them to pay for the extra expense. Why not an E85 Hybrid? Wouldn't I use even less gas then? In the Western US, sprawl is part of life, huge commutes aren't unusual, and a car that runs out of juice because I forgot to plug it in last night isn't really workable.

All of these energy technologies have problems. Plug-in electric cars will have to get electricity from coal and nuclear for now. More efficient than gas, maybe, but power plants are messy also.

We have to try everything right now, and see what sticks.

We can't just all agree that we're all going to flip a switch and all drive fairy dust cars tomorrow.

We need to try them, see what is workable, not perfect, but better than what we had tomorrow.

When you say one of these technologies isn't perfect enough, like you did here with E85, it puts the idea in "normal" peoples heads that each of these technologies is broken.

I just want the ability to try anything right now. As the Market tries different ideas, some will work. E85 might get more efficient. Hybrids should get better. PHEVs should go from hacker car to production models. Fuel cells may work. But we need to explore all of these.

9:03 am, September 19, 2006  
Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

The EV1, a failure in the market?  How could it be, when it was never sold?  They were even taken back from lessees who loved them and crushed.  GM crushed them despite offers to buy them.

You're absolutely right that the battery tech wasn't up to snuff, but a lot of that was due to the lack of market for traction batteries; no battery company would invest in better tech without a good prospect of a return on the investment.  The improvements we're seeing now are outgrowths of other market forces for laptops, phones, etc.

Way back around 1991, I proposed something like a PHEV mandate to replace the ZEV mandate.  That would have jump-started the market and probably put us 5-10 years ahead of where we are now.  That opportunity was lost.

The advantage of electricity is that we can make it from almost any source of energy.  You can't do that with liquid fuels; solar, wind, hydro and nuclear don't turn into something you can pump.  Electricity goes more places than gasoline, so it's the obvious replacement.

Your final complaint is that you'll get stranded if you keep forgetting to plug your EV in.  (As if you won't get stranded if you forget to fill your gas-hog's tank!)  My answer to that is, don't switch from a PHEV to an EV until you can train yourself to pay attention to the "charge me" beeper that goes off when you carry the key fob away from the car without plugging it in.

3:09 pm, September 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

E85 is at best a temporary supplement to gasoline. This is well known by everyone (other than Koshla) including GM.

If you want to bitch about Ethanol - talk to your congressman about all the farm subsidies.

I am continuosly amazed and dissappointed at the GM bashing in blogs like this. This is an American company with American Engineering. It is a massive and conservative company - does anyone not understand that? Even with that backdrop, they led the way with their EV1 program and E-85 Flex Fuel vehicles. I was a release engineer for E-85 Fuel Systems in 1994 - this was driven by CAFE requirements pure and simple and it was a very expensive investment on GM's part. GM acted in the interest of their shareholders. The EV1 program while not a market success has seeded scientists and engineers in companies all over the US. We are lucky to have companies like GM.

The automotive industry Toyota, GM, Ford, etc are not companies that are aggressive. Our country needs innovative new car companies like Tesla Motors, innovative energy storage comapnies, and innovative systems approaches to solve our fossil fuel dependence.

ALA JFK, what are you doind to help?

1:12 pm, September 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Biofuel from jatropha is an economical alternative

12:29 am, October 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not an engineer. Isay that in hopes of Engineer Poet not wasting time telling me how stupid I am. I am just ignorant in regards to this blog subject and wish to become less so by asking two questions:

1. How does shifting energy from bar 3 to bar 4 of the following chart help reduce carbon emissions?

2. Could someone give me the Reader's Digest version explaining the hydrogen part of the statement "E85 fuel is a distraction, a diversion, a red herring. Just as the switch to "hydrogen economy" (remember that?) was before it."

10:04 am, November 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, In question 1. I meant to say bar 4 to bar 5

10:10 am, November 12, 2006  
Blogger James said...

'Could someone give me the Reader's Digest version explaining the hydrogen part of the statement "E85 fuel is a distraction, a diversion, a red herring. Just as the switch to "hydrogen economy" (remember that?) was before it."'

The Reader's Digest version appears directly after the text you have quoted. I also suggest heading over to the Engineer Poet's blog and searching for "hydrogen".

Alternative Energy Blog

3:13 am, November 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks...the paragraph following the qoute was simply political diatribe but I found what I was looking for using the search you suggested...I'm new to this blogging thing but I bet I could apply the same tactic to my first question as much to read, so little time...thanx again

8:02 pm, November 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have been quite interested in electric cars and ethanol as we are promotors of cassava based ethanol in Thailand. 3 things jump to mind as we have done extensive calculations for the CO2 output of the plant from the growth of the cassava (tapioca) to the burning of the ethanol. If examined in this manner the plant produces 10% of the CO2 as compared to just burning gasoline. So it does help somewhat this issue. I dont fully understand the chemical (fertilizer and pesticide) needs of US corn growth so I cannot account for this high amount of energy needed to produce ethanol. Indeed if it was so high how could it be profitable to make? The 2nd item is one that will be a big problem in the future and that is, let us say that today we switch to some other form of non-fossel fuel power, what would happen to the price of gasoline? Indeed that price would plummet, and what do you think would happen to all that mogas? Indeed it would make its way to the 3rd world to be used in whatever capacity had value in it. I fear you would not see a decrease in consumption unless mogas was outlawed to burn. And yet it may come to that. Finally, very interesting note we did one study, for fun, on the CO2 output of the Tesla roadster versus the Porsche Turbo and discovered that the Tesla car only produced 1/4th the emmissions that the Turbo did. Its a start. MPG CO2Lbs/1000K BTU CO2 lbs/Mile Lifetime Miles CO2 lbs /Lifetime
06 911 Porsche Turbo 21.300 156.425 0.845 150,000 126682.218
Tesla Roadster 118.294 136.137 0.185 150,000 27761.184

If you are interested in my analysis you can reach me at

All the best to you.

1:41 am, November 14, 2006  
Blogger James said...


Glad you found the info useful. As for the "political diatribe" comment - you may choose to characterise the legitimate and factual criticism as a diatribe but it's not political as it reflects neither the political opinion of any party I know of nor does it pertain principally to government power. Perhaps more accurately it could be described as a corporate or industry sector diatribe :-)

7:28 am, November 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True...the corporate/industrial sector has become more of a force than politics or even governments...aka special interest's not about the money, it's about the money.


7:47 am, November 18, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@dave: i agree with u! Electric cars doesnt mean eco-friendly!
i think cars with hydrogen technologie are on a better way to be eco-friendly.

7:50 am, December 22, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for this clarification on ethanol.

I have recently launched a blog with fun stuff about transportation alternatives. It is actually a way of having people think again about transportation and energy.

I took the liberty of re-using your Andy Singer image on ethanol. I hope that's ok (I have quoted your blog).


7:35 am, January 15, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Greate article.

5:52 am, January 24, 2007  
Blogger Jacis said...

Please , please, keep up the good work on your blog. It is wonderful to hear good news for a change... even though corporate green is still fighting hard against the renewables.
Jacis from Batteries-Search

5:39 am, March 31, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said... seems to be a better way

7:14 am, April 22, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I still think ethanol is a good alternative than getting some of our gas from the Middle East where many countries there support terrorism against us. Hope that E85 will be widely available in all of America in a year or two, and especially in Phoenix, Arizona.

11:18 pm, May 08, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


8:57 am, September 12, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

France is going to increase tax on ethanol !!!
Last year they have anounced a big launch of e85.
What do they do ?


4:57 pm, January 27, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post,i lick it

10:18 pm, February 26, 2008  
Blogger Unknown said...

What we are going to do with the billions of cars running with a gas engine? Through it away? What about a universal hybrid kit for conversional cars? In the other hand a lot of countries around the world produce electricity by burning fossil fuel, what would be the advantage of using electric cars, if you need to plug it to an electrical outlet? Your electric bill will be higher and the electric company will need to burn more fossil fuel.



2:09 pm, March 04, 2008  
Blogger Benjamin J. Thompson said...

This debate on energy production/distribution for transportation is fascinating, but the only place where it will be of any use to us is in the actual laboratories of those who are building energy and automotive alternatives. If you've found the answer to the energy problem, you shouldn't have to convince a panel of bureaucrats first. You should be able to build it, sell it, make a profit and build and sell some more, until the energy problem has been solved.

Subsidies only distort the market. Others have pointed out already the shortcomings of ethanol, yet we see E85 booming hugely thanks to government largess. We know the tremendous potential of electric, but it can't thrive in the face of subsidized competitors, and unwilling automotive companies who are insulated from competition, no thanks to the immense barriers of entry into the auto-making market.

I encourage everyone to ask their representatives in Congress at the state and federal levels to end all corporate welfare, subsidies and tariffs in the energy and automotive markets. Only the free market is creative and dynamic enough to solve the energy crisis.

12:15 pm, April 17, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ethanol is just another commodity and
as such, is subject to the economic laws of supply and demand (as well as the laws of greed and fear on the trading floor.)
Money makes things viable or not. Once the infrastructure has enough commitment, ANY fuel will cost AT LEAST as much as traditional fuels.
The answer I see is a combination of solar thermoelectric plants (until nuclear fusion is viable) with increased electrical infrastructure with opportunity charging stations at parking lots and traffic intersections will be the most straightforward path to energy independence

8:20 am, April 20, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ethanol is a good fuel solution but it also is very bad. Although ethanol burns a lot cleaner that gasoline it still uses corn to make the ethanol. That corn could be used to feed many people in other countries that are starving and would die for some corn. The prices in corn are almost 50% higher. People in Asia are starving because they don't have the money to buy a can of corn which could help them live for a couple more days. You should look at my blog at

12:29 pm, May 23, 2008  

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