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For Good or Ill, Boom in Ethanol Reshapes Economy of Heartland

Alexei Barrionuevo, New York Times
Dozens of factories that turn corn into the gasoline substitute ethanol are sprouting up across the nation, from Tennessee to Kansas, and California, often in places hundreds of miles away from where corn is grown.

Once considered the green dream of the environmentally sensitive, ethanol has become the province of agricultural giants that have long pressed for its use as fuel, as well as newcomers seeking to cash in on a bonanza.

The modern-day gold rush is driven by a number of factors: generous government subsidies, surging demand for ethanol as a gasoline supplement, a potent blend of farm-state politics and the prospect of generating more than a 100 percent profit in less than two years.

The rush is taking place despite concerns that large-scale diversion of agricultural resources to fuel could result in price increases for food for people and livestock, as well as the transformation of vast preserved areas into farmland.
(25 June 2006)
Good reporting on a complicated subject – a welcome step beyond gee-wow coverage. Also see the sidebar, an excerpt from which appears next. -BA

A Range of Estimates on Ethanol’s Benefits

Alexei Barrionuevo, New York Times
Would using ethanol save energy?

That question, it turns out, is not easy to answer. Ethanol’s enthusiasts point to the potential benefits of replacing gasoline with a renewable energy source that they contend will reduce America’s reliance on foreign oil and cut greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels. But the benefits of ethanol, particularly when it is produced from corn, are not so clear cut.

A number of researchers who have looked at the issue have concluded that more energy now goes into making a gallon of ethanol than is contained in that gallon. Others, however, find a net benefit, though most see it as relatively modest.

Those who question whether ethanol is as “green” as advertised say that supporters ignore or downplay the large quantities of natural gas used to produce ethanol, as well as the diesel fuel used to transport it from plants to markets. Moreover, growing corn requires heavy use of nitrogen fertilizers, made from natural gas, and requires extensive use of farm machinery, which burns fuel refined from crude oil.

Given the complexities of the calculations, there is a wide range of estimates of the benefits of ethanol.

On the positive side, analysts at the Agriculture Department concluded in their most recent assessment that ethanol offered a substantial gain, producing a positive output 67 percent greater than the energy inputs. But others who view ethanol favorably are more conservative, with several estimating the net energy benefit at about 20 percent.

David Pimentel, a professor of agriculture and life sciences at Cornell University, is one of several researchers who has challenged the Agriculture Department’s conclusion. He has estimated that ethanol requires 29 percent more energy from fossil fuels than it delivers in savings from not using gasoline.

Dr. Pimentel, along with Tadeusz W. Patzek, a civil and environmental engineer from the University of California at Berkeley, published research finding that the Agriculture Department’s analysis excluded the energy required to produce or repair farm machinery, as well as the steel and cement used to build the plants.

The Agriculture Department counters by noting that the professors failed to consider the energy benefit of certain ethanol byproducts, including corn oil and corn gluten, and said they were using old farm machinery data.

“They put all the energy on the ethanol,” said Roger Conway, director of the department’s office of energy policy and new uses.

The Agriculture Department also points to increases in corn yields, and efficiency improvements in the fertilizer and ethanol industries, which add to ethanol’s energy benefit.

Dr. Pimentel acknowledged the omissions of some byproducts, saying they might have boosted the energy balance to as much as break even. But he said that even a best-case scenario, using his calculations, did not justify a heavy investment in ethanol. He called the push into ethanol a “boondoggle” motivated by farm-state politics and big profits.
(25 June 2006)
Great to see the all important EROEI angle being given serious treatment by the NY Times. -AF

Grain drain

B.J. Reyes, Star Bulletin
Isle drivers keep paying more at the pump despite the required addition of crop-based ethanol to fuel

Turn on the TV, listen to the radio or page through a magazine and you’re likely to come across ads by automakers, even oil companies, touting a new generation of vehicles and fuels that will help end our nation’s “addiction to oil.”

But will it?

Nationwide, ethanol prices have never been higher and there is a growing chorus of detractors who say biofuels threaten our nation’s food security, that they aren’t efficient enough to compete with traditional energy sources and will have little, if any, ability to displace oil consumption.

“I think people are seeing that there’s severe limits to how far we can take this and getting a little bit more realistic,” said David Fridley, a staff scientist in the Energy and Environmental Division at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Fridley is a frequent lecturer on what he calls the “myth of biofuels.”…

Supporters of ethanol in Hawaii note that most of the criticism focuses on fuels derived from corn. The local industry is positioning itself to take advantage of the islands’ ability to grow sugar.

Next month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to issue a long-awaited study on the viability of sugar-based ethanol. Keith Collins, the USDA’s chief economist, said that the soaring demand for ethanol and Brazil’s successful track record with sugar-based ethanol make it worth discussing sugar-based ethanol here.

Although sugar is widely considered a more efficient feedstock than corn and wheat, some, like Fridley, question ethanol’s viability in general, predicting that such fuels will only be able to displace about 20 percent of the nation’s oil consumption.
(25 June 2006)
Also: Ethanol may reduce mileage

Fill ‘er Up — With Food

Stephen Pizzo, AlterNet
Is turning food into fuel as millions starve to death really the ethical answer to our oil addiction?

I’m not a scientist. I don’t even play on television. I got a gentleman’s “D” in high school physics and chemistry. So nothing I am about to say is based on good science. OK?

Now, here’s what’s been bugging me: I can’t believe that the best way out of our dependence on oil is by burning food in our cars instead.

I am speaking, of course, of the push for corn-based ethanol. I’ve been watching as the media parrots the ballyhoo being pumped out by the strange-bedfellows alliance made up of agribusiness, the White House, energy companies and farm-state politicians. To believe the thrust of this PR blitz one would think that corn-based ethanol is the most beneficial thing to hit mankind since penicillin.

But every time I see one of those feel-good stories on the news showing a huge truck dumping tons of golden corn into the hungry maul of a new ethanol plant, I wonder how that jives — morally and practically — with the images that too often precede them on the evening news … the pictures of all those bony sub-Saharan babies covered with flies as they slowly starve.
(24 June 2006)

Add Biobutanol To Your Vocab Of Alternative Fuels

michael, Groovy Green
Biobutanol—it just doesn’t roll of the tongue as nicely as Ethanol–however, it may sit favorably with environmentalists and motorists in the U.S. as an easy alternative to conventional gasoline. Dupont and BP have announced a partnership to develop the new boifuel–with 30% more energy efficiency than ethanol. Hoping to roll out the fuel by the end of 2007, their aim is to make it competitive with a barrel of crude–even when prices as low as $30-$40 a barrel. (When the hell will we ever see those days again?!) From the article,

“Currently, biofuels account for just 2% of all fuel consumption. But biofuels could account for 30% of all fuel consumption by 2020, some sources predict. Dupont and BP estimate the global market for biofuels could reach 87 billion gallons by 2020, up from just under 11 billion gallons today.
One distinct advantage of biobutanol: Cars can use close to 100% of the fuel without making any vehicle modifications, DuPont says. To use that high a concentration of ethanol, car engines have to be modified into something known as a “flex fuel vehicle.”

Sounds like a nice alternative for people not looking to modify their exisiting vehicle. I’m not sure what effect growing sugar beets has on the environment–compared to the stupidity of growing corn for ethanol–but an increased draw in efficiency from any crop is welcome. Watch for it.

Link: A Competitor For Ethanol? via
(22 June 2006)
I’d suggest that pursuing any annual crop for fuel production is probably unwise, and likely to offer only marginal energy returns at best whilst mining the soil. -AF