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E3 Biofuels: Responsible Ethanol

Robert Rapier, The Oil Drum
I hope it is clear that my opposition to ethanol has nothing to do with the fuel itself. If we could make sufficient ethanol with little or no fossil fuel inputs, ethanol could be a very important piece of a post-petroleum future. If ethanol could be produced with an EROEI of 3 or 4, as opposed to the current 1-1.3 or so, then ethanol begins to look attractive from a sustainability standpoint.

My opposition to ethanol is due to the way we typically make it in the U.S., and is specifically focused on grain ethanol. We take fossil fuels and basically recycle them into ethanol in a very inefficient manner. Ethanol production may be a good solution for countries like Brazil, that don’t rely on large fossil fuel inputs into the process (as long as they aren’t depleting their topsoil and cutting down their rainforests). Cellulosic ethanol may ultimately provide ethanol at a substantially better energy return than grain ethanol, but as a recent Car & Driver article put it: “If cellulosic ethanol were easy, it would already be on the road, because the government has been seriously funding research for about 30 years.”

There are even some places in the U.S. where ethanol could provide a (mildly) sustainable solution even as it is produced today. Take Iowa, for instance. Iowa has good corn yields and doesn’t require irrigation. If the ethanol is produced from local corn, and is used locally (not shipped halfway across the country), the renewable portion of ethanol is increased. This may provide marginal mitigation for peak oil in certain local areas (though it is still not a highly efficient way to produce fuel). But get into areas outside the Midwest, where you have to ship corn a long way, ship ethanol a long way, and/or irrigate the corn, and ethanol rapidly becomes just a recycled fossil fuel.

However, a couple of months ago a poster referred me to a company that is attempting to produce ethanol in a more sustainable manner. The company is E3 Biofuels. Their concept is this: Grow corn, produce ethanol, feed the byproducts to cattle, harvest the manure, produce methane from the manure in a biodigester, use the methane to fuel the boilers, and use the remaining solids to fertilize the soil. This is ethanol production in more of a Brazilian mold (i.e., byproducts are used to fuel the process).
(27 June 2006)
Rapier’s discussion is mainly concerned with energy analysis. A concern I have is what happens to the soil with constant intensive cropping of bio-fuels over a huge area. A big unknown, according to Rapier in the Comments section:

vtpeaknik: I also wonder if the EROI quoted by RR includes all the agricultural inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides, fuel for machinery, embedded energy in machinery, soil erosion mitigation (if that’s even possible), etc etc, and of course the nonrenewable groundwater where applicable as Sasquatch wrote about.

Rapier:Ask, and ye shall be answered. I can tell you what is and is not included. The spreadsheets used inputs from the recent USDA studies, so it does include all of the primary inputs. It doesn’t include secondary inputs, like the energy to build the ethanol plant. I have never seen any good numbers for that. The USDA said that’s why they didn’t include secondary inputs, but to truly evaluate the energy return they have to be included.

Soil erosion and groundwater depletion are not considered, and have never been rigorously evaluated in any study I have seen. For true sustainability, you obviously can’t have an erosive process, and you can’t use up groundwater faster than it is replaced. However, returning the manure back to the soil will help with the erosion issue. Will it arrest it? We won’t know this until the process has gone through a few growing seasons.

UK’s Blair Signals Support for Nuclear Power

Reuters, Planet Ark
Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Tuesday he would need a lot of convincing that Britain could meet its future energy needs without nuclear power, signalling his support for a new generation of reactors.

Blair said it would be a “dangerous gamble” to put complete faith in renewable energy to meet the country’s requirements, exposing it to dependency on imports of oil and gas from abroad.

He also rejected the idea of offering government subsidies to developers of new nuclear plants.

“I think the sensible precaution is to have a balanced energy policy. You put it all in the mix,” Blair said…

Potential investors in a new generation of power plants have said the private sector could not shoulder the full clean-up costs of new plants.
(28 June 2006)

MPs warned of UK’s fragile energy supply

Mark Milner, The Guardian
Britain would have faced much greater difficulty in meeting its energy needs last winter if the Rough gas storage facility, which was put out of action by fire in February, had been knocked out of commission earlier, a senior National Grid executive said on Tuesday.

Chris Murray, National Grid’s network operations director, told MPs on the House of Commons trade and industry committee that Britain had been able to make up for the shortfall from Rough, which is the UK’s biggest gas storage facility, by imports of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and increased imports from continental Europe.

National Grid had been forced to issue a “gas-balancing alert” – a warning of possible supply interruptions to commercial customers – on only one day last winter. But he added: “If [Rough] had happened much earlier in the winter … it would have been much more difficult.”…

He said Britain would have to invest heavily in new electricity-generating capacity but noted that if Britain opted to build a new generation of nuclear power plants it would need a bridge between that new nuclear capacity becoming available and the shortfall caused by existing power stations being closed down.

“If nuclear is going to come back on the agenda in the longer term, what will provide the bridge between now and new nuclear capacity coming?”
(22 June 2006)

U.S. Grants 1st License for Major Nuclear Plant in 30 Years

Washington Post
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has issued its first license for a major commercial nuclear facility in 30 years, allowing an international consortium to build what will be the nation’s first private fuel source for commercial nuclear power plants.

Construction of the $1.5 billion National Enrichment Facility, under review for the past 2 1/2 years, could begin in August, and the plant could be ready to sell enriched uranium by early 2009, said James Ferland, president of the consortium of nuclear companies, Louisiana Energy Services.

The plant, licensed on Friday, will be built near the small southeastern New Mexico community of Eunice, where support for the project is strong. Critics say it will pollute the environment, guzzle scarce water and leave the town with tons of radioactive waste and nowhere to put it…

Critics had contended that disposal costs could leave New Mexico stuck with the project’s nuclear waste. But the board ruled May 31 that uncertainties over waste disposal costs are irrelevant; the consortium’s agreement with New Mexico calls for hundreds of millions of dollars to be set aside for waste disposal.

The plant will generate a form of waste that no U.S. disposal site can handle, and no U.S. processing facility exists that can convert the waste into lower-level radioactive material. The plant could run at full capacity for eight to 10 years before running out of on-site space for the material.
(25 June 2006)

Asia Shows Solar Power is Not Just for the Rich

Reuters, Planet Ark
Solar power does not require steep subsidies to be able to push aside environment-polluting fossil fuels, says proponents of large sun-powered projects in Laos and Bangladesh.

In developed countries, solar-generated electricity is four times more expensive than so-called brown electricity made with coal and gas, and can only be made attractive to consumers when subsidised heavily, they told an energy conference.

But in large parts of emerging markets, solar power does not compete with mains electricity, because there is no grid.

In Bangladesh, where more than two out of three households cannot get electricity out of a socket, some 80,000 homes now own a basic solar panel that generates about 50 watts of power.

The energy is stored in a small battery and can light up three bright, energy-saving lamps for four hours, Sazzad Hossain, manager of Rahimafrooz told a solar industry conference in this southern German town at the end of last week…

A major obstacle to the popularity of solar power was that Bangladesh, with a population of 146 million, has a per capita income of US$440, according to Unicef, while the solar systems offered by Rahimafrooz cost US$300, including a US$30 subsidy.
(27 June 2006)