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The Biofuel Illusion

Julia Olmstead, Prairie Writers Circle via Common Dreams
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the promise of biofuels — liquid fuels like ethanol and biodiesel made from plants — to reduce our dependence on oil. Even President Bush beat the biofuel drum in his last State of the Union speech.

Fuel from plants? Sounds pretty good. But before you rush out to buy an E-85 pickup, consider:

— The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy than all the energy produced in a year by the country’s plant life, including forests and that used for food and fiber, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy and David Pimentel, a Cornell University researcher.

— To produce enough corn-based ethanol to meet current U.S. demand for automotive gasoline, we would need to nearly double the amount of land used for harvested crops, plant all of it in corn, year after year, and not eat any of it. Even a greener fuel source like the switchgrass President Bush mentioned, which requires fewer petroleum-based inputs than corn and reduces topsoil losses by growing back each year, could provide only a small fraction of the energy we demand.

— The corn and soybeans that make ethanol and biodiesel take huge quantities of fossil fuel for farm machinery, pesticides and fertilizer. Much of it comes from foreign sources, including some that may not be dependable, such as Russia and countries in the Middle East.

— Corn and soybean production as practiced in the Midwest is ecologically unsustainable. Its effects include massive topsoil erosion, pollution of surface and groundwater with pesticides, and fertilizer runoff that travels down the Mississippi River to deplete oxygen and life from a New Jersey-size portion of the Gulf of Mexico.

— Improving fuel efficiency in cars by just 1 mile per gallon — a gain possible with proper tire inflation — would cut fuel consumption equal to the total amount of ethanol federally mandated for production in 2012.

Rather than chase phantom substitutes for fossil fuels, we should focus on what can immediately both slow our contribution to global climate change and reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels: cutting energy use.
(4 July 2006)

Big Oil’s Big Profits, and the Big Lies They’re Telling to Maintain Them

Vinod Khosla, The Huffington Post
I’ve issued a challenge to any large organization or corporation that will commit to selling alternative fuels like ethanol. I will supply all the ethanol they need for the long term with a five- to seven-year fixed-price contract that, allowing for normal profit margins, will make it possible for them to sell it for $1.99 a gallon all across America.

Going further, I can guarantee that the ethanol will be produced in a way that has a materially positive energy balance and reduces both petroleum consumption and green house gases.

I was on a panel at the Fortune Brainstorm in Aspen this week with Jeroen van der Veer, the CEO of Shell, and offered him this deal. I am waiting for an answer…

The oil companies are also spreading disinformation about alternative energy sources. For instance, they claim there’s not enough capacity out there and not enough ethanol. But, the fact is, there is. I’m happy to supply them any quantity they need, including quantities equal to that of all U.S. production, at fixed prices for seven years, if they’ll just commit to buying that quantity for seven years and use it to replace gasoline.
(30 June 2006)
Given Olmstead’s first point — “The United States annually consumes more fossil and nuclear energy than all the energy produced in a year by the country’s plant life, including forests and that used for food and fiber” — this promise seems unlikely to be keepable. Keep in mind also that the U.S. is about to become net food importer. -AF

Vietnam to squeeze biofuel from catfish to run engines

AFP via Zambia Mail & Guardian
A Vietnamese company plans to turn catfish fat into biofuel to run diesel engines, with industrial-scale production set to start next year, an official of the firm said Tuesday.

Catfish exporter Agifish said it had won government approval to build a factory in the southern Mekong delta province of An Giang in 2007 and produce about 10-million litres of the fuel per year.

…Thien said the company had found a way to make about one litre of biofuel from one kilogram of fat and oil from the whiskered sweet-water fish, and had already used the fuel to run pumps in its fish farms.

Vietnam plans to produce about 500 000 tons of catfish this year and 700 000 tons in 2007, mostly for export to the United States and Europe, said Thien.

Vietnam, which booked 8,4% economic growth last year, has major offshore oil and gas reserves but lacks refineries, making it reliant on petroleum imports and vulnerable to global oil price fluctuations.
(4 July 2006)

On the Road Again, Where Biodiesel Is a Rising Star

Eric O’Keefe, NY Times
CARL’S CORNER, Tex. — Soaring fuel costs have many consumers curtailing needless driving trips. But not Mike Frybarger. Last summer, the 49-year-old independent trucker got in his Volvo 770 tractor-trailer, drove for 2½ days and logged more than 1,200 miles.

He passed hundreds of service stations, without stopping at any of them. Convenience and cheap diesel fuel? He did not need them.

Instead, he filled up his truck’s 300-gallon tank with biodiesel at Carl’s Corner, a Texas truck stop that is at the center of the nation’s growing biodiesel industry.

“I heard about biodiesel on XM Radio,” Mr. Frybarger said. “Bill Mack has Willie come on his show and actually talk to truckers. Before Willie got involved, biodiesel wasn’t well known. But once Willie got behind it, he brought biodiesel to the forefront.”

Willie is the musician Willie Nelson. Biodiesel is a fuel made by the chemical mixing of alcohol and fats, greases or oils from animals or vegetables. Proponents of this alternative fuel, including Mr. Nelson, point out that one of Rudolf Diesel’s first engines was powered by peanut oil. But by the time the Model T began rolling off Henry Ford’s assembly lines, it was powered by petrochemical products, not vegetable oils.

In 2002, Mr. Nelson got a complete update on biodiesel from a source close to home: his wife, Annie. Ms. Nelson bought a Volkswagen Jetta that could run on the fuel and had it shipped to their home on Maui.
(5 July 2006)

Faced with soaring oil prices, Indonesia turns to biodiesel

Eric Unmacht, The Christian Science Monitor
JAKARTA, INDONESIA – With global oil prices continuing to soar, Indonesia is joining other countries in the race for alternative fuels at the pump. High costs, a lack of private-sector zeal, and environmental and social concerns are among the obstacles here on the road away from heavy dependence on fossil fuels and toward alternatives such as biodiesel – a fuel that can be made from vegetable oils.

“Many crude palm oil companies want to make biodiesel for themselves, to run their factories,” says Tatang Soerawidjaja of the Indonesian Biodiesel Forum. “But when it comes to making it to sell at the petrol stations, they say there’s no profit in it.”

Indonesia should be well-situated for the production of biodiesel. With Malaysia, it controls nearly 85 percent of the production of crude palm oil (CPO). But nearly 10 million tons of Indonesia’s 15-million-ton production of CPO is exported, and export demand is rising. Edible palm oil, extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, is used in everything from chocolate and margarine to soap and lipstick.

The demand to use CPO in biodiesel is also increasing in Europe, as well as in Colombia, India, South Korea, and Turkey, which will drive prices still higher.

“Most of the time, it’s just the people who want biodiesel, not the government or companies,” says Rosediana Suharto, executive chairman of Indonesian Palm Oil Commission. “The price of palm oil is too high.”

The dampening effect of the high cost of CPO on private investment in biodiesel in Indonesia is compounded by the low price of regular diesel sold in the country. Billions of dollars in government subsidies offset the high price of fuel bought overseas. Indonesian consumers buy some of the cheapest petrol in the world – around 50 cents per liter ($1.90 per gallon) for gasoline and diesel.

Indeed, the rising cost of fuel subsidies is what is spurring government interest in biodiesel.
(5 July 2006)

Ethanol misses mark as silver bullet

Editorial, Vancouver Sun
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a product that could be grown and harvested, distilled and refined, to produce fuel that would power our vehicles without despoiling the environment?

Many believe ethanol is that single silver bullet but, sadly, they are wrong.

To be sure, the ethanol market is booming. Recently, VeraSun Energy Corp., the second largest producer of ethanol in the United States, made its stock market debut with a 34 per cent gain on its first day of trading because, analysts said, supplies are tight and demand is rising.

However, the demand for ethanol is not being driven by its potential to replace gasoline but rather by government edict. The United States Department of Energy, backed by U.S. President George W. Bush, last year mandated ethanol as a replacement for the fuel additive methy tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), which raises the oxygen content of gasoline so it burns more completely and cleanly. MTBE was itself a replacement for lead.

That move prompted Canada to follow suit. The federal government will require gasoline at the pump to contain not less than five per cent biofuels, such as ethanol, by 2010.

The market is indifferent to the merits of ethanol as an alternative fuel. It recognizes that government policy will manage supply and demand and keep ethanol producers in business. Ontario, for example, has budgeted $520 million over 12 years, mainly to subsidize producers if volatile ethanol prices swing against them. Ethanol producers are thus insulated from the discipline of profits.

This might all be well and good if there was sufficient scientific data to support the contention that ethanol will reduce dependence on fossil fuels, produce less greenhouse gas emissions and create less environmental damage than does the extraction and refining of oil.

But the research is not convincing.
(4 July 2006)

The False Hope of Biofuels
For Energy and Environmental Reasons, Ethanol Will Never Replace Gasoline

James Jordan and James Powell, Washington Post
Biofuels such as ethanol made from corn, sugar cane, switchgrass and other crops are being touted as a “green” solution for a large part of America’s transportation problem. Auto manufacturers, Midwest corn farmers and politicians are excited about ethanol. Initially, we, too, were excited about biofuels: no net carbon dioxide emissions, reduction of oil imports. Who wouldn’t be enthusiastic?

But as we’ve looked at biofuels more closely, we’ve concluded that they’re not a practical long-term solution to our need for transport fuels. Even if all of the 300 million acres (500,000 square miles) of currently harvested U.S. cropland produced ethanol, it wouldn’t supply all of the gasoline and diesel fuel we now burn for transport, and it would supply only about half of the needs for the year 2025. And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

It’s difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addiction. Agriculture Department studies of ethanol production from corn — the present U.S. process for ethanol fuel — find that an acre of corn yields about 139 bushels. At an average of about 2.5 gallons per bushel, the acre then will yield about 350 gallons of ethanol. But the fuel value of ethanol is only about two-thirds that of gasoline — 1.5 gallons of ethanol in the tank equals 1 gallon of gasoline in terms of energy output.

Moreover, it takes a lot of input energy to produce ethanol: for fertilizer, harvesting, transport, corn processing, etc. After subtracting this input, the net positive energy available is less than half of the figure cited above. Some researchers even claim that the net energy of ethanol is actually negative when all inputs are included — it takes more energy to make ethanol than one gets out of it.

The writers are research professors in Maglev Research Center at Polytechnic University of New York.
(2 July 2006)
A much better analysis than one usually encounters in the media. The authors don’t seem to have a hidden agenda. They explain the scientific issues clearly without getting lost in jargon and details. Please, WaPo, more of the same! -BA

Report: Malaysia Suspends Biodiesel Effort

Associated Press via Houston Chronicle
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia has suspended giving new licenses for biodiesel production projects amid concerns that an excess of projects could deprive the food market of palm oil, widely used in cooking, a report said Monday.

Malaysia is the world’s biggest producer of crude palm oil, the main ingredient of biodiesel. Spurred by the interest in the fuel, touted as a cheaper substitute for gasoline and diesel, the government has so far approved 32 biodiesel projects with a combined production capacity of about 3 million tons.

But it announced last week that it will stop issuing licenses for new biodiesel manufacturing projects until it completes a study of the palm oil downstream industry, the New Straits Times reported. It didn’t say when it expects to complete the study.

The Times quoted Malaysian Palm Oil Council chief executive Yusof Basiron as saying that the freeze on new projects was largely due to a surge in the number of applications for biodiesel production.

The government received 87 applications since last year, raising concerns that it could eat into crude palm oil, or CPO, reserves meant for food and oleochemical industries, he said.
(3 July 2006)