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Ethanol debate: Kammen vs Patzek
Patti Meagher, Berkleyan
Is it a useful alternative while other technologies ramp up? Or do its costs already exceed its potential payoff?
…for the last three years, Berkeley has been a microcosm of the ongoing debate, as two of its most widely quoted authorities, Dan Kammen and Tad Patzek, are crunching data on opposite sides of campus in an effort to determine the truth about biofuels.
“We know that ethanol is a net energy winner,” says Kammen. “With investment and innovation, it could be a huge resource.” The Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy, Kammen has appointments in nuclear engineering, the Goldman School of Public Policy, and the Energy and Resources Group. His latest research shows that corn-derived ethanol — produced from the U.S. corn crop through an expensive and resource-intensive process that uses just the corn kernel — saves significantly on gas but reduces greenhouse-gas emissions only by about 15 percent.
Even so, what Kammen likes about corn ethanol is that it is available now and can begin making a dent in our petroleum consumption while research continues on better alternatives. Most promising, he says, is cellulosic ethanol, made from paper pulp, specially designed fuel crops like switchgrass, and many wastes that can be diverted from landfill and turned into fuel. The big success story in cellulosic ethanol comes from Brazil, which will achieve energy self-sufficiency some time this year thanks to a 30-year investment in ethanol derived from its native sugar cane. Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to yield many times more energy than corn ethanol and will greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Kammen says. With a few new experimental refineries under construction, he adds, cellulosic ethanol could be powering some U.S. cars in a few years.
Tad Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering, disagrees. His studies of the amount of fossil fuel consumed in manufacturing ethanol — including everything from producing crop fertilizers and repairing farm machinery to transporting crops and building refineries — show that it takes three to six gallons of ethanol to replace one gallon of gasoline. Cellulosic ethanol performs “marginally” better than corn ethanol, he says, but will require an entirely new technology and infrastructure and is no more environmentally benign.
“Biofuels will not solve existing problems with automotive fuels,” Patzek says, “but they will increase the rate at which we burn natural gas and coal while adding to CO2 emissions.” Growing fuel crops of any kind strains the water supply, he adds, and is accelerating the collapse of the Midwestern-prairie-soil, tropical-forest, and savannah ecosystems through soil erosion, overuse, and land reclamation.
(1 Nov 2006)
Patzek says you lose energy in making corn ethanol, Kammen says you gain a little bit. To me, that argument isn’t very interesting, and Kammen, in promoting corn ethanol on this basis vastly overestimates the significance of a marginally positive net energy balance. We need EROEI ratios of something like 6:1 not 1.3:1 for useful commercial fuels, otherwise the industry does little more than support itself (and its destructive soil and water mining processes). So the switchgrass debate is at least meaningful, whether or not you think the environmental costs will outweigh the possible energy gains.
UPDATE 16 Jan: Milton Maciel writes over at EnergyResources
A correction is needed in this part of the text by
Patti Meagher, College of Engineering:
“Even so, what Kammen likes about corn ethanol is that
it is available now and can begin making a dent in our
petroleum consumption while research continues on
better alternatives. Most promising, he says, is
cellulosic ethanol, made from paper pulp, specially
designed fuel crops like switchgrass, and many wastes
that can be diverted from landfill and turned into
The big success story in CELLULOSIC ethanol comes from
BRAZIL, which will achieve energy self-sufficiency
some time this year thanks to a 30-year investment in
ethanol derived from its native sugar cane.”
Brazil has neither failure nor success story in
cellulosic ethanol. All Brazilian sugar cane ethanol
is made from SUGAR, not cellulose.
Anyway, if cellulosic ethanol process can arrive to an
EROEI of 6:1, the common sucrose ethanol in Brazil has
already a 9:1 EROEI and organic sucrose ethanol has a
Yes, it is true that gasoline replacement (~ 50%)by
ethanol has helped Brazilian oil self-sufficiency, but
more important has been the large effort done by
Petrobras, finding, extracting and refining much more
oil than a mere 5 years ago. All of this summed to the
relatively small oil consumption in the country,
exactly 10% of USA’s consumption.
Milton Maciel in Brazil
Culver envisions Iowa as the energy capital of the world
Todd Dorman, Globe Gazette
Chet Culver challenged Iowans to follow the lead of history’s risk-takers and transform their state into the “energy capital of the world” as he became Iowa’s 40th governor Friday.
…“Well, my fellow Iowans, this is our time,” Culver, a Democrat, said in his inaugural address. “It’s our time to accept the challenge, to explore and discover Iowa’s unlimited potential. It’s our time to win the race to become the energy capital of the world.
“There is an energy frontier open before us, and we must explore it immediately. America and the world are counting on us,” Culver said. “Simply put, we can’t afford to duck this responsibility.”
Like his successful campaign to win Iowa’s top office, Culver devoted much of his speech to the argument that Iowa’s economic future lies in energy harvested from the state’s fertile land. Culver, a former high school government and history teacher, tied the quest for renewable energy to the pioneers who explored and settled the state.
“These visionaries were undaunted by the practical challenges of the day. They were guided by their faith, their hopes and their dreams, even when no one gave them a map,” Culver said. “Let us all come together as one and lead our own 21st Century Iowa expedition,”
…He renewed his call for creating a $100 million “Iowa Power Fund” to bankroll research that pushes the state beyond its current staples of corn-based ethanol and soy biodiesel. He argued for making “the entire state of Iowa a laboratory” to find cutting-edge forms of renewable energy.
(13 Jan 2007)
Ethanol boom to evaporate corn surplus
Charles Abbot, Reuters
The fuel ethanol industry’s ravenous appetite for corn will leave the United States with only a meager three-week supply of the grain when this year’s crop is ready for harvest, the U.S. government said on Friday.
(13 Jan 2007)
Corn rockets, triggers limit
Robert Manor, Chicago Tribune
Corn continued its dramatic rise in price Friday, driven upward by demand for ethanol and an increasingly prosperous world eager for food.
The benchmark price of corn reached an exchange-imposed limit of $3.965 a bushel shortly after trading began at the Chicago Board of Trade.
To maintain financial stability the Board of Trade limits increases and decreases in corn to 20 cents a day. Limits are rarely needed, the exchange said, and come into play only when prices are highly volatile.
(13 Jan 2007)
Pig farmers, ethanol don’t mix
Joseph Barrios, Arizona Daily Star
Pork farmers are just starting to peel the husk away from an issue they fear could ultimately threaten production across the country, according to industry leaders who met in Tucson this week.
(13 Jan 2007)
See also this related article, Pork Faces Challenges From Ethanol Demand, which mentions problems with feeding pigs ethanol by-products, one of the solutions offered. -AF