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Biofuels: Driving in the Wrong Direction?

Alan AtKisson, WorldChanging
My ethanol car is not looking so good these days. I don’t mean the scratch on the right rear bumper, caused by a nice lady who was distracted by her kids while backing out of her parking place last Saturday. I mean, of course, the carbon dioxide emissions coming from the tailpipe, and even the ethanol itself.

Back in 2002, when my wife and I bought one of the early “Flexifuel” cars in Sweden, I felt very good about myself. A Flexifuel can be driven on 85% bioethanol mixed with ordinary petrol (that’s why it’s called “E85”). New to Sweden, I also believed the sales person when he informed me that most of the ethanol in this country came from forest byproducts. Using E85 resulted in about 70% lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to a normal petrol car, he said. My global warming-conscience was relatively clean.

Owning an ethanol car was an adventure in those days. There were only eight ethanol filling stations in Stockholm, and we planned our driving to make sure we passed one regularly. Sure, you can also tank up a Flexifuel car with ordinary petrol; that’s what “Flexi” means. But the whole point was not to use fossil fuels. Biofuels were the path to a clean energy future.

Comfortable in my self-congratulatory beliefs, and shielded by my imperfect command of Swedish, it took me a couple of years to actually notice the growing chorus of debate in Sweden about importing Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane. Brazil is where more than 80% of our ethanol actually comes from; most of the rest comes from Swedish grain, some comes from European wine-making by-products, and a tiny bit comes from one Swedish forestry waste facility. As though coming out of a fog, I finally realized that this Brazilian ethanol, mixed with a little home-grown agro-industry, was actually fueling my own car – not the pristine Swedish forests of my imagination.

For the next few years, I clung to the notion that our car’s carbon emissions and overall environmental impact were much lower than an ordinary car.
(29 February 2008)

The ethanol bust

Jon Birger, Fortune
Cargill announces it’s scrapping plans for a $200 million ethanol plant near Topeka, Kan. A judge approves the bankruptcy sale of an unfinished ethanol plant in Canton, Ill.. And that was just Tuesday.

Indeed, plans for as many as 50 new ethanol plants have been shelved in recent months, as Wall Street pulls back from the sector, says Paul Ho, a Credit Suisse investment banker specializing in alternative energy. Financing for new ethanol plants, Ho says, “has been shut down.”

How can the ethanol industry be slumping only two months after Congress passed an energy bill most experts consider a biofuels boon? The answer is runaway corn prices.
(28 February 2008)

Cuba to Produce Ethanol without Sacrificing Food
Jaime Porcell, Prensa Latina
Cuban scientists from nine institutions met this week to analyze the possibilities to produce ethanol from sugarcane byproducts and other alternative sources without sacrificing food.

The First National Workshop on Cellulosic Ethanol, held at the ICIDCA (Sugarcane Research Institute), was attended by 42 experts, who reviewed the current situation on the international market and technological processes that are not based on food.

The Cuban experts, who gave two master lectures and presented 16 papers at the event, insisted on the danger of using crops to produce ethanol and biodiesel.

Participants in the meeting highlighted the international concern about using corn, wheat and soy, which are humankind’s basic food, as raw materials to produce biofuels.
(1 Mar 2008)