COMMON KNOWLEDGE: Ethanol and Biofuels
-Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone Magazine
Ethanol, produced by corn, "biomass," cane sugar or other plant matter, is considered by many to be a great alternative to fossil fuels. They consider the origin to be more renewable (plants grow rapidly), the fuel to produce less pollution, the production to release fear "carbon emissions," and as a bonus, it costs more so people might drive less.
Ethanol is so beloved by some that legislation to subsidize farmers who grew crops for biofuels was pushed through in many countries including Germany and the United States. It would save us from dependence on foreign oil, it would reduce pollution, and cars can run on plants, won't that be wonderful? Some even argue that it would reduce gas prices because we could shake that oil addiction from the middle east and produce it here cheaply and efficiently!
The truth is, ethanol has its advantages. When burned, it pollutes less than straight gasoline, and it actually has a higher octane rating, making it produce more horsepower per weight than gasoline. It also burns somewhat cooler than straight gasoline.
These days ethanol is less popular, and you don't hear so much about how great it is. BP isn't running bright green ads with happy cars driving around on corn any more. But the legislation is still in place, the farmers are still growing corn to turn into fuel, and any attempt to stop this or repeal the legislation is met with exactly the same environmental claims and protests.
So what about these fuels, are they really that great? Are people who oppose ethanol just oil company stooges?
Greg Giraldo is dead now, but he was a very brilliant, very funny comedian. He was one of those comedians that all other comedians loved and thought was so hilarious but for some reason never really caught on or broke big.
He had a bit on biofuels in which he pointed out that for every gallon of corn ethanol, it requires two gallons of gasoline to produce. He noted the only reason corn ethanol is even pushed is because corn farmers want that sweet subsidy money. Al Gore not long ago admitted it wasn't about the environment, but about kickbacks to farmers for political gain:
First generation ethanol I think was a mistake. The energy conversion ratios are at best very small.
One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.
Every so often a politician will be honest.
The truth is, ethanol is not just a failure in every single category it was supposed to succeed, but a disaster. From food shortages to riots, to slavery and beyond, ethanol in all its forms is a horrific failure. Let us count the ways.
First off, ethanol does not reduce pollution. In fact, in some ways, it increases "carbon emissions." Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote at the New York Times:
The destruction of natural ecosystems — whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America — not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and plowed, but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.
Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.
Clearing lands to grow materials for biofuels means clearing plants that eat carbon dioxide to survive, which means less "sequestration" of carbon.
While it is true that the carbon emissions from burning ethanol is no more than it absorbed while growing, the process of creating the fuel actually releases additional carbon, and when you factor in the added gasoline there's even more pollution. Further, the growing of corn requires fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigation, and to make matters worse, you have to transport the corn to the processing plant, which means the "emissions" issues become more problematic.
And scientists recently discovered that biofuels release more than double the amount of other "greenhouse gasses" such as nitrous oxide than previously believed. And a newly released government study noted that overall, greenhouse gas emissions rose by 7% because of ethanol fuels.
Making matters worse, ethanol is much less efficient in producing energy than gasoline, about half as effective. Ethanol is not as "energy dense" as gasoline, which means per measurement of each fuel, gasoline gives you more power and a longer drive. For a much more extensive examination of energy and energy density, this pdf has a ton of information. That means you have to put more energy into producing that fuel for your car than just using gasoline, which means more emissions and less energy efficiency overall.
Think of it this way: its like walking down the street. Gasoline is walking a slight downward slope with a light wind at your back. Ethanol is walking uphill with a breeze against you. You can still get there, but the process takes more energy.
And the price of ethanol is bad for two reasons. First it takes more labor and work to produce a gallon of ethanol than gasoline (since you have the gasoline mixed in so you have the work to produce that plus the ethanol), so the price goes up. Second, since the industry standard e-85 (15% gas, 85% ethanol) ethanol is about 26% less efficient than gasoline, to get the same distance you need 26% more fuel. And that means the price per gallon of ethanol has to be 26% less than straight gasoline to get the same efficiency at the pump, and that ain't happening, nor is it remotely likely to.
Since it takes more fuel to go the same distance with ethanol, you don't reduce fuel consumption, you actually increase it. And since much of the energy used by plants producing ethanol right now use fossil fuels to power them, that means they are using a lot of fuel to just make the E-85 in the first place (that's where Giraldo got his 2 gallons gas/1 ethanol number from). So in the end, there's no reduction in fuel consumption from either gasoline or ethanol.
Then there's the bad news. Ethanol is alcohol based (that's where the "-ol" bit comes from in the name) and that's bad for your engine. It corrodes rubber and metal, and eventually will destroy your engine. The only question is how long it will take: the richer the ethanol blend (and the EPA just approved 25% ethanol mixes; E-75, which is even less energy dense than E-85) the faster your engine will be destroyed.
Now, car manufacturers can make engines that are protected from this corrosive effect, which costs a lot more money, so your car costs more, so you can buy more gas at a higher price. Perhaps that sounds great to someone who wants people driving less, but to the rest of us, that's a serious concern. And its a serious problem for the "drive less" crowd too, even if they don't know it.
Because when you drive up the price of fuel, you drive up the price of... everything. It takes fuel to create, transport, and display products. It takes fuel for you to buy them and get them home. It takes fuel to get to the store, it takes fuel to get to the hospital, it takes fuel to get to the anti-Republican protest with your giant paper-mache head. It takes fuel to fly to the global warming conference in Aruba.
So every time the price of fuel goes up, so does the price of everything else, which is partly why inflation has been so significant lately. Its also why manufacturers have been making smaller and smaller packaging, to hide the increased costs. And to make matters worse, food prices are especially stressed by biofuel subsidies and manufacturing.
Because every acre of food material used to produce ethanol is one less acre to produce food. And when there's less of a product available, the price tends to rise. So food prices are being affected from two directions, and they've been rising for almost a decade now. Food shortages are still happening around the world as a result of these subsidies and that's even caused riots in some areas. Reports say that up to 75% of food shortages in recent years are the direct result of ethanol farming. Since 2005 when the subsidies were passed, corn prices have more than tripled. With ethanol industry consuming nearly half of the corn crop each year, that's a problem, especially since drought crippled last year's corn crop.
Oh but it gets worse.
In Brazil, where they grow a lot of sugar cane for ethanol production, they want that sweet subsidy and ethanol money bad. So badly, they're enslaving people to work the fields. This isn't the "oh my boss is a slave driver" kind of slavery, its not even the "owe my soul to the company store" kind. Its the real work-for-no-pay-have-no-freedom-are-property kind of slavery.
The push for ethanol production and its subsidies is having a damaging effect on the environment as well, as a recent AP story notes:
As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and polluted water supplies, an Associated Press investigation found.
Five million acres of land set aside for conservation — more than Yellowstone, Everglades and Yosemite National Parks combined — have vanished on Obama's watch.
Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil.
The consequences are so severe that environmentalists and many scientists have now rejected corn-based ethanol as bad environmental policy. But the Obama administration stands by it, highlighting its benefits to the farming industry rather than any negative impact.
Other attempts at solutions such as biomass face even more troubles than growing crops. In theory there are millions of tons of "biomass" lying on the ground to be harvested. In truth, this harvest is 1-2 inches deep over millions of square miles, so collecting it would cost more energy than it produced even with the wildest and most optimistic estimates. And it would actually harm other businesses such as the furniture industry.
Pretty much everyone in the industry and who has examined the facts knows that ethanol is trash, that its a net loser that should be abandoned. That hasn't stopped president Obama from repeatedly praising the stuff, as recently as his state of the union speech. In the realm of fairy dust and unicorn skittles, its a wonderful replacement for gasoline. In the real world, people like Alexandra Leo say this on CNBC:
It makes a ton of headlines but it's completely useless for everyone. I mean, frankly this thing is so inefficient it costs more energy to make it than it produces in the long run.
In fact, some estimates claim that because of the low energy and large acreage required to grow biofuel materials, even the most efficient sources would require more fertile land than exists on earth to replace just America's fuel demands each year.
This stuff is awful, just awful. So why do we keep pushing for it, why does congress not shoot this stuff down? Why did Harry Reid table the bill passed by the House of Representatives to end the corn subsidies?
Well there are two sides pushing for this. First is the corn industry. Big farming corporations and small farmers a like love the increased demand for corn and big time government money flowing into their pockets. They rely on cheap labor and high subsidies to get very rich and they don't want that gravy train to end.
Second, there's the environmentalist groups. They know all this, at least most of them do. They know ethanol is no solution and actually makes matters worse. But they think it will push gas prices up, reduce driving and fuel consumption, and reduce dependency of people on oil and cars. Its not about their stated goals of helping the environment by "going green" with fuel. Its about ending cars and fossil fuels, and this is just one more tool.
And of course there are always the team players, who choose sides based on the enemy. If the Republicans or conservatives don't like something, I must because they're all so evil everything they oppose must be a good idea.
So on and on it goes. But ethanol (particularly corn ethanol) is a horrible mistake, an awful policy, and a trashcan our vastly debt-saddled country cannot afford even if it was a good idea to begin with.
Ethanol: bad every time.
*This is part of the Common Knowledge series: things we know that ain't so.