Ethanol: A Worthy Subject for Debate

Fri, 2007-12-07 07:59Richard Littlemore
Richard Littlemore's picture

Ethanol: A Worthy Subject for Debate

In the wake my post yesterday, lauding an anti-corn-ethanol report posted on a website generally associated with any lobbyist willing to pony up support funding, the thoughtful and articulate John Mashey threw this counterpunch. Lots of interesting issues here in a subject very worthy of more debate. Thank you, John:

I'm no lover of big agribusiness (I grew up on a small farm) and of the
various screwball farm subsidies [although this is nowhere as dumb as the
waste of time on premature hydrogen].

I think you have been taken for a ride on this one, as have some
usually-reasonable folks, via very careful cherry-picking by people who
absolutely want to minimize competition for petroleum sales. I'll dive
down, then up with the obvious no-brainer issue, which is that if we don't
do ethanol/biodiesel, it's hard to understand how North American farming
survives in anything like its current shape: you can grow big fields of
corn, but if you can't ship it medium/long-distance, what do ytou do with
it? [Norman Borlaug notes that one of the serious impediments to efficient
African farming is exactly this: lack of transport, although they of coruse
not only lack fuel and vehicles, but sometiems even roads.]

1) Does it not strike you as odd that places like NCPPR, funded by the
usuals, including ExxonMobil, and friendly with the cigarette folks,
suddenly have great concern for all the poor people of the world?

It's terrible to divert cropland for fuel! [But it's perfectly OK to grow
tobacco, which causes serious deforestration in many countries, not just for
land to plant tobacco, but for wood to burn to dry it. Sure, Amy! Sure
Dana [who's worked for CEI & Heritage.]] Tobacco cropland (which is
normally great farmland) in US is going UP. Never once I have I seen these
folks complain about tobacco versus food. I wonder why.

2) There are a whole lot of reasons food prices are up, including fertilizer
prices and transport prices, not just corn.

3) There are a lot of smart people who think (and I agree):

a) I think Corn ethanol is better than David Pimentel & co say in its energy
balance. *Most other studies say it has a positive energy balance.* I
strongly recommend acquisition of “Energy and American Society - Thirteen
Myths”, ed by Benjamin K. Sovacool and Marilyn A. Brown. [See Amazon, I put
a review up.]

See especially: “Energy Myth Three - High Land Requirements and and
Unfavorable Energy Balance Preclude Biomass Ethanol from Playing a Large
Role in Providing Energy Services.” by Dartmouth Professor Lee Lynd & co. Of
course, he is involved in a new biofuels startup (funded by Vinod Khosla,
Kleiner Perkins, etc), so he might be biased, but he has a long academic
track record in this turf, and I'd listen to what he says about 100% more
than anything Amy says.

In particular, Pimentel & co (and especially the 2005 Pimentel/Patzek study
mentioned in Amy's thing) always seem to make the most negative assumptions
possible. Maybe he's right, but there are lots of other studies from
different places that say otherwise. The deniers *always* cite
Pimentel/Patzek, either directly or indirectly, but a lot of other people
think there are flaws:
Google: pimentel patzek

Of recent studies:
Positive Energy Balance
Lorenz & Morris (1995)
Wang et al. (1999)
Agri Canada (1999)
Shapouri et al (1995,2002, 2004)
Kim & Dale (2002, 2004)
Graboski (2002)
Delucchi (2003)
NR Canada (2005)

Negative Energy Balance
Pimentel & Patzek (2005)

Somewhere I saw a timeline graph with a lot more studies; anything with
Pimentel is below the line, the others I'll see if I can find it.

b) Corn ethanol is nowhere near as good as cellulosic ethanol (likely from
wood chips, switchgrass, or miscanthus (elephant grass). Miscanthus uses a
lot less water and fertilizer, and grows 13 feet high in a season. We grew
corn on our farm, and it was NEVER designed as a fuel plant. Miscanthus and
switchgrass (or even better hemp :-)) are already good, and with the
inevitable tweaking, will get better. After all, we've been working on corn
for centuries.

This stuff even sequesters carbon in the soil.

Water and fertilizer are going to be more expensive [see my long comment
today on Emily's “You might die” about fertilizer, of which much comes from
natural gas…]

Farmers grow whatever makes them more money. When there is a reasonable
market for ethanol, and a few other things get in place, farmers will
switch, but of course, until then, it's safer to plant corn, which you can
at least sell for food as a fallback. [Of course, certain people we know
well do NOT WANT there to be a competitive market for ethanol… which means
making it hard to buy and keeping flex-fuel vehicles away from the market.
What a surprise.]

In the US, there are a *lot* of weird farm subsidies that I'd be happy to
see go away, but this is one of the less bad ones, since it's actually
helping head ina useful direction, even if it's only a transitional step.

c) There are three reasons we're doing corn ethanol now, one bad, one OK,
one really, really good.

The bad one is lobbying.

The OK one is that we already have infrastructure, etc optimized for corn,
and we need to do some work (not too much) for things like miscanthus.

The really, really good one is to get over the chicken-and-egg problem of
creating ethanol distribution and getting the auto fleet switched over to
flex-fuel [which costs ~$100 apiece if designed in, less with volume], so
that those things will be *there* as cellulosic starts to scale up. Here's
an example:

d) The quote from Crutzen (on Nitrous Oxide) is a cherry-pick. His abstract
says: “Crops with less N demand, such as grasses and woody coppice species
have more favorurable climate impacts. CA's ARB hosted this symposium, last

There's a whole section on mitigation of nitrous oxide, with two on

Dana would have you believe that growing corn for biofuels emits N2O (and it
does! Biofuel must be evil!).
BUT, so does growing corn to eat, or anything that uses a lot of
nitrogen-based fertilizer. OK, so lets grow nothing that needs fertilizer.
Oops [although we can do better, as described above; *agriculture* is a big
N2O emitter, period.]
4) BUT, this crocodile-tears thing from Amy (& other deniers) doesn't make
any sense anyway, at least not to an old farmboy.

It does NO good to grow crops if you can't get them to market, and the
markets are far away, like they are in North America.

In a sustainable future [oil and natural gas effectively gone], we may well
be able to run farm machinery on electricity, as in: , although I
haven't seen the equivalents of the big 200-500HP John Deeres or combines.
In some cases, it will be better to burn the biomass to generate electricity
to supply local needs via more efficient local generation, although
hopefully, windpower/PV in the Great Plains will suffice. … BUT:

KANSAS TO TORONTO AND NEW YORK CITY, much less get shipped abroad to the
poor of the world. Remember, oil and gas are GONE! Does every farm have a
train track to it? Are all trains electrified, or do they go back to coal?
[Oh, really good, just what we want.] If the poor of the world want to buy
{corn, soybeans, wheat} from N. America, exactly what is fueling the ships
to get it there?
Nuclear? (maybe, at least there's precedent).
Sails? Kites (I actually know people trying that, to help reduce fuel

(Actually, I think it makes little sense to ship high-volume bulk food
around a world that has no cheap petroleum. I'd much rather have farmers
growing ethanol than having corn subsidies that cause us to ship corn to
poor palces whose own agricultural development gets stifled as a result.)

In that sustainable future, I hope, if we're still going to keep productive
big US&Canada farms, (rather than splitting up the big ones, moving many
residents of Vancouver and Toronto and especially New York onto small-family
farms, sort of like Old Order AMish, but maybe with electricity :-), this is
what we'd better hope works:

a) Some farmers will grow fuelcrops, using electric tractors when possible,
and ethanol/biodiesel when necessary for machinery.

b) They will use ethanol/methanol/biodiesel trucks, and haul the biomass to
modular conversion plants (like Range), but maybe with some also burning the
biomass for electricity, and some producing biofuels to run the trucks. [Of
course, until vehicles get to be flex-fuel, some are still using petroleum,
but it's hard to count that against them.]

c) All of the numbers I see says we should get to a process that needs *no*
petroleum input and generates excess electricity and/or biofuels beyond that
needed to run the farms. At worst, it recycles CO2, at best, it actually
sequesters some carbon.

This is an important topic, and there has been some silly subsidy lobbying,
but being mad at that is little different from being against recognition of
AGW because of getting peeved at some early doom-and-gloomster. A lot of
real scientists and engineers are working very hard on pathways to having
sustainable transport fuel when oil is gone. We'll need it badly, and the
pathway goes *through* corn ethanol right now, for better or worse (but
actually, even corn is less bad than Amy tries to make it look.)


Which is a more productive use of resources and time?

Getting the automakers to produce vehicles that can use alternative fuels.


Getting the automakers to produce vehicles that have vastly improved fuel economy.

Of course we would all like to see them do both but, that ain't gonna happen. Given that both technology innovations will cost the automakers lots of money and take a few years to develop, I would back the second option.

Once we have better fuel economy then we can consider alternative fuels.

From a cost and effect point of view I believe this would be a better approach.



Your heart seems in the right place, but if you really care about this turf, you need to increase your fact base ... Perhaps you haven't spent a lot of time talking to auto design engineers.

Read "Flexible-fuel vehicles in Brazil".
"As of 2005, popular manufacturers that build flexible fuel vehicles are Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Peugeot, Renault ,Volkswagen, Honda, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Citröen. Flexible fuel cars were 22% of the car sales in 2004, 73% in 2005 [5], and 75% and 90% rates are estimated for 2006 and 2007."

I.e., somehow these vendors have *already* figured out how to be build FFVs,and some are sold in the US as well.

Google: flex-fuel conversion kit

Among many is one that has EPA certification:

You can see that it is a minimal, almost trivial device, the prices are coming down, and if the built-in equivalent adds even $100 to manufacturing cost I'd be astonished.

FFV is *already* DONE, it's already been deployed widely, it's been done as near-trivial addon kits whose cost curves are *electronics*-driven, and have minimal cost when done as part of the base design.

On the other hand, increasing fuel economy, which is indeed more important, requires serious hard continuing engineering work that affects entire vehicle design.

If you want to see hopeful design concepts, see PHEV/FF concept cars like:
Chevy Volt
Toyota 1/X, especially, very cool

Research exists that shows that 25% of the US corn crop is being estimated for ethanol use in 2008. In order to produce enough ethanol to displace some of our fossil fuel use, 40-50% of the total US corn crop will need to be used. In order to fully displace fossil fuels to 100% ethanol we'll need to increase corn production by over 300%. This is a huge growth opportunity in one view, and a huge dilemma in the other.

If we displace this much corn from current supply, we will have to use less corn for traditional uses and we'll have to clear more agricultural space to grow more corn. Both of these activites have serious long-term implications. The implications with the former are the food scarcity issue, and in the latter, clearing land for agricultural use most often comes at the expense of our forests - currently the best tools we have for sequestering CO2.

So, corn based ethanol seems to be on the pathway to a better fuel and energy future, but it's definitely not the final destination. The next stop is indeed cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from most any kind of biomass, not requring starch heavy corn as the feedstock.

But even cellulosic ethanol isn't the final destination. It still has greenhouse gas emissions that we will have to wrestle with minimizing, though they are less than the emissions from fossil fuel use. The world isn't getting any smaller, so even with cellulosic ehtanol emissions will still be an issue to manage.

Go back a few years to the creation of the combustion engine, which was developed at the turn of the last century. It currently rules our roads and tracks, and the auto, truck and train industries are very content with this. This 100+ years old technology provides them with great profits off of a combustion system because of all the necessary replacement parts and maintenance associated with their use. But as we know, profits aren't a viable argument for maintaining the status quo in place of implementing more sustainable systems. The cost of not acting is just too high to be that short sighted and greedy.

One day, our pathway will have to come to electric transportation. There are no emissions on the transportation end in this scenario, and renewable energy sources can be used on the generation side - solar, wind, clean hydro, tidal, etc... technolgies that are available today. This will require a huge collaboration between government, electricity generators, auto and transportation companies, but at the end of the day, it is the most sustainable scenario for our transportation needs. While profits might be less, planetary health will be much better. It's probably not what auto, fuel and train makers want to hear, or farmers for that matter, but the nobel prize winning IPCC's findings were not what the oil industry wanted to hear either. The truth can often be frightening, but this is not a new idea.

The ethanol discussion is indeed an important step, as we need to transition our way from fossil fuels. Whilte it's a stop along the way, it's not our final destination and the discussion will need to be kept going as to what stops, and what steps, the pathway needs to make after ethanol and cellulosic ethanol.

Note to readers: the author has no colleagues or investments in electric transportation or renewable energy.

I agree entirely with your statements about steping stones. I think investment in biotech its ability to increase fuel production will also be done the road; the next logical step in the process. Like anything new and different the initial challenges are always large in comparrison to the established system.

1) We certainly agree that fuel doesn't stop at corn ethanol.

2) As discussed elsewhere (in Amy's "You Might Die" thread from a couple days ago), in in other blogs, I'm a big fan of making:
- small/medium tractors and shot-haul vehicles all-electric
- most cars PHEV/FF if they need more range.

3) I live in Silicon Valley, have driven electric cars, talk to those people, etc, etc. I talk to people investing in battery technologies, solar, etc, etc.

4) The issue *still* is: what do you do for medium-longer distance transport? I know of people trying to create an infrastructure of stations providing quick-switch batteries, but that still seems chancy.

Give me more than than wishful thinking and I'd be really happy, but do recall: the best mechanisms we have for actually taking CO2 out of the atmosphere (in the low concentrations there) are called plants... :-)

We at the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest are strong supporters of E85 and biodiesel. Perfect? Final Answer? No, but available NOW, along with many other good solutions and paths. See for more.

Bob Moffitt
Communications Director
Clean Fuels & Vehicle Technologies

John, good question about long range transportation. A key to the electric transportation infrastructure shift.

As with any new system some changes in behaviour are required. Recycling called for people to sort their garbage - an idea that seemed crazy at the time recycling was being considered. 'Nobody will sort their garbage' was the argument. Turns out, people were motivated enough to do so, and they did.

For longer range transportation, the solution is to use electric trains for the long distance piece, as is the norm in many parts of Europe and Japan. Once a user arrives at their destination of choice, they get off the train, and either through rental programs or car sharing programs, once again use an electric car for their short distance needs. Or better yet, people walk or use bikes. The trains connect our cities over long distances, and the cars, bikes or the good old 'two feet and a heartbeat' take the users into the hubs for their short distance needs.

Plus, with the advances in battery technologies we've seen even over the past 5 years, those long distance gaps could get even shorter and shorter.

Electric transportation is possible, and with the right investment and impetus from all the key players, it can be done. The only thing lacking right now is the motivation to do so, and the will to act.

Toby: I must not be communicating well enough, but the message isn't getting through, so I'll try again. But please, when I'm at least a foot into a problem that's 10 feet deep, to help me, you've got to tell me things more than an inch deep.

I'll be happy to listen, if you can offer a useful *pure-electric* solution for a Class 8 trailer truck, for example.
[Yes, I know about hybrid approaches for Class 8s, but that doesn't help the long-distance part, it's for the heavy-traffic and idling part.] You have something like that that really works, VCs would be interested. If you had a working design for a greatly-improved battery, VCs would really beat a path to your door.
So please, cite the huge battery improvements.

BUT, passengers are the *easy* part.

Here's a recent EERE set of presentations:

But skip that for now, see:
Oil Use in Transportation Plotted Against Domestic Production

Some cars can easily become pure-electric, the rest should be PHEV/FF, and likewise for light trucks, although of the latter will have to be PHEV/FF.

Heavy trucks can be PHEV/FF, but the reason is more to cut down on idling lossage, than any hope you're going to get heavy long-distance. If you want more on trucks: is useful.

But assuming air travel goes away, and ignoring military, eyeballing that chart says:

Auto+light trucks+heavy trucks+off-road+shipping ~11M barrels/day in 2000, of which at least 3M (heavy + off-road + shipping) looks hard to make all-electric, and maybe another 1M-2M of the light truck, or maybe 4M-6M barrels/day.

I'm all for using as much electrified rail as we can, but the spread-out geography of most of the US is just not as suitable as in Japan or Europe, and even there, they still use trucks. There are certainly places in the US where it is really hard to figure out how to cost-effectively:
a) Handle agricultural transport with *no* fuel.
b) Get railroads to go in the right places in heavily builtup areas for *freight*.

Anyway, I'm happy to hear of solutions, but I just don't know how one can avoid fuel for much shipping and a lot of trucking, and when I talk to researchers and government policy types, they don't
I live in an intensely-environmentally-aware town, am active in the local climate protection task force, whose website, is done by by wife. We have money in SPWR and PBW (
I've helped people get funding for low-power wireless sensor networks used to reduce energy expenses for buildings and industry. I help organize chip conferences that usually include power-reduction issues. I've helped organize alternate-energy and battery-technology sessions for venture capital events. I've attended such. I've heard Alexander Karsner of EERE talk about this stuff.

I work with VCs who invest in this area which means they see plans that most people don't well ahead of time. I've sold many supercomputers to vehicle companies and worked with their engineers, and the auto companies have advanced R&D centers in Silicon Valley and I bump into them. I've attended electric vehicle presentations. I've ridden bullet trains in Japan and trains in many places in Europe.
So I am an engineer/(scientist), and I'm used to considering long-term R&D issues, but I need more citations, not handwaving, and I like things that obey laws of physics.

On dedicated inter-city truck routes, why not use "trolley trucks"?
The trucks could still have a diesel engine, but have an electric drive much like a railroad locomotive.
On a electrified highway the driver would turn off the diesel and pull power from an overhead power cable.
It would be very expensive to install, but I tend to believe the payback period would be very short...

So, sounds interesting.
1) Hybrid trucks are definitely coming, in many classes, as noted earlier, for idling & start/stop parts of their trips.

2) There is a t least one entrepreneur trying to do easily-switchable battery-packs, but those ideas are very early.

3) But look, engineering problems don't get solved by wishful thinking and happy ideas. How about presenting some *research* and a design proposal that's more than a vague idea with a claim that the payback would be short? Those are cheap, but they don't help, and are unfortunately no better than saying "Don't worry, hydrogen will solve everything."

SO, here's some research you could do:

a) Can you find research in EERE or equivalents in Europe or Japan that have studied this? If so, what do they say? If you can't find any, is it because the idea never occurred to them, or because it has, and got dismissed? [Google: electric truck overhead wire and summarize why, although big trucks powered partially by overhead wires were tried as long ago as 1960, they haven't taken off].

b) Can you find data on electrification costs for:
- city trolley / light-rail systems? I.e., cost/mile?

c) Can you find a pantograph design that works safely for trucks [not railed-vehicles] traveling 60MPH? The usual urban electrified busses don't do that.

d) Can you find research about truck travel patterns?
How many miles of road have to be electrified? How many lanes? How well does this work, say on major routes like I80, or I70, which among other things go through mountains subject to severe snowstorms?

e) Can you propose how to handle the usual chicken&egg effect?
I.e., it only makes sense to build trucks with the extra cost if there are enough routes where they can do this, and it only makes sense to electrify highways if there are enough trucks...
Which highways would you do first?
If there are only a few highways, how is this different from trains?

f) What are the cost tradeoffs of, for example, of electrifying most of the US Interstate Highway system versus extending railroads and electrifying more of them?

Anyway, those are just a few of the questions that come up if one is *serious* about *engineering* such things.

But back to the ethanol (or biofuels in general) issue.
A fundamental reason that a lot of seriously environmentally-oriented engineers and policy people desperately want to make biofuels workable is:

- they believe that even with efficiency improvements, electrification of anything that makes any sense, reduction of irrational wasteage, there will still be a substantial (if much reduced) need for *fuel*, AFTER oil is essentially gone.

- and that fuel be:
a) some mix of biofuels OR
b) CTL (Coal-to-liquid synfuel), done out of desperation.

Presumably, in this blog, I assume I don't have to explain why massive use of choice b) is a Really Bad Thing?

Good comments above John. You sure seem to have a very good grasp of these areas, from an engineering standpoint. It's people like you that we need involved in coming up with the right questions to perform the proper analysis on how to make the necessary steps towards sustainability.

I don't purport to have all of the answers, all the way down to the nitty gritty details of pantograph designs and time and motion studies for truck use. If I were working in this area directly, I would dive into all of these details. And if I dove into these details, I'd probably look at starting a business in this area, because of the large opportunity that lies herein.

My background is in business, specifically finance and marketing. I also have a background in human-computer interface design and a decent knowledge of global environmental systems and sustainable design. I'm certainly no engineer, nor do I have any formal training therein. However, I do understand the difference between cradle to grave systems versus cradle-to-cradle systems, and have spent much time researching this.

Your analogy about a 10 ft issue requiring more than 1 inch of direction is true. While I don't have your scientific background, certainly you can give some credit to the sustainable system that electric offers, and that biofuels don't.

To draw a comparison, killer whales exist in nature in pods of 5-25, give or take a few. The reason they don't exist in pods of 300 or 400 is because the resource requirements of such a pod are more than nature can provide, and thus nature doesn't allow it. The same can be said for biofuels. In the amounts we need the biomass to make biofuels happen, it's just not sustainable.

So, logic concludes that if biofuels aren't sustainable, then what is. The electric transportation system is. The advances in battery technologies that we've seen over the past five years have allowed for the ranges of electric cars to extend and be more effective (see Continued development in this area will be critical, and co-ordination on infrastructure and legislation will need to take care of the rest.

The transportation of goods is the same as for people. Use a long distance mode of transportation to cover the large distances (trains) and local modes for short distance transportation (trucks, delivery wagons and cars). This is a model that we use for the transportation of grains, so we are already familiar with is. If we use a hub system to our industrial and urban planning, there is no reason why we can’t establish stations along a long distance track that can centralize the goods transportation, and eliminate less efficient, more polluting individual transport that is currently occurring with the trucks on our roads. The comparison is akin to getting people to use public trains, instead of everyone driving around, one person to a car. Once the goods reach their local hub, we can use short distance transport solutions to get the goods to their final destinations. For ocean going container ships, the issue is different as there is no solid infrastructure that can be put in place, so these transportation vehicles will require onboard generation systems. For this, I have no technical solution to offer, only a needs assessment and a goal for where it needs to be.

I'm not looking to challenge your background, your experience or the community that you live in. I also live in a very sustainable community, rub elbows with thought leaders and have been around the world and have seen a good chunk. My response to your challenge around sustainable electric transportation is that it will require co-ordination on a large scale: between urban planners, engineers, auto, truck and train makers, governments, electricity companies and consumers. While the scenario I’m illustrating may seem idealistic, it is an idea that is possible. To go forward without considering the possibilities is to walk the world blind. I have no timescale for these developments, and perhaps someone in a more involved position could estimate this, however, the only things missing are the desire to explore and the will to act.

Again, biofuels are a good direction for us to go in, but not the final destination.

Thanks for your insight and the interesting points you've raised, John. This discussion helps us all consider these solutions more thoroughly, so that we can be clearer with our ideas. Nobody has ALL of the answers, but by working together, we can surely get closer to working them out. Cheers.

I think we agree that:

a) Negawatts and negagallons are the best.
b) We want everything to be renewable, non-fossil electric that can be.

Where we disagree is about the last piece, which is:
a) Airplanes, if those still exist.
b) Shipping
c) The part of trucking & off-road that doesn't work so well with trains. I'm happy to use trains for all that we can.

From what I've seen, I just haven't seen anything that convinces me that we can cost-effectively eliminate 100% of fuel in favor of electricity, because that last few percent is really, really, difficult. Really: even Amory Lovins includes (cellulosic) ethanol as part of the solution.

I've asked several times for citations and pointers, and I keep not getting any, so we can just agree to disagree on this one (fairly small) piece of it.

You've definitely made me reconsider my position on those last few % there John. It could very well be that we will require fuels for a small percentage of our transportation needs. Getting every last single portion of our transportation infrastructure over to electric might just be too expensive and too time consuming. Not that I don't want to strive for doing as much as we can, but when I think of it in terms of the cost and time for the last few %, being absolute about it can be problematic.

Agree with your conclusions and look forward to thinking more about the shipping, air transport and train/truck interface issues.

Peace indeed. If only it was this easy for our elected representatives!!