Wednesday, February 08, 2006


Welcome to Charge: the future of energy

Is ethanol the answer?
by Daniel C. Sweeney, Ph.D

We recently received a couple of queries regarding celluosic ethanol, perhaps prompted by President Bush’s reference to the topic in his State of the Union message. Here are our thoughts on the matter.

First of all, we were rather surprised that Bush should mention celluosic ethanol in the first place. It is a rather esoteric technique for producing the fuel, and there are no commercial operations yet in operation in the U.S. though one is in the planning stage. We wonder who in the Administration decided to float this notion. Cellulosic ethanol scarcely has a lobby today, and we’d always assumed that Bush was most sensitive to the needs of past campaign contributors.

In fact, cellulosic ethanol probably has a place in the transportation industry in the coming years. We do not believe that the economics of hydrogen are such that it will be feasible anytime soon, and so the country will have to continue to make do with liquid hydrocarbons. Upping the percentage of ethanol in gasoline—a couple of percent is usual today—and deriving it from low cost feed stocks strikes us as a pretty good idea.

Ethanol derived from food crops such as corn has gotten a fairly bad rap in the environmental community, with many detractors claiming that more energy is required to produce it than can be derived from burning it. We’ve read many well-to-wheel efficiency studies on the subject, and while we’re inclined to believe that there is a modest net energy gain, it doesn’t seem to be very great. The thermodynamics of cellulosic ethanol look much better though, and we think it’s a good renewable biofuel.

The Department of Energy has published a number of studies on the subject as have various academic researchers, and the current thinking is that ethanol of whatever derivation could not be produced in sufficient quantities to serve as complete substitute for fossil fuel. True, it can be harvested from fast growing plants like switch grass, but unlike the case with crops intended for food, everything in the plant is used and so soil depletion tends to be rapid. There’s just too much organic material being removed for the practice to be sustainable on a vast scale.

And there are other issues. Ethanol, when burned in internal combustion engines, produces fewer greenhouse emissions than a quantity of gasoline of equal energy value, but it’s far from zero emissions. The theory is that the plant matter used to produce it will have fixed a quantity of atmospheric carbon equal to that emitted, but if any fossil fuel is used in the production process, which is inevitably the case, the carbon balance is not so favorable.

The other problem with ethanol is that it contains only about half the energy of gasoline by volume so you’re looking at a reduced cruising range if ethanol is the sole fuel. Usually, however, it is mixed with gasoline, and we see it being used in this manner if ethanol production significantly increases.

In any case, we can only speculate as to how serious George Bush is about promoting energy independence, or for that matter, in instituting an energy policy of real coherence. And it’s not only Bush, very few elected officials seem prepared to confront our looming energy problems with realistic proposals for change. It’s as if the prevailing attitude is that the really bad stuff is going to happen on someone else’s watch and so the best choice is to do nothing.

The preponderance of expert opinion has it that a peak in oil production and probably natural gas production as well will occur before 2025, and some believe it is imminent now. This is a matter of the gravest concern and is far, far more important than preventing the cloning of humans or Afghan hounds, outlawing homosexual marriage, re-instituting prayer in the schools, or any of the other pseudo issues that seem to fascinate the American electorate. Acute shortages of petroleum and natural gas, unless addressed with effective countermeasures, will have a devastating effect on the economy here and abroad and will lead to fierce competitions for remaining supplies and possibly to resource wars. The economies of developed nations depend upon petroleum just as much as the human body depends upon its own blood.

We believe that the problems involved in effecting a transition from utter dependence upon petroleum and natural gas are very formidable and not susceptible to easy answers. We consider ourselves to be staunch environmentalists, but at the same time we are continually dismayed and exasperated by the many well meaning individuals in the green community who express the belief that simply by building wind turbines and hydrogen filling stations our problems are going to be solved, and that the only people standing in the way are the big bad oil companies with a stake in the status quo.

We have just completed a monumental study of industrial hydrogen and our analysis indicates that with present technologies and cost structures expenditures of tens of trillions if not hundreds of trillions of dollars would be required to effectuate a hydrogen transition in the U.S. alone. We see absolutely no evidence that public or private monies in such amounts are being allocated for the purpose or that the price of replacement infrastructure will fall sufficiently to permit a painless transition.

Past energy revolutions have generally been the result of entrepreneurial activities, at least in the Western World. But now everybody is thinking in terms of top down economic models, even someone as right wing as Bush. And the problem is that most of these models are designed to preserve as much of the status quo as possible. Rather than re-examining our entire transportation infrastructure, we are enjoined to wait until the auto companies bring out fuel cell automobiles, as if they ever will. Rather than explore the possibility that our current fueling structure may be entirely obsolete, we are encouraged to smile at all those pilot hydrogen filling stations the oil companies are setting up, as if is the will of God that those who control the energy industries of today must continue to control them for all eternity.

The great American anthropologist Edward Hall, who performed epochal cross cultural studies of how different culture experience the dimensions of time and space, said in one of his books that Americans are very good at planning for the future, but no more than ten years out. A historical view of the future is almost entirely lacking in our culture and arguably in the ancestral culture of England. And that historical myopia appears to be getting worse. We make our living covering high technology and we are continually confronted by the attitude of “I’ll get my mine now and the hell with later.” As that attitude solidifies into the cultural bedrock of the society there is very little incentive to deal with issues like looming energy crises. Instead one looks to quick fixes like perhaps hogging all the oil in the Middle East and daring anyone to do anything about it.

We hope we’re dead wrong and that our pessimism is entirely unwarranted. But we think that there is abundant evidence that we are right. Good night, and God bless.

1 comment:

Solarbird said...

As far as I can tell, when I did a version of this survey several months ago, there seemed to be a net energy gain for ethanol of around 1.2:1, unless you counted infrastructure implementation, in which case it was a clear loss. There are arguments to be made that infrastructure input energy units don't have to count, since many of them do not have to be hydrocarbon-based. But it's a significant problem. Biodiesel, for all its issues, seems to me to a much more likely answer from an energy standpoint.

As for who makes up the ethanol lobby - it's the agriculture lobby. They're the ones who have the current subsidy in place, and kept it in place when it was almost eliminated two years ago.