Friday, October 06, 2006

The Ethanol Myth

There's lots of partisan stuff to blog this week. I thought I would take up a tough policy issue for a change of pace.

The special report "The Ethanol Myth" in Consumer Reports caught my eye on the news stand. Ethanol is a big issue in Illinois. We are major corn growers. We are among the largest ethanol producers and consumers. Illinois politicians are constantly trying to outdo each other on who loves ethanol more, and the public sees ethanol as a panacea for rising consumer prices, environmental protection, and world peace.

Consumer Reports smacks many of those notions down:

...after putting a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe FFV through an array of fuel economy, acceleration, and emissions tests, and interviewing more than 50 experts on ethanol fuel, CR determined that E85 will cost consumers more money than gasoline and that there are concerns about whether the government’s support of FFVs is really helping the U.S. achieve energy independence. Among our findings:

  • The fuel economy of the Tahoe dropped 27 percent when running on E85 compared with gasoline, from an already low 14 mpg overall to 10 mpg (rounded to the nearest mpg). This is the lowest fuel mileage we’ve gotten from any vehicle in recent years.
  • With the retail pump price of E85 averaging $2.91 per gallon in August, according to the Oil Price Information Service, which tracks petroleum and other fuel prices, a 27 percent fuel-economy penalty means drivers would have paid an average of $3.99 for the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.
  • When we calculated the Tahoe’s driving range, we found that it decreased to about 300 miles on a full tank of E85 compared with about 440 on gasoline. So you have to fill up more often with E85.
  • The majority of FFVs are large vehicles like the Tahoe that get relatively poor fuel economy even on gasoline. So they will cost you a lot at the pump, no matter which fuel you use.
  • The FFV surge is being motivated by generous fuel-economy credits that auto-makers get for every FFV they build, even if it never runs on E85. This allows them to pump out more gas-guzzling large SUVs and pickups, which is resulting in the consumption of many times more gallons of gasoline than E85 now replaces.
The subscribers-only section points to some bigger problems with ethanol policy. Scientists are divided on whether ethanol offers more energy than the cultivation, harvest, transportation, processing and delivery process consumes. A Cornell University professor says that we consume 30% more energy in ethanol production than the fuel actually provides. According to Argonne Labs, the positive energy balance of ethanol is 35%.

Proponents of ethanol argue it doesn't add to the world's balance of greenhouse gases because it simply puts the same greenhouse gases in that it took out. But Tad Patzek, Berkeley professor of geo-engineering, says burning ethanol creates 50% more carbon dioxide than burning gasoline.

The National Corn Growers Association actually highlights a problem that most of us don't think about. 13.6% of the 2005 U.S. corn crop went to ethanol. While that corn isn't fit for human consumption, it means that corn fit for human consumption or for use as animal feed wasn't grown on that land. The NCGA says ethanol drives up the cost of corn by 5 to 10 cents a bushel:

"The folks who feed corn to cattle are already expressing concern about rising corn prices," Washburn says. "Once corn prices approach $3, these concerns will intensify"

Ironically for Illinois and our politicians, our love affair with corn-based ethanol appears shortsighted and recent investments in corn-based ethanol processing plants downright foolish.

"Most experts don't see the future of the ethanol industry taking root in America's cornfields. A more promising long-term solution is cellulosic ethanol, which can be made from a variety of other sources such as corn stover (leaves, stalks, and other leftover parts), rye straw, wood pulp, and possibly switchgrass (commonly used for hay).

'If this country is going to get big into ethanol, we need to tap into cellulosic ethanol,' says Friedman of the UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists), 'because it's cleaner and requires less fossil fuels than corn' to produce."

CR goes on to point out that an acre of say, switchgrass, actually returns much more energy than an acre of corn, so moving to cellulosic ethanol would allow us to replace much more gasoline, perhaps meeting 30% of the nation's gasoline needs and replacing every drop we get from OPEC.

CR cautions that providing enough raw vegetation to meet that goal requires tripling the amount of cultivated land and improving our ethanol processing technology. My bet is that if we move to ethanol we'll be getting alot of the raw material from Canada, but wouldn't it be ironic if the Prairie State went back to growing grass?

A thoughtful and balanced piece, with many nuggets I had to leave out. But it should be on every Illinois lawmaker and policymaker's reading list.


crash-dev 2:34 PM  

Thanks for the non-sex post...I enjoyed the read.

I have not full formed my position on this matter, so the more information the better for me.

NW burbs,  4:31 PM  

Considering how warm Canada is going to continue becoming... and how much fresh water at the poles will be melting -- getting raw materials from the Great (no longer) White North may just come to pass.

That or China invents fusion power and no one needs oil or any other "fuel" anymore.

Anonymous,  8:39 PM  

Excellent post.

Anyone who has an FFV knows the scoop. Ethanol in Springfield has NEVER been cheaper than regular gasoline. Calculate the mileage, and it's always a bum deal at the pump even with ALL of the subsidies heaped upon it.

If they can get the 'corn stover' usage out of it, that's what needs done. We aren't using that currently, unlike the actual corn.

cermak_rd 8:44 PM  

1. Every gallon of gasoline, diesel, or other petroleum based product used gets us closer to being energy independent. That's a good to me even if all other things are equal.

2. Just because the E85 vehicles of today are large SUVs doesn't mean they always will be. Sounds as though the policy/subsidies can be tinkered with to create more efficient or smaller vehicles.

3. I'm not sure IL has a good climate for growing switchgrass and I don't want Texas to win out over IL here (hey I'm biased! Go IL!). I'm also rooting for soy diesel because we grow an awful lot of beans.

4. Raising corn prices is a good thing for the farmers. There's been a glut on the market for forever that has kept prices unlivealbly low for all but the biggest producers.

5. Not saying there aren't problems with ethanol, but when I look at the petroleum issues--what with instability in the middle east, Nigeria, Venezuela, and the Caucuses; the incredible amounts of energy needed to ship the crude one place, then refine it, then ship it to other places--they seem more manageable.

cermak_rd 8:45 PM  

Oops make that not used, sigh.

Anonymous,  8:56 PM  

And if you take into account that the vehicle's computer sets the mixture based on what it *thinks* the oxygen content of the incoming fuel is, and then resets the mixture based on what the oxygen sensors in the exhaust report; you find a computer that is constantly hunting to find the correct mixture. Just who sets the parameters of the computer? Ford? GM? BP? (epa)

Now...put the E85 in a vehicle that has no computer and the results on fuel economy will be quite different, less than gasoline but better than CR's. Granted, the simple fact is that there are fewer BTU's in a gallon of E85 and in order to do the same work, more fuel is required. Duh!

Who gives a damn. I didn't give my money to an oil co. I didn't spend a dime spreading democracy to the middle east. (I raised the local humidity from the water coming from my tail pipe... but if I collect it?) Cattle love the dried residue, AND I helped support a corn grower right here in Illinois, and since I'm makin' it myself....well you figure it out!

Cal Skinner 9:20 PM  


Nothing about the multi-billion dollar subsidy of ADM by the Blagojevich adminstration?

Where are liberals when real corporate welfare is given out by Democrats?

steve schnorf 11:37 PM  

I don't know about Tahoes. I've never owned a vehicle that large. But I did drive FFVs all through the 90s, because that's what the state bought, and they operated on E85. The ones I drove were all Ford Taurus (god, what is the plural of Taurus?).

I got about 27 on the highway with regular unleaded, and 24-25 on E85, so more like a 10% differential.

Anonymous,  4:11 PM  

Touting E-85 as the cure all for the solution to the energy crisis is exactly what I would do too if I were GM or Ford. Since they have managed to drop the ball in every other automotive department such as styling, quality, hybrid auto research, etc. and as a result are struggling to stay afoat financially, I would sing the praises of whatever I have got such as E-85 to move my product.

E-85 WILL reduce our dependence on foreign oil but there are much cheaper ways to do so. GM and Ford neglect to tell the consumers this little detail that they always manage toleave out. E-85 fuel has to sell at a 25%-30% discount to conventional gasoline in order to justify the economics of using E-85. I live in Illinois and I have yet to see it sell for more than a 10% discount to conventional fuel.

Hybrid vehicles are the short-term solution until we have managed to bring hydrogen vehicles economically on line in the auto industry. That is at least 10-15 years away, if then.

I am all for our farmers making a better living but E-85 would be doing it at the expense of the other 98% of the population paying through their noses to help them out. Extend or increase the tax rebate for buying hybrid vehicles and you will see the laws of economics take place. Make those consumers who insist on buying huge SUVs that only get 14-19 miles per gallon pay a surcharge or special one time fuel tax of $1,500-$3,000 and you will see those same SUVs suddenly offered with hybrid technology at much less of a premium than they currently cost.

Economics always wins out except for that elite 3-5% of the population that can easily afford to only get 12-17 miles per gallon with their $40,000 plus SUVs.

Politicians are eager to tout the miracle cure of ethanol gas because even though it doesn't work economically, it is what their constituencies want to hear. ADM and the ethanol industry will love them and continue to contribute heavily towards their campaign coffers. The farmers which represent only 1% of the population but are represented by farm organizations that carry more political muscle than their numbers would make you think they should will continue to throw their support behind the politicians that push heavy farm subsidies down their throats in exchange for for their votes and political contributions.

Bush was not far off when he said that we have a dependency on foreign oil fixes, much like the heroin addicts. Certain companies like it that way much like the drug dealers encourage the junkies to stay that way with an occasional free sample. As Nancy Reagan once said, "Just say NO!"

Make it economically necessary for the auto industry to eke better fuel economy out of their vehicles in order to survive and they will. Make our elected officials take a stand instead of the normal "good run".

The solution to high prices is always "high prices".

Rastaman2 5:37 PM  

Here is a little blurb from Investor's Business Daily-

Ethanol Foolishness

Despite huge subsidies and tax breaks, the only thing ethanol seems to be accomplishing is eating up the corn supply. Consider that one tankful of ethanol could feed one person for a year.

If there were an example of the law of unintended consequences, it would be ethanol, a fuel aimed at making us energy independent by relying on a homegrown resource--corn.

Investor's Business Daily


Considering corn and soy beans are one of our biggest exports, reducing the supply would create a bigger trade deficit. If large amounts are being used for non-drinking ethanol we may possibly have to grow more crops to make up for what went into ethanol fuel production. To grow additional crops we have to use more natural resources. Water, land, fuel, pesticides, herbicides and fetilizers. Gosh, where do fuel, pesticides, herbicides and fetilizers come from? Petroleum, as in oil. So we end up poisoning the earth with chemicals. Good solution huh? Ethanol is a typical political response. Sounds great, but don't look behind the curtain. There ain't no wizard there.

Don't hold your breath thinking other cellulosic material can be converted into ethanol easily. It has been estimated that it may take up to 20 years to make the technology viable for the conversion of things such as switch grass into ethanol.

The only solution is to keep gas prices high forcing the practice of conservation and pray that China and India doesn't suck the world dry of oil before a solution can be found.

BTW. Did you know that Great Britain's per capita consumption of petroleum products is less that half that of the United States' consumption?

Anonymous,  10:06 AM  

Quick thought for everyone, if we want to use Illinois corn for a fuel source why not use it to heat our homes. As crazy as this sounds, it is actually quite efficient and can heat your home for less than natural gas (after you invest the money on a furnace that burns corn).

Unlike manufacturing ethanol, this will not require a couple gallons of water for each gallon of ethanol produced and thus will not create a water crisis/concern in the future. Once the corn is dry (has an acceptable moisture content) it is loaded into a hopper and the furnace will kick on and off as needed. The hopper can hold several days of fuel/corn and the homeowner will not know the difference in their living room. The big issue is storing the corn to periodically load into the furnace's hopper. Many older homes have coal chutes and coal rooms, this could be a perfect use for this space.

This is a smart use of corn and we can pursue fueling our cars with natural gas if desired. Additionally, what I really like about using corn to heat homes is that we can sell our Illinois corn to homeowners in Maine, Minnesota, etc. There is a huge market out there and I would love to see us capture this opportunity. Thought this discussion should consider other uses of corn, enjoy.

Rayne of Terror 2:25 PM  

Wired has an interesting story this month on ethanol as the leading edge of biohol technology and new fuel creation.

JB Powers 6:10 PM  

" A Cornell University professor says that we consume 30% more energy in ethanol production "

The man, Pimmentel, is an entymologist. He cannot do basic arithmetic if you check his calculations. The last time I went through them he was off by a factor of 40, and confusing absolute with marginal efficiency.

He would get a big Red F in Economics, Arithmetic, or Cost Accounting. I am not sure why anyone takes him seriously.

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