Ethanol: A Worthy Subject for Debate

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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.

http://engineering.dartmouth.edu/faculty/regular/leelynd.html

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.

http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/papers/miscanthus/miscanthus.html
http://www.miscanthus.uiuc.edu/
http://miscanthus.uiuc.edu/index.php/research/special-research-initiative/bi
omass-energy/

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:
http://www.rangefuels.com/

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
March:
http://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/030507symp/030507agenda.htm

There’s a whole section on mitigation of nitrous oxide, with two on
agriculture:
http://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/030507symp/docs/10halvorson_n2o.pdf
http://www.arb.ca.gov/cc/030507symp/docs/11li_n2o_rev2.pdf

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:
http://www.renewables.com/Permaculture/ElectricTractor.htm , 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:

I JUST DON‘T UNDERSTAND HOW WHEAT AND CORN GET FROM FARMS IN MANITOBA AND
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
costs).

(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.

BOTTOMLINE:
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.)

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