Nov 18 2013

Sunday Train: Is Dirty Ethanol Here to Stay?

(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

The AP Reports (courtesy of yahoo):

The failure so far of cellulosic fuel is central to the debate over corn-based ethanol, a centerpiece of America’s green-energy strategy. Ethanol from corn has proven far more damaging to the environment than the government predicted, and cellulosic fuel hasn’t emerged as a replacement.

“Cellulosic has been five years away for 20 years now,” said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Now the first projects are up and running, but actually it’s still five years away.”

The administration defended its projections, saying it was trying to use the biofuel law as a way to promote development of cellulosic fuel. But the projections were so far off that, in January, a federal appeals court said the administration improperly let its “aspirations” for cellulosic fuel influence its analysis. Even with the first few plants running, supporters acknowledge there is almost no chance to meet the law’s original yearly targets that top out at 16 billion gallons by 2022. “It’s simply not plausible,” said Jeremy Martin, a biofuels expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “2030 is the soonest you can anticipate it to be at that level.”

Green Ethanol still “Five Years Away” … just as they were when I first blogged on this topic in 2007 … while Dirty Ethanol is the mainstay of the US Ethanol mandate. So how long are we to accept Dirty Ethanol as a “bridge” to a Green Ethanol seemingly always right on the five-year horizon?

Dirty Ethanol Now, “Clean” Ethanol Later

The AP has recently been doing an investigation into the “dirty” side of Dirty Ethanol … which seems just about right, since I was not the only blogger sounding the alarm about Dirty Ethanol in 2007, and the AP over five years behind the blogosphere seems as baked in as “Clean” Ethanol fixed at “Five Years From Now”.

You can find the AP write-up of the “Unfulfilled Promise” side of their investigation at the WaPo, if citing the same article from “yahoo” doesn’t strike your fancy. And you can find the results of the “Hang on, it seems like Corn Ethanol is Dirty Ethanol!” part of their study all over as well. There’s this from the New Orleans Times-Picayune:

The hills of southern Iowa bear the scars of America’s push for green energy: The brown gashes where rain has washed away the soil. The polluted streams that dump fertilizer into the water supply. Even the cemetery that disappeared like an apparition into a cornfield.

As farmers rushed to find new places to plant corn, they wiped out millions of acres of conservation land, destroyed habitat and contaminated 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 been converted on Obama’s watch. Landowners filled in wetlands. They plowed into pristine prairies, releasing carbon dioxide that had been locked in the soil. Sprayers pumped out billions of pounds of fertilizer, some of which seeped into drinking water, polluted rivers and worsened the huge dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico where marine life can’t survive.

We have, after all, a massively destructive system for raising food, and so it stands to reason that relying on food crops for fuel will also be massively destructive.

However, this is not just a matter of lax environmental enforcement, so this is not a problem that can be solved by overcoming obstacles to constraining environmentally destructive practices in US Agriculture. The problem with Corn Ethanol is baked into the core process, in which we take a product that represents a small fraction of the total solar energy power captured by the plant, and then use substantial additional energy to convert it from a cereal grain into a liquid fuel.

As engineer-poet noted in 2006:

There are huge interest groups which reap benefits from the status quo.  This gives the non-policy a great deal of support, whether it is productive or not.  The example of corn ethanol illustrates this nicely.  A bunch of people are doing well by it, including:
  • Corn-belt farmers, who have a market too big to saturate.
  • Agribusinesses like ADM, which reap billions in taxpayer subsidies in the name of (illusory) energy independence.
  • Manufacturers and sellers of seed, fertilizer and pesticides.
  • The politicians whose taxpayer-financed largesse created this bonanza, and who are in turn supported by its beneficiaries (the benefits aren’t for the taxpayer).

Contrary to mouthpieces of those interests, corn ethanol doesn’t do well at anything else; it takes nearly a gallon-equivalent of various fuels (including natural gas and diesel) to make a gallon of ethanol.  By the USDA’s over-optimistic accounting, the increase is roughly 1.27:1, which is not nearly enough to make a sustainable system.  Here’s a graph of the typical energy balance: [right]

The displaced gasoline comes mostly from some other fossil fuel, the greenhouse benefit is minuscule, and the public pays more overall for the ethanol than they would for imported oil to fill their tanks.  In the long run, this is bound to collapse.  But in the short run, the program thrives and grows because of the interlocking political support.

Note especially that the Net Energy Return on Investment is 27% according to the Corn Ethanol cheerleader USDA … to support the claim that there is any net energy benefit … and so more conservative estimates of the Net EROI, which, for example, assume that the incremental corn crop for ethanol produces at average productivity rather than best case productivity, yields estimates of either almost no positive net yield, or else, for those that find Gross EROI more like 90% than 130%, a Negative Net EROI of (-10%).

Rather than go into the nitty gritty details of the different estimates, we can step back and observe that 27% Net EROI is grossly inadequate. Translate that into Net Steady State Energy Yield … the percentage of the gross energy produced left over after “paying back” the energy inputs”, and that is a Net Steady State Energy Yield of 21%.

Gross Energy Return On Investment should by over 500%, which is a Net Steady State Energy Yield of 80%, for a sustainable, renewable energy source that is primarily justified as a sustainable, renewable energy source. For the anchors of our sustainable, renewable energy portfolio, a Gross Energy Return on Investment of over 800%, for a Net Steady State Energy Yield over 87.5%, is ideal, so that we can gain net energy for immediate use even as we re-invest the energy yield in growing the share of that energy source.

The only reason for accepting a 27% Net EROI is because the energy yield of a by-product of a process that is providing some other substantial good. And the case of Dirty Ethanol is quite the opposite, accepting egregiously low energy yield from a process that is also providing a substantial range of other bads.

The fundamental equation of sustainable economic systems is:

  • Sustainable + Unsustainable = Unsustainable

And so, given that our present food production system is largely unsustainable itself, any fuel gained as a product of that system is itself intrinsically unsustainable.

In order to have a sustainable bio-fuel, we need both a sustainable means of producing the feedstock, and a sufficiently high Net Steady State Energy Yield to meet our needs for a rapid expansion of our sustainable energy production portfolio.

So Dirty Ethanol is doubly unsustainable: first, because corn farming is unsustainable, and second, because the net energy yield of corn-starch Ethanol production is either miserably low or else non-existent.


How Clean would “Clean” Ethanol Be, Anyway?

Of course, with the AP engaged in an investigation, the Ethanol Industry was forced to respond. According to The Las Vegas Sun:

In an unusual campaign, ethanol producers, corn growers and its lobbying and public relations firms have criticized and sought to alter the story, which was released to some outlets earlier and is being published online and in newspapers Tuesday. The Agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, told the Des Moines Register that the AP project included “a number of inaccuracies and errors.” Vilsack said farmers were engaged in other conservation practices, including wetland reserve programs, wildlife habitat incentive programs and EQIP, a program that helps farmers adopt conservation practices.

The industry’s efforts, which began one week before the AP project was being published and broadcast, included distributing fill-in-the-blank letters to newspapers editors that call the AP’s report “rife with errors.” Industry officials emailed newspapers and other media, referring to AP’s report as a “smear,” `’hatchet job” and “more dumpster fire than journalism.”

The ethanol industry also complained that AP was misleading when it said since 2010 more corn went to fuel than livestock feed. It noted that the distillation process leaves behind a residual byproduct that can be used for feed. The AP used the government’s official, long-established benchmark for domestic corn use: data from USDA’s Economic Research Service, which do not factor distiller’s grain into its official data. The figures show that, in 2010 for the first time on record, fuel was the top use of domestic corn _ a trend that continued in 2011 and 2012.

Of course, arguments that the official figures understate the proportion of production going into food and that the AP over-counted how much food cropland and native grassland was diverted into ethanol crop production doesn’t help a sustainability argument as much as the industry would have you believe … since if the distillation byproduct used for feed is used in factory farm meat production, its unsustainable food production.

As Time reported in 2012, some argue that at present rates of soil depletion, we have about 60 years of soil left:

A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left. Some 40% of soil used for agriculture around the world is classed as either degraded or seriously degraded – the latter means that 70% of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone. Because of various farming methods that strip the soil of carbon and make it less robust as well as weaker in nutrients, soil is being lost at between 10 and 40 times the rate at which it can be naturally replenished. Even the well-maintained farming land in Europe, which may look idyllic, is being lost at unsustainable rates.

And as with arguments over the Net Steady State Energy Yield of Dirty Ethanol, arguments over exactly how fast soil is depleting is conceding the point that our present agricultural production systems are unsustainable.

This is, I would stress, a different argument from “stealing food to run our cars” argument. Its more fundamental: no biofuel is sustainable unless its feedstock is produced sustainably. And that holds whether or not the feedstock is a food crop, a complement to a food crop, or a pure biomass crop.


The Pose of an “All of the Above” Energy Policy

Many advocates for sustainable energy policy criticize the administration for its “All of the Above” energy policy, since the question is equivalent to: “Should I eat:

  • a. health food
  • b. unhealthy food
  • c. poison
  • d. All of the Above

… and answering “D”.

However, it also bears noting that the policy is not really “All of the Above”. An all of the above policy would pursue increase natural gas, petroleum and coal production as aggressively as this administration has, it would pursue Dirty Ethanol, it would pursue Clean Ethanol, it would pursue Wind and Solar, it would pursue energy efficiency gains in cars … all of which this administration has done.

And the administration can argue that it has pursued more efficient intercity rail transport, but has been stymied by an obstructionist Congress.

But it would also pursue an energy efficiency revolution in long-haul freight transport, which this administration quite clearly has not done.

It would pursue sustainable biomass production and high Net Steady State Energy Yield biocoal, which this administration clear has not done.

At the very least, an actual pursuit of an “All of the Above” strategy would lay the foundation for the “All The Good Among The Above” policy that we desperately need to get started sometime in the current decade. By contrast, pretending to an “All of the Above, both Evil and Good” strategy, while actually pursuing “All of the Evil, Some of the Good” strategy gives the misleading impression that what we are doing is the best that can be done.

And this is not a “purist” critique. A purist critique is that we should be pursuing “All of the Good” and “None of the Evil”. It is, indeed, quite a pragmatic policy critique to argue that we should be pursuing “All of the Good”, especially if political necessity forces us to accept “Some of the Evil”.

The atmosphere, after all, works according to how much CO2 and other GHG and warming emissions occur. It does not give a damn about games played in human language and in manipulating human’s mental models about how the world works. The folk tales that we tell ourselves about those emissions are none of its concern.

Demanding that politicians at a very minimum try for “All the Good” in terms of sustainable, renewable energy sources and efficiency gains in our worst energy hogs is far from idealism, at least for all of the twenty and thirty year olds in our electorate, and for those older than that with kids or grandkids. Its pure, pragmatic self-interest.


Conversations, Considerations and Contemplations

That is as close as I am going to come to a final grand conclusion this evening. And now, as always, I open the floor to the comments of those reading, and repeat the question: So, what do you think … is Dirty Ethanol here to stay?

If you have an issue on some other area of sustainable transport or sustainable energy production, please feel free to start a new main comment. To avoid confusing me, given my tendency to filter comments through the topic of this week’s Sunday Train, feel free to use the shorthand “NT:” in the subject line when introducing this kind of new topic.

And if you have a topic in sustainable transport or energy that you want me to take a look at in the coming month, be sure to include that as well.


  1. BruceMcF

    The All of the Above Train aint gonna take us home.

  2. TMC

    From an April 20, 2009 article in Scientific American

    California regulators, trying to assess the true environmental cost of corn ethanol, are poised to declare that the biofuel cannot help the state reduce global warming.

    As they see it, corn is no better – and might be worse – than petroleum when total greenhouse gas emissions are considered.

    Such a declaration, to be considered later this week by the California Air Resources Board, would be a considerable blow to the corn-ethanol industry in the United States.

    If passed, the measure could serve as a model as other states and the federal government tackle carbon emissions. But California’s regulators say they have no choice.

    The state must assess the full climate change impact of corn ethanol under a California law requiring a sharp cut in carbon emissions from transportation fuels. The board must encourage the use of cleaner alternatives like electricity, hydrogen and cellulosic ethanol, said board spokesman Dimitri Stanich.

  3. BruceMcF

    … engineer-poet.

    Though of course I recall reading about the unsustainability of American monoculture in the late 70’s or early 80’s in the Whole Earth Quarterly, so its not as if any of these negative impacts of this policy were in any way unpredictable.

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