Microbes, Enzymes, and Cellulosic Ethanol

Lynne Kiesling

Here’s an interesting Wired article on enzymes from microbes and the production of cellulosic ethanol.

As a counter to the “gee whiz, isn’t it cool that we can do that?” nature of that article, here’s Kevin Hassett of AEI writing in Bloomberg:

Indeed, no matter how expensive fossil fuels become, ethanol will never be economical because it takes so much fossil fuel to produce. It might be possible that someday technological processes will emerge that make production of ethanol less reliant on fossil fuels, but the billions in subsidies to this point have left us with a process that is still a disgrace and an absurd waste of energy and taxpayers’ money.

And the Environmental Protection Agency has cited ethanol plants themselves for air pollution. In a letter to the industry’s trade group, the EPA noted that pollution was a problem in “most, if not all, ethanol facilities.” These plants produce large quantities of waste water as well.

Ethanol itself contributes to air pollution. Cars emit more air pollution when they run on gasoline containing ethanol than they do when running on gasoline alone. Our environment would be greener if we stopped relying on ethanol.

Thanks to Dr. Vino for emailing me the Bloomberg link.


37 thoughts on “Microbes, Enzymes, and Cellulosic Ethanol

  1. There is something consistently troubling about all the ethanol “debunking” stories referencing one entomologist (bug doctor) at Cornell’s research, rather than the wealth of market information available pertaining to ethanol vs. oil efficiency.

    Hassert, much like many others (perhaps even this blog), have a single point of reference in Cornell’s Pimentel study, and take it as a proven fact. Why not just look at the wholesale cost of ethanol vs. gasoline, and let the market be your guide as to what is efficeient.

    Given that yesterday’s wholesale (non-taxed) price of sugar ethanol is $1.36 per gallon today, and gasoline is $1.52 per gallon wholesale, one might conclude that ethanol is slightly cheaper, but not quite as powerful as gasoline.

    Maybe if the price of gasoline goes above $1.52 (plus some power factor), it would be economical to use ethanol. Maybe the wholesale price of ethanol increases to reach the wholesale price of gasoline (minus some power factor) But then Pimentel’s 30 year old study would not be taken as a proven fact, so no one dare contradict the eminent Cornell entomologist (who is quite concerned that ethanol production will lead to a lack of food, despite a 40 decline in real commodity food prices)

    JBP

  2. 30 year old study? It’s from July 2005.

    Marty Bender did some useful work too. In his words:

    “Will biofuels one day power an expanding American economy? No way … You could grow fuel crops on every square inch of North America, and still fall way short of the net energy provided by the contemporary supply of fossil fuels. Solar panels? Wind machines? Hybrid vehicles? Sure, Marty would say, those are good things. Just don’t expect them to let you live in the style to which you’ve become accustomed.”

    As he points out, photosynthesis is less than 1 percent efficient while PV tech is 10-25 percent. Fuel crops require ten to 100 times more land area than solar technologies.

    But it is true that biofuels have a lot of fans, many with interest. We’ll hear more.

  3. Pimentel has continued to update his studies, but having read them and one or two of the competing studies that make opposite claims, it’s nearly impossible for anyone not directly involved in these matters to comprehend them, let alone criticize them. The thing that Pimentel and Patzek have in their favor that lend credence to their arguments is that the ethanol companies inevitably have their hands outstretched for subsidy, a sure sign that something’s wrong with the flow of energy.

  4. Pimentel has continued to update his studies, but having read them and one or two of the competing studies that make opposite claims, it’s nearly impossible for anyone not directly involved in these matters to comprehend them, let alone criticize them. The thing that Pimentel and Patzek have in their favor that lend credence to their arguments is that the ethanol companies inevitably have their hands outstretched for subsidy, a sure sign that something’s wrong with the flow of energy.

  5. So…

    Why not look at the market prices, rather than the eminent entomologist’s suspicious arithmetic? Market prices for commodities are a bit swayed by subsidy, but as close as any other market price.

    JBP

  6. So…

    Why not look at the market prices, rather than the eminent entomologist’s suspicious arithmetic? Market prices for commodities are a bit swayed by subsidy, but as close as any other market price.

    JBP

  7. Market prices aren’t terribly useful without knowing the underlying energy requirements.  For instance, ethanol from corn requires large inputs of nitrates and phosphates, both of which are produced using fossil fuels.  The best EROEI I’ve seen for corn ethanol is 1.66:1; the typical appears to be 1.34:1.  This means that each BTU of ethanol requires at least 0.6 BTU of fossil fuel to make it, and the average is 0.74.  Ethanol also benefits from the pass-through being relieved of highway taxes.

    If ethanol production was independent of fossil fuels and had no subsidies, its price might be a reliable indicator of its economics.  Unfortunately, it is not; its cost will rise along with the price of oil.

    Cellulosic ethanol looks like it may get past the problems of fertilizer (recycle the spent plant matter, perhaps with a pass through livestock or fish) and distillation fuel (burn the lignin left over from cellulose hydrolysis).  But this process is also lossy, and can’t satisfy US demands.  Our best prospect at the moment looks like plug-in hybrids to replace 80% of fuel demand by efficiency improvements and electricity, and use biofuels for the remaining 20% if we use them at all.

  8. Market prices aren’t terribly useful without knowing the underlying energy requirements.  For instance, ethanol from corn requires large inputs of nitrates and phosphates, both of which are produced using fossil fuels.  The best EROEI I’ve seen for corn ethanol is 1.66:1; the typical appears to be 1.34:1.  This means that each BTU of ethanol requires at least 0.6 BTU of fossil fuel to make it, and the average is 0.74.  Ethanol also benefits from the pass-through being relieved of highway taxes.

    If ethanol production was independent of fossil fuels and had no subsidies, its price might be a reliable indicator of its economics.  Unfortunately, it is not; its cost will rise along with the price of oil.

    Cellulosic ethanol looks like it may get past the problems of fertilizer (recycle the spent plant matter, perhaps with a pass through livestock or fish) and distillation fuel (burn the lignin left over from cellulose hydrolysis).  But this process is also lossy, and can’t satisfy US demands.  Our best prospect at the moment looks like plug-in hybrids to replace 80% of fuel demand by efficiency improvements and electricity, and use biofuels for the remaining 20% if we use them at all.

  9. EP,

    That is absolutely nonsense. Market prices are the single best indicator of how much it costs to produce a gallon of fuel. Wholesale prices are sans tax, so your highway tax statement is also nonsense.

    Of course the costs of phospates and anhydrous amonia is already included in the cost of production of ethanol. Do you think farmers get this stuff for free?

    You think that oil is not subsidized? What is the US Fleet doing in the Persian Gulf? Why are there ground forces in Iraq and Kuwait? Why does the USA allow royalty free drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?

    My point is, you don’t need to research the so called efficiencies of gas, ethanol, or firewood. You will always get a bug doctor or two that tell you it takes more than one gallon of gas to make a gallon of ethanol, or a Farm Bureau to claim that corn ethanol solves all our energy issues.

    Take away tax and subsidy, and the price will tell you what is economical or not. The best comparison I have seen is $1.36 Ethanol vs $1.52 gasoline. Let your wallet be your guide.

    JBP

  10. The financial merits of ethanol as a fuel are marginal.

    Let me clarify – experts disagree about whether there is a net energy gain, all agree that it isn’t much, some contend improvements will make ethanol a winner, all agree the improvements aren’t ready.

    Biofuels solve no pollution problems. There is reason to believe they worsen them.

    It is worthwhile to coninue research into more efficient ethanol production. But greater gains can be made more certainly with conservation, nuclear, solar, and wind.

    Even coal and oil sands promise more. Oil shale is probably a loser, it is hard to extract and has low energy.

  11. Market prices are the single best indicator of how much it costs to produce a gallon of fuel. Wholesale prices are sans tax, so your highway tax statement is also nonsense.

    They are not free of production subsidies.  Further, large amounts of the energy of corn ethanol (and thus its cost) is from inputs of cultivation fuel, fertilizer and other chemicals which are getting expensive.  If we stopped all the subsidy of the inputs to ethanol, I suspect its price would rise substantially.

    A BTU of ethanol today embodies about 0.74 BTU of fossil fuel.  Most of that is oil and gas.

    Of course the costs of phospates and anhydrous amonia is already included in the cost of production of ethanol. Do you think farmers get this stuff for free?

    Current prices reflect past conditions; anhydrous ammonia has more than doubled in the last couple of years.  Prices for 2006 are expected to be over $500/ton.

    You think that oil is not subsidized? What is the US Fleet doing in the Persian Gulf? Why are there ground forces in Iraq and Kuwait? Why does the USA allow royalty free drilling in the Gulf of Mexico?

    I’m well aware of all of that.  I think we should be billing those costs at the pump or via a per-barrel tax for everything coming out of the Persian Gulf (we do protect all of it, and all the consumers should share the cost).

    Of course, taxing motor fuel up to $4-$5/gallon would end the SUV phenomenon and start the shift away from oil in earnest.  This is long overdue; we should have been pursuing this in the 1990’s but the various government initiatives were either wrong-headed, subverted or both.

  12. Poor Kevin. He is still fighting yesterday’s battles. Even API is not averse to cellulsoic thanol.Pimental?? Give me a break? The difference between starch ethanol and cellulosic ethanol is large. Berkely just relased a new study on that. Most people don’t get it. If we are going to produce bewtween 40-100 billion gallons of ethanol in this country (and we will need that much to make a dent in oil imports) then we have to use cellulosic crop wastes. Cellulose + biotech enzymes = sugars. Sugars=ethanol(or even octanol), platics, and renwable chemicals. It ain’t just about ethanol my friends. Until now it wasn’t economcial to do that. The biotech industry has moved beyond the doctors office into the industrial arena. Biotehc enzymes make it possbile to make huge volumes of transportaion fuel. The question isn’t if but when? Depends on the feds–they can speed it up or slow it down. And Kevin don’t worry –the oil companies are intersted–Exxon maybe not–but others yes–watch what happens in 2006. Follow the money. Watch Vinod.
    Brent

  13. Cellulose is not a panacea.  There is a “Billion Ton Vision” paper which looks at a billion tons/year of biomass as a goal.  At Iogen’s claimed yield of 330 liters/ton (87 gallons/ton), you’d get 87 billion gallons of ethanol a year, equivalent to about 58 billion gallons of gasoline.

    The US burned 139 billion gallons of gasoline in 2004, and it only represented about 45% of all petroleum products consumed.  Ethanol is being used as a boondoggle (along with hydrogen), a distraction from things that might actually work.

  14. EP,

    Given your above artithmetic exhibition, I would be very careful in labelling boondoggles. First, sugar based ethanol what is in question, but regardless, on corn…

    Input vs. output fuels (including diesel phospates, anhydrous etc) was about 1:40 last year, or about 2.5% of the comparison. So, fertilizer goes up in price..big deal. What will it be 3% of total rather than 2.5%?

    “If we stopped all the subsidy of the inputs to ethanol, I suspect its price would rise substantially” What, pray tell, would those subsidies be? Where are these subsidy checks? I would like to get one.

    Of course the market price of corn is pretty much determined by demand for cattle feed, but E-P is dead-set to defy algebra to declare that ethanol is fuel-inefficient.

    The market prices for ethanol and gasoline are well documented and readily available. It would be a pleasure to use market data (and some skills from 7th grade artithmetic) to set the basis for this discussion rather than political meanderings.

    JBP

  15. re: ‘wouldn’t that net energy gain show up in the price’ from 2/1 at 7:46

    Sometimes but not always. Gasoline is used almost exclusively for motor fuel but alcohol is not. Until we see huge amounts of alcohol being used for fuel we know little about the cost of alcohol as a widely used fuel.

    That sounds evasive but is not. Electricity made from nuclear and coal plants costs equivalent of about twenty cents per gallon of gasoline.* Natural gas also has a lower cost. So why would fertilizer producers and ethanol plants be buying gasoline for energy?

    Answer – they don’t. In much of the process the energy used costs far less than gasoline.

    The commodity price of ethanol reflects the demand for ethanol and not the price of gasoline.

    * I hedge a bit about the twenty cents. The cost is in that range but I’m too lazy to look up where I saw it. Anyone trying to even roughly decide what ethanol fuel will really cost in a decade has my sympathy.

  16. Yes K, that is evasive.

    Given that Brazil and the US are burning millions of gallons of ethanol a year, your statement that “we know little about the cost of alcohol as a widely used fuel.” does not ring true.

    Why not look at the wholesale price? That is- what-it-is. If there is some substitute, the price might change, but so do other market prices.

    JBP

  17. Yes K, that is evasive.

    Given that Brazil and the US are burning millions of gallons of ethanol a year, your statement that “we know little about the cost of alcohol as a widely used fuel.” does not ring true.

    Why not look at the wholesale price? That is- what-it-is. If there is some substitute, the price might change, but so do other market prices.

    JBP

  18. A minor detail that has been over looked in this discussion is that cellulosic ethanol frees us from dependence on corn. In fact the most promising feed stock is switch grass. The currrent estimates are that 15% of the farm land unsuitable for food production is suitable for growing switch grass. This is enough land to produce 100% of the fuel we currently use for all transportation. In addition, this crop requires no fertilizers, pesticides and very little water. Has the science closed the economic gap between this technology and gasoline? No, but it is tantalisingly close. In any case it is makes far better sense economically than hybrids do. Ever thought of what those batteries are made of? Have you paid attention to the fact that hybrids are getting a fraction of the gas mileage they initially claimed? Why do you think Toyota, the industry leader in hybrids, thinks that plug in hybrids are prohibitively expensive? Don’t you think that if this technology was economically and environmentally sound they would jump on the chance to bury their competition with vehichles four times as efficient for a reasonable cost? At the end of the day this is not an either or decision, all of these technologies can work symbiotically to reduce or eliminate our dependence on oil. Don’t get to caught up in rooting for one over the other.

  19. A minor detail that has been over looked in this discussion is that cellulosic ethanol frees us from dependence on corn. In fact the most promising feed stock is switch grass. The currrent estimates are that 15% of the farm land unsuitable for food production is suitable for growing switch grass. This is enough land to produce 100% of the fuel we currently use for all transportation. In addition, this crop requires no fertilizers, pesticides and very little water. Has the science closed the economic gap between this technology and gasoline? No, but it is tantalisingly close. In any case it is makes far better sense economically than hybrids do. Ever thought of what those batteries are made of? Have you paid attention to the fact that hybrids are getting a fraction of the gas mileage they initially claimed? Why do you think Toyota, the industry leader in hybrids, thinks that plug in hybrids are prohibitively expensive? Don’t you think that if this technology was economically and environmentally sound they would jump on the chance to bury their competition with vehichles four times as efficient for a reasonable cost? At the end of the day this is not an either or decision, all of these technologies can work symbiotically to reduce or eliminate our dependence on oil. Don’t get to caught up in rooting for one over the other.

  20. A minor detail that has been over looked in this discussion is that cellulosic ethanol frees us from dependence on corn. In fact the most promising feed stock is switch grass. The currrent estimates are that 15% of the farm land unsuitable for food production is suitable for growing switch grass. This is enough land to produce 100% of the fuel we currently use for all transportation. In addition, this crop requires no fertilizers, pesticides and very little water. Has the science closed the economic gap between this technology and gasoline? No, but it is tantalisingly close. In any case it is makes far better sense economically than hybrids do. Ever thought of what those batteries are made of? Have you paid attention to the fact that hybrids are getting a fraction of the gas mileage they initially claimed? Why do you think Toyota, the industry leader in hybrids, thinks that plug in hybrids are prohibitively expensive? Don’t you think that if this technology was economically and environmentally sound they would jump on the chance to bury their competition with vehichles four times as efficient for a reasonable cost? At the end of the day this is not an either or decision, all of these technologies can work symbiotically to reduce or eliminate our dependence on oil. Don’t get to caught up in rooting for one over the other.

  21. Brazil is an entirely different climate with much more water and huge amounts of land suited to raising sugar cane. Sugar cane produces a lot more energy than our crops. Brazil doesn’t give a hoot about pollution. And their motor fuel consumption is low compared to ours.

    They also have a government mandate to use ethanol rather than gasoline no matter what the cost.

    US production of ethanol is still minute compared to the task at hand.

    So I still say we know little about what will happen when we want billions of gallons here.

    There was nothing evasive about my answer.

    My post tried to clarify that the price of ethanol is not useful in discussing an energy gain. That was your first remark to me – re: the missing energy gain. missing?

    Maybe this will work. Nuclear, coal, and natural gas energy go into ethanol production in various ways. Those things have a relatively low cost per btu. That affects the market price/demand curve.

    That curve doesn’t tell you about energy gains or losses. It may reveal something about the cost of the energy used to make the ethanol.

    When people hear that ethanol may have a net energy loss they get upset thinking it means ethanol should not be used for fuel. That does not follow.

    It might follow if we could readily use coal,or solar, or nuclear, or natural gas in vehicles. Then it might make sense to do so and not use ethanol. Since we can’t (yet?) ethanol lets us do that indirectly.

    So instead of saying ‘sometimes’ I probably should have said: yes energy costs are in the price but this undefined ‘missing net energy gain’ – your term not mine – may not be what you think it is.

    As a matter of fact I did not use ‘missing net energy gain’. I never even said ethanol has a net energy loss, I said experts disagree.

    Today’s price may be better than nothing. You regard it as valuable. I regard it as nearly worthless as a guide to the future.

  22. One of the benefits of a long career on the ‘net is an appreciation of irony.  Case in point:

    Given your above artithmetic exhibition, I would be very careful in labelling boondoggles. First, sugar based ethanol what is in question, but regardless, on corn…

    Allow me to quote from Iogen’s website:

    Recent reports from the U.S. Department of Energy/Department of Agriculture state that there is enough biomass feedstock for cellulose ethanol production in the U.S. to displace approximately 40% of current U.S. gasoline consumption.

    Iogen has nothing to do with sugar-based ethanol, and when I divide 58 billion by 139 billion, I get .4173; to 2 places, this is 42%.  Perhaps you should work on your own arithmetic.

    Input vs. output fuels (including diesel phospates, anhydrous etc) was about 1:40 last year, or about 2.5% of the comparison. So, fertilizer goes up in price..big deal. What will it be 3% of total rather than 2.5%?

    At $500/ton for ammonia and 100 lbs nitrogen per acre, a farmer is paying over $30/acre for nitrogen alone.  At a yield of 200 bu/ac and $1.80/bu, nitrogen is over 8% of the crop price.

    Before you quibble, ammonia is only 82% nitrogen by weight.

    What, pray tell, would those subsidies be? Where are these subsidy checks? I would like to get one.

    Among other things, it’s all the deficiency and other support programs which are unavailable if the land is planted in anything but corn.  Farmers don’t collect them, they are an implicit subsidy to the buyers because they help force continued overproduction.

    Of course the market price of corn is pretty much determined by demand for cattle feed, but E-P is dead-set to defy algebra to declare that ethanol is fuel-inefficient.

    I used no algebra, and I find it both amusing and telling that you cannot distinguish it from arithmetic.

    As for the efficiency, take it up with the researchers.  The most optimistic estimate (p. 16) claims less than 2:1 EROEI; most hover around 1.25-1.33.

  23. One of the benefits of a long career on the ‘net is an appreciation of irony.  Case in point:

    Given your above artithmetic exhibition, I would be very careful in labelling boondoggles. First, sugar based ethanol what is in question, but regardless, on corn…

    Allow me to quote from Iogen’s website:

    Recent reports from the U.S. Department of Energy/Department of Agriculture state that there is enough biomass feedstock for cellulose ethanol production in the U.S. to displace approximately 40% of current U.S. gasoline consumption.

    Iogen has nothing to do with sugar-based ethanol, and when I divide 58 billion by 139 billion, I get .4173; to 2 places, this is 42%.  Perhaps you should work on your own arithmetic.

    Input vs. output fuels (including diesel phospates, anhydrous etc) was about 1:40 last year, or about 2.5% of the comparison. So, fertilizer goes up in price..big deal. What will it be 3% of total rather than 2.5%?

    At $500/ton for ammonia and 100 lbs nitrogen per acre, a farmer is paying over $30/acre for nitrogen alone.  At a yield of 200 bu/ac and $1.80/bu, nitrogen is over 8% of the crop price.

    Before you quibble, ammonia is only 82% nitrogen by weight.

    What, pray tell, would those subsidies be? Where are these subsidy checks? I would like to get one.

    Among other things, it’s all the deficiency and other support programs which are unavailable if the land is planted in anything but corn.  Farmers don’t collect them, they are an implicit subsidy to the buyers because they help force continued overproduction.

    Of course the market price of corn is pretty much determined by demand for cattle feed, but E-P is dead-set to defy algebra to declare that ethanol is fuel-inefficient.

    I used no algebra, and I find it both amusing and telling that you cannot distinguish it from arithmetic.

    As for the efficiency, take it up with the researchers.  The most optimistic estimate (p. 16) claims less than 2:1 EROEI; most hover around 1.25-1.33.

  24. EP,

    Again, you would see it in the price, if your calculations were valid. They are not. Corn Ethanol costs about $2.00 a gallon, Sugar Ethanol $1.36 sans tax. Corn is about $2.30 a bushel. Go figure on your spurrious calculations; they are pretty much irrelevant to the market pricing.

    K,

    You seem shocked that market prices are dynamic.

    Market prices are great signals as to supply and demand of commdities. In the imaginary world of Dr. Pimentel and E-P, one has to calculate the relative efficiencies of most anything with varying degrees of handwaving. In the real world, the market is the guide.

    JBP

  25. Corn may be $2.30/bu to you, but the word I had from a farmer on theoildrum.com was that he was receiving $1.80; presumably, the difference goes to middlemen.  YMMV.

  26. Corn may be $2.30/bu to you, but the word I had from a farmer on theoildrum.com was that he was receiving $1.80; presumably, the difference goes to middlemen.  YMMV.

  27. Hmm, interesting debate. I am researching the viability of a commercial ethanol plant to process apple orchard/winery by-products. I’m thinking of starting small – working with the grounders & waste from my Dad’s operation, but if it goes well, I’d like to work with other fruit farmers in the region. I know you are discussing a larger view of the issue, but I’ve noticed much of the argument revolves around corn being used for ethanol. Corn is a real drain on the soil – you need a lot of fertilizer to keep it going (which can be less than ideal for long-term soil health) and really, responsible land management should involve crop rotation. I’m thinking there must be other sugary crops that could be alternatives – not cane in this climate but what about sugar beets? Starchy potato type things might be good too. Of course this doesn’t count in the prospects of the emerging cellulose technology – which sounds pretty interesting but I’ll wait and see before I try mashing-up all the prunings and leaves from the orchard!

    Anyone with specific research related to producing fuel-grade ethanol from fruit: I’d really like to hear from you.

    Thanks,
    Laurie

  28. I’m not shocked at all. My line of comments has contended that current price tells us little or nothing about whether ethanol or other biomass for motor fuels is worth a large national effort.

    I think where this discussion skued is when energy gain got linked to price. I wasn’t alert and wandered right in. Energy in/out ratio is important mostly to technicans trying to decide if a process can be replaced or improved.
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    e.g. if coal makes electricity which goes into running an fertilzer plant… so that a crop can…cars can the burn ethanol. that process will have some efficiency.

    it might be better to just turn the coal directly into synthetic oil and burn that as fuel.

    but either way you get a fuel.
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    There is nothing wrong with using price in projections over a decade or more. Cost is a better starting point. Producers aren’t trying to reduce price. If one is bound and determined to advocate using current price that is fine with me.

    But I repeat, I have no faith in data from price in this matter because changes will be so large.

    And I think current prices don’t even tell us much about current costs: nations are tinkering with sugar prices and supply. Our governments, foreign, federal and state are and throw money at anything that looks like it might be biomass, constuction of related plant, or research. They are mandating various ratios of ethanol in fuel.

  29. I’m not shocked at all. My line of comments has contended that current price tells us little or nothing about whether ethanol or other biomass for motor fuels is worth a large national effort.

    I think where this discussion skued is when energy gain got linked to price. I wasn’t alert and wandered right in. Energy in/out ratio is important mostly to technicans trying to decide if a process can be replaced or improved.
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    e.g. if coal makes electricity which goes into running an fertilzer plant… so that a crop can…cars can the burn ethanol. that process will have some efficiency.

    it might be better to just turn the coal directly into synthetic oil and burn that as fuel.

    but either way you get a fuel.
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    There is nothing wrong with using price in projections over a decade or more. Cost is a better starting point. Producers aren’t trying to reduce price. If one is bound and determined to advocate using current price that is fine with me.

    But I repeat, I have no faith in data from price in this matter because changes will be so large.

    And I think current prices don’t even tell us much about current costs: nations are tinkering with sugar prices and supply. Our governments, foreign, federal and state are and throw money at anything that looks like it might be biomass, constuction of related plant, or research. They are mandating various ratios of ethanol in fuel.

  30. I’m not shocked at all. My line of comments has contended that current price tells us little or nothing about whether ethanol or other biomass for motor fuels is worth a large national effort.

    I think where this discussion skued is when energy gain got linked to price. I wasn’t alert and wandered right in. Energy in/out ratio is important mostly to technicans trying to decide if a process can be replaced or improved.
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    e.g. if coal makes electricity which goes into running an fertilzer plant… so that a crop can…cars can the burn ethanol. that process will have some efficiency.

    it might be better to just turn the coal directly into synthetic oil and burn that as fuel.

    but either way you get a fuel.
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
    There is nothing wrong with using price in projections over a decade or more. Cost is a better starting point. Producers aren’t trying to reduce price. If one is bound and determined to advocate using current price that is fine with me.

    But I repeat, I have no faith in data from price in this matter because changes will be so large.

    And I think current prices don’t even tell us much about current costs: nations are tinkering with sugar prices and supply. Our governments, foreign, federal and state are and throw money at anything that looks like it might be biomass, constuction of related plant, or research. They are mandating various ratios of ethanol in fuel.

  31. Check out this site for a comparison of petroleum subsidies.
    http://www.icta.org/doc/Real%20Price%20of%20Gasoline.pdf as with Pimentelís study it also includes things that really shouldnít be there but does give a better idea of the subsidies provided to the petroleum industry in comparison to the meager ones provided to the ethanol industry. These subsidies help the oil companies make record profits, increase our trade deficit, and promote a product that puts millions of tons of highly toxic pollution into our eco system every year.

    Keep in mind that aside from the normal ups and downs in corn production (the last couple years have been really good crops) corn production in this country has not been increased in order to supply the more than 4 billion gallons of ethanol that was produced last year. The corn is being grown regardless of whether it is used in an ethanol plant. It is simply being routed through an ethanol plant before continuing on to its original intend destination of livestock feed.

    Corn is subsidized by the federal government on a minimum price basis. If the price of corn rises the subsidy goes down. Since Ethanol usage currently adds approximately $0.10 per bushel to the price of corn and should continue to rise, it should also reduce the amount that corn is being subsidized in this country.

    Ethanol plants produce pollution also, and some of the older ones produced more than they should have, but in a side by side comparison to petroleum refineries of the toxicity and quantity, Iíll take an ethanol plant any day. Some of the newer ethanol plants are using state of the art coal fired boilers and thermal oxidizers to reduce pollution and turn an inconvenient but abundant energy source (coal) into a cleaner and more usable form (ethanol). As far as the pollution is concerned Ė pure ethanol burns cleanly, giving off only water and carbon dioxide as by products of combustion. When mixed at higher levels than the current 10% in gasoline the NOx emissions balance out and the carbon monoxide and other more toxic pollutants are drastically reduced in comparison to using gasoline alone.

    Iíve only been able to find one widely distributed number on the energy balance for the production of gasoline which is 1.23 MBTU input of energy to produce 1 MBTU of gasoline. Compare that to the currently accepted energy balance for ethanol of .74 MBTU input for each 1 MBTU output. If the 1.23 MBTU number is close then the real energy balance of ethanol would be closer to .60 MBTU input to 1 MBTU output.

    I would also feel more comfortable with 200 ethanol plants scattered around the country providing a fair portion of our energy requirements than to continue to depend on what might happen to the flow of our shipments of foreign oil. The terroristic destruction of just a couple of our major petroleum refineries would cause considerable havoc in our gasoline supply chain, whereas the destruction of a few ethanol plants would cause very little interruption in the supply of ethanol.

    I do not advocate that ethanol production in this country is the total answer to our energy problems, but it is a step in the right direction and I would rather see the high petroleum industry subsidies offset with ethanol subsidies. At least the money is staying in this country and providing employment and business opportunities for Americans instead of lining the pockets of other nations.

  32. Check out this site for a comparison of petroleum subsidies.
    http://www.icta.org/doc/Real%20Price%20of%20Gasoline.pdf as with Pimentelís study it also includes things that really shouldnít be there but does give a better idea of the subsidies provided to the petroleum industry in comparison to the meager ones provided to the ethanol industry. These subsidies help the oil companies make record profits, increase our trade deficit, and promote a product that puts millions of tons of highly toxic pollution into our eco system every year.

    Keep in mind that aside from the normal ups and downs in corn production (the last couple years have been really good crops) corn production in this country has not been increased in order to supply the more than 4 billion gallons of ethanol that was produced last year. The corn is being grown regardless of whether it is used in an ethanol plant. It is simply being routed through an ethanol plant before continuing on to its original intend destination of livestock feed.

    Corn is subsidized by the federal government on a minimum price basis. If the price of corn rises the subsidy goes down. Since Ethanol usage currently adds approximately $0.10 per bushel to the price of corn and should continue to rise, it should also reduce the amount that corn is being subsidized in this country.

    Ethanol plants produce pollution also, and some of the older ones produced more than they should have, but in a side by side comparison to petroleum refineries of the toxicity and quantity, Iíll take an ethanol plant any day. Some of the newer ethanol plants are using state of the art coal fired boilers and thermal oxidizers to reduce pollution and turn an inconvenient but abundant energy source (coal) into a cleaner and more usable form (ethanol). As far as the pollution is concerned Ė pure ethanol burns cleanly, giving off only water and carbon dioxide as by products of combustion. When mixed at higher levels than the current 10% in gasoline the NOx emissions balance out and the carbon monoxide and other more toxic pollutants are drastically reduced in comparison to using gasoline alone.

    Iíve only been able to find one widely distributed number on the energy balance for the production of gasoline which is 1.23 MBTU input of energy to produce 1 MBTU of gasoline. Compare that to the currently accepted energy balance for ethanol of .74 MBTU input for each 1 MBTU output. If the 1.23 MBTU number is close then the real energy balance of ethanol would be closer to .60 MBTU input to 1 MBTU output.

    I would also feel more comfortable with 200 ethanol plants scattered around the country providing a fair portion of our energy requirements than to continue to depend on what might happen to the flow of our shipments of foreign oil. The terroristic destruction of just a couple of our major petroleum refineries would cause considerable havoc in our gasoline supply chain, whereas the destruction of a few ethanol plants would cause very little interruption in the supply of ethanol.

    I do not advocate that ethanol production in this country is the total answer to our energy problems, but it is a step in the right direction and I would rather see the high petroleum industry subsidies offset with ethanol subsidies. At least the money is staying in this country and providing employment and business opportunities for Americans instead of lining the pockets of other nations.

  33. Craig. I agree with much that you say. The fact that we get oil from abroad is the root of our energy problems.

    If you look up a previous posts much of the discussion was about how well we undertand what ethanol can and cannot do to reduce gasoline use.

    And now that ethanol is politics latest protege I think it is getting harder and harder to evaluate progress with ethanol. The money makes scientists overpromise, ethanol processors scheme, startups buzz, accountants fiddle, and car companies chant E85, E85, E85,…

    In a year or so things will be clearer. Those damn celluose eating enzymes will either start to payoff or crap out. Switch grass will be as good as promised or we will be stuck with corn, etc. A breakthrough can alter ethanol production by a factor of twenty or more.

    My guess is that ethanol will prove pretty good but remain a niche player (additive) in motor fuel for at least a decade. The amount of ethanol produced looks very impressive until compared to the amount of gasoline used.

    To me, electrics, hybrids – gasoline and diesel, and plug-in hybrids look like the way to reduce gasoline use.

  34. Craig. I agree with much that you say. The fact that we get oil from abroad is the root of our energy problems.

    If you look up a previous posts much of the discussion was about how well we undertand what ethanol can and cannot do to reduce gasoline use.

    And now that ethanol is politics latest protege I think it is getting harder and harder to evaluate progress with ethanol. The money makes scientists overpromise, ethanol processors scheme, startups buzz, accountants fiddle, and car companies chant E85, E85, E85,…

    In a year or so things will be clearer. Those damn celluose eating enzymes will either start to payoff or crap out. Switch grass will be as good as promised or we will be stuck with corn, etc. A breakthrough can alter ethanol production by a factor of twenty or more.

    My guess is that ethanol will prove pretty good but remain a niche player (additive) in motor fuel for at least a decade. The amount of ethanol produced looks very impressive until compared to the amount of gasoline used.

    To me, electrics, hybrids – gasoline and diesel, and plug-in hybrids look like the way to reduce gasoline use.

  35. E-P,

    Fortunatley, you do not have to rely on rumour to determine cash prices for corn. The nation has a sophisticated system of delivery and receipt for #2 Corn, typically referred to as Elevators or Terminals.

    Companies such as ADM, Staley, and Cargill, as well as a host of independent purchase corn at widely publicized cash prices. These companies compete on pricing, prompting farmers to deliver corn to companies paying better cash prices for corn.

    Newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune publish an average of these prices, so that non-local people do not have to inquire to their remote elevator for cash pricing. Now, with the internet, many elevators publish cash prices in real time, right on your own computer.

    So rather than guessing that $1.80 is the price of a bushel of corn, you can check here for the Cash price in Wapella, IL.

    http://www.tateandlylegrain.com/index.aspx?ascxid=premiumCashPrices&id=89

    It is $2.09 today. And as many have realized, prices change all the time.

    JBP

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