Poet, Ethanol, Independence and the Flag

Michael Giberson

Cellulosic ethanol is purportedly the future of biofuels, at least if you listen to ethanol’s supporters.  While the topic of cellulosic ethanol is a subject of some interesting research, digging around the internet for information mostly turns up flag-waving lobbyists seeking more help from the federal government.

In a recent news release, ethanol producer POET Energy announced that the director of it’s Project LIBERTY would be giving a project status update on the planned cellulosic ethanol plant at a pair of Iowa-based events. (Project LIBERTY has its own website which talks a lot about energy dependence and independence and includes a lot of stars and stripes, red-white-and-blue imagery.)

The news release included a link to “a documentary about POET’s pilot cellulosic ethanol plant“, which I thought might be interesting.  As it turns out it was interesting, though more for what it revealed about the reliability of its content than for what it said about ethanol.

About one-third of the way through the POET video, in the context of discussing criticism of ethanol policies and specifically when discussing the effect of grain ethanol on food prices, it said, “Many claimed the diversion of corn to make fuel drove up food costs, a myth later disproved by independent economists.”

As the narrator read the bolded phrase, the video flashed an image that looked like a newspaper column.  It went by so fast the first time I couldn’t read more than the first few words of the headline: “Big Food’s Smear Campaign….”

Curious who these independent economists were, I stopped the video and scrolled back to the image (at about the 3:41 minute mark).  The full headline said, “Big Food’s Smear Campaign Exposed by New Group of Ethanol Producers.”  The subhead said, “Growth Energy formed to promote clean, green, high-tech, homegrown biofuels.”  Turns out the column was just a Growth Energy news release.

Growth Energy also has a website, which sports more flag-waving imagery, and describes the group in more detail.  Is this group the source of the purported “independent economists”?  The Washington, D.C., based group was, as advertised, formed and funded by the subsidized ethanol industry.  I don’t think “independent” means what POET thinks it means.

For a little more insight into how ethanol is grown in Washington, D.C., and perhaps insight into the current administration’s commitment to science-based public policy, read Timothy Carney’s column in the Washington Examiner: “Obama EPA’s ‘science’ pleases powerful ethanol lobby.”

Growth Energy has a video, too.  It begins with a flag, fades to a baseball stadium, and soon enough the Statue of Liberty.  If I would have stuck with it a little longer I’m sure I would have got a picture of apple pie, Mom, and probably a boy scout or ten marching in a Fourth of July parade somewhere in America’s heartland.  But I had had enough.

Flag-waving by lobbyists in pursuit of government-granted privileges always turns my stomach.


4 thoughts on “Poet, Ethanol, Independence and the Flag

  1. Robert Rapier, who is a Chem E. and works in energy businesses, wrote the following about cellulosic ethanol:

    “… cellulosic ethanol technology is more than 100 years old. You heard it here, and you can hold me to it: There will be no breakthrough that suddenly makes it cost-competitive to produce. On the other hand, press releases that announce big breakthroughs for small incremental steps? No end to those I am afraid, nor any retraction when they can’t replicate this outside the lab. The impression this leaves is a steady upward march in the commercialization of cellulosic ethanol – and no setbacks that weren’t simply related to lack of funding.

    “Cellulosic ethanol will never be produced in large volumes for less money than corn ethanol can be produced for – and keep in mind that we are still subsidizing that after 30 years. What may happen is that it eventually can be mildly successful in certain very specific instances. But to think that a billion tons of U.S. biomass will contribute a major portion of the U.S. fuel supply via cellulosic ethanol? Hogwash from many people who have never scaled up anything. The reasons are not from lack of funding, they are fundamental based on physics, chemistry, and the nature of biomass.”

  2. Rapier is a good read on almost anything, and his deep understanding and realism on biofuels put him at his best on that topic. Thanks for the link, Fat Man.

  3. Are you really surprised that the cellulosic ethanol “industry” is spending more effort on rent-seeking than becoming below-marginal-cost producers of vehicle fuels?

    Of course the former is a far more lucrative (and feasible) option.

    I’d sooner look at the people who are trying to develop a human cellulose-digesting enzyme. Then we can eat the corn stover and use all the grain to make our gasoline… 😉

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