ethanol a mirage?

Brent Finnegan -- June 26th, 2008

There’s a story in today’s DNR about “deathanol,” the federal mandate, and the impact of corn-for-fuel on the local poultry industry. I recently read an interesting article about “the seven myths of energy independence” in Mother Jones that touched on some of the same points.

MJ: “to make more of an alternative (ethanol, say) is to have less of something else (food, sustainably arable land).”

DNR: “Corn costs have tripled in the last two years, and the industry cannot sustain those without passing them on to its customers,” Bauhan said. “Consumers are seeing and will continue to see higher prices.”

The MJ article focuses primarily on the gap between how much energy (fossil fuels) and other resources it takes to create ethanol, and the amount of ethanol produced.

As for ethanol’s energy return, scientists are debating whether it’s slightly positive or altogether negative […] Granted, oil’s advantages will ultimately prove illusory due to its huge environmental costs and finite supply. But oil’s decline won’t, by itself, make alternatives any less problematic […]

We can no longer look at the energy economy as a constellation of discrete sectors that can be manipulated separately; everything is tied together, which means that fixing a problem in one part of the system all but invariably creates a new problem, or a whole series of problems, somewhere else.

Here’s MJ’s trickle-down chart linking increased ethanol production to high prices of… well, everything. Their hypothesis seems to be; there’s no way we can sustain the amount of energy we’re currently consuming, regardless of the source.

I’ve posted about the flipside of biofuel before, and Jeremy raised questions about the future of the local poultry industry in March.

10 Responses to “ethanol a mirage?”

  1. Frank J Witt says:

    As far as almost 1 1/2 years ago I warned about this. The weekly market updates that are sent to me from US FOODS showed the increases across the board even before the prices locally started going up. It is much like the oil futures, the price goes up for your consumer goods well before the purchaser receives the goods. The dollar amount of oil is not for todays purchase but for delivery in October but the retailer charges you the inflated price today to take advantage of you in case the cost lowers. It is a damn shame no one wanted to listen to me, but hey…what the hell do I know….

  2. Ben says:

    There are a number of potential biofuels and biofuel production method which have very potentially positive outcomes. Butanol is an alternate alcohol derived through a very different fermentation which has significantly higher energy return than ethanol.

    Most of these arguments turn into the grand Ford vs. Chevy debate. The reality is that it’s not the abstract of biofuels that is bad, it’s the direct use of food crops for fuel that’s the stupidity. There’s potential to create ethanol from fiber crops in a two step process, being developed by a number of sources, which can use crops from land not appropriate for grains. Oils derived from Algae and sewage treatment can be turned into biodiesel. The potential is out there, but unfortunately our govenment has seen instead fit to subsidize corn and soybean farmers to grow food for fuel, even mandating the use of this inefficient ethanol in all gasoline products in a few years. It’s a combination case of opportunists jumping the gun on underdeveloped technologies and maybe a little bit of dumbness tossed in just for the fun of making it political.

  3. Frank J Witt says:

    Very good points Ben…thank you

  4. Frank J Witt says:

  5. hlestyan says:

    Although the government has historically been encouraging the production of ethanol from food-based crops, this is clearly not the future of the industry. There are several project under development in the US to create cellulosic ethanol at a commercial scale from other sources. These processes would utilize things like wheat straw, corn stover, (“leftover” parts from the food crops) or various types of grasses to create ethanol.

    It is not ethanol or biodiesel or butanol itself that is a problem- it’s the ever-increasing demand for energy at any cost. No matter what source we are using to derive our fuel, there is no way to ignore that we are in general just using too much of it.

    We are not going to solve this supply-demand problem as long as a majority of people continue to cling to the belief that they simply ought to be able to consume as much limited resources as they can, simply because they want to, and because it is more convenient to do so that to change their habits.

  6. Frank J Witt says:

    With the constant increases to our bills, we have no choice but to use less. Our paychecks are not going up while the costs for everything else does.

    The average price of $0.20 a kWh is almost double what is charged in many US areas so they plan on giving up to 50% tax credits over the next 3 years…where are there any US incentives to switch over?

  7. Thanh says:

    From the NY Times. Promise of Biofuel Clouded by Weather Risks.
    “As America grows more reliant on corn for its fuel supply, it is becoming vulnerable to the many hazards that can damage crops, ranging from droughts to plagues to storms.”

  8. finnegan says:

    This weekend, there were two more stories about the backlash from poultry farmers about the ethanol mandate — one in the DNR, and the other in the Washington Post (featuring an interview with Matt Lohr and his dad.

    Although the Bush administration has said that ethanol accounts for only 2 to 3 percent of the increase in global food prices, competing analyses have emerged…

    The report, funded by Kraft Foods Global, said demand for corn for ethanol has led farmers to devote more acres to the crop, pushing up the price of grain and oilseed crops as less land is available. It suggested that meat prices have yet to fully reflect those increases, but could rise in coming years as corn remains in high demand. The report said reducing the federal government’s renewable fuels standard could help ease those prices over time.

    Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, disputed that analysis, saying it does not take into account the role of speculators. He added that high gasoline prices have played a bigger role in soaring food costs.

    “Ethanol is the only thing we have today that is providing any moderating impact on oil and gasoline prices,” Dinneen said.

    I’m going to go ahead and state something that appears to me to be obvious (but potentially blasphemous) — Americans should eat less meat. If all this grain is going to feed the animals, perhaps we should “cut out the middle man” and eat more grain ourselves.

  9. Frank J Witt says:

    Brent, what you are saying is absolutely correct. More grains not only takes some of the burden off the meat producers however, it might just make you healthier as well. We, as Americans, cannot SIT by and get healthy, have you seen the lines at the fast “food” joints?

    Very good point but it is very difficult to change the greedy American way of life. I want it NOW and I want it Super Sized !
    (not me but I see A LOT more of people than I need to) if you can follow my “logic”.

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