Silly, Silly Biofuels

Let's just go back to the basics for a second. My minor advisor from Cornell University was Dr. David Pimentel, a stalwart advocate against the production of ethanol . From a recent debate Dr. Pimentel did on the subject of biofuels, I gleaned the following:

Consider that 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop was converted to 5 billion gallons of ethanol last year. This replaced only 1 percent of U.S. petroleum. If the entire U.S. corn crop were used, it would replace a mere 7 percent.

The energy expended to produce a gallon of corn ethanol is 40 percent greater than what is in ethanol itself.

Corn-based ethanol production receives $6 billion in subsidies.

Each gallon of ethanol requires 1700 gallons of waters and releases 12 gallons of noxious sewage effluent into the environment (farmers use ~150 lb. of nitrogen fertizlizer to raise 8700 lb. of corn/acre).

What becomes of this noxious run-off? Why it adds to the ever-widening dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, where nothing but slime can thrive, of course.

On top of that, I heard on NPR this week that demand for ethanol and other biofuels is driving up the price of grains to record high levels, which are subverting humanitarian relief efforts to fight starvation in places like Haiti. I also spoke to Dr. Lou D'Abramo this week, a scientist at Mississipi State University, who told me that catfish farmers in the southern U.S. are going belly up because their grain-based feeds are becoming too expensive due to biofuel demand.

Dead zones. Dead humans. Dead catfish industry. Enough with the biofuels already.

The path to hell is paved with good intentions and driven down using E-85.


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I would have more confidence in Pimintal if he didn't come off as a denialist. It's been pointed out several times that his energy balance calculations were based on 30 year old crop yield and plant efficiency numbers. He also ignores the coproducts of ethanol production, which preserves all the protein and minor nutrients of the corn. That protein is fed to livestock, which is what would have happened to the corn anyway. The percentage of corn grown in the U.S. for direct human consumption is minuscule. The other hole in the argument is that far from starving the world, U.S. corn exports in 2007 were the highest on record, 2.45 billion bushels, eclipsing a record set in 1980.

Finally, all the players in the industry are very candid about the fact that no new corn based ethanol plants are likely to be built after 2010, because the renewable fuels standard passed by congress dictates that any further ethanol production must come from cellulosic sources, also called second generation ethanol in the law.

Pimentel is a very intelligent man and know these things. His work has been criticized by Bruce Dale at Michigan State and Michael Wang at Argonne National Lab. Yet at the drop of a hat he is ready and willing to trot out the same old discredited numbers for a credulous audience.

By justawriter (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

I'm not normally one to defend corn ethanol, but it is presumptuous to blame it for the rise in food prices and the worldwide hunger. What we're seeing is a collision of a number of factors, not the least of which is the demand for feed grains to sustain the sharp increase in meat consumption.

...Props to justawriter who makes several of my points better than I might have.

Trotting out old 'energy cost' data again and again is simply dishonest and does nothing to further the discussion of using ethanol as fuel.


By ...tom... (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

Please don't blame all biofuels just because of corn-based ethanol. For example, manure can be used to produce methane without side issues.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 18 Apr 2008 #permalink

First off, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water, and it's true that corn ethanol and biofuels are not synonymous. As for rising grain prices, I trust that the World Bank President Robert Zoellick understands the market pretty well (hear his thoughts in the NPR link). As for Bruce Dale's arguments against Pimentel: Dale's main argument is that Pimentel should only measure the oil units going into ethanol production and ignore all other energy inputs, like natural gas for nitrogen fertilizer production. No one in the world has adopted Dale's so called standard units. As for Pimentel's main argument, it is not about food or protein but about energy and efficiency. It simply takes too much energy to make ethanol.

Imagine what would happen if instead of trying to create a large scale industial economy replete with subsidies and price structures that encorporated the existing fuel distribution systems, we instead simply took the taxes at the pump off of ethanol made from otherwise unused crop byproducts that could be used locally. It seems to me that this was more of what was envisioned prior to ethanol becomming a hot issue that got swept up in large scale government/industrial planning. What? Reduce tax revenues to stimulate small scale efficiencies? How will the gigantic multinational industial scaled concepts make money off of that?
I can't help but wonder why we are surprised whenever large scale industrial/economic programs designed by the industries themselves and enacted by large government beaurocracies result in a degradation of the very resources we are attempting to manage wisely.
For all the talk of carbon footprints you'd think we'd be looking at using agriculture to both grow food efficiently and sequester carbon and conserve water instead of using fossil fuels while burning food in our cars, but instead all big ideas are focused on international programs designed to trade carbon so gigantic developing economies can continue to devour coal and fossil fuels at unprecedented rates. It's nutz.

It's simply wrong to burn food.

Pimentel just pulls too many numbers out of the air to be taken seriously. He assigns, without showing how it is calculated, an energy value to labor used to raise corn. Then he turns around and doesn't give any energy credit to the distiller's grain coproduct produced by ethanol plants. How can energy value of a worker's corn beef sandwich be counted against ethanol production if the feed for the cow it came from isn't counted?

Another raw point is that these energy efficiency arguments are only applied towards biofuels. As Wang points out, it takes 2.3 units of thermal energy to produce 1 unit of electricity. Even Pimentel's fuzzy math grants that ethanol only takes 1.3 units for each unit of ethanol. Other studies show it takes 1 unit of energy to produce 1.3 to 1.69 units of ethanol. Guess those electric cars better go back on the shelf.

By justawriter (not verified) on 19 Apr 2008 #permalink

Jen, you may be interested in my colleague Nathanael's latest post on this topic (linked to at my name below). I do think it's important that we be clear when we're talking about corn and when we're talking about biofuels generally, because there are many more options than just corn, just as shellfish aquaculture and salmon net pens aren't the same thing.

I agree that we shouldn't be burning food as fuel (or seafood as fuel, which also happens), though, as Doug points out, burning food waste would be more feasible. According to Nathanael's post, corn ethanol consumes about 24% of US corn production and US corn production is about 40% of world corn production. Also Nathanael makes the good point of warning that corn ethanol was just one of many biofuels (I know this only too well, as I lived through a friend making homemade greasel from cafeteria waste in our kitchen). True enough, but I still find the whole biofuel issue to have been a political wash, rather than dealing with real and immediate gains in energy efficiency via demands on improved overall mph in the transportation sector (along with a million other bright ideas that should have been implemented before the U.S. started burning corn and Haitians kept on starving).

Enough with the corn-based biofuels already. Agreed.

What we're seeing is a collision of a number of factors, not the least of which is the demand for feed grains to sustain the sharp increase in meat consumption.