Sunday, May 14, 2006

Ethanol - OK to drink but don't put it in your car

Complete following phrase:

Ethanol is to Energy Solutions as Pork is to …...

A. Food
B. Offending Muslims
C. Happy Farmers
D. Barrel Politics
E. All of the Above

The answer of course is E – all of the above.

Without going into detail about my answer let me tell you where am I going with this. All over the news lately I have seen Talking Heads going on about the wonderful prospects of ethanol to replace oil. This is just complete BS. There is considerable debate as to whether corn-based ethanol is actually energy positive – meaning that it puts out more energy as a fuel than was used to create it. Assuming for the time being that it is, its EROEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested) is generally assumed to be low (1.3??), and considerable fossil fuel is required to make ethanol.

Here are some facts about corn based ethanol from my good friend Engineer-Poet:

Can ethanol from corn or other grain replace gasoline?

Answer: Almost certainly not, for several reasons.
There isn't enough grain. The best process we have makes about 2.66 gallons of ethanol from a bushel of corn (maize). The 2004 maize harvest was about 11.8 billion bushels; if all of it was used for ethanol, it could make a maximum of 31.4 billion gallons of ethanol (with energy equivalent to about 22 billion gallons of gasoline). US gasoline consumption in 2003 was roughly 134 billion gallons, or more than 6 times the amount which can be replaced by ethanol production from corn. Total US motor fuel consumption (gasoline and diesel fuel) is approximately 200 billion gallons per year.

Ethanol requires too much other fuel to produce it. A gallon of ethanol (84,200 BTU) consumes about 33,000 BTU of heat in the distillation process alone. Some of this heat comes from coal or cogenerators, but most distillers burn natural gas or LPG. LPG is a petroleum byproduct, and natural gas supplies are tight and getting tighter. Ethanol producers are competing with people who need to heat their homes. The energy losses of the ethanol process make it more efficient to burn the grain for heat, and use the LPG or natural gas as motor fuel (source).
The 33,000 BTU’s to make a gallon of ethanol discussed above does not include any of the energy required to plant, fertilize, grow, harvest, and transport the corn to the factory to make ethanol. A number of serious scientists are convinced that if all this required energy is properly accounted for, corn-based ethanol uses up more energy than it gives back.

How could this be? Dan Rather was waxing eloquently on "60 Minutes" the other day about the wonders of corn-derived ethanol. And on the other end of the Talking Head Spectrum, my hero, Bill O’Reilly (O’Lielly) told me that Brazil was energy self-sufficient due to its investments in sugarcane-derived ethanol. Who is telling the truth here?

Well first of all, you know that if Bill O’Reilly is hawking this, something must smelling fishy. Although Brazil has had a relatively successful program promoting ethanol, it has had an even more successful program exploring for oil and gas. Consequently, their oil production has reached a level where they are close to being energy independent. Ethanol helps in this regard, but the main engine for their energy success has been deepwater oil exploration and development in the Campos Basin.

So in the end what do we have?

Ethanol is to Energy as Pork is to Food. True – but man cannot live on pork alone.

Ethanol does at least present the appearance that we are trying to break free of dependence on Middle East oil – Disappointing the Saudis (Muslims).

Ethanol, as a subsidized source of profit for mid-western corn farmers certainly makes them happy.

But primarily the promotion of corn-based ethanol is designed to shore up political support in some of the mid-western swing states. Corn is best used for food, not running cars down the freeway. We have to come up with better solution, one that actually is good for the whole country.

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