Ethanol no image

Published on March 9th, 2009 | by John Addison

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Ethanol – the Good, the Bad, the Ugly, and the Beautiful

ethanol gas pump

The Good

The 9 billion gallons of ethanol that Americans used last year helped drive down oil prices. For those of us who fuel our vehicles with gasoline, as much as 10 percent of that gasoline is ethanol. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires that more biofuel be used every year until we reach 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Reduced oil prices are good. We can go from good to great, if we move past fuel from food and haste to fuels from wood and waste. Although the economics do not yet favor major production, pilot plants are taking wood and paper waste and converting it to fuel. Other cellulosic material is even more promising. Some grasses , energy crops, and hybrid poplar trees promise zero-emission fuel sources. These plants absorb CO2 and sequester it in the soil with their deep root systems. These plants often grow in marginal lands needing little irrigation and no fertilizers and pesticides, standing in sharp contrast to the industrial agriculture that produces much of our fuel. (see Dedicated Energy Crops Could Replace 30% of Gasoline: Ceres, Inc. Wants to Make it Happen)

A Khosla Ventures portfolio company is Range Fuels which sees fuel potential from timber harvesting residues, corn stover (stalks that remain after the corn has been harvested), sawdust, paper pulp, hog manure, and municipal garbage that can be converted into cellulosic ethanol. In the labs, Range Fuels has successfully converted almost 30 types of biomass into ethanol. While competitors are focused on developing new enzymes to convert cellulose to sugar, Range Fuels’ technology eliminates enzymes which have been an expensive component of cellulosic ethanol production. Range Fuels’ thermo-chemical conversion process uses a two step process to convert the biomass to synthesis gas, and then converts the gas to ethanol.

Range Fuels in Georgia is building the first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in the United States. Phase 1 of the plant is scheduled to complete construction in 2010 with a production capacity of 20 million gallons a year. The plant will grow to be a 100-million-gallon-per-year cellulosic ethanol plant that will use wood waste from Georgia’s forests as its feedstock.

The Bad

Over one billion people are hungry or starving. Agricultural expert Lester Brown reports, “The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year.”




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About the Author

John Addison writes about green transportation. He is the publisher of the Clean Fleet Report (http://www.cleanfleetreport.com) which documents how fleets are deploying clean vehicles including hybrids, plug-in hybrids, electric vehicles, hydrogen fueled vehicles, and biofuels. Fleets often get access to new technology years before they become available to consumers. John is a popular speaker in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. He has taught extension courses at the University of California at Davis and at Santa Cruz. John and his wife Marcia live in San Francisco and are members of several environmental groups.



  • Aureon Kwolek

    There’s a lot of good information here, but there’s also some bias information. I’m amused that the article seems to blame corn ethanol for everything, including the lower mileage. But then, the author tells us how wonderful cellulosic ethanol (which I also support) is going to be over first generation ethanol – As if that is going to get you any better mileage. The problem with ethanol is that most cars are not optimized for it. That’s going to change. Turbocharged, high compression, “Ethanol Optimized” engines are coming, and they go way beyond flex-fueled. EPA had one of these in 1995, with a 19.5 compression ratio, that got more power and better mileage than it got on gasoline. Just recently both Ricardo and Lotus announced ethanol optimized engines that get better mileage on 100% ethanol than they get on gasoline, with all the torque and power of diesel. GM, Ford, and Chrysler had 70 mpg technology in the mid 90s, but they were in bed with Big-Oil and Gov. That’s where the problem is, not with ethanol. Ethanol is an excellent domestic fuel, if you have engines optimized to use it. We have been steered to keep burning fossil fuels, so the Oil Barrons could keep their monopoly going. This began years ago when there was a conflict between Henry Ford’s Vision of Ethanol vs Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Guess who won.

    John Addison makes the mistake of quoting Lester Brown, who’s views are warped. Here’s what this quote: “The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year” does not tell you – That out of those same corn kernels, came a year’s worth of distiller’s grains that fed livestock and dairy cows that put food on your table. Like many other biofuel critics, Omission is a common practice. Again just taking the starch out of one third of the corn crop to make ethanol is not causing starvation in any way. Only a third of our arable land is in cultivation, and we have a surplus of corn. It may not be getting to the people who need it. But that’s not ethanol’s fault. Even after we made 9 billion gallons of ethanol last year, corn is $3.55 a bushel for 56 pounds. That’s only 6 cents a pound. If you’re so concerned about it, then buy surplus corn and distillers grains and feed the hungry.

    John Addison talks about transporting ethanol long-distance. OK, then let’s talk about transporting crude oil from the middle east and other foreign countries. Ever see the smoke pouring out of an ocean going oil tanker? Let’s talk about wasting $200 billion a year on an oil war to protect our oil interests overseas, and the amount of fuels and pollution that expends. A recent study concluded that shipping crude oil long distances accounts for half as much again as the pollution and global warming caused by burning fossil fuels in our transportation vehicles. Furthermore the trend, blender pumps and new ethanol plants being built in many other states, points to Localization.

    This claim by Addison is totally false: “Subsidies to industrial corn agriculture are not good uses of taxpayer money”. Big oil companies collect 6 times more subsidies than the entire biofuels industry. Coal is subsidized. Natural gas is subsidized. Anything that relates to National Security. The ethanol subsidy you are talking about is a 45 cent per gallon blending subsidy, that’s mainly going to oil companies who splash blend ethanol and gasoline. “In 2007, the (ethanol) tax incentive, that tax break, was $3.3 billion, but the ethanol industry returned $4.6 billion in tax revenue to the Treasury,” Broin says. “We saved $8 billion in farm payments because we eliminated farm payments for the first time in almost 40 years. We saved the consumer $40 to $60 billion in gas prices with extra supplies that kept prices down. We added $47 billion to the Gross Domestic Product” (Jeff Broin – Poet Ethanol). Not a good use of taxpayer money?

    Aside from what Addison thinks, next generation biofuels will include the next generation of corn ethanol. Because Algae will be mass produced, onsite, from corn ethanol refinery waste products: CO2, waste heat, and nutrient rich waste water – thin stillage centrate, which contains 6% minerals. That may become the most efficient way to produce biofuels, feed and food.

  • Aureon Kwolek

    There’s a lot of good information here, but there’s also some bias information. I’m amused that the article seems to blame corn ethanol for everything, including the lower mileage. But then, the author tells us how wonderful cellulosic ethanol (which I also support) is going to be over first generation ethanol – As if that is going to get you any better mileage. The problem with ethanol is that most cars are not optimized for it. That’s going to change. Turbocharged, high compression, “Ethanol Optimized” engines are coming, and they go way beyond flex-fueled. EPA had one of these in 1995, with a 19.5 compression ratio, that got more power and better mileage than it got on gasoline. Just recently both Ricardo and Lotus announced ethanol optimized engines that get better mileage on 100% ethanol than they get on gasoline, with all the torque and power of diesel. GM, Ford, and Chrysler had 70 mpg technology in the mid 90s, but they were in bed with Big-Oil and Gov. That’s where the problem is, not with ethanol. Ethanol is an excellent domestic fuel, if you have engines optimized to use it. We have been steered to keep burning fossil fuels, so the Oil Barrons could keep their monopoly going. This began years ago when there was a conflict between Henry Ford’s Vision of Ethanol vs Rockefeller’s Standard Oil. Guess who won.

    John Addison makes the mistake of quoting Lester Brown, who’s views are warped. Here’s what this quote: “The grain required to fill an SUV’s 25-gallon tank with ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year” does not tell you – That out of those same corn kernels, came a year’s worth of distiller’s grains that fed livestock and dairy cows that put food on your table. Like many other biofuel critics, Omission is a common practice. Again just taking the starch out of one third of the corn crop to make ethanol is not causing starvation in any way. Only a third of our arable land is in cultivation, and we have a surplus of corn. It may not be getting to the people who need it. But that’s not ethanol’s fault. Even after we made 9 billion gallons of ethanol last year, corn is $3.55 a bushel for 56 pounds. That’s only 6 cents a pound. If you’re so concerned about it, then buy surplus corn and distillers grains and feed the hungry.

    John Addison talks about transporting ethanol long-distance. OK, then let’s talk about transporting crude oil from the middle east and other foreign countries. Ever see the smoke pouring out of an ocean going oil tanker? Let’s talk about wasting $200 billion a year on an oil war to protect our oil interests overseas, and the amount of fuels and pollution that expends. A recent study concluded that shipping crude oil long distances accounts for half as much again as the pollution and global warming caused by burning fossil fuels in our transportation vehicles. Furthermore the trend, blender pumps and new ethanol plants being built in many other states, points to Localization.

    This claim by Addison is totally false: “Subsidies to industrial corn agriculture are not good uses of taxpayer money”. Big oil companies collect 6 times more subsidies than the entire biofuels industry. Coal is subsidized. Natural gas is subsidized. Anything that relates to National Security. The ethanol subsidy you are talking about is a 45 cent per gallon blending subsidy, that’s mainly going to oil companies who splash blend ethanol and gasoline. “In 2007, the (ethanol) tax incentive, that tax break, was $3.3 billion, but the ethanol industry returned $4.6 billion in tax revenue to the Treasury,” Broin says. “We saved $8 billion in farm payments because we eliminated farm payments for the first time in almost 40 years. We saved the consumer $40 to $60 billion in gas prices with extra supplies that kept prices down. We added $47 billion to the Gross Domestic Product” (Jeff Broin – Poet Ethanol). Not a good use of taxpayer money?

    Aside from what Addison thinks, next generation biofuels will include the next generation of corn ethanol. Because Algae will be mass produced, onsite, from corn ethanol refinery waste products: CO2, waste heat, and nutrient rich waste water – thin stillage centrate, which contains 6% minerals. That may become the most efficient way to produce biofuels, feed and food.

  • http://mogblog.org mog

    One billion people are hungry or starving. Without any ethanol production whatsoever, they would still be hungry or starving.

    Devoting all of our excess crop production to biofuels might raise those numbers slightly, because excess wouldn’t be available to dump on the market.

    Crops grown in the US don’t feed the hungry people of the world by themselves. The process is usually the government using your tax dollars to buy up excess, artificially raising commodity prices, then spending more tax dollars to burn barrel after barrel of bunker fuel to ship the food overseas, so it can be seized by foreign armies and traded for military supplies. Sometimes, the governments of these other countries let people get fed, but if it happens, it is usually due to a lack of planning.

    If those billion people are to be fed, someone is paying for the food. TANSTAAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Literally.

    I am told over and over that these people live where nothing can grow. That is not true. These people live where they cannot grow enough for their population. Very often there are agricultural means to produce the calories they need where they are, but only by growing foods they don’t want.

    It is easy to say beggars can’t be choosers, it is difficult to understand why hungry people won’t consider alternatives that would end their hunger. Work with the poor and hungry, and you will often find people who could feed themselves, but will not, partially through ignorance, partially through unwillingness.

  • http://mogblog.org mog

    One billion people are hungry or starving. Without any ethanol production whatsoever, they would still be hungry or starving.

    Devoting all of our excess crop production to biofuels might raise those numbers slightly, because excess wouldn’t be available to dump on the market.

    Crops grown in the US don’t feed the hungry people of the world by themselves. The process is usually the government using your tax dollars to buy up excess, artificially raising commodity prices, then spending more tax dollars to burn barrel after barrel of bunker fuel to ship the food overseas, so it can be seized by foreign armies and traded for military supplies. Sometimes, the governments of these other countries let people get fed, but if it happens, it is usually due to a lack of planning.

    If those billion people are to be fed, someone is paying for the food. TANSTAAFL. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Literally.

    I am told over and over that these people live where nothing can grow. That is not true. These people live where they cannot grow enough for their population. Very often there are agricultural means to produce the calories they need where they are, but only by growing foods they don’t want.

    It is easy to say beggars can’t be choosers, it is difficult to understand why hungry people won’t consider alternatives that would end their hunger. Work with the poor and hungry, and you will often find people who could feed themselves, but will not, partially through ignorance, partially through unwillingness.

  • jc_dawg

    OK…I did not know too much until recently about ethanol…what it is…why it is and so forth.
    Now I have a 2 year old JD riding mower. The place where I have always gotten my gasoline for the mower…unknowingly to me until recently…sells 100% gasoline…no ethanol. About a month or 2 ago…I started getting my gas elsewhere because for some reason….that station was always too crowded. (I wonder why!!!)

    Well…the new place that I have been going sells the e10 mixture. And guess what? and I kid you not. My mower is now at the JD shop getting the carburator worked on because it keeps stalling out.

    I owned my prev Deere from 98 until 2010….never had a lick of problems with it!
    Friends…this story is the honest to God truth! You decide for yourself! But for me….no ethanol if I can help it.

    • http://importantmedia.org/members/joborras/ Jo Borras

      I have decided that you got 12 years out of your carb and are trying to blame ethanol fuel for carb troubles. I also think you’re totally off your a** for deciding that ethanol is the issue – how long do you think you’re supposed to be able to run a carb without servicing it? 15 years? FOREVER?

      Get a clue.

      • jc_dawg

        I dont think you understood me. If you refer back to my post, sir, you will see that I had my last mower for 12 years. I dont have that mower any more and I traded it in. It is the current 2 year old mower that started having problems after switching to the ethanol.
        Are you supposed to have problems with the carburator with a 2 year old machine?
        The mower was at the dealer this last Feb for routine maintenance….I doubt they checked the carburator…but the machine ran just fine in March. The usage of ethanol begain in April.
        Dont think for 1 second that I am 100% sure its the ethanol. Thats simply one of the things I’m going to try to avoid.
        .

  • jc_dawg
  • Rick

    The energy density of gasoline is 45.7 Megajoules per kilogram. Now you know why ethanol will never get as good mpg as gasoline. It is possible to use higher compression ratios with ethanol but last I checked quarter mile dragsters weren’t really concerned about MPG.. Some things are tied to reality a lot tighter than than peoples dreams or wishes.

  • Rick

    Is Global warming real or not. I am not sure it makes much difference. Most of the catastrophic scenarios rely on a continuous exponential expansion of CO2 producing fossil fuel. To support this a stable economy would have to under pin it. People won’t run the economy that way. They are too greedy. An economic collapse reduces industrial demand for fossil fuels enormously. So the production of CO2 is economically self limiting.

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