Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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February 3, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

SWITCHGRASS AND ETHANOL....Aside from "human-animal hybrids," the word that sprang out of nowhere for most people in this week's State of the Union address was probably "switchgrass." But as Sam Jaffe wrote for us in 2004, there are two new technologies that promise to make ethanol production far cheaper and more efficient than it is today. One of those technologies is a genetically-engineered microbe that allows us to make ethanol from more sources than just corn:

Most intriguing of all is switchgrass, a hardy North American plant that can be raised without irrigation and harvested with a low-labor process similar to mowing the lawn. In other words, it requires very little energy to bring to harvest compared with ethanol's traditional corn. According to Cornell's [David] Pimentel, roughly 15 percent of the North American continent consists of land that is unsuitable for food farming but workable for switchgrass cultivation. Given the typical energy yield of switchgrass, a rough calculation indicates that if all that land were planted with switchgrass, we could replace every single gallon of gas consumed in the United States with a gallon of inexpensive, domestically produced, and more environmentally-friendly cellulosic ethanol.

Fine. But how do we get automakers to sell cars that can run on "flex-fuel" combinations of ethanol and gasoline? And how do we get gas stations to sell the stuff? From our friends on the right comes one possible answer: just force them to do it. Robert Zubrin writes in The American Enterprise:

This year, Detroit will offer some two dozen models of standard cars with a flex-fuel option available for purchase. The engineering difference is in one sensor and a computer chip that controls the fuel-air mixture, and the employment of a corrosion-resistant fuel system. The difference in price from standard units ranges from $100 to $800.

....The only sticking point is the non-availability of high alcohol fuel mixes at the pump. Filling stations dont want to dedicate space to a fuel mix used only by 1 percent of all cars. And consumers are not interested in buying vehicles for which the preferred fuel mix is unavailable.

This chicken-and-egg problem can be readily resolved by legislation. One major country has already done so. In 2003, Brazilian lawmakers mandated a transition to [flex-fuel vehicles]....By 2007, 80 percent of all new vehicles sold in Brazil are expected to be FFVs, producing significant fuel savings to consumers, a boost to local agriculture, and a massive benefit to the countrys foreign trade balance.

There's more in both articles. Jaffe thinks ethanol could be used to directly power hydrogen fuel cells, for example, while Zubrin dismisses hydrogen as a chimera and thinks we should look to methanol rather than ethanol for the bulk of our needs, since methanol can be produced using coal, something we have in abundance. The drawback of methanol made from coal, however, is that it does nothing for global warming. Alternative fuels like ethanol and biodiesel are far more environmentally friendly.

I suspect that both authors have overstated the case for their preferred alternative, but both are worth reading nonetheless. I don't know if George Bush loves switchgrass because he got a visit from the switchgrass lobby or because someone just whispered the word in his ear, but who cares? If the left loves ethanol for environmental reasons and the right loves it so we don't have to buy so much oil from Saudi Arabia, maybe there's a deal to be made.

Kevin Drum 9:32 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (109)

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Comments

The straw to ethanol technology has been up and running in Canada for a few years now and it uses as fuel vegitation that was going to be burned in the fields as a byproduct, so the net C02 gain from using it as a fuel has to be close to zero.

Posted by: Boronx on February 3, 2006 at 9:42 PM | PERMALINK

Boy, you mean we don't have to just wave bye bye to western civilization? That would be nice.

Posted by: jimBOB on February 3, 2006 at 9:42 PM | PERMALINK

Boronx: That's right. I believe there's still some net CO2 emissions, but considerably less than with gasoline. Less pollution, too. Overall, if ethanol production can be made economically viable, it could be a real winner.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on February 3, 2006 at 9:47 PM | PERMALINK

Nice to hear switchgrass-based ethanol will produce such low emissions, but there still is the issue of loss of habitat if you plant out 15% of the nation's arable land.


Posted by: kostya on February 3, 2006 at 9:48 PM | PERMALINK

For your weekedn pleasure, from Eric Alterman:

President Bush was scheduled to worship at a small Methodist Church outside Washington, D.C. as part of Karl Rove's campaign to reverse Bush's rapidly deteriorating approval ratings. A week before the visit, Rove called on the Methodist Bishop who was scheduled to preach on the chosen Sunday. "As you know, Bishop," began Rove, "we've been getting a lot of bad publicity among Methodists because of the president's position on stem cell research and the like. We'd gladly arrange for Jack Abramoff's friends to make a contribution of $100,000 to the church if during your sermon you would say that President Bush is a saint."

The Bishop thought about it for a few minutes, and finally said, "This parish is in rather desperate need of funds ... I'll agree to do it."

The following Sunday, Bush pompously showed up for the photo op, looking especially smug even while attempting to appear pious.

After making a few announcements, the Bishop began his homily: "George W. Bush is a petty, vindictive, sanctimonious hypocrite and a nitwit. He is a liar, a cheat, and a low-intelligence weasel with the world's largest chip on his shoulder. He used every dirty election trick in the book and still lost, but his toadies in the Supreme Court appointed him. He lied about his military record in which he used special privilege to avoid combat, and then had the gall to dress up and pose on an aircraft carrier before a banner stating "Mission Accomplished." He invaded a sovereign country for oil and war profiteering, turning Iraq into a training ground for terrorists who would destroy our country. He continues to confuse the American people by insisting on a nonexistent connection between the horrors of 9/11 and the reason he started his war in Iraq. He routinely appoints incompetent and unqualified cronies to high-level federal government positions and as a result, hundreds and hundreds of Americans died tragically in New Orleans. He lets corporate polluters despoil God's creation and doom our planet. He uses fear-mongering to justify warrantless spying on American citizens, in clear violation of our Constitution. He is so psychotic and megalomaniacal that he believes that he was chosen by God. He is the worst example of a Methodist I have ever personally known. But compared to Dick Cheney and Karl Rove and the rest of the evil fascist bastards in this administration, George W. Bush is a saint.

Posted by: lib on February 3, 2006 at 9:55 PM | PERMALINK

"just force them to do it"?

Wow, that would actually be my solution. The savings will pay for itself and will increase employment.

It isn't just natural unfarmable land that could be planted. There are huge areas of undeveloped, or half-developed empty lots throughout the urban environment. If they legislate that any place that just sits there for a year has to be planted with switchgrass, that could be a lot of switchgrass.

Posted by: cld on February 3, 2006 at 9:56 PM | PERMALINK

Manimals and switchgrass were interesting, but I wanted Bush to follow up on his 2005 SOTU pledge that Laura would broker a piece between the Bloods and the Cripps.

Posted by: AvengingAngel on February 3, 2006 at 9:58 PM | PERMALINK

Could it be really as simple as changing a sensor and a chip? I thought there might be some issues with alcohol fuels corroding materials used by some car companies in their fuel systems and engines. Would ignition systems (plugs) also need to be changed?

Perhaps these issues have been addressed in the newer cars, but retrofitting older ones may be not so easy.

Posted by: Bill H. on February 3, 2006 at 10:00 PM | PERMALINK

I am surprised that you seemed to have missed it. You note he dismissed human - ANIMAL hybrids, but not human - plant hybrids. We are going to have switchgrass genes spliced onto our DNA and then we can produce our own ethanol.

Posted by: John on February 3, 2006 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

"broker a piece"

Was that "piece" an AK-47 or a .357 Magnum?

Posted by: stupid git on February 3, 2006 at 10:07 PM | PERMALINK

Switchgrass-to-ethanol sounds promising, quite possibly better than corn ethanol, the presence of which in the market is the result not of science or consumer choice but rather industry and farm-group lobbied subsidies. But lets not jump over that "15 percent of the continent". That is a stupefying amount of land; even 1 percent would be pretty staggering. Commiting those amounts of land would have profound effects far beyond energy policy.

Posted by: Ken D. on February 3, 2006 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

I read a bit about Brazil transition to ethanol (I'm half Brazilian) and the striking part is how slow, difficult and haphazard was the process. Brazil has tried to switch to biofuels for the last 20 years and tried a combination of subsidies and market based approachs. It started to work only a few years go because a)technology created the flex-fuel cars that enabled users to try ethanol without the fear of a potentially useless car, b)geography makes Brazil an ideal territory for sugarcane, a great source for ethanol, c)failed policies from the past had created the infraestructure to provide ethanol to consumers (during the late seventies and eigthies, a subsidy based policy tried to popularize the new fuel). It's not easy to implement and it's gonna take more time than we think.

Posted by: Carlos on February 3, 2006 at 10:21 PM | PERMALINK

Zubrin and Pimentel are both cranks, unfortunately.

Posted by: Jake on February 3, 2006 at 10:25 PM | PERMALINK

Great, so now we can convert 15% more of the continent to monoculture? Can we at least drink the stuff to take the edge off of the oppressive post-industrial machine world dreariness?

Bill -- a sensor and a chip would allow the fuel air mixture to be adjusted in a car using variable mixtures of ethanol and gasoline. The cars would also have to have alcohol resistant polymers and metals in contact with fuels. A good summary of what this will take is at: http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/e85toolkit/specs.html

If you want to see what alcohol does to the rubber in older cars, try putting an inflated balloon over an open bottle of beer for a few days.

Posted by: B on February 3, 2006 at 10:28 PM | PERMALINK

What's switchgrass look like? How about a national program to convert all suburban lawns to switchgrass production? BE PATRIOTIC: SWITCH TO SWITCHGRASS!

Think of the great statement as all the real Americans advertise their patriotism with a strange-looking lawn. It would definitely end up being a symbol of liberalism and ecology/global warming awareness.

We waste huge resources with watering, fertilizing, and mowing our stupid green lawns. It would be great to get something back for all this land we have to buy.

Posted by: Bob Munck on February 3, 2006 at 10:37 PM | PERMALINK

while maybe great for CO2 emissions, it turns out ethanol isn't so great for some other air quality issues, which is why CA fought against it being in the CA fuel mix. unfortunately for our air, the midwest corn lobby pulls more weight with this admin.

Posted by: halle on February 3, 2006 at 10:39 PM | PERMALINK

David Bransby of Auburn University has a detailed article on switchgrass via the web.

Go to http://bioenergy.ornl.gov/papers/misc/switchgrass-profile.html.

Mississippi and Alabama are natural locations for its growth.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on February 3, 2006 at 10:42 PM | PERMALINK

Switchgrass is preferred by USDA, but a European relative of sugarcane, Miscanthus, appears to grow even better here in the US. Steve Long at U of Illinois has been doing field trials in the midwest.

As for the 15% figure, a couple things:
1. Miscanthus grows better than switchgrass
2. Right now, we don't need all the arable land to grow crops, we could grow energy crops on farm land and farmers might actually make good money doing it.
3. A key step in this is the efficiency of converting cellulose to ethanol. As this technology develops, it will become more efficient, and can produce more energy from less land.

4. Neither switchgrass nor miscanthus has been bred. We are actually quite good at plant breeding, so it's reasonable to believe that we could coax more biomass out of the plants.

Of course these solutions all require an actual commitment by the government to funding research.

Ivan

Posted by: Ivan on February 3, 2006 at 10:45 PM | PERMALINK

I should note that miscanthus grows better than switchgrass in the midwest, in the south it might be different. The point is that biofuel crops to produce ethanol from cellulose has potential.

Ivan

Posted by: Ivan on February 3, 2006 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

"Zubrin dismisses hydrogen as a chimera"

THAT's why Bush wants to ban human animal hybrids! No chimeras, no problem!

Posted by: Newton Minnow on February 3, 2006 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

Low labor usually means high energy, not low. And since the bacterial conversion is still on laboratory scale, don't count on seeing anything major for a decade or two even if it does work.

Posted by: Tim on February 3, 2006 at 10:52 PM | PERMALINK

Is Laura behind this? I heard she had some native grass specialist helping her with plantings aroung the ranch.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is often planted as an ornamental grass. It grows up to 5 feet in height and is used as a screen. I don't think it would make a good lawn. The genus includes plants that are utilized for commercial birdseed (panicum millet). It's native to all but the most western states (limited by the lack of summer precipitation).

Posted by: B on February 3, 2006 at 10:57 PM | PERMALINK

Wow, Charlie Brown tried to kick the football... yet again!

Seriously, stop making fools of yourselves. The president pays the most minimal, meaningless lipservice to an issue you care about and you all completely lose sight of the fact that the president, a Texas Oil Man, surrounded by a cabinet of Texas Oil Men (and woman- let's not forget that Condi had an oil tanker named after her for Chrissakes) isn't even remotely serious about alternative fuels (outside of the opportunity to funnel more taxpayer money to corporate campaign contributors).

Remember Bush's voting reform efforts after the 2000 election? Wow great idea! Bush never has your best interests in mind (unless you're a corporate campaign contributor like, say, Enron, Diebold... oh never mind).

Posted by: Augustus on February 3, 2006 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if George Bush loves switchgrass because he got a visit from the switchgrass lobby or because someone just whispered the word in his ear, but who cares?

Following up on thethirdPaul above, according to an NPR interview Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions met with Bush right before the SOTU and put in a good word for switchgrass.

Posted by: Martin on February 3, 2006 at 11:08 PM | PERMALINK

Augustus,

Ohmann of the Oregonian had a political cartoon today of the SOTU - His sign read State of Union Oil (with Union's logo) - the irony is that the former CEO of Union Oil in the 60s was one of Reagan's Kitchen Cabinet.

Switchgrass in controlled plantings at Auburn have reached 12 feet.

For any gardener out there who is fortunate to have Sean Hogan's wonderful tome "Flora" The Gardener's Bible, there is a picture of Panicum Virgatum, Switchgrass "Heavy Metal" on Page 979. I believe Sean sells it online and at his wonderful Cistus Nursery north of Portland, OR. Great web site also.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on February 3, 2006 at 11:16 PM | PERMALINK

I often wondered why we couldn't bioengineer a plant like kudza. It can grow as much as 3 feet in one day. Alter it in such a way so all we had to do is crush it and burn it in a diesel.

Posted by: Neo on February 3, 2006 at 11:20 PM | PERMALINK

Well, we do have rdw and cn as the "Kudzus of the net".

Posted by: thethirdPaul on February 3, 2006 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

I think I would rather have a native plant than kudza.

Posted by: Ron Byers on February 3, 2006 at 11:41 PM | PERMALINK

I just read the article mentioned above. Very interesting. Very interesting indeed. Switchgrass has a side benefit of being good a sequestering CO2. That is it fights global warming at the same time it produces energy to fuel our cars.

Posted by: Ron Byers on February 3, 2006 at 11:47 PM | PERMALINK

Brazil is way ahead of us on this one; they've already demonstrated that it can be done.

Posted by: Joe Buck on February 3, 2006 at 11:48 PM | PERMALINK

GAAAHHHH! Kevin, Kevin, Kevin ... "If the left loves ethanol for environmental reasons and the right loves it so we don't have to buy so much oil from Saudia Arabia"?

I think you just lost your centrist, strong-on-defense, Dems-shouldn't-run-away-from-national-security-issues, don't-buy-in-to-the-GOP-narrative-arc cred there.

(And, of course, to be unnecessarily even-handed, this argument also does a disservice to the [shrinkingly small and out of power] environmental/conservationist elements on the "principled" right. BOTH left and right can find cause in BOTH justifications for ethanol.)

Posted by: The Confidence Man on February 3, 2006 at 11:57 PM | PERMALINK

What somebody probably whispered in Dubya's ear was "switch to grass," not "switchgrass". They were telling him to kick alcohol and smoke marijuana, since it's safer.

Posted by: duvidil on February 4, 2006 at 12:02 AM | PERMALINK

What part of the carbon is sequestered?

Posted by: asdf on February 4, 2006 at 12:06 AM | PERMALINK

Calpundit: I don't know if George Bush loves switchgrass because he got a visit from the switchgrass lobby or because someone just whispered the word in his ear, but who cares? ... maybe there's a deal to be made.

Or maybe he doesn't mean it. It's just "an example", so sez the White House Press Secretary.

Posted by: Phobos Deimos on February 4, 2006 at 12:10 AM | PERMALINK

This is all a sideshow of minor signficance- a sop to the environmental types who don't care about the other 'political' stuff.

The most important issue of the day is the strengthening of the state security apparatus which is going to be able to track all our movements without us knowing it. The administration has claimed the right to do it, and even the people who are whining about it do not appear to be very uncomfortable with the idea.

It is very sad and disgusting to see the pundits and the leaders accepting all this without so much as a peep.

Posted by: nut on February 4, 2006 at 12:13 AM | PERMALINK

I know that everyone who's reading this wants to say, but can't quite bring themselves to say, is,

whither hemp?

Posted by: cld on February 4, 2006 at 12:16 AM | PERMALINK

There are a two distinctly different issues here.

First, global warming: The quantitative issue is the *net* transfer of CO2 to the atmosphere. Growing plants take CO2 out of the atmosphere to make glucose, and from that glucose they make cellulose and some energy. The concept here seems to be that we would constantly recycle CO2 between the atmosphere and the plant kingdom. We pour CO2 into the atmosphere whenever we burn oil or ethanol, but the ethanol economy would be a little different in that we would add the additional step of growing extra plant mass. This is different from pumping up old, sequestered stocks of hydrocarbons, burning them, and thereby creating a net transfer of CO2 into the atmosphere. The important point in terms of global warming would be that we would burn less fossil fuel and instead burn farmed biomass.

The second issue is the technical problems associated with going from a patch of empty dirt to a transportation sector. There is a biochemical issue: breaking down cellulose into glucose in order to ferment the glucose is the first issue. That is where modern biotechnology comes into play. The enzyme cellulase that breaks the glycosidic bond is nice to have around for direct use, without having it limited to the insides of a termite. The rest of the technological issues are pretty mundane, which is the best part of the story.

What's ridiculous is the idea that there has to be exactly one source for ethanol. A mixed economy using switch grass and the European alternative would be fine. The major point seems to be that we can generate liquid fuel from cellulose, which is very much different from making it from extracted sugars. Why not both, if they are both practical?

Posted by: Bob G on February 4, 2006 at 12:18 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin wrote: "And how do we get gas stations to sell the stuff? From our friends on the right comes one possible answer: just force them to do it."

Huh,what's that whoosing sound I just heard? Oh, that's just Ronald Reagan spinning in his grave! The right wants to interfere in the free market by having the government force things on people? What am I missing here? There has to be a catch I'm not aware of!

Posted by: Taobhan on February 4, 2006 at 12:20 AM | PERMALINK

The EU did a pretty good job phasing out leaded fuel using tax incentives and penalties. Oh no, did I just propose the Waffle House should adopt a government policy spearheaded by Europe?

Posted by: ogmb on February 4, 2006 at 12:34 AM | PERMALINK

Just have to point out that tbrosz has been writing in support of ethanol for quite a while now -- bless his conservative heart. Ethanol is still, right now, a political issue in that politicians will be the ones making (or NOT making) the decisions to bring about the switch from petrol to ethanol as rapidly as possible to avoid the worst effects of impending Peak Oil. And props go to the Washington Monthly, which has been one of the few political publications to discuss, in any depth, the science behind the possibility that ethanol will save our sorry asses rather than other high-tech pie-in-the-sky options, many of which would simply transfer one source of polluting limited-supply petroleum-based energy for another.

Ethanol does not cut right wing/left wing as an issue. Or at least it shouldn't -- although certain advantages and disadvantages clearly appeal or repell one side or the other.

Thank you,

HRlaughed

Posted by: HRlaughed on February 4, 2006 at 12:47 AM | PERMALINK

I suspect that both authors have overstated the case for their preferred alternative

Interesting, Dr. Drum. Tell us more of your suspicions.

Posted by: Lettuce on February 4, 2006 at 12:51 AM | PERMALINK

If the left loves ethanol for environmental reasons and the right loves it so we don't have to buy so much oil from Saudi Arabia, maybe there's a deal to be made.

I am amazed by your optimism.

I say support everything and let the market play a strong role.

Posted by: contentious on February 4, 2006 at 12:52 AM | PERMALINK

The president's plan sounds pretty good -- energy independence by 2025 is a lofty goal, but one that we can achieve with the help of new technology.

Posted by: Leonidas on February 4, 2006 at 1:09 AM | PERMALINK

Contentious: ...let the market play a strong role.

Duh. As of course it will. But some solutions are better than others... like ethanol where the positives so thoroughly overwhelm the negatives. But it will take political will and action to subsidize all the research still needed to find the best ways to produce the stuff economically. The Washington Monthly article that Kevin links to begins to describe some of the hurdles that still must be solved by the nation's scientists and farmers.

Thank you,

HRlaughed

Posted by: HRlaughed on February 4, 2006 at 1:11 AM | PERMALINK

Maybe the pres has switched to grass already. Most of his ideas are dangerous pipedreams.

You think the prez read this?

"Energy outputs from ethanol produced using corn, switchgrass, and wood biomass were each
less than the respective fossil energy inputs. The same was true for producing biodiesel using
soybeans and sunflower, however, the energy cost for producing soybean biodiesel was
only slightly negative compared with ethanol production. Findings in terms of energy outputs
compared with the energy inputs were: Ethanol production using corn grain required 29%
more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. Ethanol production using switchgrass
required 50% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. Ethanol production using
wood biomass required 57% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. Biodiesel
production using soybean required 27% more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced
(Note, the energy yield from soy oil per hectare is far lower than the ethanol yield from corn).
Biodiesel production using sunflower required 118% more fossil energy than the biodiesel
fuel produced." --David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek

http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/NRRethanol.2005.pdf

You might have to give up you 300 horsepower SUV for menial chores.

Posted by: deejaays on February 4, 2006 at 1:18 AM | PERMALINK

I don't know if George Bush loves switchgrass because he got a visit from the switchgrass lobby or because someone just whispered the word in his ear, but who cares ... maybe there's a deal to be made.

Psst. Earth to Kevin. Like the Mission to Mars, like "No Child Left Behind," like every word that comes out of Mr. Bush's mouth when he is trying to strike the pose of a rational, reasonable person... HE DOESN'T MEAN IT! Have we learned nothing in the last five years? Sheesh!

Posted by: doctorem on February 4, 2006 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

Why don't we just synthesize a minimal life form that captures energy from light and uses it to form a proton gradient across membranes in a photocell that is connected by copper wires to our magic fingers queen sized bed.

Posted by: nads on February 4, 2006 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

Who is getting the funds?

"Federal and state subsidies for ethanol production that total more than 79c//l are mainly paid to large corporations (McCain, 2003). To date, a conservative calculation suggests that corn farmers are receiving a maximum of only an added 2c/ per bushel for their corn or less than $2.80 per acre because of the corn ethanol production system. Some politicians have the mistaken belief that ethanol production provides large benefits for farmers, but in fact the farmer profits are minimal. However, several corporations,such as Archer, Daniels, Midland, are making huge profits from ethanol production (McCain, 2003)."
--David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek,
Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2005

Posted by: deejaays on February 4, 2006 at 1:36 AM | PERMALINK

Damn! Lets do something, many parts Europe is really going to wind in a big way and that in the near future they will be over the 50% sustainable mark ( it is no wonder they do not want to get so mixed up in the middle east). I have read that in this country we could go from wind=electricity=hydrogen economy.

As far as I am concerned we could do all or any of these things and would be better off the sooner we do. I have some friends that are setting up a bio-fuels co-op in a small to medium size college town, they are securing clients as they go. the town's municiple government has switched to 50% & 100% bio-fuels as a matter of course for all types of fleet vehicles that have the capabilities (buses, trucks, tractors etc.). All they have to do is switch to VW Jetta's or any other modern turbo-diesel engines for their fleet cars and then they would be 100% into bio fuels. There is also some documentation that the bio-fuels may even extend your engine life...why in the world do we let the big oil companies keep pushing us around and dictating our fate? I do hope something takes off, other then our federal and state governments for their usual breaks and avoidence. People in this country have grabbed the bull by the horns several times before in our history and the rest followed, now is another of those times...let's not wait for "them" to do this for U.S.!

Posted by: Ben Merc on February 4, 2006 at 1:37 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin...

Great articles, please keep pushing this stuff like you have been. Don't wait for the stories to filter through like many outlets do...keep up the advocacy, this was another great article.

Posted by: Ben Merc on February 4, 2006 at 1:41 AM | PERMALINK

Here's another clue: If you mix ethanol and gasoline, you need to distill and refine the ethanol to over 99% pure or else they will not mix adequately. If you choose not to mix the ethyl with petrol, burning only ethyl alcohol, then the initial fermentation is enough as it produces approximately 95% pure ethyl alcohol. That is perfectly adequate for a car modified to burn pure ethyl alcohol, and the cost of 95% ethanol is much less expensive. It's bringing the purity of ethanol up to that 99% level that costs so damned much. Back in the day, Henry Ford's early car models burned both gasoline (petrol) and ethanol (ethyl), and all it took was flipping a simple switch, which all cars had at the time, to advance or retard the spark, plus a choke to enrich or lean the fuel-to-air mixture. Most cars today can be so modified for something like $400 to burn either gasoline or 95% pure ethanol. As someone upstream said, ethanol and rubber can be a problem too, but these are minor. The major problems are in the enzymes to ferment the ethanol, growing the biomass from which to produce the fuel, and getting the pure ethanol to the pumps.

By the way, ethanol as a transport fuel source died with prohibition -- a movement partially funded by Henry Ford, who was a big fan of gasoline.

Thank you,

HRlaughed

Posted by: HRlaughed on February 4, 2006 at 1:44 AM | PERMALINK

Laura Bush has some Miscanthus planted in Crawford. Maybe she's gonna get a big tax break.

Posted by: Joe Blow on February 4, 2006 at 1:48 AM | PERMALINK

Solar cells and wind turbines produce more energy than biomass ever will. Wind turbines produce 19% of Danish electricity. No greenhouse gases or pollution. The wind will blow and the sun will shine a long time after we run out of fossil fuels and uranium ore. Use what easy fossil energy you have left to build a wind and solar economy.

Honda, the Japanese car manufacturer, is investing a billion dollars in a solar cell fabrication plant.

Bush is still thinking about growing grass to make alcohol.

Posted by: deejaays on February 4, 2006 at 1:50 AM | PERMALINK

"An extremely low fraction of the sunlight
reaching America is captured by plants. On
average the sunlight captured by plants is
only about 01.%, with corn providing 0.25%.
These low values are in contrast to photovoltaics
that capture from 10% or more sunlight,
or approximately 100-fold more sunlight
than plant biomass." --David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2005

Use pollution free solar cells and wind turbines to charge your batteries in your vehicle and power your home. It is much more efficient than biomass.

Posted by: deejaays on February 4, 2006 at 2:05 AM | PERMALINK

The buses in Rio run on alcohol, and their exhaust actually smells rather pleasant, vaguely fruity.

But, yeah, how much worse would hemp work in this application? (Smoke 'em if you've got 'em; dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope.)

There will certainly be issues if we're running our cars on something like Everclear; people will fill the tank, and then guzzle the nozzle: one for the road! Some alcohol companies will compete with different selections of herbal additives, Tanqueray versus Bombay Sapphire.

Posted by: bad Jim on February 4, 2006 at 2:05 AM | PERMALINK

FWIW, I don't think Jaffe was suggesting that we grow switchgrass on every acre of the 15% that could support it. He was just trying to give an idea of the magnitudes involved. But if we could use even 10-20% of that, it might provide 10-20% of a larger solution.

Certainly conservation, higher fuel mileage standards, wind, solar, nuclear, etc. are all parts of the solution too. Ethanol is only one piece, but it's a pretty interesting piece.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on February 4, 2006 at 2:09 AM | PERMALINK

What percent of our energy needs could we get from Soylent Green?

Posted by: craigie on February 4, 2006 at 2:28 AM | PERMALINK

craigie,

Depends on how many people we could buy for the price of a couple gallons of gas.

Thank you,
HRlaughed

Posted by: HRlaughed on February 4, 2006 at 2:33 AM | PERMALINK

While I don't like the idea of forcing the private sector into things on general principles, the oil situation, even if you ignore the global warming issue, is getting to be a serious matter of supply and geopolitics, and could be considered a national security issue.

I think requiring new vehicles, over time, to be alcohol-compatible over a wide mix of fuels, would be a fair compromise. If the costs are truly $100 to $800 per car, it would be cheaper than mandating airbags was. It would also be more appealing to car manufacturers than restrictive mileage standards, since it would be cheaper to implement, and give the manufacturers much broader options of model sizes and types than the mileage standards would.

As cars become available that can burn these fuels, stations will start to carry them.

I believe most gas station equipment can already handle alcohol mixes, and it would just be a matter of dropping new fuels into the existing tanks at gas stations.

Various processes are under development to use a wide range of biomass for fuel. Some are more efficient than others. Some still use more energy than they produce, but this is getting better.


I don't think a lot of people have really thought through the implications of being able to grow fuel. Many nations without oil resources, including Third World nations, have access to a lot of arable land. Add a fuel factory, and suddenly a lot of people are in the energy business. Maybe even for export. I'm hoping that the biofuel plants can be made small and local, with some close to Third World villages, or American farm towns. Take the plant waste down the road, and fill your tank for the trip back home.

The political appeal is obvious. Farmers are going to like it, and car companies might see a way to avoid more stringent controls.

Oil companies can get in on this if they are smart. Stupid companies will try to stand in the way. Smart ones will realize that they'll make more money as a "fuel" company than as just an "oil" company. You know, maybe those little local plants could be franchised...

Of course, as with anything that suddenly becomes appealing to the government, there is a danger of this becoming the "One Solution" for the energy problem, and that rarely works (see also: The Space Shuttle.) Wind, solar, tidal, hydroelectric, and even nuclear, all have roles as part of a larger solution, and these technologies are also improving by the year.

Thanks for posting this, Kevin. I think it needs to be on the front burner in a lot of places.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 4, 2006 at 2:36 AM | PERMALINK

tbrosz,

Just knew you'd show up sooner or later. Already mentioned in comments at 12:47 A.M. that you've been championing ethanol for quite a while now. As have I.

Thank you,
HRlaughed

Posted by: HRlaughed on February 4, 2006 at 2:41 AM | PERMALINK

Bob G- I wasn't meaning to suggest that we only use one plant, but ideally, we would increase the yeild of these crops and decisions would need to be made on where to allocate resources.

Ivan

Posted by: Ivan on February 4, 2006 at 2:42 AM | PERMALINK

How decentralized can the ethanol plants be? I knew someone that was working on using straw to make oriented fiber boards 10 years ago. They could be nearly as strong as wood OSB but the economics of transporting raw straw to the proposed plant (even though it was in the middle of wheat country) killed the project.

Bottom line: It's expensive to transport straw per unit weight. A very large number of fermentation plants distributed throughout the growing area would be needed to minimize average transport distances and bring these costs (fossil fuel, labor, equipment) down.

Posted by: B on February 4, 2006 at 2:44 AM | PERMALINK

The most comprehensive discussion of alternative fuels i've found is this one [1 MB PDF] from the Swedish National Road Administration.

Posted by: Omada on February 4, 2006 at 2:47 AM | PERMALINK

B,

I would think, partially for the reason you say, that ethanol production could be a highly regionalized or even localized industry, helping to keep prices low and local economies strong. Any shmoe with a still can produce enough 95% pure ethanol from an acre of sugar beets in my particular region of the country to provide all the liquid fuel a family would need to substitute for a year's supply of gasoline. The sugar beet mash can even be re-distilled twice more after the initial batch is brewed. And as we all know, the technology of distilling ethyl alcohol is as old as... well... old. That's what will help make it such a perfect regionalized or localized industry choice for future liquid fuel production in coming Peak Oil years.

Thank you,
HRlaughed

Posted by: HRlaughed on February 4, 2006 at 2:55 AM | PERMALINK

B: The transport issue is a real one. I don't know how small or localized a biofuel plant can be. I suspect there's a lot of development between here and there, but if someone can make money off it, they'll figure it out.

Just as an added comment:

It's important for the government to avoid any one-size-fits-all "Manhattan Project" solutions in favor of encouraging, with a light touch, a wide variety of innovations. In my opinion, the same million dollars in research funding would do a lot more good spread among dozens of small projects than dumped into one--probably politically-connected--energy project.

Posted by: tbrosz on February 4, 2006 at 2:59 AM | PERMALINK

tbrosz, what's happening on the nuclear front?

Bush mentioned nuclear in the SOTU but the advanced energy initiative does nothing more than mention it again. The money that is earmarked goes to coal, PV, wind, carbon sequestration, biomass fuels, hydrogen, hybrids, etc. I thought they were going to provide companies with "risk insurance" or something so that someone would actually try to license a new plant.

Posted by: B on February 4, 2006 at 3:04 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

I'm confused. Why would the left not be equally, if not more concerned with getting our country off energy independence from the Middle East. Why should the right be given claim to this argument when they've never shown a belief system that cares about anything but greed and power.

Please.

Posted by: Patrick Briggs on February 4, 2006 at 3:17 AM | PERMALINK

OMGWTF Kevin, that is one moldy straw man argument

Posted by: ph34/2 m`/ 1337 sk1llz on February 4, 2006 at 3:37 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin is back on track...excellent. Love this dude, and he always spotlights the critical issues.

Posted by: Jimm on February 4, 2006 at 3:38 AM | PERMALINK

We're going to do a little extermination this weekend. I can see that the paid trolls are getting out of hand, so it's time for a beatdown.

Lots of fireworks this weekend.

Posted by: Jimm on February 4, 2006 at 3:53 AM | PERMALINK

Give Rove credit. He knows a liberal's weak spot. They'll probably use this as an excuse to cut heating assistance or some such thing. LOL.

Posted by: Mario on February 4, 2006 at 6:18 AM | PERMALINK

Switching from a fossil fuel energy budget to an earth/sun contemporary energy budget will not make us less dependent on fossil fuels. Fossil fuel will still be the base of support for a very long time.

None of this will be feasible without a plan to significantly reduce the needs for all liquid fuels via conservation and a redesign of our transportation infrastructure based on much less automobile and truck transport. We have built a dinosaur. We need to learn to live like mice and birds. We need to learn to live big within small bodies. But getting man out of his big body is going to be the biggest hurtle. Lots of small minds have a big stake in maintaining the big body.

Posted by: lou on February 4, 2006 at 6:46 AM | PERMALINK

Why do I think ethanol can't be made from straw but methanol can? It's years since biochem and botany for me unfortunately.

Posted by: jerry on February 4, 2006 at 7:18 AM | PERMALINK

The way things are going a new 2025 switchgrass powered Mustang will be of the four legged variety.

Posted by: Mark Garrity on February 4, 2006 at 7:53 AM | PERMALINK

Ford, GM and DCX (Chrysler) have been making FFVs for years. Partly due to federal regulations that give them a break in CAFE standards. This isn't new technology folks. Remember, these companies also make cars in Brazil.

Ford:
http://www.ford.com/en/vehicles/specialtyVehicles/environmental/ethanol.htm

GM:
http://www.gm.com/company/gmability/environment/e85/e85_faqs.html

DCX (Google didn't find an official DCX page):
http://www.ethanol.org/ACEFFVs.htm

Posted by: schwag of tulsa on February 4, 2006 at 7:54 AM | PERMALINK

...don't know if George Bush loves switchgrass because he got a visit from the switchgrass lobby or because someone just whispered the word in his ear, but who cares?

Kevin, you need to listen to NPR. They reported that a in a meeting with the SOTU team, Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) championed the idea. It was written in. There you go.

Posted by: Keith G on February 4, 2006 at 8:01 AM | PERMALINK

Having read all the peak oil doom and gloom for the past years, this discussion is a breath of fresh air. It might be possible for us to save civilization. Don't tell Dick Cheney. He has made his career on the assumption that the world was going to hell in a hand basket because of the coming oil crunch.

Posted by: Ron Byers on February 4, 2006 at 8:37 AM | PERMALINK

"It's important for the government to avoid any one-size-fits-all "Manhattan Project" solutions in favor of encouraging, with a light touch, a wide variety of innovations."~tbrosz

He hates the Manhattan Project because it worked. Nothing is supposed to work but personal greed, in tbrosz' world.

Posted by: Ace Franze on February 4, 2006 at 8:38 AM | PERMALINK

Schwag of Tulsa: "Ford, GM and DCX (Chrysler) have been making FFVs for years. Partly due to federal regulations that give them a break in CAFE standards. This isn't new technology folks. Remember, these companies also make cars in Brazil."

There is somewhat of a Detroit/Corn Ethanol/ADM/Corn Grower/Corn State Politician industrial complex developing behind the hype that corn from ethanol will free us from using Middle Eastern oil. The break in the CAFE standards is typical of the kind of giveaways that politicians are writing into state and federal legislation to promote a basically dishonest campaign to legitimize converting coal, corn, natural gas, gas and diesel fuel into a liquid fuel that makes inefficient FFVs that get 15 mpg more attractive to the public. This won't help Detroit or the corn growers and it is diverting scarce resources and capital from more promising technologies.

But putting ethanol produced from crops like switchgrass, that has a net energy return of about 400%, into hybrid vehicles that get 60 mpg does make some sense. As some have calculated, 60 mpg divided by .15 (%gasoline in E85) equals 400 miles per gallon of gasoline. Couple this with reducing the number of vehicles on the roads by 50% in about 20 years and we might have a shot at it.

Posted by: lou on February 4, 2006 at 9:00 AM | PERMALINK

John said:

"We are going to have switchgrass genes spliced onto our DNA and then we can produce our own ethanol."

I already produce methane. Is that close enough?

Posted by: Sky-Ho on February 4, 2006 at 9:01 AM | PERMALINK

BobG said:

"The major point seems to be that we can generate liquid fuel from cellulose, which is very much different from making it from extracted sugars. Why not both, if they are both practical?"

Better yet, replant Haiti with sugar cane, and buy the stuff from them in lieu of giving them all cash aid, in the process, killing more than one bird, etc. and so on.

Posted by: Sky-Ho on February 4, 2006 at 9:10 AM | PERMALINK

Real security can only be achieved when we are not dependent on other countries for oil energy. Converting to bio fuels or ethanol will not only make us independent, but would create jobs here in the US. What we need is an WPA-style program to expedite conversion to US-derived energy sources. Just think what $120m would have accomplished toward creating true security by freeing ourselves from OPEC. Just think of the lower US budget if we don't have to be propping up "peace" in the Middle East in order to assure our access to oil. If the Bush administration has the authority to spy domestically, then it has the authority to create incentives to convert federal fleets to multi-fuel vehicles.

Here are a couple of groups that have been pushing for oil independence for years:
www.energyfuturecoalition.org
www.iags.org/strategy.htm
www.setamericafree.org

Posted by: GAjoe on February 4, 2006 at 9:11 AM | PERMALINK

What are environmentalists going to say when you take 15% of the land to grow the stuff?

Posted by: David Mastio on February 4, 2006 at 9:16 AM | PERMALINK

"This chicken-and-egg problem can be readily resolved by legislation."

Famous last words, typical. Given the annual cost of the industry giveaways for ethanol, we can conclude the current program uses more energy than it saves. Yet, here we go again, Kevin just offhandedly saying a simple legislation solves an economic problem.

Kevin should just legislate that everything is fine and dandy, one law and its all wrapped up.

Posted by: Matt on February 4, 2006 at 9:27 AM | PERMALINK

fortune mag just did a feature on ethanol. http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2006/02/06/8367959/index.htm

if there is money to made, it will happen.

Posted by: jb on February 4, 2006 at 9:29 AM | PERMALINK

David:
"What are environmentalists going to say when you take 15% of the land to grow the stuff?"

This just ain't gonna happen. Much of that land is dry. Although plants like switchgrass might be able to tolerate drought better than crops like corn, there still has to be enough yield to make it economically viable.

And, we have already sacrified so much of the native landscapes in the US to food production, it makes little sense to sacrifice more rare and endangered habitats for the sake of powering low efficient vehicles down the big road.

We need to be realistic about how much land we can convert into energy crops and down size our future energy demand accordingly. We should not make the US an energy plantation to facilitate an unsustainable civilization based on growth. It might buy us a few years but what do you have in the end -- collapse.

Posted by: lou on February 4, 2006 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

Hemp! Hemp! Hemp! For ethanol, fiber and biomass.
Algea produces the most BioDesiel per acre.

Posted by: phastphil on February 4, 2006 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

"ust think what $120m would have accomplished "

From:
http://www.ncpa.org/pd/ag/ag6.html

Producers of biofuels received de facto subsidies of roughly $10 billion since 1980, and his continues at $750 million a year. Actually more energy is used up in the program than if we had no program at all. In other words, we buy more oil to make up the shortage caused by our ethanol program.

Economics has laws. There is a reason we buy Saudi oil, it is the most energy efficient source in the world. We can decide to do things less efficiently with biofuels, but all we do is make the global economy a little less efficient and the global economy will adjust itself back into balance, based once again on the most efficient energy source in the world, Saudi oil.

We spend $240 billion a year on imported oil, 60% of our total usage. Our annual trade deficit with China is about $180 billion. China will just use up the extra Saudi oil and export cheaper goods to us. Kevin's big government solutions make things worse.

The problem is getting Saudi Arabia to quit exporting their problem children along with their oil. Why not work that problem?

Posted by: Matt on February 4, 2006 at 10:09 AM | PERMALINK

Could it be really as simple as changing a sensor and a chip? I thought there might be some issues with alcohol fuels corroding materials used by some car companies in their fuel systems and engines. Would ignition systems (plugs) also need to be changed? Perhaps these issues have been addressed in the newer cars, but retrofitting older ones may be not so easy.

Posted by: dan on February 4, 2006 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

A couple of comments:

First, GWB included "switchgrass" as a source of ethanol in the SOTU because he was trying to bedazzle the American people: to people who know nothing, it makes him sound like he has superior understanding and is in charge of the facts. This is a classic gambit used by con artists to establish credibility: Confidently mention some obscure fact, and your dupes assume that you are in charge of all the rest of the details. They think, "Oooh, Mr. Bush is in charge! He'll solve ALL our problems" when the reality is that Mr. Bush is "Duh! There's a problem?"

Second, the US economy, transportation network and housing patterns have been built on the infrastructure of oil: The model assume gigantic corporations and gigantic distribution systems. The momentum of that infrastructure is formidable. The free market will eventually induce the switch to sustainable energy, but the interim period will be turbulent.

The government must play a role to try to stablize disruptive transformation as well as step up the pace.

I also have a question: Some people say it takes more energy to produce ethanol than we obtain from ethanol. Others say that ethanol can be produced by individuals in a home still. Can someone clarify?

Posted by: PTate in MN on February 4, 2006 at 10:37 AM | PERMALINK

What somebody probably whispered in Dubya's ear was "switch to grass," not "switchgrass." They were telling him to kick alcohol and smoke marijuana, since it's safer.
Posted by: duvidil on February 4, 2006 at 12:02 AM

Sorry, but I just envision a Homer Simpsonesque moment where George W. thinks back to his college days..."Mmmmm, switchgrass." Perhaps some Yalie from Alabama turned him on to the stuff.

Posted by: Vincent on February 4, 2006 at 10:57 AM | PERMALINK

"While I don't like the idea of forcing the private sector into things on general principles, the oil situation, even if you ignore the global warming issue, is getting to be a serious matter of supply and geopolitics, and could be considered a national security issue."

Tom Friedman made a suggestion that fits here. He proposed that we tax gasoline 50 cents a gallon and use the revenue to fund Defense.

We can be energy sufficient by using biotechnology, as above. Plus doing sensible things like resuming nuclear power development for electricity generation. The shift to gas-fired plants has caused a spike in natural gas prices. Gas is best for home heating, not electricity.

One problem is that all of this has to be done by politicians and that means waste and graft. The price of democracy.

Posted by: Mike K on February 4, 2006 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

OK, Kevin, but 20 percent of 15 percent is still 3 percent of the continent. Since the US is only about half of the continent, that is equivalent to about three average size states -- not their current farmland, but every square inch of them. This is also equals nearly half of current US harvested cropland; of course Canadian lands could be used too, but I am trying to put the scale in perspective. Many energy ideas that look good in small tests cannot plausibly be scaled up enough to dent the big problems.

Posted by: Ken D. on February 4, 2006 at 11:15 AM | PERMALINK

"Some people say it takes more energy to produce ethanol than we obtain from ethanol. "

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2005/06/27/MNG1VDF6EM1.DTL
Check out the link. In short, "The fossil energy expended during production alone, he concluded, easily outweighs the consumable energy in the end product." Or, you need two or three gallons of ethanol to replace a gallon of gas (or something like that)

The best energy savings idea so far has been better technology in internal combustion engines and better use of the highways.

Posted by: Matt on February 4, 2006 at 11:31 AM | PERMALINK

As others have mentioned, we don't need switchgrass pe se for this. It's merely one easy-to-grow plant species that could be harvested for biomass and that can grow better in fairly poor soil than typical crops. It's also a perennial rather than an annual, so it will hold soil much better than typical crops and not require cultivation (which uses fossil fuel energy). It's a sod-forming perennial grass, which means it will improve degraded soil over time.

See http://forages.oregonstate.edu/topics/species/fact_sheet_print.cfm?specID=26
for more info on switchgrass.

Switchgrass doesn't require fertilizer but you can expect that anyone growing it commercially for biomass will probably use nitrogen fertilizer (which comes from natural gas) to get more production. This will negatively affect net energy production, at least until fertilizer becomes too expensive in the future for non-food use due to increased natural gas costs.

The above comments really apply to just about any relatively wild (unbred) perennial grass that might be grown for biomass and that is adapted to local conditions. The real question is whether you can turn the resulting biomass into liquid fuel economically and without negative net energy being the result, as others have mentioned. It takes a lot of energy to gather up large amounts of dispersed biomass of low energy density and transport it to the processing facility, even if the biomass can then be efficiently converted to ethanol.

As for impacts on the environment, growing perennial grasses on existing farmland would be much better for the soil, for water quality, for wildlife, and for energy use than growing conventional crops. With all the farmland dedicated to growing grain for meat production which is inherently inefficient (10 lbs. of grain produce 1 lb. of meat), in theory it should be possible to convert a lot of farmland to grass production for biomass without any net loss of food. Of course, in practice people want their *meat* and that's what the market will continue to provide until that costs too much.

Converting farmland that is now growing annual crops to growing sod-forming grasses *would* sequester substantial amounts of carbon underground where in would not be harvested. Well-established sod has a tremendous amount of perennial root biomass, while typical farmland has no perennial root biomass. Prairie soils (mollisols) have relatively high organic content relative to other soils as a result of dead grass roots decaying over time.

It should be possible to grow perennial grasses on land that's not currently farmland, but this would only be commercially viable (and have a chance of producing net energy) if the land is naturally fertile enough. Hundreds of millions of acres of land in the US have viable native vegetation but are so infertile and/or dry that it will never be feasible to mechanically harvest their meager annual growth of vegetation, even if you put in an easily-harvested species. Using infertile land and adding fertilizers based on fossil fuels would probobly negate the purpose of growing these grasses as an alternate energy source.

In places where current vegetation is of low ecological value (e.g. it's already been trashed) and the land is reasonably fertile, growing perennial grasses could be an ecological plus. In places where the natural vegetation is in good shape, ripping it out on a huge scale to plant a monoculture not native to the site would be extremely destructive from an ecological standpoint.

Bill D.

Posted by: Bill D. on February 4, 2006 at 1:03 PM | PERMALINK

Bill D., thanks for adding some commonsense and real information to the comments section. It was very much needed...

Posted by: e85communications on February 4, 2006 at 3:30 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Drum:

Before we all jump on the bandwagon and think that some form of biomass will save us from the problems we will face with "Peak Oil", we might like to review the results of a Cornell study that can be found at www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July05/ethanol.toocostly.ssl.html. There we will see that, without exception and including switchgrass, the amount of energy required to produce fuel from these sources is greater than the amount of energy the resuling fuel will provide. Not a winning situation at all. Their report shows the following percentage greater energy required than energy obtained for various biomass sources.

Corn-29%
switch grass-45%
wood biomass-57%
Soybean plants-27%
Sunflower plants-118%

The report also indicates what factors they included in their analysis.

In addition to the above, it might be well to look at the information to be found at www.fromthewilderness.com/free/ww3/100303_eating_oil.html. Here we see that, with today's factory farming, it requires 400 gallions of oil equivalents to produce the annual food for each American. it is also pointed out that today virtually all of the productive land in this planet is being exploited by agriculture and what remains unused is not really suitable for agriculture. With the loss of the oil based factory farming we depend upon today, the only way we could produce anywhere near today's supply of food would be to greatly increase the amount of land used for agriculture. Well, if it is already being used to its maximum, the food problem alone will be insurmountable and to think that we could then devote large amounts of it to produce fuel is wishful thinking, assuming we would somehow be willing to spend more energy to obtain less energy.

Maybe just once in a while, Bush could see his way clear to being rational and in these cases, pay at least a little attention to what scientists say.

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Posted by: individual california health insurance on February 5, 2006 at 7:57 AM | PERMALINK

Tim: Low labor usually means high energy, not low.

I think in this case low labor also means low energy.

Corn requires going over the field multiple times to plant, fertilize, weed-kill, etc. It sounds like this switchgrass might mean planting once and harvesting from here until eternity (kind of like hay).

Posted by: tripoley on February 5, 2006 at 9:34 AM | PERMALINK

Mr. Drum:

I probably should have been more precise in my comments above regarding the cornell study that indicates we would obtain less energy from biomass conversion to fuel than we would expend in do so. The wording in the study is actually that the amount of fossil fuel energy expended to convert say corn to fossil fuel would be greater than the amount of energy the corn based fossil fuel would provide. They are not talking about labor here they are talking about the fact that it requires fossil fuel to produce and process and transport, etc the corn and that adds up to a greater amount than the resulting fuel will produce. The factors they used to determine the cost for these processes are described in the report as follows:

"In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis."


Posted by: Thomas H. Baumgartner on February 5, 2006 at 11:18 AM | PERMALINK

Mr. Drum:

I probably should have been more precise in my comments above regarding the Cornell study that indicates we would obtain less energy from biomass conversion to fuel than we would expend in do so. The wording in the study is actually that the amount of fossil fuel energy expended to convert say corn to fossil fuel would be greater than the amount of energy the corn based fossil fuel would provide. They are not talking about labor here they are talking about the fact that it requires fossil fuel to produce and process and transport, etc the corn and that adds up to a greater amount than the resulting fuel will produce. The factors they used to determine the cost for these processes are described in the report as follows:

"In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis."


Posted by: Thomas H. Baumgartner on February 5, 2006 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

Despite the study cited by Thomas Zubrin's proposal still seems to have merit. Mandating flex-fuel engines doesn't mandate which fuel is used, it just allows for direct competition between them. Aside from that one mandate to open up the market there shouldn't be any other subsidies or mandates, let the real efficiency of each product be revealed in the market price. If ethanol really does require more fuel to create than is actually created it obviously won't be a factor. If a new technology arises that changes that equation and ethanol ends up being *more* effecient than gasoline then it will supplant gasoline. The same is true for methanol from coal (which might not be a gain over gasonline from an environmental standpoint but is on the geopolitical issue).

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Posted by: jack black orange county on February 6, 2006 at 2:06 AM | PERMALINK

There seems to be some confusion between 1.)ethanol from farm grains and 2.)ethanol from cellulose (GWB's infamous switchgrass).

The first is, as stated several times above, heavily subsidized and very inefficient in energy production (even producing less energy, by some accounts, than what is taken to produce it). This technology is making alcohol for fuel from the simple sugars of grain that might be better used for animal and human food. We've been using this technology for thousands of years.

Ethanol from cellulose, just now emerging from labs in Canada, the U.S. and Europe, is something brand new. Cellulose, the major component of most plants (not just switchgrass), is a complex sugar that is very hard to break down, until now. If applicable to profitable production facilities, this could be a whole different ballgame from ethanol from grain.

Corn and wheat stalks, wood chips, kudzu, grass clippings, old xmas trees, etc. instead of being burned or buried, could potentially be used.

Transportation costs of these bulk materials may encourage massively distributed production facilities (also mentioned above), say a bio-still on every corn farm or at every grain elevator along the railroad tracks.

Posted by: VinceDenver on February 6, 2006 at 11:58 AM | PERMALINK

Just a note from the author of one of the articles mentioned by Kevin:
*Switchgrass is a native North American plant. Assuming that 15% of America were really planted with it, that would be just a small portion of the Great Plains. Most of that land is non-arable in traditional agriculture (switchgrass only needs a litte bit of fertilizer to get good yields and irrigation would only be necessary in drought years). It is true that that land would become a monoculture, about which there's lots of debate as to whether that's a healthy thing or not. But it's important to note that this is a native species that at one time completely dominated the entire plains. Another important point about switchgrass is that, as a very tall grass, it would be a much better home for wildlife than corn or wheat fields. And since the harvest involves cutting, rather than plowing, there's much less destruction of animal habitats.
*One of the unusual things about switchgrass is that it spends its first year building an enormous root network. Few plants spend as much energy and resources in creating roots like switchgrass. That's a good thing in terms of greenhouse gasses: all those roots are stored carbon dioxide, locked in the soil. Thus I would suggest that using the Great Plains (or even just using North and South Dakota, which together could provide all the transportation fuel for the entire country in corn or switchgrass and at the same time produce all the electricity needs of the country through their enormous wind resources).
*Since I wrote my article, there have been some other technological advances that involve the reformation of glucose streams into biodiesel and zero-emission diesel engines that point to biodiesel as an even more advantageous biofuel. If a President were to create a national biofuel strategy for energy independence, I'm sure that most scientists would urge production of biodiesel from cellulosic materials to power plug-in diesel zero-emission hybrids. Couple that with massive thermal solar arrays in the Southwest, massive wind farms in the West and offshore of the East Coast and throw in a few nuclear plants (if it's a Republican president) and we could easily achieve complete energy independence by 2025. And it doesn't require huge subsidies or tax cuts, just a committed federal government to help coordinate infrastructure decisions.

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