Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Riddle: What's a Better Fuel for the Earth than Gasoline?

Well, it ain't biofuel.

Biofuels are killing the planet. Deforestation of Malaysia and the Amazon, rising food prices, decreasing wheat stores, decreasing availability of other displaced crops, and astronomical carbon emissions associated with the production of biofuels are disproving the myth that they'll be an efficient replacement for gasoline.

Check out these 3 articles (I guarantee there will be more to come...):

If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels
Demand for Ethanol May Drive Up Food Prices
Palm oil deemed biofuel failure

Apparently rising corn prices are expected to make a big impact in the prices of meats, eggs, and cheeses, since farmers don't get a $1.00 subsidy for crops going to feed livestock. Similarly, the farmers are not getting anything nearly so nice in subsidies for other food crops, so why grow them? Those that are still being grown will officially become rare, which means they'll be more expensive, too. If, however the gov't decides to subsidize other crops at a higher rate, where will they be planted? Virgin land.

The Indonesians are setting up farms for biofuel materials at a fever pace, and are burning off rainforest land at a rate of 0.7% per year, with the expectation that there will be no more Malaysian rainforests by 2022. That will mean the end of the orangutan in the wild. Nice. That same deforestation is releasing 1.4Billion tons of carbon emissions through fires every year, and the subsequent conversion of biofuel crops is releasing another 600 million tons, for a collective total of 2 billion tons / year, or roughly 8% of the ENTIRE WORLD'S EMISSIONS.

Even better: that same conversion of crops generates 10x more emissions than converting petroleum to diesel.

And best of all: every tank of E10 fuel you put in your car in the US will get you 3% worse fuel economy than gasoline purchased just a couple of years ago. And somehow we're supposed to rally behind E10 as helping reduce our dependency on foreign oil. Dude: if it's less efficient, you're going to need more of it. And just to add a little cherry on top, we're supposed to be moving to E20 before too long, with a guaranteed additional 3% drop in fuel economy. Sweet...


Francesco DeParis said...

When you state the carbon emissions released as a result of ethanol production, are you taking into account the fact that the feedstocks absorb CO2 from the air when they grow and that they will give it off when they are burned...thus we either have a carbon neutral or negative emission depending on the feedstock?

The mileage argument is financial, not environmental. When and if we switch to E100 as our fuel of choice, the cost of production will be competitive to gasoline, and it is most likely it will be cheaper as well. If this country cared about engine efficiency anyways, we would already be using those types of engines. Efficient gasoline based engines exist, they just arent sold by the OEM's.

You should consider E10 to be a standard for gasoline in the future, and that it will also act as a loss-leader so people become more comfortable with ethanol use. Yes it is true, you need 1.5X the amount of ethanol as gasoline to go the same distance in a car, but with the proper feedstocks, the emissions problem you speak of are not an issue. The industry is in a nascent stage and cannot be expected to be perfect.

I comment regularly on the business/investor side of alternative energy on Energy Spin: Alternative Energy Blog for Investors-Served Daily

Francesco DeParis

ahamos said...

I do take absorption into account, and it's not enough. Corn doesn't magically transform itself into fuel. There are chemical processes and machines that do that work, and they run on other carbon-consumptive processes, just like making diesel and gasoline. HOWEVER, every source I've seen indicates that it takes more energy to turn these crops into viable fuel than to turn petroleum into fuel.

Not to mention infrastructure costs: gasoline and diesel have a well-developed infrastructure for distribution that simply doesn't yet exist for biofuels, and we don't have to displace any surface area of the earth to produce petroleum. I'm not arguing that it's the best source of energy, but that it's the most efficient source that we're currently tapping.

The mileage argument is financial, but it's also environmental. If we're using a material that's less efficient to power our cars, homes, and lifestyle in general, then we need to produce more of it. Until conversion costs are lower then refining costs, we have negative equity both financially and environmentally. To wit: how much more corn do you have to plant to switch over to E100 AND power all the world's vehicles on it? Is there enough surface area on the planet for that requirement? How about when we mandate that power companies stop using coal? Will corn still be available as a food product at all? Will we be artificially altering our climate to enhance our ability to grow corn?

And then we stumble on a problem that the Irish can tell you all about: crop rotation. If we constantly do nothing but grow corn, how will that affect the soil, and will we wind up with lost harvests, like the potato famine? One of the articles I referenced already talks about a possible economic disaster looming with a failed crop.

All of that sounds purely financial until you start wondering how the biofuel manufacturers will deal with such a crisis. Just like drilling in the Alaskan oil fields, we'll see the raping of virgin lands to maintain sustainability of this nascent technology. And along with the Earth getting raped, the consumer will get raped at the grocery store.

I don't expect any technology to be perfect right off the bat, but I do expect lawmakers and experts to weigh the benefits before deciding for the people that x is bad, and y is good. This did not happen, and now E10, which is bad, is considered good.

Your argument cuts against itself: you state in one sentence that my preference for gasoline is financial, but then support a fuel that will necessarily cost more carbon points to produce than it will ever save to burn. I reiterate: producing ethanol requires machinery that generates carbon emissions, and the process is far less efficient than refining petroleum.

And I haven't even accounted for distribution and supply-chain carbon costs of ethanol in my argument.

ahamos said...

I forgot to say: thanks for commenting!

I love discourse, and nothing I say should be taken for gospel truth.