The Blend Wall

A classic double bind is “danged if you do, and danged if you don’t.” This blog is in a bind about whether to say yea or nay to the Renewable Fuels Standard.

Most energy policy analysts. i.e., those not subject to undue influence from the Oily Administration and the COB (Cruise On Booze) crowd, will admit that corn to ethanol for fuel is dumb.

There is no such bind for Minnesota Corn Growers1. “Ethanol producers and farmers have good reason to celebrate passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,” is their good news. The Energy Bill set a required production level of 36 billion gallons of annual renewable energy use by 2022.

So, if this blog would say to Minnesota Corn Growers corn to ethanol for fuel is dumb, then they might ignore the idea, or attribute it to a statement from a member of one of those FEGs (Fringe Environmental Groups), which, according to Loren Beard2, Chrysler Senior Manager of Energy Planning and Policy, “focus on imaginary ’silver bullet’, long-term technologies without respect to real world economics.”

But, worse, to oppose celebrating ethanol producers and farmers would align this blog with the Dark Side.

Michael Swanson, an economist with Wells Fargo Bank, believes that implementation of the RFS (Renewable Fuels Standard) will result in a loss of market share for Big Oil, something that is being resisted vigorously. Swanson refers to this as the “blend wall” and the Business Weekly refers to it as the “big stall on ethanol”.

When someone who is making a lot of money doesn’t like the way the government is regulating them they call in the lawyers…we are 40 or 50 lawsuits and maybe several questionable EPA studies away from any kind of implementation of RFS.

OTOH (On The Other Hand), AG readers will know that this blog agrees with the sentiment recently expressed by Saifedean Ammous:

Corn ethanol seems to be a bad unsustainable idea which is only alive thanks to very generous government subsidies in America, which are estimated to be around a mind-boggling $1/gallon, as well as import tariffs that prevent ethanol from other countries from competing with American ethanol.

Environmentally, corn ethanol doesn’t seem to offer many benefits, but producing, manufacturing and distributing it may be more harmful to the environment than just using regular oil.

Note that these results will probably not change if the price of oil goes up: oil itself, and many other fossil fuels, are used extensively to produce corn ethanol and a rise in their price will also increase the cost of producing corn ethanol, raising its price as well.

The survival of this brand of ethanol is almost exclusively due to the power of the farming lobby, and other special interest groups in America who ensure all the generous subsidies, as well as the fact that Iowa, the country’s main producer of corn is the first US state to hold Presidential primaries, making politicians eager to please its corn farmers for votes.

“So, if ethanol is a bad idea, say so.”

Note: Vehicles should get less gas mileage since ethanol has less energy value. Gasoline’s EROEI ranges between 6-to-1 and 10-to-1, says Cutler Cleveland, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Boston University. In other words, we get anywhere from six to 10 gallons of gasoline for every gallon we use to find oil, pump it out of the ground and refine it. But the EROEI of corn-based ethanol, the most common U.S. biofuel, is a mere 1.34-to-1, the Agriculture Department says.

Well… is it a bad idea? What if all newer, sophisticated gasoline engines could get better gas mileage from running E20? Such a switch could have a significant impact upon carbon emissions from the U.S. transportation sector.

“O.K., go for it. So beat the drum, and blow the horn, to have the ‘blend wall’ come down. 9 by 2009?

Note: According to the Minnesota Corn Growers News, Pacific Ethanol has grain-to-ethanol plants in California, and CEO Neil Kohler notes that currently the annual production rate is 7.5 billion gallons. The law requires by next year that the industry production rate reach 9 billion gallons of ethanol per year.


“Do I detect a less than 100% enthusiasm for singing the Cruise on Booze Song?”

You do. David Rotman3, writing for the Technology Review, is the latest to survey the topic.

According to calculations done by Minnesota researchers, 54 percent of the total energy represented by a gallon of ethanol is offset by the energy required to process the fuel; another 24 percent is offset by the energy required to grow the corn. While about 25 percent more energy is squeezed out of the biofuel than is used to produce it, other fuels yield much bigger gains, says Stephen Polasky, a professor of ecological and environmental economics at Minnesota. Making ethanol is “not a cheap process,” he says. “From my perspective, the biggest problem [with corn ethanol] is just the straight-out economics and the costs. The energy input / output is not very good.”

Missing is an integrated analysis that incorporates low carbon fuel standard, measures energy efficiency and tells the consumer how smart he or she shops. This blog would favor kilometers per Euros - mega joules - grams CO2 since using a better measurement than miles per gallon of liquid fuel.

Eighty-five E85 (E85 capable but guzzling regular gas) Tahoes and Suburbans marshall outside Javits for the Driveaway promotional event at the 2006 New York International Auto Show. Either that or it is a funeral, don’t ask whose!

EBAMM (ERG Biofuel Meta-Analysis Model) analysis shows that “ethanol derived from corn, but distilled in a facility powered by coal was, in fact, on average worse, than gasoline.” While that is good to know, we need to throw away the feed bag if the horseless carriage can run on a different infrastructure than that controlled by Big Oil or Big Farm. And, we need more than an economic measure because not all ethanol is created equal.

The Idaho National Laboratory compared GHG emissions for various alternatives to conventional low-sulfur diesel transportation fuel. Their calculations resulted from modeling transportation fuels using the Argonne National Lab GREET (Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation) model. The graph includes a comparison of three different sources of ethanol as a fuel: Cellulosic, Sugar and Corn.

Ethanol is ethanol, only varying by how much it is blended with other combustible fuel, and how much the consumer must pay to fill up at the pump. Such an economic only analysis fails to distinguish the total amount of GHG (Green House Gas) emissions produced as the fuel is spent.

Not only does a life cycle analysis show a different of tonnes of carbon between ethanol from corn and other ethanol, there is a different emission profile depending upon the processes involved to produce ethanol. Even when the cellulosic feedstock is the same, production of the liquid fuel could use a Fischer-Tropsch (thermochemical) process or follow the sugar pathway.

Or, if the ethanol results from the fermentation of sugar, the sugar could come from corn, other sugar production (sugarcane, sugar beet, etc.) or from the conversion of cellulose to fermenting sugars. And, even if two plants are getting their sugar in the same way, heat is required to drive the fermentation. How is the heat provided, coal, bio-gas, etc.?

Much is made about the promise of cellulosic ethanol. The Biomass Biofuels Initiative now is more bullish on waste from energy. Cellulosic ethanol could be “game changing“.

It demonstrates a better EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Invested). As Professor Dan Kammen will tell you, the Net Energy Value for corn ethanol: 4.5 MJ/Liter; Net Energy Value for cellulosic ethanol: 22.8 MJ/L. And, depending upon how it is made it can have a better emissions profile. “Regular” gasoline has a value of 85-92 g CO2 eq / MJ, while cellulosic ethanol, when derived from municipal solid waste, has a value of about 5 g CO2 eq / MJ.

David Rotman4 notes “the consensus amongst scientists and economists is that cellulosic ethanol is not likely to become much of a factor until 2010, at the earliest, or 2015.” He also indicates that the financial prospectus is less firm than investors want.

“If it stays high, cellulosic-ethanol production could become economically competitive much sooner. But few people, least of all the investors who would risk hundred of millions of dollars on new plants, are willing to take that bet. Many remember the late 1970s, when the federal government earmarked roughly a billion dollars to fund biomass-related research, only to abandon it when crude-oil prices fell in the early 1980s. And while the price of a barrel of crude hovered in the mid-$90s this fall, and wholesale gas prices reached $2.50 a gallon, biofuel experts say they cannot count on such high prices. Many producers of next-generation biofuels say they want to be competitive with crude oil at around $45 a barrel to ensure long-term viability in the market.”

And, then there is the body politic to consider.

“Hey! You are either wi’ us or agin us.”


The last word goes to Engineer-Poet
Making liquid fuel for 17%-efficient engines is just not going to cut it.”Similar Posts:

UC Berkeley Study Boosts Cellulosic Ethanol Getting Closer to the Cow Sam Sez It’s a Coming Sustainable Fuel Xylanase

1RFS is start of new chapter in energy marketing 2Who is trying to stop alternative fuels? 3The Price of Biofuels 4Biofuels: Once More into the Fray

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