- Corn to ethanol for fuel is dumb
- Clearing rainforest to grow palm oil is dumb
- Growing crops for energy at the expense of our food is dumb.
Robin Mittenthal, writing for The Hartford Courant, opines, “We must move beyond fossil fuels.” The treatise is that we must find something other than biofuels as a replacement. This includes biofuels from seedcrops, as well as what is referred to as bio-energy, that is harvesting non-food plants to convert to fuel. “Real solutions that are easy on our planet,” is what the author wants to see.
AG readers and the Governator, who, one can rest assured, read the U.C. Berkeley report cover-to-cover, will be familiar with the basis for such conclusions, which also are similar to the warnings made in the recently released, UN Report on Sustainable Bioenergy. Yet the author did gather information from agricultural scientists. The results from some of those interviews bear repeating.
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.
Lester Brown founded the Worldwatch Institute in 1974. One of the first think tanks to focus on the global environmental situation, its yearly, agenda-setting, State of the World reports are highly regarded for their elucidation of key environmental issues. In 2001 Brown left Worldwatch to start the Earth Policy Institute, a small outfit dedicated to envisioning an “eco-economy” and figuring out how to get there.
So, first and foremost “corn likker” fails the efficiency test. Lester Brown would remind us that another critical failure of corn to energy, a.k.a., COB (Cruise On Booze) is the diversion of resources. Mittenthal observes:
Researchers at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics calculate that planting the entire state of Iowa to corn and using it for ethanol would give us enough new fuel for about five days’ worth of U.S. gasoline use. For policy-makers, this should be a red flag signaling that even enormous increases in ethanol production would do basically nothing to improve America’s energy independence.
While some are willing to gamble that American farms can provide food and fuel, since it would mean an increase in commodity prices, the overall impact could be disastrous from an economic perspective. Then, there is the after thought… Does such an approach help the environment?
The corn used to make the ethanol at your local gas pump exacts a heavy price from our land and water. The fertilizer required for high corn yields starts as a resource, but once it leaves farm fields – and most does – it essentially becomes poison, polluting our lakes and rivers, harming drinking water, and creating a huge lifeless zone at its final destination, the Gulf of Mexico. Corn production also uses actual poisons in the form of pesticides, and these too can end up in our water and even our food.
And corn plants have wimpy roots that do a poor job of preventing erosion. Millions of tons of superb, irreplaceable Midwestern soils are lost from fields every year because of corn.
The author digresses into other oilseed crops. The soybean is the primary one in American agriculture, whereas elsewhere Canola, Jatropha and palm oil is used to make biodiesel. The EROEI varies, yet still is a relatively poor return; and, in some cases, is having a significant negative environmental impact as tropical forests are sacrificed for energy crops.
Energy policy analysts debate the relative merits of harvesting agricultural waste or bio-energy crops much more than the EROEI of converting forestry waste or municipal solid waste to energy.
The author then mentions lignocellulosic crops as a source of energy, observing, “No one yet makes fuel this way with an acceptable EROEI.” Furthermore, it is highly doubtful that a significant fraction of our energy needs could be met with such feedstock.
University of Minnesota professor David Tilman favors the growing and harvesting of “diverse mixtures of long-lived, deep-rooted native plants on damaged, unproductive farmland.” But…
The Agriculture Department’s Michael Russelle and other researchers suggest that Tilman overestimates the EROEI of these mixtures and the amount of damaged land available. They also say it’s difficult to establish and maintain these mixtures. Tilman disputes these arguments, but it’s very much an unsettled question.
The Biomass Biofuels Initiative now is more bullish on waste from energy. Cellulosic ethanol could be “game changing“, since it demonstrates a better EROEI, and can have a better emissions profile, depending upon how it is made. “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.
“So where do we turn,” Mittenthal asks rhetorically? “Wind and solar energy will get us part of the way. These technologies have EROEIs of up to 20-to-1 and fewer unpleasant environmental side effects than biofuels.”
Is that the answer? Only partially. It is unclear whether the author has “been to the mountaintop”, the mountain, in this case, is in Snowmass, Colorado, but the author espouses conservation to be the Big Answer.
We need to use much less energy in the first place by living in smaller homes, buying smaller cars, driving less, trimming our general consumption, and being obsessive about energy efficiency.