Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Ethanol and biodiesel fuels

Liberty is not simply a political concept divorced from economic realities. It is no mere coincidence that countries with the greatest political freedom are the wealthiest and most progressive. Liberty means free markets. It means the absence of political interference in economics. It means that labor and capital are employed and distributed by people exercising their free choices in their pursuit of happiness—rather than by politicians diverting human actions to less profitable, less beneficial directions.

In a free market, people will always pursue the most efficient, most profitable way of doing things, because it is in their interest to do so. If a course of action is not profitable or efficient, the company will be driven out of business by the superior action of competitors. Society is better off when that happens. But it’s not happening with biofuels, because of government interference in the market.

If ethanol and biodiesel fuels made sense, they would be profitable to produce without the government subsidies of 50 to 71 cents per gallon, in the case of ethanol. No political action would be necessary. Politicians cannot revoke the laws of physics and mathematics; they can only force other people to pay the losses from the uneconomic schemes imposed upon them.

Ethanol, which in this country is made from corn, is more expensive to produce than gasoline and furnishes fewer miles per gallon. Furthermore, there have been many studies of ethanol, almost all of which show it is a net energy loser; that is, it takes more energy to grow the corn (for planting, fertilizer, pesticides, harvesting, transportation) and for distilling the corn than you can get from burning the fuel. A U.S. Dept. of Energy study found that “131,000 BTU [British Thermal Units] are needed to make 1 gallon of ethanol. One gallon of ethanol has an energy value of only 77,000 BTU….there is a net energy loss of 54,000 BTU.” However, the ethanol industry disputes this.

So, using the net gain figure claimed by the corn ethanol industry, Ted Lofstrom recently made some interesting calculations (See TWTW Aug. 6 on www.sepp.org for details.) In 2004 there were record harvests of both corn and soybeans in the United States. (Biodiesel is made from soybeans.) If the entire 2004 U.S. harvests of corn and soybeans were devoted exclusively to producing biofuels to replace petroleum, they would account for just 12 days of U.S. petroleum consumption. This includes the 40 percent of petroleum usage that is produced domestically as well as the 60 percent that is imported. Of course, virtually all of our corn and soybean crops are already committed to other uses. Even if the politicians forced us to give up corn flakes, corn on the cob etc., biofuels still couldn’t make a significant dent in petroleum imports. And they certainly wouldn't reduce the cost of fueling the nation's automobiles.

A favorite study quoted by ethanol advocates is by Shapuri et al, who claim a 24 percent energy gain based on the best corn yield, least amount of energy used for fertilizer, pesticides, operating equipment etc., and, in general the most favorable (but still credible) numbers for all aspects of ethanol production. Without disputing Shapuri’s numbers, Prof. Howard Hayden, a physics professor at the University of Connecticut for 32 years, shows how puny even a 24 percent gain really is. He converts this to watts per square meter and shows that the net around-the-clock average power available from one acre of corn would be enough to continuously light one 60-watt light bulb. He concludes we would need “nearly seven times the land area of the U.S. devoted to ethanol production, using the most efficient methods on the planet, with no land set aside for cities or National Parks, to produce the energy used in the U.S. Maybe we can buy Russia, China, Canada, Brazil….”

“If we can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of caring for them, they will be happy.”
—Thomas Jefferson

7 comments:

American Lung Association of Minnesota said...

You forgot to mention the clean air benefits of ethanol-based E85 or B20, a biodiesel blend now sold in Minnesota.

No matter, we offer plenty of information on our site: www.CleanAirChoice.org

Viewers of this blog have the "Liberty" to view both points of view on biofuels, and decide for themselves. We at the ALAMN support cleaner-burning alternative to traditional petroleum fuels.

Robert Moffitt
Communications Director
American Lung Association of Minnesota

Contoski said...

Once again the Lung Association has taken a position contrary to scientific evidence. Even EPA admits that ethanol produces more nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than regular gas. Ethanol is an oxygenate that causes gasoline to evaporate faster. EPA says this produces volatile organic compounds that react with sunlight to form ozone and produce smog. Wisconsin officials have stated that requiring ethanol makes it difficult for Milwaukee to comply federal ozone standards.

The Arizona transportation Dept. reported that a million miles of testing in state owned vehicles showed no reduction in emmissions from ethanol or other oxygenated fuels--and, in fact, emissions of carbon monoxide were sometimes increased.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences states that "using ethanol as a blending agent in gasoline would not achieve significant air-quality benefits, and in fact would likely be detrimental."

An article in the journal SCIENCE by J.G. Calvert of the National Center for Atmospheric Research states: "No convincing argument based on combustion or atmospheric chemistry can be made for the addition of ethanol to gasoline."

And a study by the National Research Council in 1996 found no evidence of environmental benefit. Reporting on this study on July 8, 1996, NBC Nightly News stated: "Last week a federal study concluded there is no evidence that special fuels [ethanol and other oxygenates] do anything." On the program, Dr. Doug Lawson, who headed the study, stated: "We are not getting the effects that models had predicted."

So there is no air quality benefit. And there are other environmental negatives to ethanol. Growing corn causes soil erosion to occur 12 times faster, and it requires 25 percent more water.

Contoski said...

Once again the Lung Association has taken a position contrary to scientific evidence. Even EPA admits that ethanol produces more nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than regular gas. Ethanol is an oxygenate that cause gasoline to evaporate faster. EPA says this produces volatile organic compounds that react with sunlight to form ozone and produce smog. Wisconsin officials have stated that requiring ethanol makes it difficult for Milwaukee to comply federal ozone standards.

The Arizona transportation Dept. reported that a million miles of testing in state owned vehicles showed no reduction in emissions from ethanol or other oxygenated fuels--and, in fact, emissions of carbon monoxide were sometimes increased.

A report by the National Academy of Sciences states that "using ethanol as a blending agent in gasoline would not achieve significant air-quality benefits, and in fact would likely be detrimental."

An article in the journal SCIENCE by J.G. Calvert of the National Center for Atmospheric Research states: "No convincing argument based on combustion or atmospheric chemistry can be made for the addition of ethanol to gasoline."

And a study by the National Research Council in 1996 found no evidence of environmental benefit. Reporting on this study on July 8, 1996, NBC Nightly News stated: "Last week a federal study concluded there is no evidence that special fuels [ethanol and other oxygenates] do anything." On the program, Dr. Doug Lawson, who headed the study, stated: "We are not getting the effects that models had predicted."

So there is no air quality benefit. And there are other environmental negatives to ethanol. Growing corn causes soil erosion to occur 12 times faster, compared to other crops, and it requires 25 percent more water.

American Lung Association of Minnesota said...

When you don't clearly know the difference between oxgenated gasoline (E10) and the alternative fuel E85, you just make a "fuel" of yourself, Eddie.

Get thee to a refinery, Mr. C., or to the farmers field, and learn something about biofuels before you post on this subject again.

PS: In Minnesota, the state with the highest biofuels use in the nation per capita, only 15% of the corn crop is used for ethanol production (the by-products are an excellent animal feed and natural crabgrass preventor -- I use it on my lawn).

Robert Moffitt
Communications Director
Americian Lung Association of Minnesota

contoski said...

E85 is a fuel with a larger ethanol content than E10. If ethanol has no clean-air benefit in a smaller amount, there is no reason to believe a larger dose is beneficial. The studies by the U.S. Energy Dept., the National Academy of Sciences and Calvert of the National Center for Atmospheric Research do not apply merely to E10. They are for ethanol PERIOD. And EPA says ethanol--not E10--produces more nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons than regular gasoline. No matter how you slice it and dice it, no matter what percentage you use, no matter what you mix it with, ethanol provides no clean-air benefit. Read the studies I just referred to. They all refer to “ethanol” by name, not E85 or E10, and apply to its use in any form.

The fact that only 15 percent of the Minnesota corn crop is used for ethanol shows what a trivial effect it has on reducing petroleum imports or the price of gasoline at the pump.

iowacrusader said...

The presence of any "clean-air" proponents in support of ethanol production is a further indicator to how far we have been mislead regarding what "clean air" really is. Oil (and other fossil fuels) are still regarded as the primary proponets of global air pollution.

Research suggests that this is not true. The international bovine population produces more methane annually than all human industry. (Methane is a greenhouse gas 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.) Volcanic eruptions and other natural disturbances have still convulted the earth's balance far more than human impact.

Although the amount of pollution we throw into the air is a valid concern, perhaps it should not be our primary concern, especially when choosing an alternative fuel.

Tom said...

Clearly ethanol is a terrible idea. What is most discouraging is that such an awful idea could be foisted on the American people with so little resistance from us.

BTW, a Walter Williams article from Mar 12, 2008 puts the total subsidy per gallon at $1.05 to $1.38 per gallon.

Another disastrous effect is increasing the price of food, about 10% in the US, and much more world wide. Food riots have occurred because biofuels displace food crops.