Sunday, September 03, 2006


Full-blown Ethanomania Outbreak in Lansing

MSU's Dr. Bruce Dale continues to promote the absurd claim that ethanol has higher net energy than petroleum, which has been exhaustively debunked by Robert Rapier in a long-running and very informative debate about ethanol with its national proponents, which is available here.

Ethanomaniacs flip back and forth between talking about efficiency (energy yield per unit energy input) and process energy balances, both of which show that ethanol is an enormous boondoggle that does nothing but persuade the public that nothing need be done about radically reducing demand for transportation fuels.

Rapier has done a real public service with his tenacious refusal to allow the ethanomania to go unchallenged.

This op-ed appeared in today's Lansing State Journal. [Responses in brackets.]

Bruce E. Dale: Biofuel investment is huge opportunity

[Look out pilgrim--someone is touting a great opportunity: your chance to give them money.]

Lansing State Journal, 9/3/06

The age of cheap oil has ended. It will not return.


However painful they may be, higher oil prices pave the way for unprecedented opportunities to develop alternative liquid fuels, including shale oil, coal to liquid fuels and biofuels.

[Apparently Dr. Dale cares nought about global warming.]

Biofuels, including ethanol made from corn and cellulosic materials (grasses, crop residues and wood), and biodiesel offer many advantages to the U.S. and to Michigan. National and regional energy security, climate security and especially economic development are all positively affected by biofuel production and use.

[Biofuels from corn are an ecological disaster that serve only to enrich Archer Daniels Midland and the people enjoying the ethanol subsidy to sell petroleum recycled into ethanol at an even higher profit. The verdict is not in on cellulosic ethanol from sources such as switchgrass; like nuclear fusion, switchgrass seems to be an attractive option if only it can be made to work. Meantime, the crisis is upon us now and, so far, cellulosic is the Star Wars Missile Defense System of agriculture--a project that is always going to work if we just keep pumping in more money.]

Last year, we produced more than 4 billion gallons of ethanol, mostly from corn. Ethanol is currently our premier alternative fuel.

[And how much energy did it require to produce that 4 billion gallons? How much water? How many tons of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizer poured into streams and rivers as a result? How much fertility was left in the soil?]

This industry is growing rapidly, with five corn ethanol plants either operating or being built in Michigan and more than 100 such plants across the country.

[Yes, and they burn 300 tons of coal a day each. So, just as modern agriculture is the use of land to convert petroleum into food, modern ethanomania adds a walloping amount of extra atmospheric mercury and CO2 production to the mix.]

However, the amount of corn that can be devoted to ethanol production is limited. We probably cannot produce more than about 15 billion gallons per year (roughly 10 percent of the gasoline we use) before hitting these limits.

[And if we made the ethanol plants use ethanol for their heating requirements, we'd produce a lot less.]

Cellulosic ethanol can provide much larger volumes of liquid fuel ... if we overcome some myths, solve key technical problems and maintain our political will.

First let's consider three of the myths.

Myth No. 1: Ethanol has a negative "net energy" and is a poor fuel.

Reality: Ethanol has a better net energy than gasoline and, if burned efficiently, will provide mileage equivalent to gasoline.

[Actual reality: ethanol produces, at best, on the order of 1.3 Btu of energy for each 1 Btu consumed; 1 Btu of petroleum typically yeilds on the order of 10 Btu oil, which converts to 8 Btu of gasoline. Nor can ethanol provide mileage equivalent to gasoline, because 1 gallon of ethanol has only 2/3 the heat value of a gallon of gas.]

Myth No. 2: Producing lots of ethanol will destroy the soil and drive up food prices.

Reality: Ethanol production, especially from cellulosics, can improve soil quality and increase food supplies.

[This is unclear. Difficult to see how taking organic matter _out_ of the soil for use in distilling ethanol leads to improved soil quality. Shifting to cellulosic could certainly increase food supplies because it would mean no longer using grains for transport fuel.]

Myth No. 3: Ethanol will always cost more than gasoline.

Reality: A mature cellulosic ethanol industry will produce ethanol for well under $1 a gallon.

[And nuclear power will be too cheap to meter.]

To produce ethanol this cheaply, we need focused, sustained laboratory research combined with large scale testing of promising technologies. The price tag for this research and development work is equivalent to about two days' worth of oil imports.

[Funny--if there is a real chance that we could displace $3/gal gas with a renewable product at less than $1/gal, you wouldn't think that finding investment funds would be hard. And two days worth of US oil imports -- on the order of 14 million barrels at $70 each -- is only about 2 billion. Should be pretty easy to form Standard Ethanol and raise $2B on Wall St. if things are as certain as this.]

In the past, funding of such R&D has risen and fallen with oil prices. If we want to break free of our "oil addiction," we must have the political will to develop alternative fuels, especially ethanol, and overcome the barriers to large scale ethanol adoption. Barriers include political manipulation of oil prices, enough vehicles to burn ethanol and enough pumps and other infrastructure to distribute it.

[Oh, OK--we need to spend money installing pumps to dispense a fuel that we _might_ later produce. Uh-huh. Sure.]

To their credit, many of Michigan's leaders understand how critical it is that we develop alternative fuels. Gov. Jennifer Granholm has made alternative fuels an important part of the Jobs Fund program. Congressman Mike Rogers and Sens. Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow strongly support ethanol and other biofuels.

In addition, President Lou Anna Simon has made developing the bioeconomy, including biofuels, a signature emphasis for Michigan State University.

[Any science that can only be justified by citing politicians means "Watch your wallet!" and don't count on any results.]

Michigan is uniquely positioned to build an expanded bioeconomy and develop biofuels. As we build the bioeconomy, we will give our state a competitive advantage in meeting the growing demand for biofuels and for many other products made from renewable plant resources.

[Michigan is uniquely positioned near the Great Lakes. We have very little fossil energy of our own, so all the energy needed to make the ethanol will have to be imported, just as now. There's no particular reason that Michigan is better suited to grow crops for ethanol than others--obviously we are not as well suited to the industrial corn farming as Iowa and Illinois, thank goodness, but neither do we have any unique advantages for cellulosic (i.e., those not available to other states). This whole line of argument appears to be nothing but rah-rah intended to use Michigan's economically depressed condition as an argument for squandering even more of our resources on trying to keep the easy motoring lifestyle alive. Good luck.]

Bruce E. Dale is a professor in Michigan State University's Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science.

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