The Push for Alcohol Fuels
Unfortunately, biomass ethanol/methanol cannot be the solution to our problems, and these arguments are simply off-base.
- Liquid fuels are not essential to transportation: see our notes on "Electrification of Transportation"
- On a large scale, it is very hard to see whether ethanol production under US conditions actually produces any net energy. David Pimentel of the Cornell Ag School has done a lot of detailed calculations on this indicating ethanol (from corn) is net energy negative. You can get net energy out of biomass (the energy comes from the sun of course), but the best way is to grow it and burn it directly (and in place) to make electricity. See
this note here.
Recent arguments about this rely on the energy content of side uses of the corn, as animal feed for instance, which can make corn to ethanol net energy positive - but those side markets don't exist at the vast scale that would be needed to meet US transportation needs.
- Even with the best numbers on net energy from biomass, you need to plant it on a vast scale to actually meet that demand, because those best numbers are well under 1% efficiency of sunlight to chemical energy, and seasonal to boot. Total world primary productivity of the biosphere is about 4000 quadrillion btu (quads)/year; human primary energy use is about 400 quads/year, almost all of which is coal, oil or natural gas. So in principle there's enough energy in the biosphere to meet our current demands; we just have to divert 1/10th of everything that grows. And double that two or three times over the next century as demand continues to rise. Hmmm, not much margin for error or losses (like conversion of raw plant materials to ethanol) in there...
Pimentel's comment was that even with the best numbers for ethanol production, you would have to convert an area larger than the contiguous 48 states completely over to growing corn, in order to just meet US demand for transportation fuel.
Who does ethanol production help? Zubrin cites farmers in the third world, certainly an interesting idea to everybody who would like to feel good about what they're doing. However, aside from adding a new dependency of the US on those nations with lots of sunny productive land, the history of the international energy business isn't encouraging.
In fact, the argument greatly resembles the whole family farmer argument for legislation that ends up benefiting large corporate farms and food production companies instead. The most obvious beneficiaries with ethanol are the current US primary producers: Archers Daniels Midland. Are their fingerprints on this new push somewhere?
Created: 2006-01-30 21:26:52 by Arthur Smith