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Rolling Stone Article

A few months back, Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, contacted me with some questions about ethanol. Jeff’s name may be familiar to those in the energy business, as he is the author of Big Coal. (Jeff has authored several books, including Trapped, which resulted in an appearance on Oprah, Sunnyvale, and The Cyberthief and the Samurai, which is about hacker Kevin Mitnick.) What started out as a piece in Rolling Stone on Vinod Khosla ended up being a critical look at ethanol. And some of my comments even survived the editor’s hatchets:

Ethanol Scam: Ethanol Hurts the Environment And Is One of America’s Biggest Political Boondoggles

Don’t let the soft title fool you. Jeff pulls no punches. πŸ™‚ My comments are on Pages 2 and 3. Once again, Khosla’s scenario in which the world runs on carbohydrates is followed by mine in which I argue that you can’t mandate technology. The fact that this is in Rolling Stone should help build credibility with my wife and kids. It’s not the cover of Rolling Stone, but the story is on the cover (upper left). In fact, the cover goes to my all-time favorite band:

I can’t take credit for the best quote, though. I have to give that honor to Dave Juday. When asked about the 36 billion gallons of alternative fuels mandated by the energy bill, Juday said:

“It’s like trying to solve a traffic problem by mandating hovercraft. Except we don’t have hovercraft.”

Now that’s funny. I wish I had said that.

Incidentally, at one point during our exchanges, Jeff told me that Martin Eberhard, the CEO of Tesla Motors was reading this blog, and my exchanges with Vinod Khosla. Jeff wrote:

On a personal note, you’ll be amused to know that your name came up in a conversation I had a week or so ago with Martin Eberhard, the CEO of Tesla Motors (maker of $100,000 electric roadster). He was talking about the problems with ethanol, and he said something like, “There’s been a great debate about Vinod’s ideas on the web, on a blog called R-Squared. Have you seen that? It’s great! I want to hire that guy!” So if things don’t work out in Scotland, you can always head to Silicon Valley!

Yes, I was amused. Jeff wrote that on March 10th, and I have been waiting almost half a year for a chance to work it into a post. πŸ™‚ It makes me wonder just who might drop in now and again.

Tesla Motors. Well, I wouldn’t want to live in Silicon Valley, but I certainly think electric cars are the way we ultimately have to go. Maybe Tesla could just hire me to endorse the car and trash the opposition. Or maybe that’s been my angle all along, and is the reason I am arguing for an electric transportation infrastructure. It’s my exit strategy from Big Oil.

Martin, I presume my check is in the mail. πŸ˜‰

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July 30, 2007 - Posted by | cellulosic ethanol, ethanol, Jeff Goodell, Rolling Stone, Tesla Motors, Vinod Khosla

45 Comments

  1. I’m glad that you brought up Tesla Motors. Great company that is approaching it the right way. Very thoughtful executives, too.I think that electric cars are ultimately the way to go. I’m under no illusions about the difficulty, though.P.S. Why is your e-mail offline? Spam? I wanted to send you a Wash Post article about Coal, but had no address to send it to.

    Comment by Doug M | July 30, 2007

  2. Good for you! Keep going on the Solar PV issues, you are starting to catch on. There are a lot of similarities to hydrogen and biofuels and the hype around large scale PV isn’t based in reality of EROEI and demand curve but in consumer marketing and IPO’s.<>It’s like trying to solve a traffic problem by mandating hovercraft.<><>We’ll just cover all our roofs with Solar PV and drive electric cars.<>Except we don’t have EROEI realistic PV and storage or electric cars.πŸ™‚How about “We’ll build electric railroads and power them with wind and solar thermal.”

    Comment by rohar1 | July 30, 2007

  3. <>Why is your e-mail offline? Spam?<>No, the spam isn’t the problem. My filter picks that up. I took it off when I was trying to get the family relocated, and was away from the computer for 2-3 days. I would always come back to > 100 e-mails that weren’t Spam – that I actually had to answer.I plan to put it back up as soon as I get some free time to handle more e-mail. But feel free to send it to me. The address is tenaciousdna at gmail dot com. Cheers, RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 30, 2007

  4. RR – does this start the clock on your 15 minutes of fame? πŸ˜‰ As another oil and gas guy I see both electric cars and PV solar as technically and economically feasible. Or it could be we don’t know enough yet about these things to rule them out.

    Comment by KingofKaty | July 30, 2007

  5. How much petroleum will this replace?http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/7/30/2124/78022

    Comment by Anonymous | July 30, 2007

  6. <>How much petroleum will this replace?<>I have suggested before that there is no reason that one could not genetically engineer a bug to eat waste and excrete gasoline, which could be skimmed off the top. Not a trivial exercise, and probably well beyond what we could do today, but this looks like the direction they are headed.Very interesting if true. This will be worth keeping an eye on.

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 30, 2007

  7. I believe such articles are extremely dangerous – not because Jeff’s arguments aren’t worth debating (which you and I know Vinod is ready and willing to do at the drop of a hat) but because it is printed in Rolling Stone magazine.There is no bigger threat to developing realistic, technologically sound solutions than to have masses of under-informed trendsters see a political/industry conspiracy while innovations are being worked out. You certainly have seen Big Oil on the receiving end of such conspiracy mongering – same for biomass-to-energy technologies. Doesn’t that trouble you?I have always been a skeptic about the promises offered by producers of cellulosic ethanol using both biochemical and thermochemical processes. Which is why I started writing my blogs on BIOconversion – to shed some light in the midst of all this media-driven heat. I also hope to influence the direction of these developments by keeping the processes true to the California standards of environmental cleanliness – standards which have been studied and raised significantly during the last two years.The more I research the subject and attend conferences (see my reviews), the more I see the complexity of the multiple facets of the problem – which is why you see a Rubik’s cube on each of my blog pages.But I have never been more optimistic about the promise of these technologies to replace a huge percentage of the fossil fuel paradigm while simultaneously mitigating urban and rural air and land pollution and adding to the economic well-being of these depressed regional economies. Why people think a solution has to fix 100% of a problem seems absurd to me. Solutions and their benefits will be regionally determined.Half of all gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol. It is an additive because it oxidizes gasoline combustion making it cleaner. The accelerated introduction of E85 pumps is also a gradual, scalable solution which can help transition away from our dependence on oil. There may be better alternatives in certain regions of the country.I admit to having a vested interests in the outcome. Not just because I have a son that I don’t want fighting a war in the Middle East in ten years. I am also weary from my asthmatic daughter’s constant health battles for clean air and the implications for future generations.I am working on the logistics part of the feedstock equation (see BIOstock Blog) for Price BIOstock Services. By doing so I am trying to help revive America’s farms and forest industries and the sagging logistical infrastructure of our rivers, rails, pipelines, and electrical grids. There are many solutions to be tried. And if electricity is your solution – great. But you better support biomass-to-energy development because most non-renewable electricity comes from fossil fuels. Regional solar and wind technologies are not going to fill the gap. More important, I assume you are in favor of the light of reason over the heat of passion. Solving these problems requires research and experimentation. Stoking popular Luddite bias discourages investor interest and gets us nowhere against a corrosive status quo. It is one of the reasons the government subsidies on RD&D are necessary. But public outreach to overcome hot media-fed popular misinformation becomes perhaps the biggest hurdle innovators face.As one who dabbles in both, I’ll take technology over media opportunists any day. At least they are working toward solutions.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | July 30, 2007

  8. <>How much petroleum will this replace?http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/7/30/2124/78022<>This is a step in the right direction as far as using <>non-food crops<> to produce a fuel that is <>100% miscible<> with existing supplies. If it can be used on <>waste feedstocks<> it would be really great.I am less convinced about the method. < HREF="http://i-r-squared.blogspot.com/2007/06/problem-with-biobutanol.html#links" REL="nofollow">The limitations of fermentation-based processes have been discussed before<>. For one thing, how are they going to keep wild-type organisms out of the fermetation vat? Sterilize the feed? How much energy would that require?It just seems philosophically that to convert carbohydrate to hydrocarbon you need to find a robust chemical process that can readily be integrated into existing refineries. Just seems that that would be the most efficient way to go.

    Comment by Optimist | July 30, 2007

  9. Just saw an article in WSJ (page B8, bottom-left) that talked about one of Mr. Khosla’s ventures, R9.The company has developed an enzyme that turns plants into “bio-crude” that can be blended directly with “dino-crude” in a refinery.Here is a short article (via Green Car Congress) about a recent development with the company:http://www.greencarcongress.com/2007/07/shell-exec-sign.html

    Comment by Doug M | July 30, 2007

  10. Oops! I didn’t realize that the earlier comment referred to the same company. (Which is LS9, not R9).I’ll crawl back in my hole now.

    Comment by Doug M | July 30, 2007

  11. I have been reading that LS9 have various patents pending, but I can’t find any published patent applications. Anyone? That would help to understand a bit more about what they are really doing, and how much meat is there.

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 30, 2007

  12. To answer my own question, I wrote to LS9, and they answered almost immediately. They said their applications aren’t published yet. They also said they are avid readers of this blog. πŸ™‚RR

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 30, 2007

  13. dimethylfuranUniv. Wisc guys say it has 40 percent higher energy contet than ethanol….Robert Rapier, since you are so smart (well, for an Aggie) what do you think?Also, see WSJ Energy Blog today, Merrill Lynch talking about large reductions in energy demand…I think they are right….

    Comment by Benjamin Cole | July 30, 2007

  14. Robert,I have long been convinced that Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) are the only sensible way forward for transportation. This < HREF="http://www.teslamotors.com/display_data/bconverted.swf" REL="nofollow">little presentation from Tesla<> should convince anyone who has any doubts. IMO its a knockout blow for hydrogen, ethanol and biodiesel.However, you still haven’t told us how we’re going to generate all this additional electricity to charge our BEVs from low emission sources such as solar.

    Comment by carbonsink | July 31, 2007

  15. http://www.globalinsight.com/gcpath/Bio_Fuels_2007.pdfThis Brit outfit Global insight just released a study projecting, ballpark, 10-fold increases in ethanol and biodiesel consumption, in the next 23 years.

    Comment by Benjamin Cole | July 31, 2007

  16. Well, I think we all know what the projections look like, Ben. But these people always forget about net energy. If they tracked the fossil fuel demand, they would require a large increase in fossil fuel consumption to “support” that increase in biofuels. But I bet you want us to make more projections about that, don’t you? In other words, not only are biofuels going to rapidly scale up (projection 1), but the fossil fuel inputs will rapidly scale down (projection 2). And the more projections you pile on, the less likely they are to materialize.

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 31, 2007

  17. <>dimethylfuran<>Ben, a lot of you biofuels proponents are going to find out, much to your dismay, that the same special interests and political environment that have led to our present corn boondoggle will work hard to prevent any competing fuels from receiving the same benefits. I have already seen them taking shots at methanol. This is exactly what I said to Vinod Khosla when he kept arguing that corn ethanol is just a bridge. It may be a bridge, but a lot of trolls live under who will work hard to prevent anyone from crossing it.

    Comment by Robert Rapier | July 31, 2007

  18. You’re even more famous now Robert.The Rolling Stone Article just got linked by FARK πŸ™‚

    Comment by Lobes | July 31, 2007

  19. Robert-Actually, I am not a biofuel proponent. I am a proponent of compassionate free entererprise, which, if adopted worldwide, would likely lead to an oil glut. But the fact is nearly every oil-exporting nation is run by lunatics or is deeply corrupt (Canada being the sole exception). So, it mkes sense to develop alternatives. Remarkable progress has been made in just three years, in this price spike. Economies are proving to have far more elasticity in demand, and much greater ability to grow w/o increasing fossil fuel consumption, than anticipated.Biofuels are part of the mix, especially as they are liquid fuel, which is rather handy. I am also a proponent of solar, wind, nukes, conservation, PHEVs, you name it.Back to biofuels, the fact is crop yields have been rising for generations, and inputs to outputs on farms shrinking for generations also. It will not take equally increasing amounts of fossil oil to make increasing amount of biofuels. Already, the new generation ethanol plants are promising 3-1 energy retruns. If crop yields keep rising, this number will improve. As for jatropha, the collection process is rather labor intensive, but not fuel intensive. Huge plantations are being planted. I am not proponent of corn ethanol. But with umpteen corn state Senators, that is what we have. I still wonder why the pig-potato crowd doesnt move into ethanol, since even higher yields are promised (more calories per acre of potato than corn). As for dimethylfuran, your answer is mysterious. A cabal will keep it suppressed? Is it a good fuel?

    Comment by Benjamin Cole | July 31, 2007

  20. I really don’t think Tesla Motors will pan out. It just doesn’t make sense to carry all those extra batteries to achieve the consumers’ desire for vehicle range.PHEVs make much more sense. Even if constrained to use synthetic (“green”) fuel. Renewable methane (think of the stuff they capture from landfills) is quite economical to produce from biomass, unlike ethanol. And if the vehicle still does use some gasoline, but only 20% compared to what it used before, that’s still a really good solution, at a reasonable cost, and a reasonable performance for the consumer.Unfortunately, Tesla Motors will provide none of these things.

    Comment by Jim Beyer | July 31, 2007

  21. C. Scott Miller said:“I am also weary from my asthmatic daughter’s constant health battles for clean air and the implications for future generations.”If that is true, you do not want ethanol fuels.  Ethanol’s byproducts include acetyldehyde and formaldehyde (an allergenic sensitizer).  There are zero combustion byproducts from battery vehicles.Jim Beyer, Telsa Motors will destroy the image of electric vehicles as slow and boring.  The Tesla Roadster will do for EV’s what the Corvette did for the rest of the Chevrolet brand.

    Comment by Reality Czech | August 1, 2007

  22. Reality Czech –As I said, there are different solutions for different regions.From my understanding, the emissions output from ethanol depends on two things – the blend percentage with gasoline and the climate it is being combusted in. For instance, it is mandated at a certain percentage blend throughout California (5.67%) because it is an oxygenate that results in a cleaner burn for gasoline. However, it is highly questionable that higher percentage blends should be distributed at certain times of the year in the Southwest U.S. – where I live – because combustion under hot conditions yields higher levels of certain unhealthful emissions.I have never been for total replacement of gasoline with ethanol – I don’t see any trend charts that suggest that we will see an end to our need for oil. I do think we desperately need more choices at the pump – the sooner the better. Access to higher blends of ethanol is a prudent arrow to have in our quiver of options. An E10 mandate (to replace the E5.67 ) is being considered in Sacramento that could be implemented immediately without a flex-fuel makeover of any automobiles. This would almost double the volume of ethanol sold in California, by far the country’s biggest consumer of ethanol.I would like to hear arguments against the E10 proposal (just not in Rolling Stone).High % blends of ethanol in gasoline running in PHEVs would effectively yield cars capable of around 100-500 miles per fossil gallon, depending on the %.Where we would really save on GHG and toxic emissions is replacing coal with biomass in co-firing boilers and gasifiers for generating electricity. The other place is through better stewardship of our forests to mitigate forest fires. Emerging biomass conversion technologies make such initiatives economically feasible and environmentally very attractive.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 1, 2007

  23. “<>An E10 mandate … would almost double the volume of ethanol sold in California, by far the country’s biggest consumer of ethanol.<>“To what end?  It doesn’t reduce GHGs, it doesn’t significantly improve fossil-fuel dependency, and it radically worsens the affordability of food.

    Comment by Reality Czech | August 1, 2007

  24. <>The accelerated introduction of E85 pumps is also a gradual, scalable solution which can help transition away from our dependence on oil….I admit to having a vested interests in the outcome. …. I am also weary from my asthmatic daughter’s constant health battles for clean air and the implications for future generations. <>Then you should worry about E85. According to a Stanford University study http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2007/april18/ethanol-041807.html <>“E85 is likely to increase the annual number of asthma-related emergency room visits by 770 and the number of respiratory-related hospitalizations by 990,” Jacobson said. “Los Angeles can expect 650 more hospitalizations in 2020, along with 1,200 additional asthma-related emergency visits.”<>As for different solutions for different regions, I think if corn ethanol is going to be used, it should be used where the corn is grown or the ethanol is made, rather than waste energy shipping it a thousand miles to California.

    Comment by clee | August 2, 2007

  25. Reality Czech…As I said, ethanol has been mandated for blending into gasoline in half the gasoline sold in the U.S. because, acting as an oxidant, it reduces harmful emissions. Furthermore, cellulosic ethanol production is much cleaner than corn ethanol production. I refer you to the relevant studies from National Laboratories referred to at http://bioconversion.blogspot.com/search?q=wang+argonne .Clee…Jacobson’s study is focused only on emissions from vehicles and they are incremental at best. The announcement of the study in the Los Angeles Times without any counter studies was as egregious as the Rolling Stone article. Again, more heat than light.How about emissions from the oil refineries also located in the state? The threat of spills and leaks of oil? If the studies I cite are correct – and they carry at least as much credibility as the Jacobson study – production of cellulosic ethanol would be much cleaner than corn ethanol and gasoline.Regionally, California could cleanly convert local ag, forestry, and municipal solid waste into biofuels (including ethanol and biodiesel) and green electricity without using, fertilzing, or transporting any corn. Investors and utilities are waiting for state regulatory reform to expedite permitting of demonstration facilities (see http://bioconversion.blogspot.com/2006/10/california-la-solid-waste-task-force.html ).

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 2, 2007

  26. Scott, did you see this from yesterday’s Houston Chronicle? I will be posting more on this later:Q: We’re already using more ethanol in our fuel now, because of the outcry over the fuel component methyl tertiary butyl ether or MTBE and its propensity to foul groundwater. You had warned that replacing MTBE with ethanol could hamper efforts in cities like Houston to improve air quality because of these problems with volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. So has that actually happened? A: Yes, it has happened. Los Angeles is the cleanest example. They began switching from MTBE to ethanol in 2001. But when they made their major switch in 2003, there was a significant decrease in air quality. They basically stopped making progress toward attainment on EPA’s ozone standards when they switched to ethanol. When using MTBE, with the cars getting cleaner each year, coupled with a very clean fuel, Los Angeles was on a straight-line path toward attaining EPA’s air standards by about 2002 or 2003. Now that they have switched to ethanol, the trend line indicates nonattainment for many years to come.

    Comment by Robert Rapier | August 2, 2007

  27. Robert –No, I hadn’t seen that. Please give me a link so I can see the source.I have heard that there are concerns about VOCs in certain climate conditions (like hot LA and Houston areas). It is one reason that Sen. Diane Feinstein’s office is waiting for more research before advocating higher blends of ethanol. I’ll be interested to read what you find out. Keep in mind there is plenty of spin in the marketplace for all sorts of reasons.We are in a transitional “pick your poison” period with regard to fuels (for instance MTBE groundwater contamination vs. ethanol VOCs). I wouldn’t “rush to judgment” on any technological developments just yet. I am encouraged by the amount of study going on by all sides – just wish it wasn’t playing out so much in the public press.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 2, 2007

  28. Scott,I got it as part of a news feed, so I don’t have the direct link. Should be easy to find. Houston Chronicle, and the story was “Five Questions with Cal Hodge.”

    Comment by Robert Rapier | August 2, 2007

  29. We are not in a “pick your poison” period.  Automotive technology would let us do away with the oxygenates entirely, but the ethanol lobby demands that it get money for making the environment worse.If we want to fix both the pollution and liquid-fuels problem, we should be pushing PHEVs very hard.  The current House bill HR2776 is a good beginning, but it needs the limits of 60,000 vehicles raised by at least a factor of 4.

    Comment by Engineer-Poet | August 2, 2007

  30. Engineer-PoetI write glowingly about PHEVs relatively often on my BIOoutput Blog. People should look at the E-Flex technology that GM is developing for introduction by about 2010. The fact of life in America is we will never completely wean ourselves from any viable energy source because of our super-consumer nature. So we need to pursue every avenue of alternative so we have viable choices.For whatever its faults, I don’t know of any preferable fuel alternative to ethanol that is miscible in gasoline so that it can fit the existing infrastructure and extend our gas supply. And if there is, what would be the delivery and distribution logistics and production processes necessary to produce it?At least ethanol has a running start and bipartisan support. Is everyone on the take?I’m sure the people at EPIC and 25x’25 would take exception to your characterization that the “ethanol lobby demands that it get money for making the environment worse.” Many that I have met have left their careers to push an agenda that they feel will matter to future generations. They back many research and deployment efforts to make the fuel better and the production methods cleaner and more efficient. There are huge financial risks.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 2, 2007

  31. “<>I don’t know of any preferable fuel alternative to ethanol that is miscible in gasoline so that it can fit the existing infrastructure and extend our gas supply.<>“You’re making three errors here.1.)  Preferable miscible fuels include butanol and dimethylfuran.  Miscible fuels include methanol (preferability is arguable).2.)  Ethanol is not actually miscible.  It can’t be shipped in the pipeline network.3.)  You’re insisting that the fuels be cut to fit the Procrustean bed of today’s vehicle fleet and petroleum fuel network.  This is <>insane<>.  Given the collapse in export rates among oil-producing nations which have peaked (including the USA), our available oil is likely to be down 50% by 2015.  No plausible biofuel scenario can get anywhere close to making up the difference.  We have two options (radical increases in efficiency plus substitution with non-chemical energy) which boil down to the same thing:  PHEVs.As Robert has noted, ethanol production has exceeded 5 billion gallons/year but our petroleum consumption has not slowed.  <><>Ethanol is not an energy program, it is a farm price-support program<>.<>  Adding ethanol to any gasoline supply is just going to consume subsidy dollars with no useful products.  On top of this, it is going to increase the vapor pressure and evaporative emissions, causing more pollution.You are on the right side with PHEVs.  You are on the wrong side with ethanol.  Do the numbers.“<>I’m sure the people at EPIC and 25x’25 would take exception to your characterization<>“This does not make me wrong and them right.  Only the facts can do that.

    Comment by Engineer-Poet | August 3, 2007

  32. I think it’s easy to run the math on this one, if you are looking for a column idea:Electric motorcycle will by their nature, precede electric cars in the market and in practicality.(Energy density, power-to-weight)

    Comment by odograph | August 3, 2007

  33. E-P…Getting back to the Rolling Stone article… I think it is a mistake to make ethanol-bashing the latest rock trend for a variety of reasons.Wars are tectonic collisions between crusty cultures. Too many of our energy eggs are in one basket – oil – and we better develop some regionally deployable flexible solutions fast before nuclear suicide becomes the latest terrorism trend.We should try to find ways to produce renewable, carbon neutral, biofuels. We should also find ways to produce electricity from renewable feedstocks.Some biomass conversion technologies (CTs) offer improved EROIE results over sugar fermentation for the production of biofuels and should be pursued vigorously. Ethanol subsidies will help fund that research.CTs can use waste as feedstock and can generate their own heat without fossil fuels. Waste conversion means affordable environmental cleanup and pollution control.Biorefineries can revitalize dormant regional economies (eventually without subsidies). Revitalized regional economies can afford to practice proper stewardship of their resources (soil, water, forests). Certified forests, for instance, result in fewer wildfiresControlling air emissions from closed combustion systems is not hard. Wildfires are hard.No energy solution will solve all energy problems. It would be nice to have an energy fuel standard other than gasoline and diesel but why must there only be one? Biodiesel in Europe, ethanol in Brazil, jatropha in Africa, micanthus in Indonesia – works for me.We will need all of it because developing nations will always demand more – solar, wind, wave, geothermal, oil, natural gas, coal, biodiesel, butanol, DME, DMF, etc. And even ethanol.One of the best things about ethanol is that it is on the table now and it enjoys fleeting bipartisan support. Let’s not bash the first initiatives out of the gate.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 3, 2007

  34. <>Some biomass conversion technologies (CTs) offer improved EROIE results over sugar fermentation for the production of biofuels and should be pursued vigorously. Ethanol subsidies will help fund that research.<>Again, we have three potential feedstocks for biofuels (Food crops, non-food crops and waste). It is insane to start with food crops and then offer the <>lame<> excuse that we can switch to non-food crops later. Food crops should <>never<> be a part of this discussion. We should start with waste and only look at non-food crops when we have exhausted all the potential waste feedstocks.As far as fuels go: fuels that are miscible in existing supplies should obviously be preferred. Technologies that produce hydrocarbon fuels (like gasification/Fischer-Tropsch)should form the basis of the discussion.The problem I have with ethanol is that it is soon going to be apparent how foolish a choice it is: more expensive food accross the board and even more subsidies required to achieve what-was-it-again? Ethanol may very well end up poisoning the well of public opinion (and support) for all biofuels.

    Comment by Optimist | August 3, 2007

  35. Optimist –<>The problem I have with ethanol is that it is soon going to be apparent how foolish a choice it is: more expensive food accross the board and even more subsidies required to achieve what-was-it-again? <>News Flash! Corn prices have dropped. Why? Because the quick demand spike for ethanol (caused by the switchover by oil companies from MTBEs to ethanol) convinced farmers to produce more corn. The free enterprise system is your assurance that feedstock prices will never get out of whack. The other assurance is that anything with carbon in it can be feedstock for some method of biomass conversion to biofuels.The big problem with oil is that it no longer responds to free enterprise checks and balances. Its prices are manipulated – at least by OPEC.There is no comparison between the impact of corn prices on food vs. the impact of gasoline and diesel prices on food (and products of all kinds). See http://biostock.blogspot.com/2007/07/food-cost-studies-compare-impact-of.html .

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 5, 2007

  36. Optimist –I don’t have a problem with U.S. subsidies of the ethanol industry and conversion technology development and I’ll tell you why…1 – The government is using subsidies and DOE matching grants to prime the pump of private enterprise to invest and develop these emerging technologies.2 – This is the most important technological mission we have endeavored since the Manhattan Project (Apollo was no where near as important). Achievement will reap tremendous energy benefits impacting rural economies throughout the world.3 – By comparison China is a command economy. China is pouring billions into energy technology acquisition and development for every 10 million we provide as subsidies.4 – It makes much more sense to pour billions into building a self-reliant energy infrastructure than it does to waste even more billions, human lives, and diplomatic capital on military missions because we are energy dependent on the Middle East. Take oil out of the justification for being in Iraq and we would be “fighting terrorism” much differently than we are now.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 5, 2007

  37. C. Scott Miller:“<>I think it is a mistake to make ethanol-bashing the latest rock trend for a variety of reasons.<>“Why?  Ethanol creates some of the very problems you mention.“<>Too many of our energy eggs are in one basket – oil – and we better develop some regionally deployable flexible solutions fast<>“Ethanol from biomass is one of the least flexible options.  There are very few feedstocks we can grow in the USA which are suitable for making ethanol economically on an industrial scale.  Worse, all of them are food products.“<>We should try to find ways to produce renewable, carbon neutral, biofuels. We should also find ways to produce electricity from renewable feedstocks.<>“Your two goals are opposed to each other.  The storable (chemical) energy sources for electricity are the same ones sought for biofuels (if they aren’t needed for food).  Liquid biofuels are needed only by internal combustion engines, which deliver far less of the original biomass energy to the point of use.  They are also much less flexible (cannot run on non-chemical energy inputs) and restricted by the rate of carbon capture.“<>Some biomass conversion technologies (CTs) offer improved EROIE results over sugar fermentation for the production of biofuels and should be pursued vigorously. Ethanol subsidies will help fund that research.<>“Every biomass-to-liquid conversion technology has to take into account the efficiency of the engine at the end.  Even if you reach 70% efficiency from biomass to liquid, feeding the average 15%-efficient car leaves you with just 10.5% field-to-wheels.  Electricity is on the order of 70% grid-to-wheels, so even if you can only get 30% field-to-grid you still double the net efficiency of liquid biofuels.Technologies in the labs can hit 70-80% conversion of biochar to electricity, and 50% biogas to electricity.  The biomass-to-liquid-to-engine schemes are permanently trapped at a fraction of the potential output.  Unless they are using an input or aimed at a niche which cannot be used for electricity, they are literally a waste.“<>Biorefineries can revitalize dormant regional economies (eventually without subsidies).<>““Without subsidies” assumes a high value for the liquid products, which also means a high cost to the users.  This high cost means lower economic output downstream.  Conversion to electricity can yield far more net energy from the same inputs, with the potential of lower costs and greater economic output.“<>No energy solution will solve all energy problems.<>“The list of usable inputs for liquid fuels is much smaller than the list of usable inputs for electricity.  Your own logic argues against your proposal!“<>One of the best things about ethanol is that it is on the table now and it enjoys fleeting bipartisan support.<>“It’s also creating huge amounts of air pollution, soil erosion, and a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  Its energy is mostly “laundered” fossil fuels and it is driving the cost of food up world-wide.“<>Let’s not bash the first initiatives out of the gate.<>“It’s been around for roughly 30 years.  It’s had its chance, and blown it.“<>2 – This is the most important technological mission we have endeavored since the Manhattan Project (Apollo was no where near as important). Achievement will reap tremendous energy benefits impacting rural economies throughout the world.<>“Germany failed to produce a nuclear weapon in WWII (halleluiah!) because its scientists, blinded by ideology or just incompetence, ran themselves down blind alleys in their searches and failed to check their assumptions.  Ethanol is the blind alley of the 21st century.

    Comment by Engineer-Poet | August 5, 2007

  38. C. Scott Miller,Your support for ethanol apperently assumes that support for ethanol does not reduce support for more viable fuels.In the real world the pot of available money is limited, and by given ethanol so much support, the other candidates suffer.I also have a huge problem with the almost religious faith that is often expressed in the rise of <>cellulosic<> ethanol. Let’s not pin our future on technology that is yet to be invented…I agree with you about the Manhattan project. Isn’t it sad that China is ahead of us in developing alternatives? Guess that’s what happens when you put engineers in charge πŸ˜‰DOE has a huge role to play, but it cannot pretend to know what are the most promising contenders: DOE needs to level the playing field and allow everyone to compete, along the lines of an X-prize for fuel.DOE should also admit that basing fuel production on food is <>very<> foolish and correct its mistake by focusing on waste-based technologies. Oh, sorry, I forgot, nobody ever admits to making mistakes anymore…

    Comment by Optimist | August 6, 2007

  39. There exist thermochemical processes for producing biofuels while cogenerating heat for electricity from virtually any feedstock with carbon in it. This includes non-food feedstocks like petcoke, tires, energy crops, hybrid poplars, municipal solid wastes, sludge, etc. Here is a recent listing of emerging cellulosic ethanol developers (http://bioconversion.blogspot.com/2006/11/investors-roundup-of-leading.html).Granted there are no commerical scale implementations of these technologies. Which is why the DOE has created a level playing field and funded six of them for commercial-scale development. They embrace a broad array of approaches and feedstocks.The point of my arguments on this thread is simply this – Rolling Stone magazine inflates passions of its mostly non-technical and highly impressionable “activist” readers.We don’t need obstacles added to the technological ones that already exist for development of alternative forms of bioenergy. There are plenty of secret Luddites in this world who would hate to see progress in this field. I submit we need to pursue all avenues, including ethanol created from waste – which could be one of the most revolutionary environmental tools ever developed.Optimist – Pursuit of ethanol does not use up finite investment capital. It expands it because nothing attracts capital like a good idea that increases production. Just look at the digital revolution of the 90’s for evidence.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 6, 2007

  40. C. Scott Miller:“<>There exist thermochemical processes for producing biofuels while cogenerating heat for electricity from virtually any feedstock with carbon in it.<>“You’ve gone from ethanol to unspecified “biofuels”.  (Don’t get a hernia moving those goalposts!)  Of the ventures you list, only Nova Fuels does not appear to be an inherently ethanol-only effort (though methanol and ethanol are the only specifics mentioned).  Would any of those ventures exist absent the government subsidies?“<>Rolling Stone magazine inflates passions of its mostly non-technical and highly impressionable “activist” readers.<>“Rolling Stone is belatedly getting to the conclusions Robert and I (and many others) reached years ago.“<>We don’t need obstacles added to the technological ones that already exist for development of alternative forms of bioenergy.<>“The subsidies for specific products (which “pick winners”) are exactly those obstacles.  Ethanol is preferred over options (e.g. electricity) which have far more potential, and systems which have better possibilities but no political lobby are left to rot.“<>There are plenty of secret Luddites in this world who would hate to see progress in this field.<>“There are plenty of unabashed rent-seekers who would hate to see any system which competes with the one which is now paying them billions in subsidies from the taxpayer.  That’s what ethanol is today.

    Comment by Engineer-Poet | August 7, 2007

  41. E-P –<>Would any of those ventures exist absent the government subsidies?<>Yes they would. The subsidies have been around for decades without action on these alternative fuel technologies – which have been languishing in labs. It is the volatile price jumps of petroleum that have made the economics of alternative fuels viable, not farm subsidies.The matching funds allocated to spur development is coming from the DOE based on their technical promise demonstrated to date – not from subsidies. Don’t mix the two.<>Rolling Stone is belatedly getting to the conclusions Robert and I (and many others) reached years ago.<>Rolling Stone is using the heat of the ethanol debate to sell magazines, pure and simple. They could care less who is “right.”You can live by this sword or die by it. I prefer to keep it sheathed and let technologists work out the solutions.<>The subsidies for specific products (which “pick winners”) are exactly those obstacles. Ethanol is preferred over options (e.g. electricity) which have far more potential, and systems which have better possibilities but no political lobby are left to rot.<>You seem to believe that we can replace all fuels with electricity – even though electricity is not storable or portable and must be produced locally to be truly efficient. It is not feasible to rely on wind and PV for the nation’s electricity. We need to get off the fossil fuel standard for generation. A combination of biomass co-firing and gasification will help transition to the next energy paradigm.BTW, I am a member of two lobbies that are aggressively pushing wind and solar as well as biofuels. 25x’25 and ACORE. <>There are plenty of unabashed rent-seekers who would hate to see any system which competes with the one which is now paying them billions in subsidies from the taxpayer. That’s what ethanol is today.<>Correction – that is what <>oil<> is today. $16 billion is the current tag acknowledged for oil subsidies for last year in the debate of the current House Energy Bill. Add to that the price of military security and you have quite an expensive energy paradigm. Especially since we still don’t have any control over the price of oil. By comparison, renewable fuels will get cheaper with technological development as is happening already for both ethanol and cellulosic ethanol. Most conversion technologies are trying to go closed loop – so they aren’t dependent on any unfixed expenditures, like the price of fossil fuels.Feedstock prices will go down because we can decide to grow more and source a greater variety of non-food feedstock – including waste – which are being added to the list.In a way, we can either choose to employ soldiers (who destroy global infrastructure and equity) or employ scientists, farmers, ranchers, foresters, and waste managers (who build infrastructure, equity, and who have a vested interest in the proper stewardship of the resources).Your choice is…?

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 7, 2007

  42. “<>The subsidies have been around for decades without action on these alternative fuel technologies – which have been languishing in labs.<>“So what you are saying is <><>the subsidies were not enough<>.<>  Ethanol could not compete even with a 51¢/gallon advantage over gasoline.“<>It is the volatile price jumps of petroleum that have made the economics of alternative fuels viable<>“It looks like ethanol from corn still isn’t viable, because a large part of its cost is the price of the petroleum (or related fuel, like natural gas) to make it.  The expansion in its use appears to come from three things:1.  <>State mandates for E-10<> in places like Iowa.2.  <>Federal mandates for oxygenates<>.3.  The <>removal of MTBE as a competing oxygenate<>.If these fuels could compete, the makers wouldn’t need to lobby Congress to guarantee them a market and subsidize them to conceal their product’s cost from the consumer.“<>You can live by this sword or die by it. I prefer to keep it sheathed and let technologists work out the solutions.<>“The sword of subsidies and mandates is wielded on the behalf ethanol.  Had we just placed a disadvantage on petroleum (fuel taxes) and let the situation sort itself out, we would never have had so much emphasis on ethanol or any other biofuel.“<>You seem to believe that we can replace all fuels with electricity<>“Nice strawman.  I’m certain that we’ll need either hydrocarbons or liquid H2 for air transport, to list just one thing.  However, we can certainly use electricity to replace all liquid fuels for local road transport and rail transport.“<>electricity is not storable or portable and must be produced locally to be truly efficient.<>“Lithium-ion batteries and HVDC transmission put the lie to that.  HVDC losses are on the order of < HREF="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HVDC#Advantages_of_HVDC_over_AC_transmission" REL="nofollow">3% per 1000 km<>.  The losses from the Dakotas to Detroit would be on the order of 10%, a very acceptable figure.(You’re going to claim you meant days and weeks of storage, not hours.  Fine; batteries are likely to cost too much for that for a very long time.  But the ambiguity and consequent sloppy thinking were your fault.)“<>It is not feasible to rely on wind and PV for the nation’s electricity.<>“Even if true, how is that relevant in this context?“<>We need to get off the fossil fuel standard for generation. A combination of biomass co-firing and gasification will help transition to the next energy paradigm.<>“But electric production and liquid motor fuels compete for the same limited supply of biomass!  The US uses about 27.3 quads of petroleum motor fuel each year, while the Billion-Ton Vision only found a potential of about 20.5 quads (1.3 billion tons) of biomass.  Conversion to liquid fuel at perhaps 50% efficiency cuts that to 10.2 quads.  To get the ~6 quads of work we obtain from petroleum today, we’d need nearly 60% efficiency from our engines if we ran them on liquid biofuels alone.Do I need to point out how close to impossible this is?Do I need to point out that this would leave NOTHING for the electric supply?Conversion from biomass to electricity has the potential to be more efficient than conversion to liquid fuels.  When dealing with a limited supply of energy, the key is to reduce losses as much as possible.  Conversion to liquid and another conversion in a combustion engine should run a distant second in priority to electrification.“<>$16 billion is the current tag acknowledged for oil subsidies for last year in the debate of the current House Energy Bill. Add to that the price of military security and you have quite an expensive energy paradigm.<>“Roughly 6 billion gallons of ethanol at $0.51/gallon, plus 11 billion bushels of corn with an ethanol-related price premium of about $2/bushel comes to $25 billion.  None of this comes cheap.“<>renewable fuels will get cheaper with technological development<>“So will conversion to electricity.  If you can convert biomass energy to 50% charcoal, 40% gas and 10% heat, you can use direct-carbon fuel cells with the charcoal (70-80% efficient), solid-oxide or molten-carbonate fuel cells with the gas (50% efficient) and small gas turbines (25%) to recover some of the heat as work.  I make the net conversion efficiency to be (35%+20%+.25*45%)=66.2%, and you do not have another conversion to work afterward as you do with liquid fuels.If you started with 20.5 quads of biomass, you could get 13.6 quads of electricity out.  Subtract 8.6 quads for transport (6.0 quads to wheels @ 70% efficiency) and you have 5.0 quads of electricity left over.  US electric consumption of ~4000 billion kWh/yr is, coincidentally, about 13.7 quads of energy.  If you could get 64% from wind, solar, hydro and nuclear, the 5 quads of juice from biomass would supply the other 36%.If there’s a future for biofuels, they will be produced from algae grown on the CO2 exhaust of stationary biomass powerplants.  But converting grain to ethanol is a dead end.

    Comment by Engineer-Poet | August 8, 2007

  43. E-P, R2, and Optimist –I really appreciate your perspectives on biomass-to-energy. If we can agree on anything, it is perhaps that the status quo is not getting us anywhere. You may feel that “the ethanol scam” exacerbates the energy problem. I don’t… it stimulates the dormant midwest and southeast to produce new sources of biomass, almost all non-food, and helps set up the infrastructure for renewable energy production – both electricity and biofuels. I am still adamant that Rolling Stone is the wrong forum for posting sides of an ongoing technological debate – especially for one as critical and longterm as energy. I thank Robert for providing an enlightening forum on this blog. I wish any of my blogs stimulated as much interesting commentary.My family is holding me incommunicado for two weeks so I’ll see you on the flip side.

    Comment by C. Scott Miller | August 8, 2007

  44. Great information. What’s your opinion on the eco movement and there push for the “eco-fireplace” that burns denatured ethanol for fuel?

    Comment by paprika | September 29, 2007

  45. Great information. What’s your opinion on the eco movement and there push for the “eco-fireplace” that burns denatured ethanol for fuel?

    Comment by paprika | September 29, 2007


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