R-Squared Energy Blog

Pure Energy

LCA on Renewable Diesel

Thanks to a reader for this tip. Argonne National Laboratory has just published a Life-Cycle Analysis (LCA) of biogasoline, biodiesel, green diesel, and petroleum diesel:

Life-Cycle Assessment of Energy and Greenhouse Gas Effects of Soybean-Derived Biodiesel and Renewable Fuels

I have just skimmed the report so far, but noted a few items of interest. Table 2-1 shows “Current and Planned Renewable Diesel Facilities.” If I had time, I would convert to a table, but I don’t:

Company Size (bpd) Location Online Date

ConocoPhillips 1,000 Ireland 2006
ConocoPhillips 12,000 United States To be determined
British Petroleum (BP) 1,900 Australia 2007
Neste 3,400 Finland 2007
Neste 3,400 Finland 2009
Petrobras 4 × 4,000 Brazil 2007
UOP/Eni 6,500 Italy 2009

In Table 3.3, they list the energy inputs into soybean farming from three different sources. The lowest input? Surprisingly, it came from Pimentel and Patzek.

Also, note this very important note on Page 4 that could throw all of these results out the window:

Note that this study does not consider potential land use changes. Increased CO2emissions from potential land use changes are an input option in GREET, but it was not used in the current analysis since reliable data on potential land use changes induced by soybean-based fuel production are not available. Furthermore, the main objective of this study is to concentrate on the process-related issues described above.

I presume this is in response to the recent Science articles that looked at land use changes from ethanol, and concluded the carbon footprint was worse than for gasoline. For soybeans, it is likely to be worse, because soybean farming is reportedly encroaching into the Amazon.

One thing that would have been a lot more reader-friendly would have been an actual energy balance equation. That is, for 1 BTU of energy input, X BTUs of energy is returned for the various fuels.

Off to Switzerland tomorrow until Friday evening, but I will post something if I get a chance.

March 31, 2008 Posted by | Argonne, biodiesel, biogasoline, green diesel, Michael Wang, renewable diesel | 72 Comments

The Handy-Dandy Khosla Refuter

The web site Seeking Alpha has just published a new article on ethanol:

Ethanol: A Few Myths Debunked

To be honest, there are so many misconceptions and myths in the article that a better name for it would have been Ethanol: A Few Myths Repeated. I think all of these “myths” have been covered at one time or another in this blog, but he does quote Vinod Khosla at length. So, this might be a good time to re-debunk Khosla, given that he has repeated this claims many times since the first debunking.

So, once again, here are Vinod Khosla’s claims, repeated from the above article, dissected and debunked.

VK: Energy balance is not even the right question to answer. It is not the energy balance of ethanol that matters but the energy balance of ethanol relative to the energy balance of gasoline.

I agree 100%. But this is exactly the comparison that I and others have consistently made. The problem is that VK is comparing apples to bananas, as I will show.

VK: Dr. Wang at Argonne National Labs has built one of the most rigorous and transparent public models for energy balance calculations. His results indicate that corn ethanol has almost twice the energy balance compared to gasoline, yet this crucial fact is seldom mentioned in the press.

That’s because it is just flat-out wrong. If this was true, we wouldn’t even use gasoline, and ethanol wouldn’t need federal subsidies. After all, why on earth would we invest our BTUs into gasoline when we could get twice the energy return with ethanol? The reason is that VK is grossly misinformed, but he has no excuse because I have explained this to him over the phone. Twice.

VK: According to the majority of studies, corn ethanol has an energy balance between 1.3-1.8 while gasoline is substantially worse, at about 0.8 (since it takes energy to extract, transport, refine and handle gasoline).

Doesn’t it take energy to plant and harvest corn, ferment the ethanol, refine it, and transport it? Of course it does. Except with gasoline, the planting and fermenting have already been done by nature. The harvesting involves drilling a hole in the ground and extracting an energy rich, water-insoluble mixture that takes a fraction of the energy to refine that ethanol takes.

Here is the true story. If I have 1 BTU to invest, and I want a return on that BTU, where am I going to invest it to get the most value? Well, if I invest in ethanol – according to studies that the afore-mentioned Dr. Wang has co-authored – I am going to end up with about 1.06 BTUs of fuel and 0.25 BTUs worth of animal feed. So, for an investment of 1 BTU, I netted 0.06 BTUs of liquid fuel. Again that is backed up by the USDA’s own studies that Dr. Wang has co-authored.

If I invest that BTU into gasoline production, here is what I get. The worst conventional fields in the world have a 10/1 energy return on getting crude oil out of the ground. According to Cutler Cleveland (and consistent with my own personal experience), the world wide average energy return for crude oil extraction is 17/1. So, for my 1 BTU investment, I average 17 BTUs of crude in the crude tank. But I have to refine it. A heavy, sour refinery has an energy return of about 10/1 (producing gasoline, diesel, heating oil, jet fuel, etc. from the crude). So, my 17 BTUs of crude are going to take 1.7 BTUs – in the worst case – to refine. I have then invested 2.7 BTUs (1 to extract and 1.7 to refine) to process 17 BTUs of crude into liquid fuels.

Typically, there are losses of around 5% in refining crude. These losses often have BTU value that is recovered, but let’s say they don’t. Then, my gross is 17 * 0.95 = 16.15 BTUs of usable liquid fuels for my BTU investment of 2.7 BTUs. My energy return is 16.15/2.7, or 5.98. This compares to an energy return of 1.3 for ethanol (when we count animal feed as BTUs). So, gasoline has about 4.6 times the energy balance of ethanol, as opposed to VK’s claim of twice the energy balance for ethanol. He is off by an order of magnitude. Now it should start to become clear why ethanol will always need subsidies to compete.

Moving on:

VK: Electricity has an energy balance four times worse than corn ethanol. Do we stop using electricity?

No, because we can’t plug our toasters into a pile of coal. We can, however, run vehicles on the fossil fuel inputs that we used to make ethanol. That is the key difference. Electricity is a much more user-friendly form of energy than is coal. There is no advantage to recycling fossil fuels into ethanol (well, there’s coal, but I won’t go there).

VK: Dr. Wang goes on to say that energy balance is “not a meaningful number for any fuel in evaluating its benefits. “Why then does the press continue mentioning it?

It is ironic that in the same essay VK argues that the energy balance of ethanol is twice that of gasoline, he also argues that it is not a meaningful question. I have pointed out the absurdity of this position before, because this isn’t the first time he has taken it.

VK: Why do they fail to mention that electricity has a substantially worse energy balance than ethanol?

See above. Think about plugging your DVD player into a pile of coal and the picture will start to become clear.

VK: What is often inferred by the press is that it takes more petroleum to make ethanol than is displaced. This is emphatically NOT true, even in the most vintage of plants.

He is correct here, but fails to mention that the majority of the fossil fuel input into an ethanol plant, natural gas, works just fine as a vehicle fuel. Compressed natural gas (CNG) buses are very popular mass transit options, for instance.

VK: In fact if we have to pick an alternative to gasoline, then ethanol is the best choice today.

Ethanol, also known as recycled natural gas. My question is: Why go to the trouble of recycling the natural gas into ethanol, when CNG buses have a proven track record?

VK: Energy balance is the wrong question. Greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven is the right question.

Those questions go hand in hand. In fact, they are inversely proportional. The lower the energy balance, the higher the overall greenhouse gas emissions for the process. For an energy balance of 1.06, you have a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Along with that, we get more pesticide and herbicide runoff into our waterways, increased soil erosion from expanded corn production, and we all get to pay more for our food.

We can do better. If we put half the effort into supporting conservation measures that we do into supporting corn ethanol, we could make a significant reduction in our fossil fuel usage. But, there isn’t any money to be made in that, so this option tends to be ignored. Sooner or later we won’t have a choice, but I would like to see us make the choice while we do still options.

March 8, 2007 Posted by | energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang, Vinod Khosla | 12 Comments

The Handy-Dandy Khosla Refuter

The web site Seeking Alpha has just published a new article on ethanol:

Ethanol: A Few Myths Debunked

To be honest, there are so many misconceptions and myths in the article that a better name for it would have been Ethanol: A Few Myths Repeated. I think all of these “myths” have been covered at one time or another in this blog, but he does quote Vinod Khosla at length. So, this might be a good time to re-debunk Khosla, given that he has repeated this claims many times since the first debunking.

So, once again, here are Vinod Khosla’s claims, repeated from the above article, dissected and debunked.

VK: Energy balance is not even the right question to answer. It is not the energy balance of ethanol that matters but the energy balance of ethanol relative to the energy balance of gasoline.

I agree 100%. But this is exactly the comparison that I and others have consistently made. The problem is that VK is comparing apples to bananas, as I will show.

VK: Dr. Wang at Argonne National Labs has built one of the most rigorous and transparent public models for energy balance calculations. His results indicate that corn ethanol has almost twice the energy balance compared to gasoline, yet this crucial fact is seldom mentioned in the press.

That’s because it is just flat-out wrong. If this was true, we wouldn’t even use gasoline, and ethanol wouldn’t need federal subsidies. After all, why on earth would we invest our BTUs into gasoline when we could get twice the energy return with ethanol? The reason is that VK is grossly misinformed, but he has no excuse because I have explained this to him over the phone. Twice.

VK: According to the majority of studies, corn ethanol has an energy balance between 1.3-1.8 while gasoline is substantially worse, at about 0.8 (since it takes energy to extract, transport, refine and handle gasoline).

Doesn’t it take energy to plant and harvest corn, ferment the ethanol, refine it, and transport it? Of course it does. Except with gasoline, the planting and fermenting have already been done by nature. The harvesting involves drilling a hole in the ground and extracting an energy rich, water-insoluble mixture that takes a fraction of the energy to refine that ethanol takes.

Here is the true story. If I have 1 BTU to invest, and I want a return on that BTU, where am I going to invest it to get the most value? Well, if I invest in ethanol – according to studies that the afore-mentioned Dr. Wang has co-authored – I am going to end up with about 1.06 BTUs of fuel and 0.25 BTUs worth of animal feed. So, for an investment of 1 BTU, I netted 0.06 BTUs of liquid fuel. Again that is backed up by the USDA’s own studies that Dr. Wang has co-authored.

If I invest that BTU into gasoline production, here is what I get. The worst conventional fields in the world have a 10/1 energy return on getting crude oil out of the ground. According to Cutler Cleveland (and consistent with my own personal experience), the world wide average energy return for crude oil extraction is 17/1. So, for my 1 BTU investment, I average 17 BTUs of crude in the crude tank. But I have to refine it. A heavy, sour refinery has an energy return of about 10/1 (producing gasoline, diesel, heating oil, jet fuel, etc. from the crude). So, my 17 BTUs of crude are going to take 1.7 BTUs – in the worst case – to refine. I have then invested 2.7 BTUs (1 to extract and 1.7 to refine) to process 17 BTUs of crude into liquid fuels.

Typically, there are losses of around 5% in refining crude. These losses often have BTU value that is recovered, but let’s say they don’t. Then, my gross is 17 * 0.95 = 16.15 BTUs of usable liquid fuels for my BTU investment of 2.7 BTUs. My energy return is 16.15/2.7, or 5.98. This compares to an energy return of 1.3 for ethanol (when we count animal feed as BTUs). So, gasoline has about 4.6 times the energy balance of ethanol, as opposed to VK’s claim of twice the energy balance for ethanol. He is off by an order of magnitude. Now it should start to become clear why ethanol will always need subsidies to compete.

Moving on:

VK: Electricity has an energy balance four times worse than corn ethanol. Do we stop using electricity?

No, because we can’t plug our toasters into a pile of coal. We can, however, run vehicles on the fossil fuel inputs that we used to make ethanol. That is the key difference. Electricity is a much more user-friendly form of energy than is coal. There is no advantage to recycling fossil fuels into ethanol (well, there’s coal, but I won’t go there).

VK: Dr. Wang goes on to say that energy balance is “not a meaningful number for any fuel in evaluating its benefits. “Why then does the press continue mentioning it?

It is ironic that in the same essay VK argues that the energy balance of ethanol is twice that of gasoline, he also argues that it is not a meaningful question. I have pointed out the absurdity of this position before, because this isn’t the first time he has taken it.

VK: Why do they fail to mention that electricity has a substantially worse energy balance than ethanol?

See above. Think about plugging your DVD player into a pile of coal and the picture will start to become clear.

VK: What is often inferred by the press is that it takes more petroleum to make ethanol than is displaced. This is emphatically NOT true, even in the most vintage of plants.

He is correct here, but fails to mention that the majority of the fossil fuel input into an ethanol plant, natural gas, works just fine as a vehicle fuel. Compressed natural gas (CNG) buses are very popular mass transit options, for instance.

VK: In fact if we have to pick an alternative to gasoline, then ethanol is the best choice today.

Ethanol, also known as recycled natural gas. My question is: Why go to the trouble of recycling the natural gas into ethanol, when CNG buses have a proven track record?

VK: Energy balance is the wrong question. Greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven is the right question.

Those questions go hand in hand. In fact, they are inversely proportional. The lower the energy balance, the higher the overall greenhouse gas emissions for the process. For an energy balance of 1.06, you have a 6% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Along with that, we get more pesticide and herbicide runoff into our waterways, increased soil erosion from expanded corn production, and we all get to pay more for our food.

We can do better. If we put half the effort into supporting conservation measures that we do into supporting corn ethanol, we could make a significant reduction in our fossil fuel usage. But, there isn’t any money to be made in that, so this option tends to be ignored. Sooner or later we won’t have a choice, but I would like to see us make the choice while we do still options.

March 8, 2007 Posted by | energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang, Vinod Khosla | 6 Comments

Postscript with Wang and Khosla

I think the thread on efficiency of ethanol versus gasoline left a lot of things hanging, and there have been some communications with Dr. Wang and Mr. Khosla since then. So, I wanted to more or less close the book on this and share those communications. I don’t want to spend another 300+ posts arguing about efficiency, but I do want to let the readers know how this all turned out.

Dr. Wang was clearly miffed about my usage of “sleight of hand.” While I do not consider usage of this phrase insulting, I felt like the right thing to do was to apologize since Dr. Wang took offense. So, I e-mailed back to Dr. Wang, Tom (who never again responded) and Mr. Khosla. Again, my comments are in blue, Dr. Wang’s are in green, and Mr. Khosla’s are in red:

Dear Tom, Dr. Wang, and Mr. Khosla:

First of all, let me apologize for the offense you took at my usage of “sleight of hand.” Never in my life have I considered that phrase insulting, but clearly you were insulted by it. I have used that term on many occasions, and had that term used against me. For me, it just means that things are not as they appear to be. So please do not presume that I was being intentionally insulting, because I was not.

Second, I have been stunned at the response from publishing our exchange. Between my R-Squared blog and The Oil Drum, the exchange received well over 400 responses to date, and I got around 200 e-mails. And while you may consider me combative and stubborn, I am also open-minded and very analytical. I engage in this discourse as much to learn as to convey information, and I was able to understand through those responses just why people are so confused about this issue of gasoline efficiency versus ethanol efficiency.

The reason I am engaged in this debate is that it is very important to me that we pursue the correct energy policy. While I have argued in favor of certain solutions, I have also spent a lot of time debunking certain claims. I don’t believe we do ourselves any favors, nor do we help ourselves make educated decisions by allowing myths to persist.

I agree with Mr. Khosla that maybe there are other questions that are better asked. We can debate many different angles over whether or not we should be advocating ethanol from corn. But this particular point of contention is about whether the claim “the efficiency of producing ethanol is better than the efficiency of producing gasoline” is accurate. I have lost count of how many times I have heard some variation of this claim. Tom, in your initial response to me, you included an attachment which made the claim:

“As you can see, the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower–0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered.”

That is simply a false claim. Dr. Wang will probably acknowledge that this claim as written is incorrect, and yet it is derived from his work. That is why I say people are being misled as a result of his work. Perhaps it is unintentional, but when people make a claim such as the one above, they have misinterpreted what is being said, and used this misinterpretation to promote the ethanol agenda.

The real critical point when comparing the two processes is to make sure the boundaries are drawn in exactly the same place and definitions are consistent. When this is done it becomes clear why the above claim as written is incorrect. But please don’t misinterpret this into thinking that I am trying to completely rebut all ethanol arguments. I am addressing a single issue.

Again, please accept my sincere apologies for offending you. That was not my intent.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

Dr. Wang responded:

Dear Mr. Rapier,

Thank you for your email. Apparently, you know that I was pretty upset with your original way of characterizing my work and my character. Working in the scientific area, I am very careful in using language for characterizing others’ work and personalities. I expect that others would do the same to me. Simply put, just like you with great intention of pursuing facts, I have been doing the same myself in my professional career. To characterize me of knowingly misleading the public in biofuel debates is simply wrong. I am gratified that you realized that I treat such mischaracterization seriously.

Getting into the technical discussion that you originated, we all agree that energy efficiency is defined as energy output divided by all energy input (including energy in the feedstock itself). That is, we will take into account Btus in gasoline, ethanol, and all process fuels consumed for producing gasoline and diesel in our accounting for energy input. The amount of process fuels is about 0.25 for each Btu of gasoline produced from 1 Btu in crude oil. Meanwhile, for each Btu of ethanol produced from corn, which is from solar energy during corn growth, about 0.75 Btu of energy are consumed. This amount includes fossil energy (namely, petroleum, natural gas, and coal) in fertilizer production, corn farming, ethanol production, among many other activities. With this definition of energy efficiency (as it is accepted by all of us), ethanol has worse energy conversion efficiency (1/(1+0.75)=58%) than gasoline (1/(1+0.25)=80%). Note that in both calculations, the one Btu in ethanol and gasoline is taken into account as energy input, since they are energy eventually from solar energy in the ethanol case and petroleum energy in the gasoline case. Now you can see that such efficiency calculations take all Btus into account (renewable or non-renewable). That is, the efficiency calculations treat all Btus the same. In reality, all Btus are not created equal. I will get back to this point later.

What has been debated about bioethanol is ENERGY BALANCE, not energy efficiency. Energy balance is defined as the energy in the fuel minus FOSSIL energy input to produce the fuel. Why only fossil energy? That is because to many, fossil is non-renewable. As long as we use it, it will be gone, and it takes millions of years to get it back, if ever. But anyway, we can debate whether energy balance is a right matrix to use for energy policy evaluations. I, together with Mr. Khosla and many others, maintain that energy balance is NOT a good matrix for energy policy debates. But energy balance for ethanol has been debated for more than 20 years and it seems that there is still no way near an ending of this debate.

Now if one thinks a little more about energy balance calculations, one realizes that the calculation excludes renewable energy in energy input accounting, which a small step to the right direction to differentiate different types of Btus. But it adds all three fossil energy types (petroleum, natural gas, and coal) together. The calculation treats all fossil Btus equal, which is still not accurate for energy policy debates. For example, the US has several hundred years of coal supply, while it may have only 10-20 years of oil supply. I do not think that both of us would disagree that the US should value petroleum Btus more than coal Btus. But energy balance calculations do not provide us results to differentiate these two different types of Btus. Mr. Khosla alluded you about the flaws of energy balance calculations in his email.

With the energy balance definition, fossil energy input for one Btu of ethanol produced is still 0.75 Btu. However, fossil energy input for one Btu of gasoline is 0.25 Btu of fossil process fuels consumed PLUS the one Btu in crude oil that is converted into gasoline. Now you may see that the difference between a fossil energy-based fuel (gasoline) and a renewable fuel (ethanol) lies in the Btu embedded in the fuel itself. If it was not this difference between fossil fuels and renewable fuels, we all would conclude without any calculations that renewable fuels could not compete with fossil fuels with respect to energy (that is, all Btus are taken in account with differentiation).

I have made arguments against energy balance comparisons among energy products because they can be less meaningful or misleading. In the past ten years, I have tried to steer the debate on energy products to meaningful issues such as petroleum reductions, fossil energy reductions, greenhouse gas emission reductions, and reductions in criteria pollutant emissions. My point has been that even though corn ethanol has a positive fossil energy balance value, such debates are not that meaningful. I elaborate this step by step in some of my conference presentations. If you read my publications, you would see the consistency in what I think is more important to debate.

I hope this clarifies my positions. By the way, you indicated that you have read some of my publications, I encourage you to take a look at of the report that I coauthored in May 2005 in which I discussed problems of energy accounting and presented well-to-pump energy efficiencies for many transportation fuels including gasoline and corn ethanol. The report is posted at http://greet.anl.gov.

Regards,

Michael Wang

I note in his response that he acknowledges that the efficiency of producing gasoline is indeed higher than for producing ethanol. But he also says the debate is about how much fossil energy is contained in the input. I disagree with this, because the claim I have been rebutting is “it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline.”

I responded:

Dear Dr. Wang,

Thank you for the cordial response. It seems that we agree on two key issues. First, the claim that ethanol proponents often make – “it is more efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline” – is wrong. Second, the debate is about more than just this one claim. Furthermore, you touched on the very reason this debate means so much to me: Peak Oil.

I believe that oil production will peak in a few short years, and it will have very serious ramifications for society. Without a doubt, we need to seriously research every possible alternative. This is primarily the reason that I spent my graduate studies at Texas A&M University working on cellulosic ethanol.

However, in my view the current national infatuation with ethanol hampers our preparations for a post-petroleum world. I have talked to many people who think that once the oil starts to run out, we will just switch over to ethanol. After all, they will say “E85 can lead us to energy independence.” Or they will repeat some other ethanol myth. That kind of thinking, in my opinion, lulls the public into complacency and provides a fig leaf for politicians so they don’t have to seriously address the key issue, which I believe is: We are going to have to learn to make do with a much lower per capita energy usage after oil production peaks.

On the one hand, I applaud Mr. Khosla’s willingness to invest in cellulosic ethanol, because I think cellulosic ethanol can indeed make an impact, and I think it has great potential. But on the other hand, I am very concerned about the consistent message I hear from the public that there is really nothing to worry about since cellulosic ethanol will save us once oil production peaks. If Mr. Khosla’s cellulosic ethanol ventures fail, it will be much more serious than a mere business failure. This has ramifications for the entire country. Failure will mean that we lost precious years in which we could have been making national preparations for Peak Oil. The fact that this threat is not being taking serious enough frightens me, and that is why I take this debate very seriously.

I hope that helps you better understand my position. And yes, incidentally I have read pretty much all of your publications, and I frequently run simulations with the GREET model.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

Dr. Wang responded, but in his response he just indicated that he had made a typo in his earlier response, and he thanked me for my e-mail. At this point, I thought the correspondence was finished, but Mr. Khosla weighed in with some final comments:

Robert, you should then stop talking about the irrelevant variable of “production efficiency” or even “energy balance” or “fossil energy balance” and change the debate to (a) petroleum reduction (since we have lots of coal fossil energy to produce corn ethanol and if you care about the environment also talk about (b) GHG reductions per mile driven. It is not what you say but how it is perceived/interpreted by the masses that is critical.

I am optimistic that at some point increasing CAFE will be mandated to reduce energy used in passenger transportation. I am highly supportive of that. I am not trying to convince anybody that we shouldn’t worry about reducing our energy use. Though I worry about peak oil, personally I think that the GHG problem is much more urgent. Market prices will address peak oil but if we have sufficient oil there is not market mechanism to reduce GHG emissions.

There are certainly some interesting points made in this correspondence, but I think it does vindicate my initial position. We can find metrics that favor ethanol, but energy efficiency of production is not one of them. What the proponents are saying is that for ethanol, we are going to count the captured solar energy from growing the corn. For oil, we are going to ignore the millions of years of captured solar energy. We are going to ignore that nature has already done the heavy lifting for us, that we are trying to replicate on an annual basis with ethanol. What you have is a metric, but it isn’t an efficiency metric.

September 2, 2006 Posted by | critics, energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang, Vinod Khosla | 7 Comments

Postscript with Wang and Khosla

I think the thread on efficiency of ethanol versus gasoline left a lot of things hanging, and there have been some communications with Dr. Wang and Mr. Khosla since then. So, I wanted to more or less close the book on this and share those communications. I don’t want to spend another 300+ posts arguing about efficiency, but I do want to let the readers know how this all turned out.

Dr. Wang was clearly miffed about my usage of “sleight of hand.” While I do not consider usage of this phrase insulting, I felt like the right thing to do was to apologize since Dr. Wang took offense. So, I e-mailed back to Dr. Wang, Tom (who never again responded) and Mr. Khosla. Again, my comments are in blue, Dr. Wang’s are in green, and Mr. Khosla’s are in red:

Dear Tom, Dr. Wang, and Mr. Khosla:

First of all, let me apologize for the offense you took at my usage of “sleight of hand.” Never in my life have I considered that phrase insulting, but clearly you were insulted by it. I have used that term on many occasions, and had that term used against me. For me, it just means that things are not as they appear to be. So please do not presume that I was being intentionally insulting, because I was not.

Second, I have been stunned at the response from publishing our exchange. Between my R-Squared blog and The Oil Drum, the exchange received well over 400 responses to date, and I got around 200 e-mails. And while you may consider me combative and stubborn, I am also open-minded and very analytical. I engage in this discourse as much to learn as to convey information, and I was able to understand through those responses just why people are so confused about this issue of gasoline efficiency versus ethanol efficiency.

The reason I am engaged in this debate is that it is very important to me that we pursue the correct energy policy. While I have argued in favor of certain solutions, I have also spent a lot of time debunking certain claims. I don’t believe we do ourselves any favors, nor do we help ourselves make educated decisions by allowing myths to persist.

I agree with Mr. Khosla that maybe there are other questions that are better asked. We can debate many different angles over whether or not we should be advocating ethanol from corn. But this particular point of contention is about whether the claim “the efficiency of producing ethanol is better than the efficiency of producing gasoline” is accurate. I have lost count of how many times I have heard some variation of this claim. Tom, in your initial response to me, you included an attachment which made the claim:

“As you can see, the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower–0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered.”

That is simply a false claim. Dr. Wang will probably acknowledge that this claim as written is incorrect, and yet it is derived from his work. That is why I say people are being misled as a result of his work. Perhaps it is unintentional, but when people make a claim such as the one above, they have misinterpreted what is being said, and used this misinterpretation to promote the ethanol agenda.

The real critical point when comparing the two processes is to make sure the boundaries are drawn in exactly the same place and definitions are consistent. When this is done it becomes clear why the above claim as written is incorrect. But please don’t misinterpret this into thinking that I am trying to completely rebut all ethanol arguments. I am addressing a single issue.

Again, please accept my sincere apologies for offending you. That was not my intent.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

Dr. Wang responded:

Dear Mr. Rapier,

Thank you for your email. Apparently, you know that I was pretty upset with your original way of characterizing my work and my character. Working in the scientific area, I am very careful in using language for characterizing others’ work and personalities. I expect that others would do the same to me. Simply put, just like you with great intention of pursuing facts, I have been doing the same myself in my professional career. To characterize me of knowingly misleading the public in biofuel debates is simply wrong. I am gratified that you realized that I treat such mischaracterization seriously.

Getting into the technical discussion that you originated, we all agree that energy efficiency is defined as energy output divided by all energy input (including energy in the feedstock itself). That is, we will take into account Btus in gasoline, ethanol, and all process fuels consumed for producing gasoline and diesel in our accounting for energy input. The amount of process fuels is about 0.25 for each Btu of gasoline produced from 1 Btu in crude oil. Meanwhile, for each Btu of ethanol produced from corn, which is from solar energy during corn growth, about 0.75 Btu of energy are consumed. This amount includes fossil energy (namely, petroleum, natural gas, and coal) in fertilizer production, corn farming, ethanol production, among many other activities. With this definition of energy efficiency (as it is accepted by all of us), ethanol has worse energy conversion efficiency (1/(1+0.75)=58%) than gasoline (1/(1+0.25)=80%). Note that in both calculations, the one Btu in ethanol and gasoline is taken into account as energy input, since they are energy eventually from solar energy in the ethanol case and petroleum energy in the gasoline case. Now you can see that such efficiency calculations take all Btus into account (renewable or non-renewable). That is, the efficiency calculations treat all Btus the same. In reality, all Btus are not created equal. I will get back to this point later.

What has been debated about bioethanol is ENERGY BALANCE, not energy efficiency. Energy balance is defined as the energy in the fuel minus FOSSIL energy input to produce the fuel. Why only fossil energy? That is because to many, fossil is non-renewable. As long as we use it, it will be gone, and it takes millions of years to get it back, if ever. But anyway, we can debate whether energy balance is a right matrix to use for energy policy evaluations. I, together with Mr. Khosla and many others, maintain that energy balance is NOT a good matrix for energy policy debates. But energy balance for ethanol has been debated for more than 20 years and it seems that there is still no way near an ending of this debate.

Now if one thinks a little more about energy balance calculations, one realizes that the calculation excludes renewable energy in energy input accounting, which a small step to the right direction to differentiate different types of Btus. But it adds all three fossil energy types (petroleum, natural gas, and coal) together. The calculation treats all fossil Btus equal, which is still not accurate for energy policy debates. For example, the US has several hundred years of coal supply, while it may have only 10-20 years of oil supply. I do not think that both of us would disagree that the US should value petroleum Btus more than coal Btus. But energy balance calculations do not provide us results to differentiate these two different types of Btus. Mr. Khosla alluded you about the flaws of energy balance calculations in his email.

With the energy balance definition, fossil energy input for one Btu of ethanol produced is still 0.75 Btu. However, fossil energy input for one Btu of gasoline is 0.25 Btu of fossil process fuels consumed PLUS the one Btu in crude oil that is converted into gasoline. Now you may see that the difference between a fossil energy-based fuel (gasoline) and a renewable fuel (ethanol) lies in the Btu embedded in the fuel itself. If it was not this difference between fossil fuels and renewable fuels, we all would conclude without any calculations that renewable fuels could not compete with fossil fuels with respect to energy (that is, all Btus are taken in account with differentiation).

I have made arguments against energy balance comparisons among energy products because they can be less meaningful or misleading. In the past ten years, I have tried to steer the debate on energy products to meaningful issues such as petroleum reductions, fossil energy reductions, greenhouse gas emission reductions, and reductions in criteria pollutant emissions. My point has been that even though corn ethanol has a positive fossil energy balance value, such debates are not that meaningful. I elaborate this step by step in some of my conference presentations. If you read my publications, you would see the consistency in what I think is more important to debate.

I hope this clarifies my positions. By the way, you indicated that you have read some of my publications, I encourage you to take a look at of the report that I coauthored in May 2005 in which I discussed problems of energy accounting and presented well-to-pump energy efficiencies for many transportation fuels including gasoline and corn ethanol. The report is posted at http://greet.anl.gov.

Regards,

Michael Wang

I note in his response that he acknowledges that the efficiency of producing gasoline is indeed higher than for producing ethanol. But he also says the debate is about how much fossil energy is contained in the input. I disagree with this, because the claim I have been rebutting is “it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline.”

I responded:

Dear Dr. Wang,

Thank you for the cordial response. It seems that we agree on two key issues. First, the claim that ethanol proponents often make – “it is more efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline” – is wrong. Second, the debate is about more than just this one claim. Furthermore, you touched on the very reason this debate means so much to me: Peak Oil.

I believe that oil production will peak in a few short years, and it will have very serious ramifications for society. Without a doubt, we need to seriously research every possible alternative. This is primarily the reason that I spent my graduate studies at Texas A&M University working on cellulosic ethanol.

However, in my view the current national infatuation with ethanol hampers our preparations for a post-petroleum world. I have talked to many people who think that once the oil starts to run out, we will just switch over to ethanol. After all, they will say “E85 can lead us to energy independence.” Or they will repeat some other ethanol myth. That kind of thinking, in my opinion, lulls the public into complacency and provides a fig leaf for politicians so they don’t have to seriously address the key issue, which I believe is: We are going to have to learn to make do with a much lower per capita energy usage after oil production peaks.

On the one hand, I applaud Mr. Khosla’s willingness to invest in cellulosic ethanol, because I think cellulosic ethanol can indeed make an impact, and I think it has great potential. But on the other hand, I am very concerned about the consistent message I hear from the public that there is really nothing to worry about since cellulosic ethanol will save us once oil production peaks. If Mr. Khosla’s cellulosic ethanol ventures fail, it will be much more serious than a mere business failure. This has ramifications for the entire country. Failure will mean that we lost precious years in which we could have been making national preparations for Peak Oil. The fact that this threat is not being taking serious enough frightens me, and that is why I take this debate very seriously.

I hope that helps you better understand my position. And yes, incidentally I have read pretty much all of your publications, and I frequently run simulations with the GREET model.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

Dr. Wang responded, but in his response he just indicated that he had made a typo in his earlier response, and he thanked me for my e-mail. At this point, I thought the correspondence was finished, but Mr. Khosla weighed in with some final comments:

Robert, you should then stop talking about the irrelevant variable of “production efficiency” or even “energy balance” or “fossil energy balance” and change the debate to (a) petroleum reduction (since we have lots of coal fossil energy to produce corn ethanol and if you care about the environment also talk about (b) GHG reductions per mile driven. It is not what you say but how it is perceived/interpreted by the masses that is critical.

I am optimistic that at some point increasing CAFE will be mandated to reduce energy used in passenger transportation. I am highly supportive of that. I am not trying to convince anybody that we shouldn’t worry about reducing our energy use. Though I worry about peak oil, personally I think that the GHG problem is much more urgent. Market prices will address peak oil but if we have sufficient oil there is not market mechanism to reduce GHG emissions.

There are certainly some interesting points made in this correspondence, but I think it does vindicate my initial position. We can find metrics that favor ethanol, but energy efficiency of production is not one of them. What the proponents are saying is that for ethanol, we are going to count the captured solar energy from growing the corn. For oil, we are going to ignore the millions of years of captured solar energy. We are going to ignore that nature has already done the heavy lifting for us, that we are trying to replicate on an annual basis with ethanol. What you have is a metric, but it isn’t an efficiency metric.

September 2, 2006 Posted by | critics, energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang, Vinod Khosla | 3 Comments

Battling with the Critics

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

I am trying to spend more time writing on topics other than ethanol. But I get a lot of e-mails on that subject, and often have 3 or 4 mini-debates going on at a time via e-mail. I just finished a debate involving a government official and some big names over the energy balance of gasoline versus ethanol. There still seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this issue, so I asked for permission to publish the exchanges. I was reluctantly given permission, provided I deleted the personal information from the government official (name and government agency). The exchange involved myself, a government official that I will refer to as “Tom”, Michael Wang from Argonne, and Vinod Khosla. Tom’s responses are in black, mine are in blue, Wang’s (1) response is in green, and Khosla’s is in red.

It all started when I got an e-mail from Tom. It wasn’t clear to me which specific essay he had read that prompted his e-mail, but he wrote:

Mr. Rapier,

If your assessment of the ethanol fuel cycle energy balance (and its comparison with the petroleum fuel cycle energy balance) is right, then not only is Vinod Khosla wrong, but many others of us in the energy community — including the U.S. Department of Energy and Argonne National Laboratory (see attached summary) must also be wrong.

Attached was a summary of an Argonne National Lab report written by Michael Wang, who initiated the following claim (from the report):

As you can see, the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower—0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered.

I must admit that appeals to authority don’t impress me much, especially when I know the person making the argument is completely wrong. Remember, this is coming from a government official involved in alternative energy. So, I responded:

Tom,

They are wrong. I have read all of the Argonne studies. I have exchanged e-mails with Wang at Argonne and Shapouri at the USDA. They know they are being misleading in these claims, but most people don’t dig into the details to see their sleight of hand.

Here is a very simple test that will demonstrate they are wrong. After people work through this, they always see the problem. Let’s say my goal is to make 1 BTU of liquid fuel. Will I consume more energy if I produce ethanol, or will I consume more energy if I produce gasoline? The implication from the Argonne et al. would imply that it should take more energy to produce the gasoline. However, that is not remotely the case. If I presume an energy balance for ethanol of 1.3, then I will consume 1/1.3, or 0.77 BTUs to make 1 BTU. My net is a mere 0.23.

If, however, I make gasoline, the efficiency is 80%. That is where the 0.8 number comes from. In this case, I only consumed 20% of the BTUs to make 1 BTU of gasoline. My net is 0.8 BTUs. What they have done is convolute energy return and efficiency, and act like 1.3 for ethanol is the same metric as 0.8 for gasoline, when they are actually 2 different metrics.

As I like to say, there may be some legitimate reasons for using ethanol. Efficiency of production is one of the most misleading arguments out there. It just isn’t true. And I will gladly debate Wang or anyone at the DOE in print regarding these misleading claims.

Tom responded, copying Michael Wang at Argonne and Vinod Khosla (they were copied on all messages from this point). I guess he felt he needed some backup.

Robert,

As I see it, the fallacy of your reasoning (similar to that of Pimentel’s and Patzek’s) originates, at least in part, from an “all Btus of energy are created equal” viewpoint. If continued /expanded use of petroleum was indeed feasible, sustainable, environmentally and politically acceptable, etc., then perhaps your conclusion, that petroleum is a more “efficient” energy option than ethanol, would be more valid — i.e., just keep burning the petroleum Btus and continue to accept the bottom-line energy result (albeit a continually worsening one in any petroleum-depletion scenario) that the luxury of stored fossil fuel deposits afford us: by reinvesting a fraction (1/5 today but steadily increasing) of the recovered petroleum energy, we can continue to harvest what’s left.

But the production of ethanol and other biofuels (which, by the way, should include a broader focus, encompassing other forms of pure and mixed alcohols, biodiesel-type fuels, bio-crude type fuels, etc.), along with other kinds of bioenergy, offers a means of harvesting Btus of solar energy and incorporating this contribution from solar energy into today’s transportation energy supply — an achievement that has thus far proved elusive via other means, such as electric vehicles or hydrogen.

The fact that today’s investment of 1 Btu of fossil energy in the ethanol fuel cycle delivers “ONLY” 1.3 Btus of ethanol to the vehicle fuel tank (the added 0.3 Btu being solar energy incorporated into the fuel cycle) is actually a very beneficial energy result, especially given that this result only gets better with technology advances, potentially including production from cellulosic biomass. Meanwhile, the energy reinvestment necessary to capture remaining petroleum resources promises only to become greater. Ask yourself this question: If producing and operating hybrid electric vehicles (which I suspect have their own underestimated trade-offs besides the obvious higher cost factor), in order to make petroleum Btus go about one-third further, makes good sense in today’s energy world, then why doesn’t achieving essentially the same result via ethanol production and use (with at least incrementally, if not fundamentally better results in store) offer at least as attractive an option?

While I don’t think I would personally try to argue that the ethanol fuel cycle is twice as efficent as the petroleum fuel cycle (i.e., by comparing a 1.3-1.6:1 ratio to a 0.8:1 ratio), neither do I find your analysis compelling from an energy standpoint; in fact, it appears even more misleading. I believe that most of us in the transportation energy community — along with many in the automotive industry, the oil and other energy industries, the environmental and global climate change communities, etc — have come to accept the results of Argonne National Laboratory (as summarized in the U.S. DOE webpage document I forwarded to you earlier) as the most authoritative and fair assessement thus far of ethanol’s net energy (and greenhouse gas) implications.

Michael Wang also weighed in, to say he wasn’t getting involved:

Dear Mr. Rapier,

Instead of wasting everyone’s time, let me just simply pointing out that I do not recall that I have extensive communication with you and I do not intend to do so, because of your statement “I have exchanged e-mails with Wang at Argonne and Shapouri at the USDA. They know they are being misleading in these claims, but most people don’t dig into the details to see their sleight of hand.”

You are entitled to have your opinion, but do not imply personal attack on my professional work.

Michael Wang

I answered both with my next response:

Tom,

There is no fallacy in my reasoning, and my arguments have nothing to do with Pimentel’s and Patzek’s. To suggest they do indicates that perhaps you still don’t understand my argument.

Unlike Pimentel and Patzek, I am using Argonne’s numbers to make my point. Your argument, “If continued /expanded use of petroleum was indeed feasible, sustainable, environmentally and politically acceptable….” is a different argument than the one you originally started off with. You are suggesting that there are other reasons for using ethanol. Fine. But you are not addressing the point of my argument, which is simply that ethanol is far less efficient to produce than gasoline, despite the proponent’s claims to the contrary. Argue the sustainability issues. Argue the environmental issues. But don’t mislead people by suggesting that it takes more energy to produce gasoline than to produce ethanol. That is an incredibly ludicrous claim.

My argument is not misleading at all. It does not convolute efficiency and energy return. It is a measure of the amount of energy that must be consumed to produce two different fuels: gasoline or ethanol. That is a very simple metric, and is not in any way misleading. Wang’s metric is misleading, and I am sure that he is well aware that people are misusing it. When people say “ethanol is 1.2, but gasoline is worse at 0.8”, they have compared two different metrics. When you write that you accept the authority of Argonne/DOE with respect to the net energy and greenhouse implications of ethanol, you are once again addressing a different argument. Please do not address Red Herrings, since I have accepted their net energy results for ethanol in my analysis.

Regarding Wang’s communication with me, I still have it if he would like for me to refresh his memory. I pointed out the same thing I have pointed out here, and his response was essentially “Yeah, but you are looking at the total energy inputs, and there are many different ways to look at this problem.” I do not regard the debunking of misleading claims as a waste of anyone’s time. I would think that Wang would want to defend his work against critics like myself, especially given that most of it has not been subjected to scientific peer review. Again, I will debate Wang, Shapouri, or anyone else who wishes to argue that it is more efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline. If you want to argue about something else, then you aren’t addressing the argument I am making. Yet this is exactly what you did in your second response.

Finally, I want to make it clear that my comments are not meant to defend the status quo. I want to see us move away from fossil fuels as quickly as we can. I am merely using the gasoline versus ethanol issue to show why these claims of higher efficiency of ethanol production are fallacious.

This response covers my biggest gripe about people who want to debate this issue. If I rebut a specific claim, they gallop off to a different claim. That is exactly what Tom did.

At this point, I also asked if they minded me publishing the exchange:

Incidentally, do you have any problems with me publishing this exchange? I will publish it without changing a word, and will include Wang’s statement that he doesn’t recall having extensive communication with me. I think the public can benefit from these exchanges. I understand your position quite well, however I hope it is clear that you didn’t actually address my arguments, but instead addressed other reasons for supporting ethanol.

I am confident that my argument as written is completely accurate and not in any way misleading, and I have no problem being judged by public opinion on its merits. I am a strong supporter of publicly debating these technical issues, and I have no interest in misleading anyone. But I also have no interest in allowing people to be misled.

Vinod Khosla weighed in next:

Robert’s argument would make solar cells a horrible source of energy at an efficiency of 0.15! And why would we ever use electricity?

Most modern ethanol plants being built have an energy balance of around 1.5 -1.6 as they try and minimize their energy use for cost reasons. That coupled with the higher use efficiency of ethanol energy than petroleum energy (25% less mileage even with 33% less energy is the accepted EPA rating for most flex-fuel cars – the SAAB 9-5 Biopower with Turbo is only 18% less mileage) gives an ethanol “fossil fuel efficiency” of about 2X per mile driven. The current California plants we are building don’t especially ship corn (they are built around cattle feedlots where the corn has been shipped in for years) and they don’t dry the distillers grain since they use it locally at the feedlot, does better than the 2X number. The E3 Biofuels plant in Mead Nebraska achieves an “energy balance” of five for CORN ethanol according to a report I saw from the National Commission ion Energy Policy.

It is time to stop asking the wrong question of “energy balance” or even the somewhat less wrong question of “energy balance relative to petroleum” but rather ask the two right questions (a) how much petroleum use can we displace per gallon of an alternative liquid fuel and (b) what is the green house gas reduction per mile driven.

For nuance we might add (c) at what cost of production per mile driven (to take away the short term price manipulation going on and (d) in what vintage of plant? Modern, average, old, coal fired, gas fired, with and without dry distillers grain, all the way to the E3 Biofuels model. Today the economics of reducing energy cost work.

I responded to Mr. Khosla’s argument:

The solar cell argument is not valid, as several people pointed out on The Oil Drum, because it confuses efficiency with energy return. The instantaneous efficiency may be 15%, but you can get that day after day. The total energy returned from a solar cell far exceeds the energy that went into creating it.

The reason we use electricity is because we convert coal, something not especially useful for doing work in its natural form, into a form in which it can do useful work. That is not the case with most of the fossil fuels that go into making ethanol. We turn natural gas, gasoline, and diesel, all perfectly good transportation fuels, into ethanol. We capture a bit of solar energy in the process, but grain ethanol is primarily recycled fossil fuel. And while this argument has focused on the marginal energy return, not included in those assessments (as Wang can attest to) are the secondary inputs, nor effects from soil erosion from growing corn, or herbicide and pesticide runoff into our waterways.

For the record, I fully support, and have advocated the E3 Biofuels model. In fact, I spoke with their project manager this week for an hour on the phone. I was also recently quoted in National Geographic endorsing the E3 process:

New Ethanol Plants to Be Fueled by Cow Manure

However, a couple of things need to be clarified. Their plant has not yet started up, so claims of energy return from this process are premature. It is definitely a step in the right direction, and I would prefer to see all new ethanol plants built around a similar model.

Regarding “wrong questions” and “right questions”, that misses the entire point of my arguments, which are quite simple. There is a horrendous level of misinformation out there surrounding ethanol. When someone claims that Brazil farmed their way to energy independence, or that it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline, or that ethanol produces no greenhouse gases – those are claims that must be addressed. Ethanol policy should not be made based on misinformation like this. My agenda is simple, and that is truth in advertising. I am a skeptical scientist by nature, and I feel like these claims deserve critical technical scrutiny. It is not my goal to kill grain ethanol, unless it deserves to die. But we won’t know that without an honest debate, and too little of that is taking place. My goal is to separate hype from what the science actually indicates, and pursue those solutions that make the most long-term sense. Corn ethanol, which has been the primary target of my criticism, is not a very efficient use of our resources as it is currently produced. On this, I know that Mr. Khosla agrees with me, because we have spoken at length about this.

Tom indicated that he really didn’t want to have this debate in public:

I’m inclined toward Dr. Wang’s (and Mr. Khosla’s) viewpoints that it is somewhat of a distraction and probably unproductive to pursue this debate with you further or participate in your forum — especially in light of your unfortunate characterizations of individuals’ and organizations’ work (“sleight of hand”?). In any case, since you say you accept Argonne’s basic analytical results, then this entire debate is all about the interpretation and implications of these results (and who is “right” trying to answer the academic question “Which is the more “efficient” fuel, ethanol or gasoline”), which I don’t foresee being resolved in this forum.

I once again tried to convince Tom to take this debate into the public arena:

How else do you characterize the comparison of an EROI for ethanol to an efficiency of gasoline, other than sleight of hand? A straightforward assessment would be to consider either EROI to EROI, or efficiency to efficiency. Perhaps it wasn’t Dr. Wang’s intention to have this issue so thoroughly muddled, but the public has certainly muddled it. I have lost count of how many times someone claimed that it is twice as efficient to produce ethanol as to produce gasoline.

My impression then is that you do not want this exchange made public? If we posted this at The Oil Drum, it would be read by a tremendous number of people, and would have advocates on both sides. If your argument is correct, then you should have no concerns given that I will post this exchange verbatim. I think these are the kinds of open exchanges that need to take place so people can sort out hype from truth. My main objective is education, and I think it would certainly suit that purpose.

We exchanged 1 last pair of e-mails that I won’t entirely reproduce (because I told Tom I wouldn’t). Suffice to say that Tom agreed to publication, provided I removed some information on him and his organization. In his final response to me, Tom accused me of rancor (passion is not the same as rancor!), questioned whether my rancor explains my e-mail identity (tenaciousdna), and once again invoked the argument from authority, suggesting that my argument was subjective and merely my opinion, and he and all those other authorities couldn’t be wrong. Needless to say, my reply was “pointed”, but I offered to take up the matter with him at any time.

This exchange may help explain why my post count has gone down, which some have asked about. These things take up a bit of my time every day, so today I decided to kill two birds with one stone and make a post out of the debate. Let this also serve as a warning to those who want to bang heads with me. 🙂 If you want to win a debate with me, make sure you are arguing from a factual position.

August 26, 2006 Posted by | critics, energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang, Vinod Khosla | 226 Comments

Battling with the Critics

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

I am trying to spend more time writing on topics other than ethanol. But I get a lot of e-mails on that subject, and often have 3 or 4 mini-debates going on at a time via e-mail. I just finished a debate involving a government official and some big names over the energy balance of gasoline versus ethanol. There still seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding this issue, so I asked for permission to publish the exchanges. I was reluctantly given permission, provided I deleted the personal information from the government official (name and government agency). The exchange involved myself, a government official that I will refer to as “Tom”, Michael Wang from Argonne, and Vinod Khosla. Tom’s responses are in black, mine are in blue, Wang’s (1) response is in green, and Khosla’s is in red.

It all started when I got an e-mail from Tom. It wasn’t clear to me which specific essay he had read that prompted his e-mail, but he wrote:

Mr. Rapier,

If your assessment of the ethanol fuel cycle energy balance (and its comparison with the petroleum fuel cycle energy balance) is right, then not only is Vinod Khosla wrong, but many others of us in the energy community — including the U.S. Department of Energy and Argonne National Laboratory (see attached summary) must also be wrong.

Attached was a summary of an Argonne National Lab report written by Michael Wang, who initiated the following claim (from the report):

As you can see, the fossil energy input per unit of ethanol is lower—0.74 million Btu fossil energy consumed for each 1 million Btu of ethanol delivered, compared to 1.23 million Btu of fossil energy consumed for each million Btu of gasoline delivered.

I must admit that appeals to authority don’t impress me much, especially when I know the person making the argument is completely wrong. Remember, this is coming from a government official involved in alternative energy. So, I responded:

Tom,

They are wrong. I have read all of the Argonne studies. I have exchanged e-mails with Wang at Argonne and Shapouri at the USDA. They know they are being misleading in these claims, but most people don’t dig into the details to see their sleight of hand.

Here is a very simple test that will demonstrate they are wrong. After people work through this, they always see the problem. Let’s say my goal is to make 1 BTU of liquid fuel. Will I consume more energy if I produce ethanol, or will I consume more energy if I produce gasoline? The implication from the Argonne et al. would imply that it should take more energy to produce the gasoline. However, that is not remotely the case. If I presume an energy balance for ethanol of 1.3, then I will consume 1/1.3, or 0.77 BTUs to make 1 BTU. My net is a mere 0.23.

If, however, I make gasoline, the efficiency is 80%. That is where the 0.8 number comes from. In this case, I only consumed 20% of the BTUs to make 1 BTU of gasoline. My net is 0.8 BTUs. What they have done is convolute energy return and efficiency, and act like 1.3 for ethanol is the same metric as 0.8 for gasoline, when they are actually 2 different metrics.

As I like to say, there may be some legitimate reasons for using ethanol. Efficiency of production is one of the most misleading arguments out there. It just isn’t true. And I will gladly debate Wang or anyone at the DOE in print regarding these misleading claims.

Tom responded, copying Michael Wang at Argonne and Vinod Khosla (they were copied on all messages from this point). I guess he felt he needed some backup.

Robert,

As I see it, the fallacy of your reasoning (similar to that of Pimentel’s and Patzek’s) originates, at least in part, from an “all Btus of energy are created equal” viewpoint. If continued /expanded use of petroleum was indeed feasible, sustainable, environmentally and politically acceptable, etc., then perhaps your conclusion, that petroleum is a more “efficient” energy option than ethanol, would be more valid — i.e., just keep burning the petroleum Btus and continue to accept the bottom-line energy result (albeit a continually worsening one in any petroleum-depletion scenario) that the luxury of stored fossil fuel deposits afford us: by reinvesting a fraction (1/5 today but steadily increasing) of the recovered petroleum energy, we can continue to harvest what’s left.

But the production of ethanol and other biofuels (which, by the way, should include a broader focus, encompassing other forms of pure and mixed alcohols, biodiesel-type fuels, bio-crude type fuels, etc.), along with other kinds of bioenergy, offers a means of harvesting Btus of solar energy and incorporating this contribution from solar energy into today’s transportation energy supply — an achievement that has thus far proved elusive via other means, such as electric vehicles or hydrogen.

The fact that today’s investment of 1 Btu of fossil energy in the ethanol fuel cycle delivers “ONLY” 1.3 Btus of ethanol to the vehicle fuel tank (the added 0.3 Btu being solar energy incorporated into the fuel cycle) is actually a very beneficial energy result, especially given that this result only gets better with technology advances, potentially including production from cellulosic biomass. Meanwhile, the energy reinvestment necessary to capture remaining petroleum resources promises only to become greater. Ask yourself this question: If producing and operating hybrid electric vehicles (which I suspect have their own underestimated trade-offs besides the obvious higher cost factor), in order to make petroleum Btus go about one-third further, makes good sense in today’s energy world, then why doesn’t achieving essentially the same result via ethanol production and use (with at least incrementally, if not fundamentally better results in store) offer at least as attractive an option?

While I don’t think I would personally try to argue that the ethanol fuel cycle is twice as efficent as the petroleum fuel cycle (i.e., by comparing a 1.3-1.6:1 ratio to a 0.8:1 ratio), neither do I find your analysis compelling from an energy standpoint; in fact, it appears even more misleading. I believe that most of us in the transportation energy community — along with many in the automotive industry, the oil and other energy industries, the environmental and global climate change communities, etc — have come to accept the results of Argonne National Laboratory (as summarized in the U.S. DOE webpage document I forwarded to you earlier) as the most authoritative and fair assessement thus far of ethanol’s net energy (and greenhouse gas) implications.

Michael Wang also weighed in, to say he wasn’t getting involved:

Dear Mr. Rapier,

Instead of wasting everyone’s time, let me just simply pointing out that I do not recall that I have extensive communication with you and I do not intend to do so, because of your statement “I have exchanged e-mails with Wang at Argonne and Shapouri at the USDA. They know they are being misleading in these claims, but most people don’t dig into the details to see their sleight of hand.”

You are entitled to have your opinion, but do not imply personal attack on my professional work.

Michael Wang

I answered both with my next response:

Tom,

There is no fallacy in my reasoning, and my arguments have nothing to do with Pimentel’s and Patzek’s. To suggest they do indicates that perhaps you still don’t understand my argument.

Unlike Pimentel and Patzek, I am using Argonne’s numbers to make my point. Your argument, “If continued /expanded use of petroleum was indeed feasible, sustainable, environmentally and politically acceptable….” is a different argument than the one you originally started off with. You are suggesting that there are other reasons for using ethanol. Fine. But you are not addressing the point of my argument, which is simply that ethanol is far less efficient to produce than gasoline, despite the proponent’s claims to the contrary. Argue the sustainability issues. Argue the environmental issues. But don’t mislead people by suggesting that it takes more energy to produce gasoline than to produce ethanol. That is an incredibly ludicrous claim.

My argument is not misleading at all. It does not convolute efficiency and energy return. It is a measure of the amount of energy that must be consumed to produce two different fuels: gasoline or ethanol. That is a very simple metric, and is not in any way misleading. Wang’s metric is misleading, and I am sure that he is well aware that people are misusing it. When people say “ethanol is 1.2, but gasoline is worse at 0.8”, they have compared two different metrics. When you write that you accept the authority of Argonne/DOE with respect to the net energy and greenhouse implications of ethanol, you are once again addressing a different argument. Please do not address Red Herrings, since I have accepted their net energy results for ethanol in my analysis.

Regarding Wang’s communication with me, I still have it if he would like for me to refresh his memory. I pointed out the same thing I have pointed out here, and his response was essentially “Yeah, but you are looking at the total energy inputs, and there are many different ways to look at this problem.” I do not regard the debunking of misleading claims as a waste of anyone’s time. I would think that Wang would want to defend his work against critics like myself, especially given that most of it has not been subjected to scientific peer review. Again, I will debate Wang, Shapouri, or anyone else who wishes to argue that it is more efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline. If you want to argue about something else, then you aren’t addressing the argument I am making. Yet this is exactly what you did in your second response.

Finally, I want to make it clear that my comments are not meant to defend the status quo. I want to see us move away from fossil fuels as quickly as we can. I am merely using the gasoline versus ethanol issue to show why these claims of higher efficiency of ethanol production are fallacious.

This response covers my biggest gripe about people who want to debate this issue. If I rebut a specific claim, they gallop off to a different claim. That is exactly what Tom did.

At this point, I also asked if they minded me publishing the exchange:

Incidentally, do you have any problems with me publishing this exchange? I will publish it without changing a word, and will include Wang’s statement that he doesn’t recall having extensive communication with me. I think the public can benefit from these exchanges. I understand your position quite well, however I hope it is clear that you didn’t actually address my arguments, but instead addressed other reasons for supporting ethanol.

I am confident that my argument as written is completely accurate and not in any way misleading, and I have no problem being judged by public opinion on its merits. I am a strong supporter of publicly debating these technical issues, and I have no interest in misleading anyone. But I also have no interest in allowing people to be misled.

Vinod Khosla weighed in next:

Robert’s argument would make solar cells a horrible source of energy at an efficiency of 0.15! And why would we ever use electricity?

Most modern ethanol plants being built have an energy balance of around 1.5 -1.6 as they try and minimize their energy use for cost reasons. That coupled with the higher use efficiency of ethanol energy than petroleum energy (25% less mileage even with 33% less energy is the accepted EPA rating for most flex-fuel cars – the SAAB 9-5 Biopower with Turbo is only 18% less mileage) gives an ethanol “fossil fuel efficiency” of about 2X per mile driven. The current California plants we are building don’t especially ship corn (they are built around cattle feedlots where the corn has been shipped in for years) and they don’t dry the distillers grain since they use it locally at the feedlot, does better than the 2X number. The E3 Biofuels plant in Mead Nebraska achieves an “energy balance” of five for CORN ethanol according to a report I saw from the National Commission ion Energy Policy.

It is time to stop asking the wrong question of “energy balance” or even the somewhat less wrong question of “energy balance relative to petroleum” but rather ask the two right questions (a) how much petroleum use can we displace per gallon of an alternative liquid fuel and (b) what is the green house gas reduction per mile driven.

For nuance we might add (c) at what cost of production per mile driven (to take away the short term price manipulation going on and (d) in what vintage of plant? Modern, average, old, coal fired, gas fired, with and without dry distillers grain, all the way to the E3 Biofuels model. Today the economics of reducing energy cost work.

I responded to Mr. Khosla’s argument:

The solar cell argument is not valid, as several people pointed out on The Oil Drum, because it confuses efficiency with energy return. The instantaneous efficiency may be 15%, but you can get that day after day. The total energy returned from a solar cell far exceeds the energy that went into creating it.

The reason we use electricity is because we convert coal, something not especially useful for doing work in its natural form, into a form in which it can do useful work. That is not the case with most of the fossil fuels that go into making ethanol. We turn natural gas, gasoline, and diesel, all perfectly good transportation fuels, into ethanol. We capture a bit of solar energy in the process, but grain ethanol is primarily recycled fossil fuel. And while this argument has focused on the marginal energy return, not included in those assessments (as Wang can attest to) are the secondary inputs, nor effects from soil erosion from growing corn, or herbicide and pesticide runoff into our waterways.

For the record, I fully support, and have advocated the E3 Biofuels model. In fact, I spoke with their project manager this week for an hour on the phone. I was also recently quoted in National Geographic endorsing the E3 process:

New Ethanol Plants to Be Fueled by Cow Manure

However, a couple of things need to be clarified. Their plant has not yet started up, so claims of energy return from this process are premature. It is definitely a step in the right direction, and I would prefer to see all new ethanol plants built around a similar model.

Regarding “wrong questions” and “right questions”, that misses the entire point of my arguments, which are quite simple. There is a horrendous level of misinformation out there surrounding ethanol. When someone claims that Brazil farmed their way to energy independence, or that it is more energy efficient to produce ethanol than gasoline, or that ethanol produces no greenhouse gases – those are claims that must be addressed. Ethanol policy should not be made based on misinformation like this. My agenda is simple, and that is truth in advertising. I am a skeptical scientist by nature, and I feel like these claims deserve critical technical scrutiny. It is not my goal to kill grain ethanol, unless it deserves to die. But we won’t know that without an honest debate, and too little of that is taking place. My goal is to separate hype from what the science actually indicates, and pursue those solutions that make the most long-term sense. Corn ethanol, which has been the primary target of my criticism, is not a very efficient use of our resources as it is currently produced. On this, I know that Mr. Khosla agrees with me, because we have spoken at length about this.

Tom indicated that he really didn’t want to have this debate in public:

I’m inclined toward Dr. Wang’s (and Mr. Khosla’s) viewpoints that it is somewhat of a distraction and probably unproductive to pursue this debate with you further or participate in your forum — especially in light of your unfortunate characterizations of individuals’ and organizations’ work (“sleight of hand”?). In any case, since you say you accept Argonne’s basic analytical results, then this entire debate is all about the interpretation and implications of these results (and who is “right” trying to answer the academic question “Which is the more “efficient” fuel, ethanol or gasoline”), which I don’t foresee being resolved in this forum.

I once again tried to convince Tom to take this debate into the public arena:

How else do you characterize the comparison of an EROI for ethanol to an efficiency of gasoline, other than sleight of hand? A straightforward assessment would be to consider either EROI to EROI, or efficiency to efficiency. Perhaps it wasn’t Dr. Wang’s intention to have this issue so thoroughly muddled, but the public has certainly muddled it. I have lost count of how many times someone claimed that it is twice as efficient to produce ethanol as to produce gasoline.

My impression then is that you do not want this exchange made public? If we posted this at The Oil Drum, it would be read by a tremendous number of people, and would have advocates on both sides. If your argument is correct, then you should have no concerns given that I will post this exchange verbatim. I think these are the kinds of open exchanges that need to take place so people can sort out hype from truth. My main objective is education, and I think it would certainly suit that purpose.

We exchanged 1 last pair of e-mails that I won’t entirely reproduce (because I told Tom I wouldn’t). Suffice to say that Tom agreed to publication, provided I removed some information on him and his organization. In his final response to me, Tom accused me of rancor (passion is not the same as rancor!), questioned whether my rancor explains my e-mail identity (tenaciousdna), and once again invoked the argument from authority, suggesting that my argument was subjective and merely my opinion, and he and all those other authorities couldn’t be wrong. Needless to say, my reply was “pointed”, but I offered to take up the matter with him at any time.

This exchange may help explain why my post count has gone down, which some have asked about. These things take up a bit of my time every day, so today I decided to kill two birds with one stone and make a post out of the debate. Let this also serve as a warning to those who want to bang heads with me. 🙂 If you want to win a debate with me, make sure you are arguing from a factual position.

August 26, 2006 Posted by | critics, energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang, Vinod Khosla | 112 Comments

Challenge to Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture’s Ethanol Claims

Disclaimer

First, I want to make a little disclaimer. In this essay, I will again be discussing the energy balance of gasoline versus ethanol. I am not doing this to suggest that gasoline is a great fuel of choice, but merely to show that grain ethanol is not. Gasoline has its own set of baggage, most notably that it is not sustainable. But the purpose of this essay is merely to examine claims from ethanol advocates who would have us believe that ethanol is actually more energy efficient to produce than gasoline.

Correspondence With Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture

Following my last posting on the energy balance of corn ethanol versus gasoline, I got into an e-mail exchange with an official from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. I pointed out to the official that a claim that can found on their website is simply not correct. In part, the claim reads:

In summary, the finished liquid fuel energy yield for fossil fuel dedicated to the production of ethanol is 1.34 but only 0.74 for gasoline. In other words the energy yield of ethanol is (1.34/0.74) or 81 percent greater than the comparable yield for gasoline.

I won’t identify the official by name, but I will show that his responses were vacuous and devoid of any logic or calculations to back up his point. In his first response, he wrote:

It appears that you may not be considering that all 115,000 (more or less) BTU’s of energy that exist in a gallon of gasoline are solely derived from the crude oil that was also used to extract, distill and refine it. Only in this way could you come to the conclusion that the gasoline production and refining process yields more energy than it consumes. In fact, no matter how efficient the process of oil exploration and refining becomes, the energy yield for gasoline can never be positive because each unit of energy in the finished product also must be added to the total oil consumed in the production and refining of crude oil.

So, he is suggesting that by definition, the energy yield for gasoline can’t be positive. That’s all well and good, and I understand that, but then they do not use the same definition for calculating the energy yield of ethanol. I responded:

No, I understand quite clearly. What the USDA, and you by extension, have done here is to make an apples and oranges comparison. Consider that I wish to produce 10 BTUs of energy. I can use 1 BTU to pump oil out of the ground, and 1 more to refine it, netting 8 BTUs. This is where the claims of roughly 80% efficiency come from.

Now, let’s do the same exercise for ethanol. To produce 10 BTUs of energy, given an energy return of 1.3, requires that I invest 10/1.3, or 7.69 BTUs. I only net out 2.3 BTU, or barely over 1/4th of what I would get for investing my BTUs into gasoline production. That is a true apples to apples comparison using the same metric.

There may be some legitimate reasons for producing ethanol, but energy efficiency is not one as my calculation has shown. My calculation and conclusion are correct. If you work through the math, you will see the same thing. What is shown on your website is misinformation.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

He then followed up with:

I disagree with your contention. You are still ignoring 80% of the energy required to provide gasoline. According to the report you reference, one Btu of fossil energy yields 1.34 Btu of ethanol.

No calculations or logic to support his position. He is simply ignoring the fact that the two methods of measuring efficiency are using completely different methodologies. When you compare ethanol to gasoline using the same metric, ethanol always turns out to be far less efficient. So, I again responded:

I am not ignoring anything. I am just showing the energy investment required to produce 10 BTUs of gasoline, versus 10 BTUs of ethanol. The energy investment is always much higher for producing ethanol. That is a true apples to apples comparison. The “80% that I am ignoring” are the contained BTUs in the crude oil that end up getting turned into gasoline. This is comprised of captured solar energy, as in the case of ethanol, but in the case of gasoline the solar energy was captured over many years instead of a single growing season.

Again, let me put it to you another way, and I think you will see the problem. Assume I have 10 BTUs of energy to invest. How many BTUs of usable energy will I have left if I invest into producing gasoline from scratch (i.e., starting from crude oil in the ground) versus investing the 10 BTUs into producing ethanol?

Here is the math, if you don’t wish to work it out. In the case of gasoline, my 10 BTUs will generate about 100 BTUs of crude oil, since the energy return on energy invested for crude oil is about 10 to 1. It will then take about another 10 BTUs to refine the oil into gasoline. So, for my 10 BTU investment, I netted back 80 BTUs of gasoline.

In the case of ethanol, for a 10 BTU investment, I only got back 13.4 BTUs. I only netted 3.4 BTUs.

I can understand that you might disagree. But your disagreement needs to be backed up with some actual calculations showing where my contention is wrong. Please set up any case you like, as long as the comparison is apples to apples. I am confident that you can’t show a case in which ethanol production is more energy efficient than gasoline.

Sincerely,
Robert Rapier

After my last response, I never heard from him again. I really wanted to see him back up his claims with some calculations. Perhaps he tried to do it, and got my point. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway to him, since a lot of people involved in agriculture don’t seem to care about the energy balance, as long as it benefits corn farmers.

Gary Dikkers Reports a Similar Experience

I would also point out that Gary Dikkers indicated that he had a similar exchange with the MN Dept. of Agriculture. Gary had previously written in the comments section of an earlier essay:

Last month the USDOT released the fuel consumed/miles driven for each of the 50 states in 2004. Just for kicks I compared Minnesota (which has mandated ethanol) to Wisconsin (which does not.) The two states are near twins with similar weather, topography, and about the same mix of urban/rural population.

In 2004, the average fuel economy for the entire State of Minnesota using E10 is 20.62 mpg. The average in Wisconsin is 23.30 mpg.

By adding 10% ethanol to their fuel, Minnesota drivers ended up burning 13% more fuel than their Wisconsin neighbors.

After my last essay, Gary indicated that he had also corresponded with the MN Dept. of Agriculture:

Yesterday I sent him the USDOT data showing the large differential between fuel economy in Minnesota with E10 and Wisconsin without ethanol, and he is having trouble getting his mind around that. Says it can’t be true.

Correspondence With Michael Wang

Finally, I had tried to elicit a response from Michael Wang at Argonne, who seems to be the source of these claims about energy efficiency. I had also written to him to show him that his claims could not possibly be accurate. He finally responded. In part, he wrote:

Our calculations on energy are separated into total energy, fossil energy, and petroleum energy. Depending what type of energy you are looking at, results are very different. I believe that you are talking about total energy.

Well, of course I am talking about total energy. Can you make ethanol or gasoline without the total energy? Why on earth would someone not count the total energy, unless they are playing games? Frankly, this statement from him didn’t make much sense to me. I know that these guys are just playing games to exaggerate ethanol’s allure, so I responded:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the response. I have read quite a few of your publications, as well as Shapouri’s. I also exchanged e-mails with Shapouri last year on this subject. It really seems to me that you are playing games with numbers to try to make ethanol look better than it really is. I think that you are not making consistent comparisons between gasoline and ethanol production. When I see someone say that gasoline is 80% efficient and ethanol is 130% efficient, they are always using different measurement metrics.

Can you show me any case in which an apples to apples comparison shows ethanol to have a better energy balance? We can do solar energy if you like, but fossil fuels are a very rich source of captured solar energy with a much greater BTU value per unit volume. It is hard for me to see how ethanol is going to win that matchup. But if you have a specific publication, or a specific example in which you can show that ethanol has a superior energy balance, I would like to see it. I can tell you that if I have X BTUs to invest any way I like, I will get about 4 times the BTU value by investing in gasoline over investing in ethanol. That is quite an easy calculation to show, and is essentially the calculation I showed in my first e-mail.

I would support ethanol if I thought the energy balance was very good, but from what I have seen it is not. All I see are some very misleading arguments designed to show ethanol in a more positive light than reality would dictate.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

So far, no response. I don’t expect to get one. It seems that whenever I ask an ethanol advocate to back up their assertions with some calculations to support their argument, they immediately clam up.

Are there any ethanol advocates out there who would like to back up some of these claims with some calculations? I guess I need to issue a debate challenge to see if I can get someone to actually actually defend ethanol with calculations.

April 13, 2006 Posted by | energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang | 31 Comments

Challenge to Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture’s Ethanol Claims

Disclaimer

First, I want to make a little disclaimer. In this essay, I will again be discussing the energy balance of gasoline versus ethanol. I am not doing this to suggest that gasoline is a great fuel of choice, but merely to show that grain ethanol is not. Gasoline has its own set of baggage, most notably that it is not sustainable. But the purpose of this essay is merely to examine claims from ethanol advocates who would have us believe that ethanol is actually more energy efficient to produce than gasoline.

Correspondence With Minnesota Dept. of Agriculture

Following my last posting on the energy balance of corn ethanol versus gasoline, I got into an e-mail exchange with an official from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. I pointed out to the official that a claim that can found on their website is simply not correct. In part, the claim reads:

In summary, the finished liquid fuel energy yield for fossil fuel dedicated to the production of ethanol is 1.34 but only 0.74 for gasoline. In other words the energy yield of ethanol is (1.34/0.74) or 81 percent greater than the comparable yield for gasoline.

I won’t identify the official by name, but I will show that his responses were vacuous and devoid of any logic or calculations to back up his point. In his first response, he wrote:

It appears that you may not be considering that all 115,000 (more or less) BTU’s of energy that exist in a gallon of gasoline are solely derived from the crude oil that was also used to extract, distill and refine it. Only in this way could you come to the conclusion that the gasoline production and refining process yields more energy than it consumes. In fact, no matter how efficient the process of oil exploration and refining becomes, the energy yield for gasoline can never be positive because each unit of energy in the finished product also must be added to the total oil consumed in the production and refining of crude oil.

So, he is suggesting that by definition, the energy yield for gasoline can’t be positive. That’s all well and good, and I understand that, but then they do not use the same definition for calculating the energy yield of ethanol. I responded:

No, I understand quite clearly. What the USDA, and you by extension, have done here is to make an apples and oranges comparison. Consider that I wish to produce 10 BTUs of energy. I can use 1 BTU to pump oil out of the ground, and 1 more to refine it, netting 8 BTUs. This is where the claims of roughly 80% efficiency come from.

Now, let’s do the same exercise for ethanol. To produce 10 BTUs of energy, given an energy return of 1.3, requires that I invest 10/1.3, or 7.69 BTUs. I only net out 2.3 BTU, or barely over 1/4th of what I would get for investing my BTUs into gasoline production. That is a true apples to apples comparison using the same metric.

There may be some legitimate reasons for producing ethanol, but energy efficiency is not one as my calculation has shown. My calculation and conclusion are correct. If you work through the math, you will see the same thing. What is shown on your website is misinformation.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

He then followed up with:

I disagree with your contention. You are still ignoring 80% of the energy required to provide gasoline. According to the report you reference, one Btu of fossil energy yields 1.34 Btu of ethanol.

No calculations or logic to support his position. He is simply ignoring the fact that the two methods of measuring efficiency are using completely different methodologies. When you compare ethanol to gasoline using the same metric, ethanol always turns out to be far less efficient. So, I again responded:

I am not ignoring anything. I am just showing the energy investment required to produce 10 BTUs of gasoline, versus 10 BTUs of ethanol. The energy investment is always much higher for producing ethanol. That is a true apples to apples comparison. The “80% that I am ignoring” are the contained BTUs in the crude oil that end up getting turned into gasoline. This is comprised of captured solar energy, as in the case of ethanol, but in the case of gasoline the solar energy was captured over many years instead of a single growing season.

Again, let me put it to you another way, and I think you will see the problem. Assume I have 10 BTUs of energy to invest. How many BTUs of usable energy will I have left if I invest into producing gasoline from scratch (i.e., starting from crude oil in the ground) versus investing the 10 BTUs into producing ethanol?

Here is the math, if you don’t wish to work it out. In the case of gasoline, my 10 BTUs will generate about 100 BTUs of crude oil, since the energy return on energy invested for crude oil is about 10 to 1. It will then take about another 10 BTUs to refine the oil into gasoline. So, for my 10 BTU investment, I netted back 80 BTUs of gasoline.

In the case of ethanol, for a 10 BTU investment, I only got back 13.4 BTUs. I only netted 3.4 BTUs.

I can understand that you might disagree. But your disagreement needs to be backed up with some actual calculations showing where my contention is wrong. Please set up any case you like, as long as the comparison is apples to apples. I am confident that you can’t show a case in which ethanol production is more energy efficient than gasoline.

Sincerely,
Robert Rapier

After my last response, I never heard from him again. I really wanted to see him back up his claims with some calculations. Perhaps he tried to do it, and got my point. Or perhaps it doesn’t matter anyway to him, since a lot of people involved in agriculture don’t seem to care about the energy balance, as long as it benefits corn farmers.

Gary Dikkers Reports a Similar Experience

I would also point out that Gary Dikkers indicated that he had a similar exchange with the MN Dept. of Agriculture. Gary had previously written in the comments section of an earlier essay:

Last month the USDOT released the fuel consumed/miles driven for each of the 50 states in 2004. Just for kicks I compared Minnesota (which has mandated ethanol) to Wisconsin (which does not.) The two states are near twins with similar weather, topography, and about the same mix of urban/rural population.

In 2004, the average fuel economy for the entire State of Minnesota using E10 is 20.62 mpg. The average in Wisconsin is 23.30 mpg.

By adding 10% ethanol to their fuel, Minnesota drivers ended up burning 13% more fuel than their Wisconsin neighbors.

After my last essay, Gary indicated that he had also corresponded with the MN Dept. of Agriculture:

Yesterday I sent him the USDOT data showing the large differential between fuel economy in Minnesota with E10 and Wisconsin without ethanol, and he is having trouble getting his mind around that. Says it can’t be true.

Correspondence With Michael Wang

Finally, I had tried to elicit a response from Michael Wang at Argonne, who seems to be the source of these claims about energy efficiency. I had also written to him to show him that his claims could not possibly be accurate. He finally responded. In part, he wrote:

Our calculations on energy are separated into total energy, fossil energy, and petroleum energy. Depending what type of energy you are looking at, results are very different. I believe that you are talking about total energy.

Well, of course I am talking about total energy. Can you make ethanol or gasoline without the total energy? Why on earth would someone not count the total energy, unless they are playing games? Frankly, this statement from him didn’t make much sense to me. I know that these guys are just playing games to exaggerate ethanol’s allure, so I responded:

Hi Michael,

Thanks for the response. I have read quite a few of your publications, as well as Shapouri’s. I also exchanged e-mails with Shapouri last year on this subject. It really seems to me that you are playing games with numbers to try to make ethanol look better than it really is. I think that you are not making consistent comparisons between gasoline and ethanol production. When I see someone say that gasoline is 80% efficient and ethanol is 130% efficient, they are always using different measurement metrics.

Can you show me any case in which an apples to apples comparison shows ethanol to have a better energy balance? We can do solar energy if you like, but fossil fuels are a very rich source of captured solar energy with a much greater BTU value per unit volume. It is hard for me to see how ethanol is going to win that matchup. But if you have a specific publication, or a specific example in which you can show that ethanol has a superior energy balance, I would like to see it. I can tell you that if I have X BTUs to invest any way I like, I will get about 4 times the BTU value by investing in gasoline over investing in ethanol. That is quite an easy calculation to show, and is essentially the calculation I showed in my first e-mail.

I would support ethanol if I thought the energy balance was very good, but from what I have seen it is not. All I see are some very misleading arguments designed to show ethanol in a more positive light than reality would dictate.

Sincerely,

Robert Rapier

So far, no response. I don’t expect to get one. It seems that whenever I ask an ethanol advocate to back up their assertions with some calculations to support their argument, they immediately clam up.

Are there any ethanol advocates out there who would like to back up some of these claims with some calculations? I guess I need to issue a debate challenge to see if I can get someone to actually actually defend ethanol with calculations.

April 13, 2006 Posted by | energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang | 15 Comments

Energy Balance For Ethanol Better Than For Gasoline?

Surely you have heard the claim. Proponents of ethanol will claim that it takes less fossil fuels to produce a BTU of ethanol than to produce a BTU of gasoline. Here is the claim from a Minnesota Department of Agriculture site (1):

A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Economic Research Service Report number 814 titled “Estimating The Net Energy Balance Of Corn Ethanol: An Update” was published in July of 2002. The Conclusion states in part: “Corn ethanol is energy efficient, as indicated by an energy ratio of 1.34; that is, for every Btu dedicated to producing ethanol, there is a 34-percent energy gain.” A similar study done in 1995 indicated only a 1.24 energy ratio.

The concept of “input efficiencies for fossil energy sources” was introduced as a component of the study. This was meant to account for the fossil energy used to extract, transport and manufacture the raw material (crude oil) into the final energy product (gasoline). According to the study, gasoline has an energy ratio of 0.805. In other words, for every unit of energy dedicated to the production of gasoline there is a 19.5 percent energy loss.

In summary, the finished liquid fuel energy yield for fossil fuel dedicated to the production of ethanol is 1.34 but only 0.74 for gasoline. In other words the energy yield of ethanol is (1.34/0.74) or 81 percent greater than the comparable yield for gasoline.

I have dealt with the USDA studies in previous essays, showing the shoddy and misleading methodology they use. But let’s now examine this claim of energy efficiency. Would it surprise you to know that not only is this claim false, it is WAY FALSE?

Let’s do some quick calculations to demonstrate this. A barrel of crude oil contains 5.8 million BTUs (2) of material that will ultimately be turned into gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, etc. It is well-documented that the average energy return on energy invested (EROEI) for crude oil production is around 10/1 (3). Therefore, we will use up about 580,000 BTUs from our barrel getting it out of the ground. The other major input occurs during the refining process, and it also takes roughly 10% of the contained BTUs in the barrel of oil. The total energy input into the process is 1.16 million BTUs, and the energy output was 5.8 million BTUs. The EROEI is then 5.8 million/1.16 million, or 5/1.

For ethanol, the USDA study reference above showed that for an energy input of 77,228 BTUs, an energy output (when co-products were included) of 98,333 BTUs were generated. The EROEI is then 98,333/77,228, or 1.27/1. The efficiency of producing gasoline is then 4 times higher than for ethanol, which makes sense when you think about it.

Crude oil is a highly energy dense mixture. It is contained in underground deposits, and just needs to be pumped out of the ground. During the refining step, large amounts of water don’t need to be distilled out of the product. Contrast this to ethanol. The corn must be planted, grown, and harvested. Processing must take place to turn the corn into crude ethanol. The crude ethanol is actually mostly water, which must be removed in a highly energy intensive distillation. The final product, ethanol, contains only about 70% of the BTU value of the same volume of gasoline. So it would appear that even without doing any rigorous calculations, producing ethanol would be far less energy efficient than producing gasoline.

So, where did the claim that ethanol is more energy efficient originate? I believe it originates with researchers from Argonne National Laboratory, who developed a model (GREET) that is used to determine the energy inputs to turn crude oil into products (4). Since it will take some amount of energy to refine a barrel of crude oil, by definition the efficiency is less than 100% in the way they measured it. For example, if I have 1 BTU of energy, but it took .2 BTUs to turn it into a useable form, then the efficiency is 80%. This is the kind of calculation people use to show that the gasoline efficiency is less than 100%. However, ethanol is not measured in the same way. Look again at the example from the USDA paper, and lets do the equivalent calculation for ethanol. In that case, we got 98,333 BTUs out of the process, but we had to input 77,228 to get it out. In this case, comparing apples to apples, the efficiency of producing ethanol is just 21%. Again, gasoline is about 4 times higher.

OK, so Argonne originated the calculation. But are they really at fault here? Yes, they are. Not only did they promote the efficiency calculation for petroleum products with their GREET model, but they have proceeded to make apples and oranges comparisons in order to show ethanol in a positive light. They have themselves muddied the waters. Michael Wang, from Argonne, (and author of the GREET model) made a remarkable claim last September at The 15th Annual Symposium on Alcohol Fuels in San Diego (5). On his 4th slide , he claimed that it takes 0.74 MMBTU to make 1 MMBTU of ethanol, but 1.23 MMBTU to make 1 MMBTU of gasoline. That simply can’t be correct, as the calculations in the preceding paragraphs have shown.

Not only is his claim incorrect, but it is terribly irresponsible for someone from a government agency to make such a claim. I don’t know whether he is being intentionally misleading, but it certainly looks that way. Wang is also the co-author of the earlier USDA studies that I have critiqued and shown to be full of errors and misleading arguments. These people are publishing articles that bypass the peer review process designed to ferret out these kinds of blatant errors. I suspect a politically driven agenda in which they are putting out intentionally misleading information.

One of the reasons I haven’t written this up already, is that 2 weeks ago I sent an e-mail to Wang bringing this error to his attention. I immediately got an auto-reply saying that he was out of the office until March 31st. I have given him a week to reply and explain himself, but he has not done so. Therefore, at this time I must conclude that he knows the calculation is in error, but does not wish to address it. In the interim, ethanol proponents everywhere are pushing this false information in an effort to boost support for ethanol.

Look at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture claim again: “the energy yield of ethanol is (1.34/0.74) or 81 percent greater than the comparable yield for gasoline”. If the energy balance was really this good for ethanol and that bad for gasoline, why would anyone ever make gasoline? Where would the economics be? Why would ethanol need subsidies to compete? It should be clear that the proponents in this case are promoting false information.

References

1. Ethanol versus Gasoline
2. BTU Content of Common Energy Units
3. Alternative energy: evaluating our options
4. Allocation of Energy Use in Petroleum Refineries to Petroleum Products
5. Updated Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Results of Fuel Ethanol

April 8, 2006 Posted by | energy balance, ethanol, Michael Wang, USDA | 38 Comments