Addicted to Oil and Drunk on Ethanol

As President Bush goes to Brazil in search of the secret to how they have used ethanol to become "energy independent", many media outlets are starting to catch on that ethanol may not be as great as it has been promised. There are several strains of this out there in the mainstream media, but not as well summarized as a recent Associated Press piece titled "Biofuels Boom Raises Tough Questions" that pulled most of these together into one place.

It starts off with perhaps the best description of the Ethanol situation.

"America is drunk on ethanol"

America is addicted to oil. Getting drunk on (corn) ethanol does not seem like the way out, just a temporary biofuel bender before we figure out that we live in an energy constrained world.

The article explains what ethanol is, how it differs from gasoline in Energy Return on Energy Invested in plain English and how it may not be the answer to our energy predictament.

It first asks the surprisingly obvious question of "Is Ethanol better than Gasoline?"

For all the environmental and economic troubles it causes, gasoline turns out to be a remarkably efficient automobile fuel. The energy required to pump crude out of the ground, refine it and transport it from oil well to gas tank is about 6 percent of the energy in the gasoline itself. Ethanol is much less efficient, especially when it is made from corn.

So it's not as efficient as gasoline? Fine, but it's renewable right?

Just growing corn requires expending energy -- plowing, planting, fertilizing and harvesting all require machinery that burns fossil fuel. Modern agriculture relies on large amounts of fertilizer and pesticides, both of which are produced by methods that consume fossil fuels.

Oh, so it relies on fossil fuels to a degree. But we can produce it locally here in the US, so it must cost less to transport, right?

Then there's the cost of transporting the corn to an ethanol plant, where the fermentation and distillation processes consume yet more energy. Finally, there's the cost of transporting the fuel to filling stations. And because ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline, it can't be pumped through relatively efficient pipelines, but must be transported by rail or tanker truck.

Hmm, ok but it must still be worth it in the end right?

In the end, even the most generous analysts estimate that it takes the energy equivalent of three gallons of ethanol to make four gallons of the stuff. Some even argue that it takes more energy to produce ethanol from corn than you get out of it, but most agricultural economists think that's a stretch.

Making ethanol is so profitable, thanks to government subsidies and continued high oil prices, that plants are proliferating throughout the Corn Belt. Iowa, the nation's top corn-producing state, is projected to have so many ethanol plants by 2008 it could easily find itself importing corn in order to feed them.

But that depends on the Invisible Hand. Making ethanol is profitable when oil is costly and corn is cheap. And the 51 cent-a-gallon federal subsidy doesn't hurt. But oil prices are off from last year's peaks and corn has doubled in price over the past year, from about $2 to $4 a bushel, thanks mostly to demand from ethanol producers.

Well this must be a rude awakening for auto driving America. We can't just switch fuels for our gas tanks. It's good to see this stuff making it out into the mainstream media.

The higher corn prices affect many basic commodities like beer, breakfast cereal and tortillas.

High corn prices are causing social unrest in Mexico, where the government has tried to mollify angry consumers by slapping price controls on tortillas. Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, predicts food riots in other major corn-importing countries if something isn't done.

U.S. consumers will soon feel the effects of high corn prices as well, if they haven't already, because virtually everything Americans put in their mouths starts as corn. There's corn flakes, corn chips, corn nuts, and hundreds of other processed foods that don't even have the word corn in them. There's corn in the occasional pint of beer and shot of whisky. And don't forget high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener that is added to soft drinks, baked goods, candy and a lot of things that aren't even sweet.

Some freaks even eat it off the cob.

But it doesn't stop there. Go a bit further up the food chain and prices are going up even more:

It's true that animals eat more than half of the corn produced in America; guess who eats them? On Friday the Agriculture Department announced that beef, pork and chicken will soon cost consumers more thanks to the demand of ethanol for corn.

It's also true that there's a difference between edible sweet corn and the feed corn that's used for ethanol production. But because farmers try to grow the most profitable crop they can, higher prices for feed corn tend to discourage the production of sweet corn. That decreases its supply, driving the price of sweet corn up, too.

The article also bursts the bubble many people have about ethanol that despite all the trade-offs, it really isn't helping us get to energy independence.

America's appetite for corn is enormous. But Americans consume so much gasoline that all the corn in the world couldn't make enough ethanol to slake the nation's lust for transportation fuels. Last year ethanol production used 12 percent of the U.S. corn harvest, but it replaced only 2.8 percent of the nation's gasoline consumption.

But perhaps the problem isn't ethanol, but the feedstock? Corn is not the best feedstock, but perhaps something else is?

Ethanol would be more beneficial both environmentally and economically if scientists could figure out how to make it from a nonfood plant that could be grown without the need for fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs. Researchers are currently working on methods to do just that, making ethanol from the cellulose in a wide variety of plants, including poplar trees, switchgrass and cornstalks.

But plant cellulose is more difficult to break down than the starch in corn kernels. That's why people eat corn instead of grass. Plus it tastes better.

There are also technical hurdles related to separating, digesting and fermenting the cellulose fiber. Though it can be done, making ethanol from cellulose-rich material costs at least twice as much as making it from corn.

Great, so when will we get there?

Some experts estimate that it will take 10 to 15 years before cellulosic ethanol becomes competitive.

For more on the whole ethazol debate for beginners I highly recommend reading Robert Rapier's Lessons from Brazil, which ends with this challenge:

The real lesson from Brazil is that energy independence can be achieved by slashing our energy usage. It is simply not realistic to expect the U.S. to achieve energy independence with biofuels - unless we sharply curb our consumption. The next time you hear someone say we should emulate Brazil's example, ask them to calculate the amount of ethanol this would require, and ask them how we are supposed to produce that much. It is time to start demanding details from the "Brazil believers" In doing so, we may convey the gravity of the situation to those who think ethanol will lead us to energy independence.

Well Said.

Oh god not this again.

If I've said it once I've said it a million times.

Ethanol isn't a fuel policy its a farm subsidy policy.

It makes plenty sense to effectively strip the sugars from corn production to make ethanol when you're left with the protein feed for livestock.

And since the bulk of all corn produced in the US was (historically) used for livestock feed it made sense to "skim off" the ethanol. The effective energy return is much higher because the farming "system" as a whole doesn't use any extra energy, and for the cost of a little Nat Gas (at the distillery) you get a bit of ethanol which could be used locally as an oxygenate in farm state fuel.

What doesn't make any sense is to mandate that the US makes trillions of gallons of the stuff at any cost to blend into gasoline regardless of the cost. That would be silly.

But then silly never stopped US legislators before.....


"Mama don't take my Post Toasties away"

Sounds kind of corny but we certainly do have a dilemma on our hands. FOOD VS FUEL

"and you can't have one without the other" in love and marriage.

A big thank you to all who contribute to TOD for your time and effort. I am a follower of TOD on a daily is a sort of guiding light.

I'm a believer

R Jerome from Phoenix

when you're left with the protein feed for livestock.

Don't forget you can get a fungal bloom and the release of sprouting inhibitors if you use the DDG and a herbicide.

So the dry distillers' grains is a pre-emergent herbicide, in other words it stops weed seeds from sprouting. As soon as they sprout, they die. That's because what I've done by putting this stuff in the soil is I've fed seed-eating fungi and bacteria.


So if there's plenty of corn product left after stripping out the alcohol, then why are the livestock feeders freaking out about the shortage of corn?

Why has the price of feed even gone up for them?

Corn gluten is a poor food additive for cattle. Perhaps it can be useful for poultry in small quantities, but the price of DDG has gone down since the rise of ethanol. Perhaps McDonald's will invent a burger-like substance from DDGs which can be deep fried, sweetened and salted, then sold to obese human beings.

As a midwestern pork producer faced head on with a doubling of corn price in six months, I can tell you that there will be reduced meat protein in grocery stores. One 56# bushel of corn yeilds 17# of dry distillers grains. Pigs and chickens can effectively utilize small quantities of DDGS in the diet (about 10-20%). Beef can and are using 40-50%, and can theoretically utilize 100%. before the ethanol boom DDGS delivered was about $200/ton, today it's about $140. Another consideration is the plants eventual use of distillers grain to fuel the plant.

The technology involves partial combustion of biomass – that could include corn stalks, distillers grains, waste wood or other biorenewables – to produce a mixture of hydrogen, carbon monoxide, methane and other flammable gases. The resulting mixture is known as producer gas and it can replace natural gas in an ethanol plant's heaters. The producer gas can also be upgraded to what's known as syngas, a mixture that can be converted into high-value transportation fuels, alcohols, hydrogen, ammonia and other chemicals.

Producer gas is made by injecting biomass into a fluidized bed gasifier, a thermal system that pumps air up through a bed of hot sand, creating bubbles and a sand-air pseudo fluid. A reaction between the biomass and the hot sand-air mixture produces flammable gases. The process also generates its own heat to sustain the reaction. It's a system that's reliable, produces few emissions and can be efficiently integrated into a plant's existing natural gas boilers and dryers.

A plants distillers grains will supposedly supply >100% of it's energy needs.

I've heard the economics of this are favorable, perhaps someone knows more about this than I.

You're not the only one to figure out the ag-subsidy angle.

It makes plenty sense to effectively strip the sugars from corn production to make ethanol when you're left with the protein feed for livestock.

The problem with your analysis is that, at 51¢/gallon subsidy and an EROEI of 1.3 at best (and perhaps as low as RR's calculated 1.09), each gallon-equivalent of new energy is receiving at least $2.21 (1.3:1) and possibly as much as $6.18 (1.09:1) in subsidy.

There are a lot of ways to save petroleum at far lower cost than even the lowest estimate.  Ethanol subsidies are money down a rathole.

1.3 * ethanol in = ethanol out
1.3 * 3.33 = 4.33
and observe that ethanol out - ethanol in = 1

If 4.33 gallons are produced and there are no other energy inputs or outputs, 3.33 gallons is used to produce the ethanol and only 1 gallon is aviable for something useful. I assume that some of the wasteproducts could be used to something useful but this must be really bad anyway.

I have tried to save some gasoline by driving a Prius and try to save more by minimizing my automobile trips. The biggest consumers of ethanol will be those who are driving the big thirsty trucks and SUVs, those who are doing virtually nothing to curb their consumption. I guess there is some consolation in the fact that the money I save on gasoline can go to pay for my increased grocery costs.

Who will be the first presidential candidate to reveal the false wizard behind the curtain, the first one to challenge the wizard of ozanol? There will not be a candidate who has the courage to do this as they will try to maintain the ethalusion as long as possible. None of them will have the courage to point out that we have met the enemy and he is us, that we will have to actually cut back our liquid fuel consumption, regardless of the source, that the drive for security is another false goal that will not be fixed by ethanol.

Unfortunately, it looks like the horse is pretty much all the way out of the barn.

I think we are caught in a trap here. Corn ethanol is a boon to the ag industry, mostly ADM I'd guess. However, enough farmers are seeing increased income that they will support it politically. The politicians have figured out that instead of paying tax dollars to farmers they can require the rest of us to burn ethanol inn our cars creating a captive market for the ethanol produced in the midwest. Thus we get instant capitol transfers from the coasts to the midwest.

There is no way this will end till it collapses under its own weight.

Hope you enjoy your Prius. I got one last summer. It is the most fun car I have ever owned. The scuttlebutt is that in a year or two the next major change to the Prius will arrive. Supposedly it will get somewhere around 80mpg and might be have a plug in option. That would be the best. If I could charge my Prius with solar panels on the roof of my house I'd be a happy camper.

Does anyone ever interject population growth into the debate when consumption comes up? Am I wrong in believing that an ever growing population is not the way to go in the face of impending resource shortages? The Sierra Club refuses to take a position on immigration and population growth. Does the The Oil Drum also take a pass?

Nope. Killing everyone except me, my friends and family is OK by me.

Some of your postings are insightful, yet I find that most appear to be maliciously inflammatory and contain either covert or overt personal attacks. In this manner, I believe you detract and do not contribute to the discussion. Without the personal attacks and inflammatory remarks I believe your insights would be valuable.

Cid Yama on March 12, 2007 - 3:26am
What a bunch of drival. Let's see those ASPO Graphs. Let's see those articles where Collin Campbell says peak won't happen for decades yet. Give me a break.

Cid Yama on March 11, 2007 - 10:30pm
...I'm sure there is a special place in hell being prepared for you as we speak...

Cid Yama on March 8, 2007 - 8:24pm
Get a PC. Don't believe that Apple propaganda about feeling warm and fuzzy about those 3 or 4 things you can do with a Mac.

How about some context, shall we?

The Fractionation of lignocellulosic biomass is energy intensive. "In the reactive fractionation step, hemicellulose is most easily hydrolyzed, requiring a
mild alkaline solution and temperatures in the range of 150 to 200 °C (302 to 392 °F). Next,
lignin is removed under more severe conditions requiring a pH above 10, temperatures less than
250 °C (482 °F), the presence of an oxidizing agent, and pressures below 600 psi. The resulting
"clean" cellulose is mostly free of lignin and hemicellulose and is a purified feedstock for
enzymatic hydrolysis." Where do you get the energy to heat your biomass?

Your statement is also misleading. The govt. is not specifically discussing incentives for converting biomass to ethanol, it IS discussing corn production, and your statement does not address mine that incentives will lead to farmers converting food and livestock feed production to ethanol production.

"Besides, starving children is rarely due to high price of corn. It is mainly due to population explosion and bad government."

I'm sure there is a special place in hell being prepared for you as we speak, high prices for food = demand destruction = starvation. Extremely simple equation. If you think people who cannot afford to eat will just lie down in the streets to die, I suggest you look at France just before the revolution and Czarist Russia just before the revolution.

Picture this. There are a bunch of debunkers making $7.00 hr. sitting at computers in little cubicles. They have a printout telling them what to try next if the previous post was challenged. I believe that is what we have had to deal with here since Stuart's 8% decline article.

Nope. Killing everyone except me, my friends and family is OK by me.

Tis a pity this site gets infested by dorks who respond to a question about population growth with some drivel about killing everyone.

If you can't recognize a joke when you see one, you need to get out more.

If you can't recognize a joke when you see one, you need to get out more.

If you think that was funny you need to get out more.

Drunk is the word.

The entire political structure of this country revolves around decisions made by alcoholics. And it didn't just start. The Western World leader who didn't have a significant alcohol problem has been something of a rarity.

I am 53. Both of my parents were alcoholics. My first 19 years of adulthood was that of a
'practicing alcoholic'. A Driving Under the Influence traffic citation in '90 with a BAC of .283 turned into an opportunity to learn how to quit. I have 17 years of sobriety this month.

It amazes me at times how pervasive alcoholicism is in the US in all levels of society. The celebrity types get MSM notoriety. The other cultural classes pretty much only achieve local notoriety.

It seem to me the practicing alcoholics are a significant subset to the larger population that have to make decisions regarding resource depletion.

Not a good situation for a
successful future.

It has been reported that our Puritan forebears consumed, on average, several times as much alcohol as our present population. The way alcohol was used to destroy the native population, and the outrageous, sanctimonious society they formed suggests something other than religion informed their world view.

I think it continues to be a problem -- to which Prohibition was a poor solution, obviously.

Any stable world order has to get past addiction somehow

Just keep these rough numbers in mind.

Theoretical production of maybe 50 gallons of fuel per acre/year.... by various processes (all of which require considerable energy inputs too.)

Average US auto uses 580 gallans of fuel per year.

Therefore the average US auto requires a dedicated 10 acres of land.

Multiply that times available agricultural land.

Consider impact on food prices, nutrition, biodiversity...

Growing fuel as a crop sure looks like a formula for domestic and planetary disaster.

If I've the numbers wrong, I'd appreciate corrections, but I think the broad parameters are about right.

Just to finish the above thought...

It used to be you needed a certain amount of pasture to feed a horse... how much pasture do you need to feed a car?

This is all about framing for public understanding.

I think it is really valuable to frame the question of transportation fuels in terms of land area.

People know how far they drive.... that's distance... a spatial measurement.

Connecting driving to a land area associated with the gathering of energy enables a mental apples to apples, or at least apples to apples squared comparison (distance compared to area).

Force people to imagine how many acres they would need to control or would need to purchase the bioproductivity/energy capture of in order to do the driving they now do.

How much pasture do you need to feed a car for a year? It's a critical question for the 21st century

It's an intuitive gut level question that forces people to think.


Along those same lines, does anyone know of a good analysis that would compare the general efficiency of photosynthesis in storing solar energy in chemical bonds and making that energy availble through combustion.... with the efficiency of photovoltaic systems in capturing that same energy and making it available for storage/use?

In other words, take your preferred switchgrass or other optimal biofuel solar energy system on 1 acre and compare its energy capture ability to an acre of PV capture.

I doubt that either will be a reasonable way to run a transportation system, but I'm curious about how silicon and photosynthesis stack up as solar energy collector systems on a per acre basis.

how much pasture do you need to feed a car?

The least amount would be as a wind turbine. For Photon to Transport motion, PV panels.

One of the Maine Harness Racing Commissioners tells me it takes about 2 acres to feed a horse.

cfm in Gray, ME

This is the crux of the problem. We came from a society that more or less lived within its means. We have grown to a much larger society by tapping into a vast pool of stored energy that took millions of years to accumulate. Now we are casting about to find a way to maintain our current standard of living using the old level of inputs.

Just some back of the envelope calculations here...
According to I can purchase a 210watt panel that is 13.41 sq ft. An acre is 43,560 sq ft. If I utilize HALF of that acre for sola panels to allow proper exposure to every solar panel I purchase, that is 21,780 sq ft of usable land for my solar farm to power cars. That means I can put 1,624 of these panels on my 1 acre of solar farm land.
1,624 panels * 210 watts = 341,040 watts of power.

341kw * 5 peak solar hours (there would also be additional non-peak hours but we're not counting that for simplicity) would be = 1,705.2kwh PER DAY.

The Toyota Rav4 EV consumes roughly 250wh per mile. If I drive 40 miles per day, that is 10kwh per day that I consume.

1705kwh / 10kwh = 170 Toyota Rav4 EVs powered by 1 acre of solar power every day. Or, to put it another way, one Rav4 EV can be powered on a daily basis by 0.586% of an acre.

Compare THAT to ethanol, and you see just how inefficient ethanol is compared to Solar PV. The best thing about solar is, I can grow solar power on the roof of my house. Can corn growers grow corn on my roof? (Well, they probably could, but geesh.) BTW, I've been lurking here for about 5 months now, and this is my first post. ^_^
~Durandal (Go electric!)

Interesting. If your calculations are correct, that is lots better than the acres needed for ethanol production.

That's basically Pimentel's take on ethanol - it's a far less efficient way of producing energy from the sun than even today's modern solar panels - and it has much less impact on water, soil, food prices, etc.

That's been my argument as well. Direct solar capture is much more efficient than photosynthesis, and as you say has far fewer negative externalities. That's why I believe we need to move to an electric transportation infrastructure.

Fascinating response to my question. Thanks to all of you.

You've just seen one of the things I love about TOD:  when we have a fact which is incontrovertibly true, you will find everyone agreeing with it.  There are no "flat earthers" demanding equal time for their nonsense.

Yes, that seems to be the main issue: Liquid fuel vs. Electricity.

I think a great analysis would be an estimate of the acres available for solar PV collection versus productive farmland times the efficiency range of each in producing energy.

And I like the idea of converting many of our waste streams to electric energy.

Thank you for doing that calculation...

At first I was happy with the implications...

But then I thought, well 0.6 acres / car... that's still considerably more land than a large suburban plot....

43,560 square feet = 1 acre. My house sits on a 50 x 100 foot lot. Let's say the typical house sits on 100 x 100 foot lot, or 1 quarter acre.

Imagine 2 cars / household.... that implies an acre / household... for transportation electricity (Add if you like an additional acre for housing PV electricity generation.)

Implication: For every suburban 1/4 acre house lot we have to occupy an additional 2 to 4 times that space (1/2 to 1 acre) providing electricity for one or two cars.... (Or 2 acres maybe to get the household electricity too.)

Granted we can build these solar collection farms on marginal land... but it's still taking the entire suburban housing infrastructure of the US, and occupying twice that area for transportation energy or four times the area now occupied for transportation plus housing energy use.

That's a lot of dead tortoises and destroyed desert landscapes.

Then there are the transmission losses from say, Nevada generating stations to New York consumers.

Not to mention a lifetime embedded carbon emission and embedded energy analysis for the construction and recycling of silicon PV systems....

I'm not looking for problems... PV seems like a great way to go compared to biofuels for transport but reducing energy consumption is going to have to be part of the equation if we don't want to see much of the planet covered by piss ugly solar collectors. Of course in the near term climate change may create plenty of areas that aren't good for much else anyway.

Thanks again for your analysis Durandal.

I believe you mis-read my post, but that's OK as I should have stated it as a decimal value as opposed to a percentage value.
It would not be .6 acres/car but 0.006 acres/car. (0.586% acre/car is what I had in my post.) In this case, roughly 10 of the example panels at 13.41 sq feet each would be needed for each car, for a total of 134 sq ft. (Easily handled by a home rooftop.)
The ideal situation would be if we had efficient enough panels that could be used in the space that a parking space in a parking lot consumes. The idea being that each spot would have panels above it, and you simply plug in when you get to work, or go shopping, etc. This wouldn't work well for places such as shopping malls with parking garages, but at big box stores or my employer for instance, it would.
In that case, you don't have transmission losses, as you're generating where it is consumed, and if there is any excess generation due to not all of the spaces being occupied by electric cars, the excess can be used to offset the consumption of the home/business/etc where the panels are located using a grid intertie inverter. The charging of your car could either just be a perk of shopping at the store, or it could be fed meter style with a credit card or coins.

Oh damn. Should have quit talking while I was ahead. I see what you wrote now.

Thanks for the correction.

While transmission losses would probably be negligible, one should consider the efficiency of charging the battery, the amount of input kwhr to get a kwhr in battery power. This will increase the amount of panel required per car and drive up the costs somewhat. Also, if you're using grid tie, doesn't that complicate the analysis a little bit in that you are feeding electricity in the grid which will have transmission losses for whomever is consuming the electricity that you fed into the grid.

I am not arguing that this refutes the conclusion that PV would be better than ethanol, I just think that these considerations need to be fed into your analysis.

If you measure the energy requirements at the wall (which I believe I did for Is the tide turning?), the battery losses are included.

Grid-tie is probably more efficient than the alternative; you eliminate a layer of battery storage AND you reduce losses in delivery to the local distribution lines.

For the sake of discussion, let's say that the costs per kwh wouild be what SolarBuzz calls an industrial sized system. The costs per kwh for such a system is estimated by SolarBuzz (for sunny area) to be 21.38 cents per kwh. Given your assumption of the Rav4 needsing 10kwh per 40 miles, the cost per mile would be $2.138/40 or $.05345 per mile.

The solarbuzz estimate supposedly considers what are efficiency losses at 10%. Perhaps the efficiency losses for your example should be higher. In other words the input kwh for the system may be greater than the 10kwh to actually run the auto. On the other hand, SolarBuzz using 5.5 average hours per day of production for a sunny area.

Considering the poor mileage that one would get in a RAV4 from ethanol, the solar solution may very well be cheaper than the ethanol solution. However, it depends on the actual kwh input required for the utilized 10kwh. Perhaps someone else can fill in that very important detail.

I haven't considered the capital and replacement costs for the battery, however, so one would really have to run those numbers before finally declaring solar a clear winner.

Further, however, there is some evidence that we can expect fairly significant reductions in PV costs per peak watt over the next few years.

That's the same question I asked in "Is the tide turning?" (curiously, posted 3 years ago tomorrow).  My answer was, solar PV plus batteries was almost competitive with gasoline even then.

Compared to ethanol at between $4 and $9 per gallon cost of energy actually created by the process (not laundered fossil energy), solar PV is far cheaper already.

As part of including a fudge-factor, I used the 5 peak hours as opposed to a 5.5 or higher peak hours (it all depends on whether you have solar tracking or not) in order to allow some general fudging of the numbers as it were. Even so, the elimination of that 0.5 hours wouldn't adequately compensate for charging efficiency.
I don't have any reference for this particular number, but merely pulling it out of my head, I remember most people tend to use 87% efficiency for calculations in determining how much input power actually ends up being stored as chemical energy in the battery. That number is used for Pb-acid batteries with 110v or 220v based chargers. Things are diffferent if you're charging DC to DC directly by the appropriate number of serial-connected panels, using DC to DC voltage converters to boost or reduce the voltage, going from DC panels to AC power using an inverter, and back to DC using the charger, etc, etc.
There are too many variables to consider for a generic scenario. All specifications of the system would need to be defined in order to accurately peg the numbers. As others on here have pointed out, wind energy is cheaper on a per watt basis, but something along those lines would only be beneficial in my opinion through grid-tie generation to create an offset for the power that you use from the grid for charging your vehicle.
In any case, the costs associated with solar or wind generation are certainly all on the front-end. At the rates I pay for electricity, a solar array setup would take roughly 27 years to pay for itself if using mono or poly crystalline panels, and roughly 15 years for amorphous silicon panels. The warranties on mono and poly crystalline panels normally are 25 years, and the warranties for amorphous silicon panels normally are 10-15 years. Often panels will out-live their warranted life, but past that point your power generation is not guaranteed.
As others have pointed out, the $/watt ratio for solar power continues to drop, and currently the retail prices that I've seen for panels are between $4-$5/watt depending on where you go and what tech you get. I anticipate the RETAIL price of thin film solar to hit $3/watt within the next 5-7 years, running under the assumption that the promises made by companies the like of come true.
Anyhow, most of my speculation on solar prices in the future is based on a few things I've read along with purely gut feeling, and shouldn't be taken as my claiming any prediction based upon real numbers. Most of the crew here seems really good at running numbers, which sadly isn't my forte even though I am sitting in a chair that's in the accounting department of a finance company. *laughs* The batteries for EV's with good range are here, they're just bloody expensive!
At this point, I'll shut my mouth and let the thread die a graceful death instead of dragging it out. ;)

conversion factor: 50 gallons/acre = 50/42 barrel/acre

US consumption: 9.232 million barrels per day

US consumption per year: 9.232 million barrels/day * 365 day/year = 4 billion barrel/year

areal needed for ethanol production: 4 billion barrel/year * 42/50 acre/barrel = 2.83 billion acre/year

See my comment, below, for sources.

Arable land area of the Earth: 4.9 billion acres.

From your computation, above, 2.83 billion acres needed to supply the US with happy motoring fuel.

57.7% of the arable land on Earth to supply the US.

Guess we better increase the military budget!

50 gallons/acre seems rather low.  I've been down on Syntec, but if they are able to get their claimed process yield of 100 gallons/ton and there's 1.5 tons/acre of excess corn stover, you'd be able to get 150 gallons/acre/year from the crop wastes alone.

I was referencing this comment from GreenMan from a day or 2 ago, for a real world right now in Colorado project involving sunflower seeds.

That could very well be low compared to what other crops could produce.

Whatever the realistic numbers turn out to be after EROEI analysis, I still think that "miles / year /acre " is a real good "truth in fuel purchasing" label to remind people of if we move toward agricultural sources for transportation fuel.

In a solar powered world, land and acerage and surface area assumes a new significance, a common metric for all things, including food and energy production.

Right. That figure was for what is expected, in terms of mostly dryland cultivations with a small amount of irrigated cultivation. Water is at a premium here.

Expected dryland yields: 1000 pounds seeds per acre.

Expected irrigated yields: 2200 - 3000 pounds per acre.

That would bring you back into the 150 gallons per acre per year range, if you could wanted to irrigate.

Sunflower is a good dryland crop here, but there are better irrigated crop choices, and water is limited.

It is certainly the case that other crops (sugarcane for example) in other climates would have different yields.

I think the back of the envelope calculation is useful, though. People are not taught in our society that things are limited. They can grasp, though, that taking all the arable land on Earth to provide a fraction of the US fuel consumption implies a limit, somewhere.

I assume that most of the best arable land is already in use and therefore the fuel crops will yield at most as the current average. What is the current average?

For comparison,

Land area of the world: 148.94 million sq km (including Antarctica).

Arable land: 13.31%

Population: 6,525,170,264 (July 2006 est.)

Source: CIA Factbook.

1 square kilometer = 247.105381 acres (Google).

That's 36.8 billion acres of land area, or 5.64 acres per person.

That's three quarters of an acre of arable land per person.

Avaible land worldwide is 5.64 acres per person
Avaible arable land worldwide is 3/4 acres per person
The need for arable land to produce ethanol from corn in US is 10 acres per car.

And Global warming will make vegetation to fuel impossible. There is a superbe review in todays UK Sunday Times
Ir summariese the positive feedbacks that cause global warming to spiral out of contron in six stages each 1°C hotter.
At 1°C higher, earlier snow melt and smaller glaciers accelerate heat absorbtion;
At 2°C higher, vegetation is stressed and releases carbon instead of absorbing.
At 3°C Brazil and the Amazon basin are especially affected while drought and desertification hits the US corn belt;
At 4°C, permafrost melts releasing billions of tons of Carbon dioxide;
AT 5°C the oceans release methane
AT 6°C live ends amid storms , floods, hydrogen sulphide gas and methane fireballs. Only fungi survive

These are extracted from an forthcoming book book: "Six Degrees: our future on a warmer planet" by Mark Lynas. The only escape route is to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 60% in the next 10 years.

I like to throw this into each discussion of temperature rise:

Crop ecologists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and at the US Department of Agriculture have jointly concluded that with each 1-degree Celsius rise in temperature during the growing season, the yields of wheat, rice, and corn drop by 10 percent.

Source: Outgrowing the Earth by Lester R. Brown, pg. 10.

Thanks for the post, Glenn!

As others have commented before, this is a deja vu for many at TOD. But not for most people.

Now the food vs. fuel debate is out there in public policy discussion and in the MSM.

The discussion about reality-based of energy policy may even happen as people see the numbers regarding ethanol.

The environmental impact of massive production of ethanol is an issue as well. I doubt that it will get as much play even though it is the most important issue.

The Canadian "Tar Sands" have a big environmental impact as well, but that has not stopped people from plunging right in to develop them and to expand production as much as they can afford to.

Can we predict how this "ethanol" debate will play out?

Will enough people "get it" soon enough that we will curb our reliance upon ethanol?

Conservation is the key.

HELP: Humanize, Economize, Localize, and Produce!

Currently, there is yet another negative biofuels article over at Smart Money. I especially appreciated his comments about switchgrass production. I agree that I cannot imagine working with the immense volume and transport of it, nor the harvesting. What kind of cutting blades could handle the job? I've cut grasses by hand, and it is the toughest gardening job in my yard. I know what those enzymes are up against (millions of years of evolution and a very long genetic code to make them impervious to about everything.)

Grander plans for burning switch grasses on a vast scale will need infrastructure to match the hype. "The real thing to me as an economist, as a market guy, is the commercial side of it," says Juday. "We've been growing corn in the United States for a long time and there's commercial infrastructure that's built up around it. How long is it going to take to replicate that for switch grass? And, if you take the president's latest proposal, to make it twice as big as what corn ethanol is? Who's going to plant the switch grass? What tractor company today sells a switch-grass planter, harvester? Where do you store it? You're talking about eight times the volume of corn kernels that are neatly, compactly put in the back of a trailer. Where are the trucks, the trailers, the railroad cars, elevators? All that commercial stuff will take at least a decade to sort out if the technology breakthrough came tomorrow."

The good news is that now that meat producers' ox is getting gored, the push for ever-bolder renewable fuel standards no longer looks like a runaway train. "If you'd asked me a month ago to handicap whether the renewable fuel standard would get expanded this year in Congress, I would have said the chances are 90%," says Juday. "You ask me today, the chances are 50%. People are waking and smelling the coffee, smelling the $4 corn."

That leaves 50-50 odds of Congress digging us a deeper hole. And in two months, they'll be planting corn on top of it.

Solar Energy Harvested by Photosynthesis in a Controlled Environment

Grass can be harvested and baled using the standard equipment used for hay and straw.

As for the shipping, my take on it is that we cannot move biomass very far without processing it into some other form.  My first take on this was charcoal, but I recently learned about "torrefaction" which may be better in a number of ways.

Eng. Poet
Are you familiar with this project, which I watched on Market to Market: Farmers Convert Switchgrass To Electric Power?

Alliant, along with MidAmerican Energy, the regions other electric power company as well as part owner of the generating station, had to determine how much coal could be safely replaced with switchgrass. The consensus was 5 percent. The experiment turned out to be the largest of its kind in the world.
By 1999, the first crop was ready to be harvested. At first, the product was rolled into round bales but to avoid a transportation permit issue it was decided square bales would be needed. The RC&D had a machine specially designed and built to make large square bales.
Once the product is baled, it's sent to one of 20 specially built storage buildings or delivered directly to a one-of-a-kind processing facility attached to the Ottumwa Generating Station.
We're through the easy part, growing it and putting it in the package. The hard part is coming now is how we make the business work."

The bale storage requirements were huge as was the equipment used and the size of the bales used. The project started out as a water quality improvement project for a reservoir.

At this time the biggest problem biofuels face is how cheap coal is. The Ottumwa experiment concluded that on a per btu basis switchgrass was 8 to 10 times more expensive than coal. Fossil fuels are still cheap relative to biofuels. Carbon credits are still too small to offset the difference. A good question to ask is what percentage of my electric bill is the cost of the fuel. What would a 10-fold increase in fuel cost do to my electric bill?

I believe it was NNadir over at dKos who calculated that a $85/ton tax on CO2 would raise the price of coal-fired electricity by about 7¢/kWh.  By comparison, it would raised the price of a barrel of oil by roughly $40.  If this carried through to another $1/gallon of gasoline, a car achieving 35 MPG would pay about 2.8¢/mile carbon tax while an electric or PHEV car using 200 Wh/mile would pay 1.4¢/mile.

It is exactly the storage issues (not only bulk, but also deterioration and water uptake) which concern me.  Something like combined torrefaction and pelletization looks like it would address most if not all of those issues, at an energy loss of about 10%.  Rather than creating bulky bales which must be stacked in warehouses, the material could be turned into pellets which can be stored in silos, moved on conveyors, and otherwise dealt with far more cheaply and easily (dust excepted) than dried stalks; in short, it could be handled with more or less the same equipment as grain.  The bulk density of pellets is also far higher than bales.

The torrefaction process can be run at roughly breakeven energy balance, so a trailer-mounted unit could process biomass straight from harvest and produce pellets ready for storage.

I like Matt Simmons' idea that post peak energy vulnerability will depend on the area of the country in which you live. In one on his latest presentations, he states that California is an energy island because of the Rocky Mountains, the special blends it requires and the tight environmental regulations. The solution for California may be to become like Japan. Drive Prii and live in million dollar rabbit hutches overlooking the smog. Those who hate ethanol should do the conserving that they preach. It is unreasonable IMO to expect Iowa where I live to forgo using it's abundant resource of corn. IMO it's like expecting someone who owns an oil well in Texas to conserve gasoline. Those who do not produce do not get to tell the producers what to do yet. I suspect most of anti ethanol rhetoric on this site comes from areas of the country like California that can't or won't produce ethanol and are facing $3.00 plus gasoline. You've go what you want so enjoy it. I like the $2.35 E-10 blend we use here. Just leave the Midwest out of the solution that is best for California.

I agree that we'll all need local solutions to energy. Just please don't try to tell me that your nationally subsidized corn industry is a local solution.

I'm paying for it with my taxes. You go run an Iowa based corn economy based on the resources you can produce and grow in Iowa and I wish you well. Do a little reading here and I think you'll see that it is unlikely to work.

That $2.35 E-10 is subsidized by my tax dollars, filtered through various channels to you.

If you want me to pay taxes to finance an international protection racket for the oil industry and its shipping lanes (otherwise known as the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense), and if you want me to pay for the farm subsidies that make corn appear to be reasonable way to farm energy.... I think you've got another think coming.

I do appreciate your comment and its honesty. I think you are not including all the relevant facts in your argument.

With all due respect...

As an ex-farm boy I'll second oregon7 here. When ethanol is used to make the corn fertilizer inputs; to plant, tend, and harvest the corn; to haul it and process it into fuel; when a substantial net yield of ethanol remains for sale; and when this can be done without enormous government subsidies; then "More ethanol power to you!"

That said, you are exactly right to anticipate far greater local self reliance vis a vis energy. Given the superb and abundant soils which our Maker has bestowed upon us, it will be inexcusable if the good citizens of Iowa - and of my own state of Wisconsin - fail to sustainably manage the lands in our care such that the harvest is adequate to energize our communities as well as feeding ourselves and many others.

Hans Noeldner

"Civilization is the presence of enlightened self-restraint"

The solution is for California to become like Japan and build a highly developed rail network, including a high speed train system. LA is building its subways, slowly but surely, and the intercity rail lines report record ridership with each passing year. Why do we even need cars?

Oh, and as for Iowa's abundant corn, it is so abundant only because the government pays large amounts of money, in agricultural subsidies, and ethanol subsidies, resulting in a net transfer of money from places like California to places like Iowa. So I think those who pay for the corn should get to say what should be done with it.

Bruce Dale from Michigan State University says that corn production can result in significant nitous oxide emissions, and that nitrous oxide is 296 times as potent a green house gas as CO2.

“Nitrous oxide was by far the dominant greenhouse gas produced, almost all of it generated at the farm level,” Dale explained. Making some modifications to the way corn is grown – using cover crops, for example – can reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released. Planting winter cover crops, such as rye grass, reduces nitrous oxide emissions and boosts levels of organic matter in the soil, which makes for more fertile soil.

This is from the following article:

I also found this presentation:

Does anyone else know anything about this? Is this yet another problem with corn ethanol?

Does anyone else know anything about this? Is this yet another problem with corn ethanol?

I know Bruce Dale. My research lab used to be next to his at Texas A&M, before he moved on to MSU. He is a cellulosic ethanol guy, and without even clicking on the link my guess is that he was making a case for more funding for cellulosic.

Nitrous Oxide:

We could do with more of this stuff:

It helps take away the pain :-)

Most of the ethanol will be used by SUV drivers who need to make a trip to the grocery store for a gallon of milk.

I've said numerous times:

Our attitude towards our twin addictions to oil and the automobile resembles nothing so much as the habit of alcoholics to vociferously deny that intoxicants are the vehicle of their demise.

Oops! Except now our nation's leaders want to turn legally sober motorists into alcoholics too!

Hans Noeldner

"Civilization is the presence of enlightened self-restraint"

Ahhh another ethanol debate; I don't have the 'energy' anymore. I will just say the issues listed in the original post are all solveable. This is just an industry in its infancy with some of the same challenges as the oil industry when it first started. Aren't you people the ones always complaining that we don't think long-term?!

Besides, we should support the ethanol industry now that the oil industry is starting to pick up stakes and move:

Halliburton opening headquarters in Dubai

Good riddance. I take back any good things I ever said about them.

Keith: Good riddance? IMO Haliburton has no plans to stop screwing over the sheeple taxpayer (they are so good at it and as of the last poll 76% of registered Republicans just love it).

They are getting out of town now before the subpoenas bloom.

My girlfriend ran into someone that she knows through charity work who is on the board of directors of a major national meat producing company. They started talking about biofuels and peak oil - the meat producers are quite aware of the higher prices of corn, and this woman was quite unhappy with the direction that things are going.

The thing that I found most surprising is that this woman had never heard of peak oil. My girlfriend kind of explained it to her. Don't know whether it sunk in or not. People have lots of different reactions when they first hear of peak oil, but denial seems to be fairly common.

I had recently purchased the DVD set of the ASPO meeting in Boston, and we had been watching some of the talks together, so she is getting to the point where she can talk about it intelligently with other people :-).


Im a midwestern pork producer. Our producer group recently hosted a meeting on Ethanol, Pork and Profitability. One of the presenters was an ag economist who laid out a case for $30 oil and subsequently limited corn supply problems. Another presenter was from the ethanol industry. He said we will be using 50% of the corn crop pretty soon for ethanol production. I asked him how much the industry would use if oil went up to $80. He said 100%. The room got pretty quiet for a few seconds.. Then one producer went on to talk about his expansion plans!

Peak oil or the idea of resource depletion was never touched upon. The ethanol representative and I were, I am sure the only ones in the room who had any clue.

The 800 pound gorilla in the room is fuel economy and vehicle size. Nobody wants to touch it - there are so many vested interests that want to fight any sort of change, and it almost seems like decision makers in the U.S. are content to let increased prices do the job for them.

This is where ethanol comes in. The corn fed American will shrink to the point where they can fit in something smaller than a multi ton super truck. Who invented the goddamn SUV, anyway?

It started in 1946 -- innocently -- with a 4-cylinder F-head engine, two doors and zero luxury.

"It is simply not realistic to expect the U.S. to achieve energy independence with biofuels - unless we sharply curb our consumption. The next time you hear someone say we should emulate Brazil's example, ask them to calculate the amount of ethanol this would require, and ask them how we are supposed to produce that much."

---Forgive me if I sound silly, but I get the burning sensation when reading the above summary because I can't help but think that the second part answers the first part.

It is simply not realistic for America to continue to buy into the Dick Cheney supposition that "the American way of life is non-negotiable".

Not only IS IT negotiable, but the negotiating partner, as pointed out by other posters more intelligent than myself, is looming on the horizon.

When it is suggested that we "emulate Brazil's example" I think it is important to include the ENTIRE example, which means fuel-efficient motor vehicles, less exurbian lifestyles, more localized commerce, and lastly a willingness to adopt clean and efficient diesel-electric powertrains for the part of the private fleet that can settle for simple transportation. Soccer moms and certified public accountants don't need 375 horsepower and a 3 ton chassis.

America in its current gas guzzling incarnation couldn't begin to emulate the Brazilian example, it's true, and that's the problem.
Our lifestyle isn't non-negotiable...WE ARE.
If we don't begin thinking about negotiating some intelligent change into our lifestyle the negotiating will be done FOR US anyway, and then we may not like the outcome none too much.

The other thing that Brazil has that we don't currently have is a huge underclass that doesn't own cars. The Republican economic plan seems to involve creating such an underclass here though.

I don't know why I waste my time but, once more around the same track:

1. Biofuel is not ethanol, ethanol is a biofuel, but there are many, many, say that again MANY other bio-fuel mixes and options. Amazingly, the U.S. just decided to use the worst first....making some wonder if the whole goal of the ethanol plan as put forth by the government is not to discredit all biofuel options, so that we will say, "well, I guess it's oil or nothing....", a sentiment I hear often here. The oil worship cult continues.

2. Not much mention of the fact that even if you could produce enough ethanol, it is not a very good fuel. You give up 10% to 15% in heat content right out of the gate. This is no small thing....think of it in fractions, a tenth plus drop in miles traveled per million miles worth of fuel shrinks to 900,000 or less. We haven't even dealt with the infrastructure change that will be needed, at the same time we are trying to supply the expansion of oil and gas drilling, the building of modern refineries, the construction of factories to make photo-voltaic solar panals and multi ton wind turbine manufacturers with raw materials, on top of all that, we have to change the infrastructere of the U.S. liquid fuel supply network to provide ethanol, a fuel that (read the above posts) may not survive long as an option once the costs come in....then what do we do with all of that garbage infrastructure? This could be the dead end of all dead ends.

3. Lastly, if you have to go alcohol (ethanol is only one form of alcohol):
Has anyone here ever heard of the option of bio-butanol? If you are a TOD or a reader of Robert Rapier's blog, you should.

The 4 carbon structure of butanol makes it a far better option than ethanol as a finished product, and DuPont and BP are involved in what could become a revolutionary project in England to see if the yield from sugar beets (which are now in such over supply, they are subsidized in Europe and in sugar prices, and are much less demanding to grow). The ethanol plants in the Midwest of the U.S. can be converted/adapted to bio-butanol work if needed, so this may now be the one way out in the future. Butanol has been produced in the past in volume by microbial production, and it can be used in combination with gasoline, as a one to one replacement for gasoline, and in combination with ethanol. The heat content is virtually equal to gasoline, and it not corrosive in the way ethanol is, thus, saving the massive infrastructure change. If you have not read about it, PLEASE DO.

If we have to go with biofuel, bio-butanol, bio-Diesel, and algae are better options with a much more promising future. Combined with PV
(and for the person that asked about PV acreage compared to bio crops, the difference to PV advantage is (a) the density of the cells {because any plant needs space between to grow} and where the solar panals can be put, on the roof of buildings and on buildings in "brown belt" areas around cities that are useless for anything else.....there are millions of acres of brownbelt close to energy markets that could be put to work as solar wind areas, diffused throughout the U.S.....use them.

But we have said all this before. As Virginia Woolf once said of writing about something important to her generation "It's like talking with our face pressed against a closed door."

Bio-butanol links:,,1802296,00.html

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom