The Mythical Ethanol Threat

There have been many claims in recent years that ethanol is going to help wean us off of fossil fuels. In fact, many of our political leaders claim that as long as we just keep subsidizing the ethanol industry, eventually cellulosic ethanol will take over and we will all motor happily along on E85. We are making energy policy decisions based on this assumption.

As this analysis will show, the data we have to date don't support those kinds of projections. Let's consider the effect to date of the explosive growth in grain ethanol production. The difficulty in producing ethanol from cellulose is probably an order of magnitude greater than it is for producing ethanol from corn. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the growth curve for cellulosic ethanol production (presuming it is ever commercially viable) will rival that of grain ethanol. So, let's take a look at how gasoline consumption has evolved as we ramped up billions of gallons of ethanol production.

According to the Renewable Fuels Association's Ethanol Industry Outlook 2007 (PDF warning):

As a result of the implementation of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS), increased octane demand and other market forces, the U.S. ethanol industry produced a record 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol from 110 biorefineries located in 19 states across the country in 2006. 2006 production exceeded the previous year’s production by a record one billion gallons, or more than 25%. Since 2000, ethanol production in the U.S. has increased more than 300%.

2006 was also a record year for construction, with no fewer than 15 new biorefineries coming online. The addition of these biorefineries, including the completion of expansion projects, added 1.051 billion gallons of new production capacity for the year. Additionally, 2006 closed with no fewer than 73 biorefineries under construction and 8 expanding that will add 6 billion gallons of new production capacity by 2009.

(Note to self: Corn futures to double again by 2009).

Ethanol production in 2000, again according to the Renewable Fuels Association's page on industry statistics, was 1.63 billion gallons. According to their data, production in 2006 was 4.86 billion gallons, an increase of 3.23 billion gallons (77 million barrels). So, how much gasoline consumption have we displaced with this amazing growth in ethanol production? What have consumers and taxpayers gotten for their money?

According to the EIA, gasoline demand in 2000 averaged 8.4 million barrels per day. In 2006, gasoline demand averaged 9.3 million barrels per day. That is an increase in demand of 0.9 million barrels per day. This is 329 million barrels per year, or an overall demand increase of 13.8 BILLION GALLONS OF GASOLINE!

So, the next time someone tells you that ethanol production is going to reduce our fossil fuel usage, tell them that in the last 7 years annual ethanol production grew by 3 billion gallons, while annual gasoline demand grew by 14 billion gallons. This, despite steadily rising oil prices and record high gasoline prices. But, I would also point out that average annual rack ethanol prices have never - not once in 25 years - been lower than gasoline prices. And note this is a comparison versus 87 octane, which is always more expensive than the 85 octane that most people buy (85 octane has about an 80% market share).

Figure 1: 25 Years of Ethanol versus Gasoline. Source: Official Nebraska Government Website

I Am Still Not Convinced

A skeptic, eh? Good for you. Make me prove my point beyond reasonable doubt. That's fair. I am sure you would agree that if the claims of ethanol proponents are true - that in fact ethanol is displacing some portion of our gasoline usage - the displacement should show up if we plot gasoline demand growth. What I would expect to see is that as ethanol production ramped up exponentially from about 2000, the gasoline demand curve should drop down below the historical trend. This would be fairly compelling evidence that something - which could be ethanol - is causing people to reduce gasoline consumption. Is that what we see? (Note: Gasoline production has been corrected for the contained ethanol in the demand numbers reported by the EIA).

Figure 2: Ethanol's Impact on Gas Consumption. Source: Me - using data from EIA and RFA

As you can see in the graph, until 2005 there is no variance from the gasoline demand growth curve as ethanol production ramped up. To argue that ethanol has had any mitigation on gasoline demand, a proponent has to resort to special pleading by suggesting that gasoline demand would have otherwise been stronger if ethanol production had not ramped up. In 2005 and 2006, we do see some slightly lower growth in gasoline demand, but the culprit there is almost certainly record high gasoline prices.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, followed by a fast run-up in gasoline prices. At the time, there were wide spread media reports of high prices lowering demand for gasoline. 2006 also saw gasoline prices hitting the $3 mark. Given that ethanol ramped up by 2 billion gallons from 1999 to 2004 with no apparent effect on the gasoline demand curve, it is unlikely that the 1.5 billion gallon increase in 2005 and 2006 is responsible for the small degree of variance.

So there you have it: Billions paid out in subsidies, food prices going up, farmland being used up at a faster pace, increased pollution from herbicide and pesticide runoff - and no apparent impact at all on our gasoline consumption. This is shaping up to be the largest boondoggle in U.S. history. But this analysis is exactly the reason I discount the recent reports that refiners might not expand because of the growth in mandated ethanol. I think this is merely a political shot at those who are demanding that the oil industry should spend billions to expand while also demanding that we reduce our gasoline consumption by 20%.

I generally buy 87 octane, with the other choices usually being 89 and 90-something. I don't recall even seeing 85 octane for sale. Is that a regional difference?

Yes. Some regions don't sell N85 at the retail level. Some mountain states sell N85.5. California probably sells plenty of N85, but then it is blended to N87 with an octane enhancer (like ethanol or toluene). But I have been told that you can't purchase N85 for your car in California.

And note this is a comparison versus 87 octane, which is always more expensive than the 85 octane that most people buy (85 octane has about an 80% market share).

The figures you are citing do not show 85 octane with a 80% share. They show regular gasoline with a ~80% share:
Regular - Gasoline having an antiknock index (average of the research octane rating and the motor octane number) greater than or equal to 85 and less than 88.

This includes the 'more expensive' 87 octane.

I guess I have never lived in a location that calls 87 octane regular. In the 3 states I have lived in - Oklahoma, Texas, and Montana - regular is either 85 or 85.5 octane. 87 is mid-grade and 91 is premium. But note that this isn't even a hard and fast rule, as the EIA site says "Note: Octane requirements may vary by altitude."

I know that California requires N87 as the lowest grade, but I think in most of the rest of the country it is N85 that is the lowest grade. And I can tell you - as a former gasoline blender - the lowest grade is always the biggest seller.

I have been trying to find out what constitutes "regular" in Nebraska, the source of the above graph. I haven't found that out yet.

Well, I've lived in NH, CT, NY, PA, DC, MD, VA, and driven north to Maine, south to Florida and west as far as Wyoming, but I don't ever recall seeing 85 for sale.

Very interesting. It is amazing the things I sometimes learn after writing these essays. My assumption for years has been that most of the country has N85 as the lowest grade. I have traveled around the country a lot, but mostly before I was involved in gasoline blending. But that's a major benefit in doing these essays - learning new information.

Ethanol is currently a small percentage of US gasoline consumption. But Monsanto and others are working on higher yielding strains, while the new ethanol plants (powered by animal dung) are achieving very positive energy returns (3 to 1 being conservative). Farmers are happy with $4 corn, but many suspect it won't last. Too much is being planted. Meanwhile, new farm equipment is more fuel-efficient than old. Corn was at this price in 1980, but tumbled (and that is before adjusting for inflation).
Looking ahead a generation, even with corn (not the best crop) we will see very positive and increasing energy returns. Remember, it was an infant industry, and is getting better at what it does. Combined with PHEVs, we can anticipate radical reductions in fossil crude demand out 10 years.
Interestingly, US demand for fossil crude is already dropping, according to the EIA. We used less, not more, oil in 2006 than 2005. And the real energy-saving technologies are just coming to the fore now or in next five years.
World consumption of crude rose 3.1 percent in 2004, then 1.8 percent in 2005, then 0.9 percent in 2006. I sense a pattern here. It is not as dramatic as the declines following the price spike of 1979, but then thse declines may have more staying power.
In most industries, growth like this is called a "dud." In the hysterical nomenclature of modern-day reportage (fueled by hedge funds who went long, no doubt) this is called "runaway" growth.
A remarkable scenario, unexpected by most, may be unfolding; Peak Demand perhaps 10-30 years before we see Peak Oil, if this price regime can be maintained.
If the price regime can be maintained, it will be Fat City for oil barons: The average cost of bringing a barrel up (including sunk capital costs) is probably under $20. The worldwide marginal cost is well under $10. The EIA said it was $3.57 a barrel in 2003.
If you believe that this price regime can hold, then buy oil stocks. Sell your house, sell your jewels, sell your booty, go deep into hock. It will mark an era of profits the world has never seen, for oil kings. You can also play options on the NYMEX. You will get very, very rich, while everyone else grows very, very poor. You will have gorgeous maidens doing your bidding. All for just seeing what the investing public cannot see. You have your hands on the gold nearly now!
The sad part is, I doubt this price regime can hold. Demand is falling across the developed world, and even further declines are being mandated and institutionalized worldwide.
Fat City is nearly always just out of reach. But if you really, really believe....

But Monsanto and others are working on higher yielding strains, while the new ethanol plants (powered by animal dung) are achieving very positive energy returns (3 to 1 being conservative).

Absolutely untrue. Some thought that's what they would get, but as far as I know E3 Biofuels is the only one to actually attempt to run a commercial plant off of biogas. And I have been told that things did not work according to plan.

But feel free to prove me wrong by showing me some references. I don't mean stuff that's on the drawing board. I mean stuff that has been demonstrated to get the energy returns you claim.

It's coming. New technologies take time. I'll put in some e-mails. Based on reporting, people were estimating much higher energy returns. Bio0gas is not science fiction.

Meanwhile a Michigan State U. prof says we can get 2 billion barrels a year from ethanol, see .
The professor said with methods dating back to WWII, we can get ethanol for $2 and change a gallon. Going forward, a lot less. Maybe he is optimistic, maybe he wants funding.

If this is true, in 20 years, between biofuels and PHEVs, Americans could dispense with fossil crude as source of power for cars, trucks. What an acheivement that would be. Right now, it seems doable. Crop yields keep rising, methods improve, the amount of acreage needed to win net energy gains is radically reduced. Corn farmers already worried about a glut. American farmers have never met a demand they could not glut. It will be fascinating to watch this time around. A minute percentage – I think 1 percent – of Americans work on farms now. What if the ethanol boom brings it to 2 percent? No sweat. Do we have enough land? Probably. Other inputs? Let's see.

I suspect we will see Peak Demand, at $60 a barrel, for fossil crude worldwide this year. US demand already down in 2006 from 2005, according to EIA. We have already peaked, if this price regime is maintained. Yet our economy keeps growing.

It is a remarkable era. We may be witnessing a transition to post-fossil society, and seamlessly, without major recessions. I hate to be the bearer of glad tidings in this forum, but it seems to be unfolding that way right now.

The only problem is that crude prices could collapse in the face of falling demand. Then we go back to our glutton ways. I suspect prices will tumble to $40 somewhere ahead.

87 in Illinois and Wisconsin, and as far as I can recall from my occasional travels, in Indiana, Michigan, and Ohio, though it's not something I've paid close attention to. I had no idea 85 existed.

hmpf. Here in Norway (and Europe I suppose), 95 octane is standard. 98 octane is also available at stations but apparently only accounts for 6% of total sales. Plans to introduce 92 octane has met with resistance at gasoline distributors and AFAIK is only sold today by Jet, a distributor owned by ConocoPhillips. They started to distribute 92 instead of 98 back in 2002.

92 octane accounts for some 30% of gasoline sales in continental Europe. This has lead car-importers in Norway to accuse the oil-industry of wanting to preserve market-share for the more premium blends. The oil-industry itself maintains that the engines of Norwegian cars can't handle lower than 95 octane.

source (in Norwegian)

Note that in Europe the octane number on the pump is RON and not AKI (=(RON+MON)/2).

Yes, it depends upon region but it really is a function of altitude. You don't need 87 octane in Sante Fe, NM or Denver, CO because the already less dense atmosphere does not require higher octane. The compression ratio is the same at altitude but the absolute pressure reached during the compression stroke of the 4-cycle spark-ignited engine does not require the high octane rating to avoid knock from predetonation in the cylinders.

In the Four Corners region of NM you can run straight-run gasoline at 79 octane and have no problems. But it seems that most of the gasoline I saw in Colorado and Wyoming last year was 83 octane. Just don't take your vehicle below 2000 feet above MSL with that 79 octane gas in your tank.

Eastern Nebraska is about 1200 feet above MSL. Western Nebraska is at 4000-5000 feet, But most of the region within normal driving range is well-suited to the lower octane gasoline.

Just what is "Octane" anyway? By the way, I remember, back when I was a kid in the '60s, with my parents in the car, when we went to the gas-station, signage on some of the pumps proclaimed "100+ Octane." Yet now I never see any references to Octane levels above the low 90s. What does Octane do, and what happened to the 100+ stuff?

Antoinetta III

Octane is a measure of the ability of gasoline to withstand compression without spontaneously igniting.
Back in the old days, preignition in gasoline-engines was a major problem. This phenomenon, known as knocking, affects performance, but has largely been eliminated in modern gasoline engines. Today, high octane is mostly desired by high-performance engines, such as gasoline turbo engines.

Supposedly, the availability to the RAF during WW2 of tetra-ethyl lead, was one of the factors that won the battle of Britain. Tetra-ethyl lead, the blending component which is added to make leaded gasoline, was able to give the british aircraft engines the extra performance they needed to outfly the Luftwaffe.

This is as far as my knowledge goes... Hope it helps.

Yes, the allies steadily increased the octane rating of their avgas during the war. At the end of the war they were using 115/145 (lean/rich) octane avgas. Or to be pedantic, when the number is >100, it's called "performance number" instead of octane, due to a different way to determine it (basically % power increase vs. 100 octane).

These high ratings were achieved mostly by ridiculous amounts of TEL.

Whatever solutions come about to in any way help us survive the peak oil/peak natural gas/peak coal disaster, the easiest one (from a technical, not political standpoint), is to stop population growth and start population decline. Americans using 14 billion more gallons of gas yearly than 2000 wouldn't have happened if we had the same amount or fewer Americans.

The inevitable snide reply to the overpopulation argument is to ask whether anyone is volunteering to lead the charge towards lower population by dying. Limiting population seems to go against our DNA, but it has been accepted in societies with limited resources, and I suspect it will the case again.

Isnt kind of "1 child per mother" slogan good enough? Is it really impossible to have such an attitude in our society?

Couldnt the govenrment quickly start a campaign to sell such a hip message (with Britney spears maybe, in a daycare center on a poster)(or the Jolie girl: "if I have more - I adopt" on commercial in youtube).

Perhaps not - so then its hunger for the masses instead...
or rather: worse and worse conditions for the working poor the next 30 years... that could be ME. Ouups.

Isnt kind of "1 child per mother" slogan good enough? Is it really impossible to have such an attitude in our society?

Right now American society still thinks immigration of well over a million people a year is a good thing. Probably way too early to ask native Americans to cut their birth rate but I'd love to see someone try.

Ugh, doomers ;)

You don't need a "1 child per mother" campaign across the US or even the world. Birth rates are already dangerously low as it is, the last thing we want is governments encouraging the situation. Italy has the right idea - pay mothers to have babies. Go babies!

The number of places in the world where population trends are still pointing upwards is small and getting smaller all the time. It's not just a 1st world problem anymore either. Places below replacement rate include countries like Albania, Brazil, Belarus and even China (yes! hard to believe I know).

There are some interesting exceptions. America is one of them. Breaking it down by state gives the reason - the coastal/urban areas have the same trends as Europe and many other countries (not having enough babies to replace the parents). The southern/middle states are having more.

Other exceptions are most of Africa (for obvious reasons), Saudi Arabia and the Gaza Strip.

A couple of things should be clear.

Firstly, population is not liquid. Just because populations are going up in some places doesn't mean it's OK that they go down in others. Immigration only delays the inevitable - as immigrants integrate into their host society they adopt the same norms. Importing a steady supply of young adults from Africa doesn't work, they don't speak the language and aren't trained in the skills we need.

Secondly, the demographic trends we're talking about here are huge. Somebody in this thread said they couldn't imagine what could reduce the worlds population to 3 billion. Who would have guessed that such a massive drop could in fact be entirely natural? Yes, that is what widespread cultural changes can do over time.

Thirdly, having a population that is too small is bad. Nobody really knows what the "right" level of population is, and the guesstimates the doomers on TOD throw around are simply pulled out of thin air. There's not even any real reason to believe fewer people would decrease consumption (as opposed to simply making the ones who are left richer). What we do know is that a large population decline can have serious detrimental effects on infrastructure. There aren't enough engineers to repair things when they go wrong. There aren't enough trained people to keep it all going - so you can forget about developing new things.

Don't underestimate the benefits of having a big population - only big populations can tackle big problems.

only big populations can tackle big problems

The overwhelming majority of the big problems we face are caused in the first place, or severely exacerbated, by having a big population.

Resource depletion - too many people
Disease - too many people
Famine - too many people
Drought - too many people
War - too many people
Poverty - too many people
AGW - too many people

"Mortality", in and of itself, is about the only big problem we face that isn't caused by overpopulation.

Resource depletion - exploitation by a small fraction of the world, mostly western civiziation at the moment
Disease - always been a problem, even back when there were only 1 bill people
Famine - in-effecient food distribution, food produced/person hasn't significantly decreased in a long time. Most bad famines could be greatly reduced with better managment of existing resources
Drought - too many people (although in most droughts its bad resource management - having less people would of only prolonged the enevitable)
War - greed/bad managment/defending 'honour' - war doesn't kill that many people, although it does tend to damage economies, causing the next problem
Poverty - unequal distribution of resources/political mismanagment in some caes
AGW - misuse of (carbon-based) resources w/o understanding the long term concequences

while i agree that having lots of people can make those problems worse, most of the above problems are directly caused by human greed (or political mis-managment, which ususally amounts to the same thing)

Mike, one of the generally accepted reasons for the advent of the renaissance: the plagues reduced the European population suffiently that there was a sudden surplus of resources for the survivors.

Birth rates are already dangerously low as it is, the last thing we want is governments encouraging the situation. Italy has the right idea - pay mothers to have babies. Go babies!

Here we go with another ill-informed neo-Julian/cornucopian "birth dearth" myth promoter. This at a time when we've passed yet another population milestone (6.5 billion and rising), and there are few ecosystems on earth that have not been degraded by the ever-expanding human footprint.

Despite there being a few high-population density countries, like Italy, facing a declining birthrate (which should be cause for celebration, not panic), the vast majority of the world --especially the poorest, least stable regions-- is still full steam ahead, adding 75 million a year. Far from facing a "Children of Men" dystopian scenario, we are probably a lot closer to a "Soylent Green", or perhaps Star Trek's mythical planet "Gideon".

If we are ever lucky enough to have world leadership enlightened and courageous enough to tackle population growth, this would be a cause for celebration not worry, as the neo-Julians would have us believe. Imagine a world of "only" 1 or 2 billion (already larger than the human population for all but the last 200 years of our existence).

Imagine every human being being able to enjoy an American or European standard of living, with first-world food, clothing, shelter, education and health care, while simultaneously reducing our ecological footprint. Now contrast this with a population roughly double the current size, which will happen within 50 years, assuming our current growth rate just holds steady. Imagine 13 billion people --most born in the third-world-- in a post-peak oil world of vastly degraded ecosystems and fierce competition for dwindling resources.

Which future would you prefer?

I think it is more like population growth rates are near zero for most of the developed world except for the US (due to immigration). In developed countries, people have social welfare programs that take care of the old, women have careers and children are more of a financial burden on their parents than a source of labor and income for them.

So, development seems to be the best way to stem the world growing population and eventually reverse it. Better than a big die-off that would wreck the world.

The earth is about 4 billion beyond it's carrying capacity . This strictly a result of oil. It's a mathematical impossibility that these peopole can be fed. DO a little research and look at what percentage of imported food places like ALgeria and Morocco rely on. These places will be seeing massive famines before 2020. What would it be like to watch your child starve to death? This is going to happen millions and millions of times over. The end result of overpopulation is cruelty and suffering on a massive scale.YOu will easily live to see this. Soon.

I think you are ignoring many of the options we and others have available in regards to food production. You could easily build several wind farms on or near farm rich land whose sole purpose is to produce fertilizer.

You use the wind farms to produce electricity to electrolyze water into O2 and H2 and use the H2 and the abundant N2 found in the atmosphere to make Natural Gas, which in turn is made into fertilizer. Note that the vast majority of fertilizers are created using NG, not oil.

A fairly elegant approach to solving one of the 'problems' of feeding the world, at least on the LOCAL scale.

Do you have a successful example of your scenario that you can point to?

They talk about it about 2/3rds of the way down the page. Specifically:

Some have suggested the wind farms be used to produce hydrogen, but liquefying hydrogen for transport is very inefficient, and piping hydrogen long distances is very expensive. About two-thirds of our current hydrogen production (from natural gas, which is a very limited resource in North America) is used to make ammonia and nitrates for fertilizers. It makes more sense to first use wind farms in the Dakotas to produce all the renewable fertilizer our nation needs (this would take about 250 GW of peak wind power), as fertilizers are much more easily stored and transported (by rail) than hydrogen. (Of course, these renewable fertilizers would be somewhat more expensive than current fertilizers, but perhaps that would limit their use enough to save the world's coral reefs.) Then, additional power can be transmitted to Chicago (and other cities along the way) via HVDC-SC transmission lines. As this technology develops, cities farther away could begin to be powered by the wind.

Note: this was the first relevant link that I found doing a simple Google search for 'wind farms to produce fertilizer'. It took me all of 15 seconds to do so, and there are dozens of other articles on the subject!

Now imagine such a setup coupled with Alans rail system and and the proposed HVDC lines criss crossing the nation and you have the makings of a sustainable energy and agricultural system!

Forgive my skepticism, but there seems to be a lot of cheerleading with only one hard number, 250GW. That's 250,000 MW, or 250 million KW.

With another 15 sec Google search, I found that the total electrical energy production for the entire country in 1998 ( a little dated, granted) was 3.6 trillion KWH.

3.6e12 / 8760 hours per year yields an average of 410 million KW continuous production.

Not sure what you mean by peak, KW is a measure of power not energy, but it looks like by your own number we'd have to generate an additional 60% of the nation's total energy production (250 / 410) in new wind energy, in North Dakota, just for fertilizer.

I'm all for any new, innovative ways to solve this energy thing, but unless I've shifted a decimal point badly, this doesn't seem to add up.

And the reality is likely much worse than this, since peak generally does not mean continuous. The average continuous power output of a 250GW system would be substantially less.

Cracking hydrogen from bio-methane is much more feasible than electrolysis with renewable power. Locally we have large quantities of nitrogen fertilizer production all from hydrogen cracked from NG. They are seriously considering running a pipeline from the coal mines to the large NH3/urea plant to replace NG with coal gas for hydrogen cracking, but no one is considering nuclear or renewable electrolysis for hydrogen.

SHEC labs has a solar assisted hydrogen from landfill methane pilot plant being built near where I live.

The hydrogen output from cracking from bio-gas is several times higher than would be possible even with 100% efficient electrolysis.

Interesting...I'd be curious to find out how that ends up working out. I'm rooting for it. When is construction to be complete?

You do realize the articles context is just about producing enough energy for the renewable fertilizer scheme to work. The rest could be used as power for cities in the region. I don't believe that article specifically states that 250GW would power the entire US infrastructure...

You do realize the articles context is just about producing enough energy for the renewable fertilizer scheme to work

But you are saying that the energy required to do that is 60% of our nation's current (ok, 1998) total capacity to generate electricity. It's a huge number, and the article throws it out there like we can pop a couple of wind turbines up in the plains of North Dakota and all of our problems are solved. Any idea how many wind turbines 250GW equates to?

Unless I am still misunderstanding the point.

Keep your nitrogen fertilizer. We don't need any.

Plant roots generally involve two functions: water uptake and feeding. The root hairs combine with fungi (sometimes bacteria) in the soil, trading starches for minerals and resistance to parasites. See for specific examples of plant growth with and without fungal partnership. In the case of legumes, the partner breaths Nitrogen in from above the soil (assuming good soil structure, appropriate water conditions, etc). Sometimes, the partner can be bacteria, including as Nitrogen fixer.

See also for more information.

When you use these fertilizers, the plant will take these salts up and result in a weak partnership with the soil life. The fertilizers also destabilize the soil pH. A weak and bloated plant signals the insect community to come for a feeding frenzy (particularly when you have a huge field of weak and bloated plants).

Then you have to deal with pesticides. With less insects going into the root structure, there will be less air feeding what should be an aerobic soil community. With the resulting anaerobic life, now you have blights.

Then you have to deal with fungicides and antibacterial sprays. Having such weak soil now begs for nature to help out with a few volunteers. The dandelions, plantain, and docks come to set down deep roots and mine iron and copper while the pH makes these minerals otherwise unavailable (part of why organic tomatos have so much more Fe).

Then you have to deal with herbicides. Other "weeds" come to help as nitrates build, like pigweed, milkweed, and dogbane. Eventually, you find yourself buying a camel and selling tours in a man made desert (

When natural farming techniques have proven to have the same record productivity as "conventional" fertilizer based production, it sounds ridiculous to have a debate how to produce fertilizer. Talk about wasted energy. This is to say nothing of the heavy metal contamination happening in the Phosphorus part of this equation. Don't get me started on the Potassium.

You want population control, limit local populations to local resources. Prosecute for waste like sewer systems and septic tanks. Make contaminators the new enemy of humanity, not the web of life we mutually depend, yet casually discuss biocides to destroy.

Actually, if it is natural gas near the farm that you need for fertilizer production, then running manure through a digester to produce methane is by far the best solution. This is a low-tech, small-scale, appropriate technology already installed and in operation across the world.

Of course, this implies that we'll go back to generalist farms that raise both crops and livestock.

It's strange, Mike Hearn, that you call us doomers when it's people with your mindset who would doom us all.

One thing that really struck me was that "There's not even any real reason to believe fewer people would decrease consumption (as opposed to simply making the ones who are left richer)." Well, so you obviously admit that all else being the same, fewer people would be richer. In any case, with our current population, it's impossible for us all to be rich. Imagine that China, India, Africa, and the rest of the world got as rich as Americans. Any optimist, even, who is semi-rational (probably including you) would realize that that is an untenable situation. Yes, I mean that all of our 6.5 billion people can't live like Americans EVER, simply because of a lack of resources - oil just being one. If 6.5 billion is an impossible proposition, then 9 billion by 2050 is even more outrageous. I'm not a doomer. I'm someone who wants to make sure that doom is minimized as much as possible. (If a guy has a gun up to your head, will you worry but think of ideas about how to get out of the situation you're in (=be a doomer) or just smile and wish more people had guns pointed at you, and know that everything will turn out OK (=be an eternal optimist with no plan of action)?

I'm fully aware that China's fertility is currently under natural replacement values. I'm sure that most of us have heard of the "one child policy" there, which is actually not so simple as the common English name makes us believe, but it is true that Chinese are having fewer than 2 children per couple. On the other hand, the population of China is STILL GROWING. In fact, China is adding more people every year than many other countries, just because it's population is already so large.

I'm also of the opinion that immigration delays the inevitable, but I differ from you on some major points. The inevitable fact that immigration delays is that our population can never grow forever. It can never reach "infinity", and the amount of resources on this planet (or the solar system, or the galaxy, or the universe) are not infinite - thus finite. Populations have grown rapidly over the world. Just one example is the Philippines, with a population that went from around 7 million to 80 million in just the past 100 years. Imagine how much richer each person in that country would have been if the had only gotten up to 25 million by now. Just in terms of resources, with over 10 times the population of 100 years ago, each person has less than 1/10th the amount of resources available to him/her. And if they decided to be environmentally friendly with a stable 7 million population and only use 5 times as many Philippine resources as the people of today, fully 1/2 of the country could stay pristine. (Of course, I understand importation of goods, but importing finite materials only takes away from others in the world.)

I'm sure that people 100 years ago, who still believed in more growth, would, when asked what a good stable population for the world should be, would venture guesses like 3 billion or 4 billion. Now, at 6.5 billion, many would state figures like 9 or 10 billion. If we reached 12 billion, we'd probably venture guesses like 15-20 billon. Thus, we never realize even when we cross that line into overshoot territory because we're just so used to the population we have now that we always think that a little more is possible. And then when we've added that "little more", we get used to it and believe that a little more still is possible. I'd venture to guess that we're now far over the human population limit that the world can support. And if we're not, who cares because we wouldn't need to reach that limit. Even staying at that limit means that people will only barely get by. Why not have, as you state so unexpectedly brilliantly, FEWER PEOPLE BEING RICHER.

In the end, each country (and the world in general) will have fewer and fewer resources to work with as time goes on. There will be less oil each year after peak oil. Even if it weren't now, and oil production increased in some way for the next 300 years, imagine how much more damage a constantly growing world would have done by then.

Keep this in mind. The amount of oil we'll be able to use will be falling year after year in the future, so the populations of nations had better be doing the same thing by family planning methods, or else it will be starvation that will do the job for us. Maybe I'm a doomer. But I'm a doomer with ideas.

The inevitable snide reply to the overpopulation argument is to ask whether anyone is volunteering to lead the charge towards lower population by dying.

Volunteers are not necessary. Not many people volunteer to die, but it seems like they all end up doing it anyway.

The problem is not resolved by achieving population decline if consumption/pollution/environmental destruction continues to increase at modern exponential rates.

For example, if we reduce the global population from 6.5 billion to three billion (hard to imagine happening any way short of catastrophe) while continuing to expand footprints from one billion US-sized bigfoots to three billion US-sized bigfoots, we've still got a problem.

There's a timing problem, too. Impending limits-to-growth are scaling up pretty darned fast. Voluntary social change tends to be relatively slow.

Are Humans Smarter Than Yeast?

Yes, I think population decline (voluntary, coerced, or induced by "natural" forces) serves the same function as conservation (not that either of these are likely to happen)--gives us breathing space, but eventually exponential growth will catch up and overwhelm any gains made.

Exactly. Conservation (reducing per-capita consumption) is great, but as long as we continue to add 75 million more people a year worldwide, what good will it do us without reversing world population to sustainable levels? If we add another 7-15 billion people over the next 100 years (which we're on track to do), it won't matter whether we're all driving hybrid-electric cars or using low-flow toilets. There are simply not enough resources to sustain that many people anywhere close to a first-world standard of living.

a) I'm not aware of any projections that suggest we're going to add 15 billion people to the planet in the next 100 years. The most recent UN projections put the population at around 9 or so billion by 2050, with the likelihood of it plateauing and even decreasing after that point.

b) Can you actually numerically prove that there are "not enough resources" to sustain 8 or 9 billion people living in 1st world conditions? Sure, we'd have to recycle a lot more, and food production techniques would have to be overhauled fairly dramatically, but there seems little justification for being convinced that it's impossible. For mainly political reasons, I suspect it will be at least another 100 years before even 50% of the the world's population IS living in 1st world conditions, and by then total population will most likely have dropped back to something close to what we have today - possibly somewhat less, but to get there won't require levels of mortality massively greater than what we already have today. Of course, it's entirely conceivable that if we get it wrong, there will be massive mortality rates in any number of parts of the world over the next 50 to 100 years, but believing that it's impossible to do anything about it is dangerous and unjustified.

a) 15 billion (the pessimistic end of my 7-15 billion world population guesstimates range) is entirely possible, assuming current population growth rates hold constant through the end of the century. The U.N. currently estimates w.p. will top out around 9 billion mid-century due to declining fertility, as you say. However, both figures are largely conjectural --no one can really say.

b) Yes. The upper limit to a world population living in first-world conditions under current technology is ~2 billion, per the U.N. and that Cornell (David Pimentel) study: Obviously, if there are some future breakthroughs in alternative energy and food production, this might shift upwards. However, recycling and trimming bulging Western waistlines alone won't cut it. Even assuming some energy and food miracle comes to pass, though, reducing pollution and humanity's collective impact on the environment will be a lot harder. People need a lot of space and use a lot of natural resources to live at a first-world level. There's really no getting around that.

I agree that reducing our population does not require any increase in mortality rates, much less a massive one --never meant to imply otherwise. It DOES however, require a large decrease in fertility rates, especially in the third world.

I was in the Dallas area over the weekend visiting family. My aunt is in real estate and said the farmers and ranchers of the North Texas area are not selling land to developers due to the Barnett Shale gas that is being developed. So what are the developers doing to stay in business? They are buying land in large sections farther out from the current suburbs. Talk about feeding "The Long Emergency" even more than it is being fed. John

Robert - do you have any information on the eroei of temperate latitude bio-diesel? In particular that made from rapeseed oil.

Not off the top of my head, but interestingly enough I am about to contribute a chapter to a book on renewable energy. My topic is renewable diesel. So, I will probably run across this information pretty soon. (I will also be somewhat scarce around here while I am working on it).


I've made some posts in the past pointing out that sunflowers and many other oilseeds could feasibly be pressed right on the farm using small-scale, low-tech methods. (As you know, people have been pressing oils from oilseeds for millennia.) According to the information that I have seen, it appears that agricultural equipment typically requires from 2.5-5 gallons of diesel per acre, depending upon crop and cultural practices. As sunflowers yield around 100 gallons per acre, and rapeseed even higher, it would appear that cutting out the round trip to the factory and producing straight vegetable oil to run diesel equipment right on the farm could be a viable strategy to keep mechanised agriculture going, without sacrificing a huge amount of acreage to do so. (I am aware that straight vegetable oil won't work <0C, neither will transesterfied factory-made B100, but little work is done with agricultural equipment at those temperatures anyway. I am also aware that the yields from low-tech pressing methods will be less than industrial processes; I am hopeful that simply heating the seeds in a solar roaster prior to pressing would improve the yields considerably.)

There are oilseeds with higher yields than sunflowers. I have focused on them because they are a familiar plant that is relatively easy to grow throughout temperate climates; it is even feasible to hand-harvest them on the small scale that would be needed for most farms.

This is a subject that requires further R&D, but I'm hopeful that you might mention it as something worth a look. It is the type of "appropriate technology" thing that could really make a big difference.

Do you have some sources for your information? I am going to need all the sources I can find while writing this chapter. It is going to be "Renewable Diesel", and I will cover biodiesel and green diesel, and the various method of manufacture and pros and cons of each.


This report has some detailed analysis for biodiesel from rapeseed, including using only the farm's fuel production as the energy input.



Will this book talk about biofuels from tropical sources?

I find it strange that the debate on biofuels centres around feedstocks grown in countries where it snows.
Surely the economics of growing feedstock in tropical countries (Indonesia, Brazil) would be so much better?

Compare the amount of sunlight that falls on Brazil with the sunlight that falls on Canada. Why are we talking rapeseed rather than sugar cane or palm oil?

If we are to believe in things we cannot see or touch, how do we tell the true belief from the false belief?

Will this book talk about biofuels from tropical sources?

Yes, it will cover the gamut. It will be neither pro nor con. In fact, I favor biofuels from the tropics, provided we can avoid cutting down rainforest to produce them.

There was 4 million tonnes of Canola grown in Saskatchewan in 2006 on 6 million acres and 9 million tonnes total of Canola produced in Canada. Not that that is large relative to transport fuel use, but it would be 500-900 million gallons of oil. There is a total of 40 million cultivated acres in Saskatchewan. To put that in perspective, the entire US has 75 million acres in corn and Brazil produces about 50 million tonnes of soybeans per year and has 130 million cultivated acres.

The summer solar insolation in Saskatchewan is around 5.5 kWh/m2/day which is higher than the annual insolation in the Mojave desert. The days are long in summer and there are 16 hours of daylight at solstice. A more tropical location would have the potential of a winter crop, but moderate climates like the northern US and Canada have high grain and oilseed production capability.


I'm copying a portion of a post I did a few weeks ago that has some info:

How much acreage would have to be dedicated to growing sunflowers to power a tractor for a year? According to the source below, 1 acre of sunflowers should yield 102 gal of sunflower oil per year; rapeseed does a little better at 127 gal/ac.

The total amount of fuel needed to run a farm for a year will depend upon the size of a farm, but I would guess that for most farms we are talking about a few acres at most. The source below lists typical farm fuel consumption per acre for most common mechanized tasks.

Looking at this table, it would appear that the total fuel consumption may run somewhere in the range of 2.5-5 gal/acre, depending upon crop. That would suggest that a single acre of sunflowers should provide enough fuel for at least a 20-40 acre farm. A 160 acre farm may require between 4-8 acres of sunflowers. That would seem to me to leave plenty of acreage for food production.

Cool I figured as much. And you have to account for the fact that modern farm machinery is not exactly optimized for fuel efficiency. Next you need to add in the ammonia inputs which would bump this number up quite a bit. Note you can do organic or I'd prefer semi-organic farming and get the ammonia usage down a lot I suspect. But a little bit of fertilizer even in a mainly organic setting goes a long way.

And finally I've always wondered if moving to a rail based agricultural system would work instead of heavy tractors you would use widely space rails to run the equipment and intensive methods.

This was the basis upon which Diesel built the diesel engine - that farmers could grow enough oil producing crops to power their farming operations. That was true in the 19th century and it remains true today. But notice what it entails - JUST farming operations using VERY MODEST TRACTORS! Not biodiesel to run the truck to town. Not biodiesel to run a generator for electricity. Not biodiesel for school buses running back and forth to school. Not even biodiesel to run big air conditioned combines as are operated today.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

To put some numbers and data on sunflower oilseeds:

A 3 ton a day oilpress from india - $1,100 is what I spent (Needs 6 HP or so input) Will process 3 ton of seed a day. Soy Beans should have the outer hulls removed, same for sunflowers. (So now you need some kind of winnowing tower/device.) The seeds should be pre-heated in some way for better oil extraction. But if you plan on just feeding the seedcake to your critters - meh. And yes, solar heating works - but to preheat 3 ton of seed (for one of the smaller presses) that's a bitch. What I got is now a bit more pricey today according to this link
2 variable speed DC motors (ETEK) $750 a pop (Motors have other functions and are rated 7HP cont.) Motor controllers $350 or so.
La Milpa (CS Bell About $1000. I bought a leather belt mill of unknown manufacture and a power 60) for the separation of the outer seed hulls.

Sunflowers are a water intensive crop.

Sunflowers were one of the 'recommended crops' for oilseed by the russians - according to the 'lenin on farming' texts I looked at.

A biodieasel system 80 gal $3600

Dewatering gear (Space + black barrels + time)

Toilet paper filters (casing no TP)

Now if you want to make your own ethyl alcohol. (To get rid of the external cost of methyl alcohol) You'll need either sugar, starch or cellulose.

Sugar beets just need a chop-wash operation. (CS Bell hammermill)

cattail roots (from your open waste water treatment system perhaps?), jerusalem artichokes need ensymes to break down the starch. You could use a malt from grain, or buy the enzymes.

Cellulose is a acid + heat, Acid or enzyme operation (another externalized cost)

For a 15 gal wash you'll need 4kw of heat or so. So lets double that and say 8kW $1000 a 1kW of heat output. For winter, consider getting 16kW or 20 kw worth of tubes.

Then you have to build housing/piping to take the solar heat and make boiling booze.

Now, make a system that lets you pass the 90% or so booze you collect back into vapor and pass that through a filter of dry corn meal to suck out the water, then collect that ethyl alcohol so it doesn't touch air (and so you can mix it with KOH or NaOH then inject right into the diesel processor)

Now for all the above you'll need land to grow the crop, house the animals that will eat your energy crop waste stream, then some animal waste handling. Want the animal wastes to do double doo-dy? Have that waste feed fly larve then earthworms. (you can then feed the flies and worms to your critters)

And on and on......Does the bio-oil solution seem as simple as buying a gallon of diesel for $3?

Wow, lots of good hands on know how there. I think this points out that biodiesel and ethanol as small scale appropriate technologies are certainly in the realm of possibility, but could definitely benefit from more R&D. People are going to need some plans and instructions to make this work well.

A $3/gallon, petrodiesel does look a whole lot easier. At $30/gallon, I think that a lot of farmers would be willing to give this stuff a try.

One of the advantages of small-scale distillation of ethanol for fuel rather than for human consumption is that it is quite a bit more forgiving. Foregiveness from the BATF is another matter. . .

We don't need to bother with all that harvesting and pressing. I read somewhere about a wood/biomass gasification system that was bolted directly to the intake manifold of the tractor. With proper design, the wood chips or charcoal are partially burned/gasified and the hot "producer gas" goes directly into the engine. This is not a clean or high power system but it certainly would do in a pinch. Which is what we can expect.

I hope to see these things chugging around farms in a decade or two, if I survive and the powerdown is sufficiently peaceful.

Here is an online book from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization titled Wood gas as engine fuel.

Here is a picture of one from Australia, from the olden days. This particular version burned coal.

By the way, hasn't anyone around here read "Limits to growth" by Meadows, et. al? Based on the totally reasonable ideas in that book, we need to carefully consider what we're going to try to preserve, and what must be abandoned due to its unsustainability.

The Mother Earh News ran several articles about "producer gas" in the 70s (last time people were looking seriously at renewable alternatives).

Back during WWII these units were widely installed on motor vehicles throughout occupied Europe (Hitler's armies took every drop of gasoline for themselves, this was the only way for any civilian vehicles to remain in operation).

With gasoline at ~$3/gallon it doesn't make much sense to mess with this, but when we see double digit prices this is a technology that might indeed be worth a serious look.

I have a gut feeling that no temperate-zone biofuels are going to turn out to be viable. Tropical crops like sugar cane and jatropha, on the other hand, are quite likely to succeed, because of the higher productivity of the biotope. Also, sardonically, because of fewer environmental regulations and lower wages.

I heard a French radio commentator gloating today about how Cuba and Brazil are going to bring Hugo Chavez to his knees... and how, you may ask? ... by flooding the market with ethanol, which will bring down the price of oil! Serious. Idiot.

Large amounts of land in the south-eastern US are suitable for sugar cane. Sugar was raised commercially in the south-east coastal plain for centuries, some is still raised in the LaFayette, Louisiana area and in parts of the reclaimed Everglades in Florida. It was raised in the Houston area, Sugarland is named for the plantations as well as the Imperial sugar plant. The Texas Penitentiary system raised cane on a number of its units, called "farms".
Brazil has cheap labor, but the US doesn't anymore. The US Sugar farms in southern Florida used to import "guest workers" from the Dominican Republic. I'm kind of surprised the US sugar growers haven't jumped on this bandwagon, but am possibly just uninformed. Sugar beets from more northern areas are another possibility for sugar production.
But all of this renewable production to keep the internal combustion engine alive is nuts. We need to electrify our transportation before we go bankrupt, and fast-track nuclear plants and wind power. And, get a vasectomy or tubes tied! I got my vasectomy 15 years ago and am very pleased with the result-my chid support payments ended last year!


There was a study by St. Olaf College (Minnesota) researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on soybean biodiesel that found the EROEI was 1.92. The article is "Environmental, economic, and energetic costs
and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels" and can be found at

Since rapeseed provides twice the yield per acre than soybeans, I would assume the EROEI might be higher, but I haven't found a rapeseed-specific study.

Try this report (I linked above also) Agraria497.pdf

Thanks Robert.

I'm feeling bold again so I've been discussing energy with friends and co-workers. Planting a seed, as it were, that this Summer's gas prices and discontent may help to germinate.

Energy and gas and related issues are an area of huge ignorance and mis-informedness. It's rather shocking!

Straight-forward, clear, and numbers-based analysis like this are exactly what we all need to make our case. For our own good.

One of the scariest aspects of all things Peak Oil is the political response engendered by the slow squeeze we're experiencing. The public response will be even more unfocused and no doubt contain irrationality and probably violence.

The underlying premise to the happy talk for ethanol production is that "we" won't have to change the way our lives are organized.

I came to realize a few years ago that the cellulosic ethanol numbers just never add up and we would simply unable to grow enough corn (with all that entails) to put a significant dent in the gasoline consumption. If we used every single acre of US soil for production of cellulosic material (from the coast of Louisiana to the peak of Denali in Alaska), you still could not replace 50% of the gasoline consumed by the US under the most optimum of conditions.

Maybe 30 years ago we might have had a chance of putting a dent with declining consumption and the "drive" to more efficient vehicles, but not today unless a substantial rearrangement of all our lives is accomplished in relatively short order (I've taken such steps). I used to work for an engineering firm that designed and built gasohol plants and yes, they were heavily subsidized. When the funding was cut they, and the company I worked for, "went away."

Patrick Kerr of OilGasFutures.Com -----no energy alternative seems to really do much at this point ---also on ethanol ---i have read that it simply can't be "pipelined" and is very difficult to transport (not sure to what extent this is true???) ---i like the comment about the corn futures ;-) --pk

"(Note to self: Corn futures to double again by 2009)."
Yeah I thought that was a great way of putting it as well.

Moreover I like to see the figures, Many thanks. So 2006 about 15 plants online. 73 in pipeline, say 3 years to build, so about 25 next year. So growth is levelling off as well?
I mean, how much can ethanol grow per year the next 1-2-3 years? I suppose this is about max 1 billion gallons per year?

And it is great to see that EtOH price follows gasoline. It means clearly that even with subsidies, it is not profitable.
Why? Because the cost go up with increasing oil prices... (through the increasing corn price + increased demand of corn, so its gonna be a disaster).

The drive to boost ethanol production will turn out to have been a costly misallocation or scarce resources at the outset of the post-peak age. Billions of dollars that could have been spent toward energy efficiency/conservation flushed down the toilet. Worse, ethanol's political momentum is such that no one is going to be able to stop it before billions more have been torched. It's unclear to me what it will take, exactly, to abandon the national ethanol project in favor of something that makes sense. Worldwide grain shortages?

Thanks, Robert. Ethanol is a great example of "wanting to believe" by those who are heavily vested in our current way of life. They want to believe so badly that they will ignore hard data in the vain hope that somehow a miracle can be achieved. It is problems like these that make me think about Tainter, Diamond, and others who write about other civilizations that have collapsed.

We certainly have the data in front of us as to what needs to be done (or not done) to mitigate the fossil fuel problem. The fact that we grab at every possible straw that would preserve this "non-negotiable" way of life is further evidence, to me at least, of our collective insanity.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

Since the price of gasoline has been rising in general and will continue too increase I don't see how its possible to separate the signal from high prices and ethanol production on demand. Its simply not possible mathematically to isolate ethanol. Next their is no intrinsic reason that ethanol can act as and alternative to Jevons paradox instead we would be expected to burn both all ethanol available and all the oil available. At best subsidized ethanol will allow demand to continue to increase simply by acting as and additional fuel source at a lower overall price point. So it can put of the point in time that demand seriously exceeds supply by at best a few years.

Demand destruction from the combination of very high prices and shortages is the only thing that will change situation.

Just a small note on my vacation I stopped at a gas station and a young man in a new larger pickup truck pulls in. The station only had premium and the cheap grade not the mid level grade that many stations have. So the young man goes into the station asking for the mid grade and they don't have it. His response was pure American, he goes out and tells his girl friend he HAS to by premium for his truck since they don't have the mid grade. Its also obvious from the conversation that paying almost 4 dollars a gallon is a strain on their budget.

Ethanol cannot solve this problem. In my opinion America is terminally ill.

"His response was pure American, he goes out and tells his girl friend he HAS to by premium for his truck since they don't have the mid grade."

Well, we all have days when the wallet is a little thinner than we would like, but did it not occur to him to pump say 5 gal. of regular, then add 5 gal of premium on top? (assuming the truck really would not have been "happy" on regular?)

"In my opinion America is terminally ill."

Or at least in need of a refresher in basic "problem solving" skills!

"At best subsidized ethanol will allow demand to continue to increase simply by acting as and additional fuel source at a lower overall price point. So it can put of the point in time that demand seriously exceeds supply by at best a few years."

Exactly. The Big Oil boys in charge know well how to keep America rolling along merrily, no need to panic folks. Meanwhile they can get a head start on the process of starving and eliminating the least productive of the world's population.

Nobody said these guys were stupid, and they definitely have their fingers on the pulse of America!

Sad but true.

ps, Low octane gasoline (advertised at 91) in Panama City, Panama is about $3.20, 25 cents more in these here hinterlands.

I'd love to hear more on how gas prices are effecting Panama.
3.20 has to be causing some problems I'd think.


Thanks for the post. I agree with your evaluation and cringe when I hear my friends say they're buying E85 (several stations offer it here in Wisconsin). They say they'd rather put money in farmer John's pocket than Abdullah's pocket.

I'm confused by the title of your post -- "The Mythical Ethanol Threat". It seems like the threat here is very real. It is not mythical. Am I missing something?

Thanks again,
Tom A-B

I believe he is referring to oil company comments that ethanol production is a factor they consider when planning new refinery capacity and that more ethanol will mean less new refinery capacity. I also believe that Robert's point in this essay was to expose how hollow the ethanol "threat" is to big oil so that people can see that big oil is simply posturing when making absurd statements like that.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

The increase in infrastructure to distribute E85 is also inadequate. In 2006, the number of gas stations delivering E85 went from 700 to 1200. A large increase, but barely a dent considering there are 170,000 gas stations nationwide. North Dakota has 16,000 flex fuel vehicles in their state, yet there are only 23 pumps in the entire state.

Feeding cows and people or feeding our SUV's? This doesn't seem that complicated of a choice.

... for the convenience of TV, you can only be one of two kinds of human beings, either a liberal or a conservative. -- Kurt Vonnegut

Alcohol Can Be A Gas

I can't agree with most of you after reading David Blume's "Alcohol Can Be A Gas". How many of you are merely citing information about ethanol you have heard or read elsewhere? Have you actually performed studies on the viability of alcohol fuel from feedstocks other than corn?

As an alcohol fuel expert, ecologist, permaculturist, and farmer, Blume writes: "We can have a large cooperative cellulose distillery in each county, producing ethanol and biomass electricity to keep our essential services running. We can have small integrated farms that produce fuel, food, and building materials. We can eat well on locally produced food and locally processed products. We can even cogenerate electricity and hot water at our homes using our cars running on alcohol, if we are clever enough."

Want some sample eye openers? Here are a few I learned from "Alcohol Can Be A Gas":

- Oil companies make over $25,000 in profit from a single barrel of oil
- The gasoline you pay for is never the same mixture two days in a row - it's just the oil company's mix of toxic chemicals left over from refining oil
- There is enough land in the US to grow enough alcohol feedstocks for our energy needs
- As many as 26 million jobs could be created - ensuring employment for America

Blume counters multiple myths spread through the media about ethanol, and shows us why ethanol does NOT require more energy to create than is derived from the fuel (positive EROEI). Blume educates his readers and proves alcohol fuel is a clean, plentiful, and renewable energy source, dismissing reports from the media that propagate misinformation. He explains ways to diversify fuel crops that can quickly be grown in America. He also backs up his information with meticulous notes and references, daring anyone in the energy or agricultural business to challenge him. (I hope he gets to debate some of the "experts" the mainstream media always cites, namely David Pimentel.)

What David Blume does not advocate is that we can continue our present energy use, which has led to a culture of consumption and waste. What is clear is that the structure of society is changing as energy depletes, and none of us can predict with 100% accuracy what the crystal ball holds as peak oil continues to make our economic and ecological problems worse. As America wakes up to peak oil, there will be many shocked people, unaware of just how large the issue of energy depletion is. That is why before Americans reach for their pitchforks and torches, a copy of "Alcohol Can Be A Gas" should be in their hands.


Thats great. I believe that you assume first "IF we reduce our total energy consumption say 10 times (!), THEN we can be sustainable on energy".

Cellulose ethanol is far away. There are several technical problems to solve there (concentration low after fermentation, cost of enzymes used to name two?). Maybe 2020 we start ramping it up?

"- There is enough land in the US to grow enough alcohol feedstocks for our energy needs"

What feedstock you talk about? That is a pretty major thing to clear!!! Without that info your post is not informative enough for me. (and you'll be hacked to pieces by the other wolves at this forum - good luck!).

Too funny! This is a joke, right? I mean, $25000 from one barrel of oil.....

Sever misunderstanding (not liable in court?) I suppose its 25$ per barrel he means...

I also noticed "ethanol does NOT require more energy to create than is derived from the fuel (positive EROEI)."

This is probably true, however corn ethanol seem to give 1.5-3(at best) times energy back. Not a lot. You need a lot of fossil fuels (=CO2) to get one part ethanol.

Brazil sugar ethanol seem to have, what, 6-8 in EROEI.

Oil has 8-10, is that about right? So thats what corn ethanol is up against... No chance. Thats why propaganda and subsisides and smokescreens are needed.

This is probably true, however corn ethanol seem to give 1.5-3(at best) times energy back.

No corn ethanol plants get 3/1. They range from about 1.05 (if you ignore the BTU credit given to the animal feed byproducts) to about 1.6 for some of the more modern plants. The USDA cites an average of 1.3.

"The USDA cites an average of 1.3."

Just frickin brilliant. I feel so much better that farmers will be able drive thier tractors around (and not much else).
Ever feel like you are stuck in a B-movie.

(and not much else).

Record profits for ADM, paid by the tax payers?

Hi peakoilboy! Welcome to theoildrum! Robert Rapier is our resident expert on ethanol and cellulistic ethanol. He has a masters in chemical engineering from Texas A&M, and has done lab research on cellulistic ethanol. I suggest you go check out his prior key posts on this blog and his debate with Vinod Khosla in particular before our resident wolves tear you to pieces.
I think you will find his writings both convincing and fair-minded, he has no ax to grind.

"As an alcohol fuel expert, ecologist, permaculturist, and farmer, Blume writes: "We can have a large cooperative cellulose distillery in each county, producing ethanol and biomass electricity to keep our essential services running."

Where is his farm ? What was/is his feedstock ?

I ,as a farmer, would like to visit his farm

If Blume has a website, you might want to paste in a sampling of his arguments here, not just the conclusions. (Which sound a little hyperbolic..)

I appreciate the comment that Americans will have to reduce their energy demand, which seems an inevitable part of any of our possible fuel solutions/combinations. Anyone who suggests any kind of alternative here is usually barraged with a bunch of hasty calculations that presuppose that this one source is supposed to fulfill ALL our energy needs, making the proposition look immediately unattainable, hence ridiculous. Ethanol has recieved a great deal of attention, however, and while the consensus of the gang seems heavily against, I haven't seen anything to convince me that the arguments were unfairly presented. I think the ball is in the advocates' court, and they have to see how hard a hit they can manage without the favor of an endless government subsidy.

Welcome to the house of heckle, and Good Luck!

Bob Fiske

If Blume has a website,

Had one - it was a series of 21 tripod hosted pages. They were in the google cache (that is where I snaged my copies a few years ago)

I could get thru 'em if ya care.

Oil companies make over $25,000 in profit from a single barrel of oil

Yep, sounds like the David Blume I am familiar with. Lots of baseless claims. His work has been discussed here before. My favorite claim of his was that gasoline had a hidden subsidy of as much as $15/gallon. I calculated that, and it turns out this is greater than the entire U.S. budget. I got a good laugh out of that one.

Put your trust in Blume, and don't be surprised when people who know something about this eat you alive.

Lots of baseless claims.

But he's more right than wrong about using the waste grain as a herbicide. The fungal blooms do a great job of killing weed seeds.

But then there's this:

"Now this year in 2006, we're going to spend about $320 billion to buy imported oil. That's 3.2 times what we were spending three years ago. We feel that the average refiner price will be about $60 a barrel, not $28 and some change. And in contrast to the $49 billion we were spending in the Persian Gulf to defend oil supplies, that figure is now $132.7 billion. And when you add everything together and take the economic consequences into account…that $304 billion in 2003 will increase in 2006 to $825.1 billion. That's almost twice as much as much as we're going to spend on national defense this year. It adds the equivalent of $8.35 to a gallon of gasoline when we look at the price that was posted yesterday (April 14, 2006), that means at the pump -- if you were paying the full cost -- it would be $11.06 per gallon, meaning that it would cost you about $220 to fill up a sedan and about $325 to fill up an SUV."
[Emphasis added-J]

I almost hate to point out that tractors run on diesel, and that there are numerous fossil fuel inputs into the commercial corn ethanol process. I also hate to point out that no oil company - to my knowledge - had anything favorable to say about us going to war. Third, I almost hate to point out that the $49 billion spent is not entirely to defend oil. After all, we are in Afghanistan, and they don't have any oil. Finally, I almost hate to point out that the math is atrocious. $8.35 times our gasoline usage is $1.2 trillion per year. Who did the math here? David Blume?

How many of you are merely citing information about ethanol you have heard or read elsewhere? Have you actually performed studies on the viability of alcohol fuel from feedstocks other than corn?

Isn't that what you did? Cite information you read in Blume's pulp fiction book?

Start here:

Read the responses about Blume. He is a propagandist.

dismissing reports from the media that propagate misinformation.

Your link, purporting to be Blume rebutting the Stanford study, just hand waves it away. No actual analysis at all. And true to Blume's style, he throws out this little bit of slander:

On top of all this its important to note that the researcher, Mark Jacobsen has been a frequent recipient of funding from ExxonMobil through that corporation’s $100 million dollar grant to Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Program.

That is a lie. Here is Jacobson talking about it in my blog:

Here he is responding to Vinod Khosla making the same smear:

For the record, here was Jacobson’s reply when asked if Exxon had funded his research:

"Absolutely not," he laughs. "I've taken no money from energy companies. My study was funded by NASA. For 18 years I've been studying pollutants in the air to understand the atmosphere better and try to find solutions to problems."

Blume is a punk. I have seen him slander people just like that many times if they disagree with him on ethanol. He did the same to Pimentel. He made some personal slanders over Pimentel's disagreement, and falsely accused him of being funded by oil companies. The man is unethical.

Bio Fuels compete with food and ecosystems.

UN warns on impacts of biofuels
Plantations for biofuels may threaten forests and wildlife
A UN report warns that a hasty switch to biofuels could have major impacts on livelihoods and the environment. Produced by a cross-agency body, UN Energy, the report says that biofuels can bring real benefits. But there can be serious consequences if forests are razed for plantations, if food prices rise and if communities are excluded from ownership, it says. And it concludes that biofuels are more effective when used for heat and power rather than in transport. "Current research concludes that using biomass for combined heat and power (CHP), rather than for transport fuels or other uses, is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade - and also one of the cheapest," it says. The European Union and the US have recently set major targets for the expansion of biofuels in road vehicles, for which ethanol and biodiesel are seen as the only currently viable alternative to petroleum fuels

Food prices rise as more crops go into producing biofuels

The increasing demand for biofuel, which is derived from biomass — usually plants — has taken a bite out of supplies of crops and other farm products worldwide. The redirection of crops from mouths to fuel tanks is reflected in the rise of prices of ordinary food items in Japan.

Triumvirate of collapse - Economy, Ecosystem, Energy

Since I haven't read this "book" I'm going on what you have to say about it, plus about 35 years of chemical engineering experience in the field of energy and the environment.

So, I'd say on the basis of this there are just a few problems with your assertions from the book. Does he (or you assume) a "Business As Usual" in terms of the rate of energy consumption because our gasoline consumption is more than 412 million gallons per day and growing at 2+ percent per year.

First, $25,000 profit from a barrel of oil. Slightly less than half of that barrel of oil that you are tossing out there is consumed as gasoline. At 42 gallons/barrel, if 20 gallons/barrel was gasoline and selling at 3.50/gallon, we'd get enough money back to pay for that initial barrel of oil (I am assuming for simplicity that retail prices are able to cover the acquisition F.O.B. costs of a barrel of oil). We also know how much of that barrel goes to other products like kerosene/distillate, jet fuel, residual oils, asphalts and their respective prices. The remainder that then goes to other products must be the source of the "$25,000" You you must think that the refiners are charging something like $5,000/gallon of "other refined products" for manufacture of things like plastic, pesticides, etc.?

Second, gasoline is a mixture of compounds with certain ranges of characteristics. Unless you are dealing with a pure substance and go to extreme lengths to refine it to as close to 100% purity as you can get it, nothing is ever the same on a daily basis, not even ethanol. But it is not as variable (and out of control) as you think. Every chemical engineer would understand the concept of residence time and how to deal with the dynamics of concentration changes of mixtures (with regard to tankage), the concept of feed-stage and reflux ratio, and the effects of controlling temperature and pressure with a distillation column. Just as every chemical engineer would understand the concept of azeotrope with regard to ethanol and how to deal with it.

Gasoline is hardly "the left overs" of refining.

Third, the laws of thermodynamics are "carved in stone" and you just cannot violate them no matter how much you desire it. There is a limited amount of energy available in biomass as defined by the carbon/hydrogen oxygen ratio of the feed material (energy/unit mass) and if it is going to be internally sustainable, a certain amount of it is needed to "run the process." In addition, the chemistry is also pretty much "carved in stone" (also a function of thermodynamics) whether you use a fermentation process or a gasification process. The chemistry of carbon and hydrogen atoms is pretty straight forward, as is the math. (And to be clear, I am not talking about the energy balance of Pimental). In the fermentation process about half of your carbon energy is lost as CO2 as natural byproduct of fermentation (and you have a natural limit of about 14% concentration of EtOH in the fermentation "beer" where the bugs die from the EtOH concentration).

The structure of biomass in terms of lignin, cellulose, hemicellulose, carbohydrates and "oils" and the amount of usable biomass per hectare are all parameters that exist within definable parameters.

So, unless Blume shows you the chemistry and the math about yields without supplemental inputs, or states that the quantity of transportation must diminish greatly he (and you) are just dealing with wishful thinking, not grounded in science. I have provided the math and the chemistry before and can do so again.

PeakOilBoy, is David Blume a science educator? It seems to me that if every county in rural Alabama is going to have a cellulosic ethanol production facility, he needs to lead a crash program to train the technicians to run 'em. Problems such as local production of cellulolytic enzymes, maintaining optimal reaction temperature and pH, and dealing with contamination by unwanted micro-organisms in a dilute solution will require very skilled operators at each plant.

It took decades to develop and perfect petroleum refinery technology in a growing resource environment; I think it's fantasy to think county-scale bioreactors will be perfected and staffed in less than a decade, with a declining resource base.

I recommmend people devote the limited amount of time and resources available at this point to developing economic systems that don't depend on personal automobiles.

Errol in Miami

We have extracted from finite supplies of energy stores, coal, methane, oil, and uranium, which are now all becoming depleted, some of which were the accumulated result of millions of years of solar and geophysical energy.

If we attempt to grow our way out of this problem, as though the ecological systems of the planet are not already severely stressed, the next resource that we will deplete, frighteningly rapidly, is topsoil.

Even if we could magically keep growing crops without needing to add fertilizer, I doubt that a 60% return (ethanol) will be enough to sustain a society used to a 6000% return (petroleum).

PeakOilBoy wrote "Oil companies make over $25,000 in profit from a single barrel of oil".

That would be 9.125 trillion dollars a year profits for any company that produces at least 1,000,000 barrels of oil a day for a year. Some of them did refining, retail fuel sales, and marketed chemicals and natural gas as well as had convenience stores, but not a one of them ever earned anything like $25,000 on a barrel of oil.

An observation from a friend driving by Omaha this weekend.

E10 gasoline was $3.29 (87 octane gas at $3.39)
E85 was $2.35

Don't know if this is because there is a lack of E85 vehicles, surplus of E85 vs E10 at the moment, or tax credit for E85.

In any case with nearly $1.00 difference buying E85 would save you a lot of money at the pump, even with less energy per gallon.

This is the kind of price spread that pops up where you have high volume production of ethanol. Will this impact prices nationwide? Probably not. It does say that for places that have been swimming in corn they can now be swimming in ethanol and impact fuel prices, at least short term. This is a politicians dream when confronting "big oil" about price gouging.

There is no price difference between $2.35/gal ethanol and $3.29/gal gasoline.

If you can make 20 miles/galon of gasoline, galon of ethanol will take you only about 14 miles.

100 miles on ethanol will cost you $16.40 = =100/14*2.35
100 miles on gasoline will cost you $16.40 = =100/20*3.29

There is no price difference between $2.35/gal ethanol and $3.29/gal gasoline....

I fully expect to get heckled about my post.

I have read his book and you can learn more at I also invite any and all scientific dissections of David Blume's work... the point is to find viable solutions, not bicker.

As for the facts and figures, I admit I am a reader of his work, not a biofuels scientist/expert. Here is one example of Blume's calculations from his book:

"Of nearly half a billion acres of prime cropland,
the U.S. uses only 72.1 million acres for corn
in an average year.5 The land used for corn takes
up only 16.6% of our prime cropland! And corn
takes up only 7.45% of our total agricultural land.
When statements are made saying that the U.S. can
replace only 10–15% of its gasoline by using agriculture,
only the corn starch portion of the grain,
produced on this small fraction of prime cropland,
is used in the calculation!

Even if, for alcohol production, we used only
what the USDA considers prime flat cropland, we
would still have to produce only 368.5 gallons of
alcohol per acre to meet 100% of the demand for
transportation fuel at today’s levels.6 Although I am
not proposing it, corn starch alone, at the modern
average of 140 bushels of grain per acre, and not
even counting use of corn’s cellulosic stalks, could
technically meet all of this goal, while actually
increasing the meat supply (see Myth #4 below)—
and corn isn’t a particularly stellar energy crop. A
wide variety of standard crops yield up to triple
this level (see Chapter 8).

Dr. Barry Commoner did substantial research in the 1980s that showed that a simple shift away from starch crops to sugar crops, such as beets, would dramatically increase
yields of both alcohol and animal feed per acre
compared to corn."

I encourage everyone to read the book and let's take it from there!

I encourage everyone to read the book and let's take it from there!

You just read his book. It has been discussed here enough that I doubt too many people are going to be interested in reading it - his claims are simply not credible. But if you want to discuss it, pick out the point or points you want to discuss. Note that this won't be a monologue on your part. You will be challenged to defend your claims.

I probably won't get around to it today, but if you think you can defend Blume's book, then let's get started. Others will probably get to you before I do (about to be off until tomorrow) but if you have un-demolished claims still waiting the next time I am on, I will see that they receive my full attention.

"Of nearly half a billion acres of prime cropland,
the U.S. uses only 72.1 million acres for corn . . ."

Huge exaggeration:

The United States has about a quarter of a billion acres of total land, of which only about 18% is considered arable. The non-arable land can grow things, but you won't get the nice corn yields you get in Iowa.

You can find facts like these at:

Wikipedia probably has similar data.

You don't have to be an energy expert to find this stuff out. My background is microbiology - no specific training in energy related subjects. I used to believe ethanol was the answer, and I set out to prove it by calculating how much ethanol the United States could produce. I hunted for the raw facts - ethanol yields, corn yields, arable land, land for corn use etc. I did the math myself, was horrified by the answer, re-checked my math and realized that ethanol would never replace gasoline in the US.

Oops, my bad. I was off by a factor of ten. There really are nearly half a billion acres of arable land in the US. Despite this, there still aren't enough acres of land to replace gasoline. Solarfan got the numbers right below.

Let's just run through some really quick numbers pulled from quick searches on the web:

Current gasoline demand is about 138 billion gallons per year.

Replace this with ethanol and it's lower mileage:

138 / 0.7 = 197 billion gallons of ethanol required to replace the current gasoline demand in total.

You can apparently get about 120 bushels of corn out of an acre, and about 2.5 gallons of ethanol out of a bushel, so you can get 120 x 2.5 = 300 gallons ethanol per acre of corn.

This means that we would need to plant 197E9 / 300 = 657 million acres of corn.

Your number: there is "almost" 500 million acres of prime cropland in the U.S. I found 442 million acres listed on a USDA site.

So even if we stop growing anything but corn, it doesn't match current demand, much less growth.

This also doesn't begin to consider the fact that the EROEI of ethanol is only about 1.3, even according to your buddy's web site, and currently the ethanol process is highly dependent on consumption of fossil fuels.

Which of my numbers above is so far off that my calculations and conclusions are completely wrong?

Someone posted previously that we have to get away from the internal combustion engine, and that is absolutely correct in my opinion. IC's throw away about 75% of the energy put into it. That's like cashing your $1000 paycheck and burning $750 of it. Conversely, if we switched the bulk of our ground transportation to electric (about 75% efficient), we would then require only 1/3 the energy to do what we all do now. Ethanol is a dangerous diversion, we need to focus on better electrical storage, recharge times, and sustainable electricity production.

138 / 0.7 = 197 billion gallons of ethanol required to replace the current gasoline demand in total.

Incidentally, just to put this in perspective with the 1.3 EROEI - that means to produce 197 billion gallons of ethanol we are going to need the energy equivalent of (197/1.3), or 152 billion gallons of ethanol just to drive the process.

If you want to change that into fossil fuel inputs with the higher energy content of gasoline, that means we will need (152*0.7), or the energy of 106 billion gallons of gasoline to drive the process of producing 197 billion gallons of ethanol.

So, we only netted (138-106), or 32 billion gallons of energy (23% of our total usage) in this scenario in which we planted 657 million acres of corn. Or, put another way, to use ethanol as a replacement for gasoline will still require us to use (106/138), or 77% of our present gasoline usage.

Thanks for the follow-up and finishing the thought process.

It boggles my mind that there is such a huge distraction and waste of time and resources with something that so obviously

The total dry land acreage of the US is 9,161,923 square kilometers. There are 247.105381 acres per square kilometer. This leads to a total dry land area in the United States of 2,263,960,473.6 acres of land. That is 2.2 billion TOTAL acres.

The CIA factbook states we have 18% arable land. That amounts to 407,512,885 acres so Blume is off by over 20% on total arable land. And where does he suggest we grow food crops if we convert all the arable land to corn for ethanol? It cannot be done. But let's go over the numbers for our little Blume cheerleader so that he can get his head screwed on straight.

The conversion rate for corn ethanol is generally listed around 2.5 gallons per bushel of corn. Corn lobby organizations say 2.8 so we'll use the higher number just to be nice. (The answer is going to come out horribly badly anyway.)

We'll also use the corn lobby's own 118 bushels per acre optimum production for corn. Now Blume says we plant 72 million acres of corn per year. If we stopped eating meat and never ate corn ourselves again, this 72 million acres could produce 8,496,000,000 bushels of corn. Amazing, eh? And that corn, at a 2.8 gallons per bushel, would turn into 23,788,800,000 gallons of ethanol.

Now how much gasoline do we use? Let's try the most recent week from the EIA as a sample of data at 9,400,000 BARRELS per week. At 42 gallons per barrel that is 394,800,000 gallons per day or 144,102,000,000 gallons per year.

So, if we turned ALL of the corn crop into ethanol it would cover less than 16% of our annual gasoline usage.

Ok so let's turn ALL the farmland into corn! Let's NOT EAT ANYTHING! What nonsense numbers do we get then? Well by Blume's own numbers we only use 72 million acres for corn and we have 407 million arable acres. This means we could increase ethanol production by a factor of 5.65, leading to total ethanol production of 134,472,800,000 - STILL LESS THAN TOTAL ANNUAL GASOLINE CONSUMPTION!!!!!!

Ethanol is a SCAM, young man. It is a HOAX. It is a LIE perpetrated by people who want to use the government's tax system to take tax money from you and stick it in their pockets as profits.

Anyone who posits that ethanol can make any significant contribution to our national fuel usage is a lying to you and may also be an outright fraud. Maybe they are trying to pump-and-dump certain ethanol stocks as some certain persons tried to do here a while back. Even as a fuel additive, ethanol is causing problems, never mind trying to make it a fuel for the nation.

The only solution is to change the way we live. We must reorganize our lifestyles. We must give up on the suburban nonsense. We must live in denser living arrangements with more electrified transportation.

A viable future with electric rail and the "new urban" living arrangements? We might be able to do this. We cannot continue living as we do now and using ethanol instead of petroleum.

Stop smoking whatever weed Blume is pushing because Blume's vision is nothing but a fantasy, and a fatal fantasy at that.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

Sorry Greyzone, but according to this troll, you're just "bickering" or "heckling" (I guess he means citing inconvenient facts or something).

Though he's more reasonable than Hothgor was, no?

People like PeakOilBoy are why I remain firmly pessimistic about the future of our civilization. Rather than face the music and change the way we live (but still retain a technological society), PeakOilBoy and his ilk will grasp at every lunatic fringe straw that promises to let them continue the "happy motoring" (ala Kunstler) lifestyle. It's insanity, pure and simple. It's a complete denial of facts with wishes because someone wants things to be just so even in the face of reality that argues otherwise. We can solve this crisis but we won't - because people like PeakOilBoy will stand in the way wanting the impossible because they are innumerate and cannot even add, subtract, multiply or divide.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett

I fully expect to get heckled about my post.

Incidentally, I wanted to comment on this. It is a tough crowd here. That is true for everyone, including me. You open yourself up to more criticisms by posting things from Blume - like $25,000 profit on a barrel of oil. My interactions with Blume in the past have left a very unfavorable impression. His facts are made up, and he very quickly resorts to personal insults of those who challenge him.

If your approach had been different, you would have gotten a different sort of response from most people. Instead of telling us that you disgree, that this Blume fellow has figured all of this out - just ask some questions. For instance - "Is gasoline really the toxic leftovers from refining oil?" This is a Blume favorite. He completely misses the point that producing gasoline is the primary reason for refining oil. After you get the answers to a few questions like that, you might start to shift your opinion of Blume's claims.

Don't go away because you got roughed up a bit. We've all been roughed up a bit at one time or another on this board.

I encourage everyone to read the book and let's take it from there!

Ok. Show me where the water is going to come from for the crops?

"It is a tough crowd here" RR quote.

LOL, yea, but I can tell ya that there are far far more places that make what happens here like a cakewalk.

Brutal people with no clues to anything (or perhaps other motives). Go to some of these sites and try talking PO. I don't even try anymore.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Ok. Show me where the water is going to come from for the crops?

That is what they were demanding from Geoff Lawton. They monitored him and couldn't figure out where he was getting it. There was simply too much salt in the ground for anything to be able to grow, never mind what they saw growing where it wasn't possible to grow anything. So where did the water come from?

Where did the mushrooms come from? Go visit the site for yourself. Something must have gone right, it seems every other Mideast government wants him to put in eco-resorts and redesign their water, food, and waste systems. So much so that Geoff has stopped scheduling PDC courses in the first world (last courses happening now).

Why does everyone assume 2+2=4? In nature, there tends to be synergy which often makes 2+2>4. The first and second laws of thermodynamics play heavily into these concepts. Nobody is trying to get something for free until you try scaling it up. The only scaling up needed is to live within the means of your local ecology. One can't have economy (manage a home) without ecology (study of a home). We are scaling down (energy descent; loss of species), not up (increase of species; increase in energy storage).

E-L-P and get thee to a PDC. Nobody says we need to only grow corn on our arable land to use all of our arable land for corn. If anything, we would be forced to use the land more wisely by growing more than a single crop at once.

Not Permaculture, but using a similar focus on soil:

This, despite steadily rising oil prices and record high gasoline prices. But, I would also point out that average annual rack ethanol prices have never - not once in 25 years - been lower than gasoline prices.

You are confusing the price of two commodities with the costs of those commodities. They are not equivalent. for example, ask any farmer how closely the price he receives for grain corresponds to his costs that year. The price of corn has nearly doubled between September 2006 and April 2007, do you think the cost of growing corn changed that much in that time?

The price of ethanol is controled mainly by the balance of supply and demand.

I'll repeat my reply from the last time you stated this:

Its hardly a surprise that the price of ethanol staysed roughly $0.50 above that of gasoline for so long. As long as the blender can sell it at the same price as gasoline it will stay that way. His income from selling ethanol is determined by the price of gasoline. His costs are the price of ethanol - $0.50.

Assuming the same profit you get this equation:
Price(gasoline) = Price(ethanol) - $0.50

Rearrange and you have
Price(ethanol) = Price(gasoline) + $0.50

I suspect this is why ethanol producers want the the credit to go to the producer instead of the blender, the way things are currently set up provides their opponents with free ammunition.

You are confusing the price of two commodities with the costs of those commodities. They are not equivalent.

You will have to pass that on to Vinod Khosla. One of the claims he made is that over the long term, the cost of a commodity will be reflected in its price. Note that it's over the long term, and 24 years is pretty long term.

Anyway, when he said that, I whipped out that chart (he had been claiming that it was quite a bit cheaper to produce ethanol than gasoline). I showed him that chart and said "If that's true, then the ethanol producers are the real gougers - lower production costs than gasoline and higher selling price." (Note that I don't believe that ethanol has lower production costs; I only said that to him because he was talking about the gouging oil companies).

Inputs to ethanol are corn AND fossil fuels.

Michael Vickerman of RENEW Wisconsin makes a similar point about wind energy and CO2 emissions in Wisconsin here:

He says that, while wind energy installations will increase by an order of magniture in the next year and a half from 53 to 450 MW, the 1.5% CO2 "savings" simply offset the increase in CO2 emissions as Wisconsinites use more energy.

Robert, I have a few questions about that last graph. First, the graph has two y-axes, but there are no units on the right, and it isn't clear what data series uses that axis.

Second, where does the trend line come from? It looks as though it's a linear regression from the 1990 to 2005 gasoline demand data. Eyeballing it, it looks as though if you went from 1990 to 2001 or 2002, and did a linear fit to that data, you'd get the reduction in gas demand from trend that you say isn't happening. It looks as though between 2001 and 2002 is when the ethanol production really picked up.

Also, you might want to show a graph of the data you used to correct the EIA gas data. That might be interesting in itself.

I think your previous point that in 25 years, ethanol has never been cheaper than 89 octane gas, is more compelling.

Robert, I have a few questions about that last graph. First, the graph has two y-axes, but there are no units on the right, and it isn't clear what data series uses that axis.

Both axes are billions of gallons per year. There is an arrow pointed to each axes, indicating which series uses it. (If I had done them on the same scale, ethanol would be a flat line near zero. There is a big magnitude difference here that many don't appreciate.)

Second, where does the trend line come from?

I just had Excel draw the trendline. It can move a bit up or down depending on where you stop the graph, primarily because of that gasoline hump in 1999. But the growth trends before and after that are essentially the same, except for that small reduction in 2005 and 2006.

As far as the data, I just took the EIA gasoline demand numbers and subtracted out the ethanol production numbers from the RFA to generate the gasoline demand number.

That's all from me for tonight. Bedtime.

That's great, thanks for the clarifications. I honestly didn't see the arrow heads for those arrows. I thought that was a line indicating some threshold. G'night!

Mr. Rapier,

EDIT: Thanks for the link to the previous discussion. Interesting commentary.

My question: Islais Macedo's Energy Balance Study shows an energy return 8.3:1, which you might remember you initially dismissed but later admitted was valid (please address this if you don't remember).

I am looking for solutions, not tit-for-tat, but obviously this is a gargantuan issue. Name calling and finger pointing won't get us far, but from what I understand, David Blume is not funded by anyone, so how can he be a propagandist? Are you funded by anyone, sir?

The study:

Islais Macedo's Energy Balance Study shows an energy return 8.3:1, which you might remember you initially dismissed but later admitted was valid (please address this if you don't remember).

You do not have your facts straight. I never dismissed that study. I read the various Brazilian studies, and said those energy balances looked valid. Prior to that, I had never dismissed them. If you believe I did, then you are challenged to produce the evidence. All of my posts here are available. What you are probably confused about is that I wrote an essay on Brazil - in which I pointed out that the U.S. could not hope to emulate Brazil.

David Blume is not funded by anyone, so how can he be a propagandist?

Blume has books to sell. But since when do you have to be funded to be a propagandist? I know a lot of people who tirelessly spout propaganda and aren't funded by anyone. Here you go, from Wikipedia. This describes Blume quite well:

Propaganda is a type of message aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people. Often, instead of impartially providing information, propaganda can be deliberately misleading, or use fallacies, which, while sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid.

Are you funded by anyone, sir?

To debunk ethanol? Absolutely not. In fact, my company has hopped on the ethanol bandwagon. They can see that there's money to be made in those federal mandates. My opposition to this is on moral grounds.

So, now that the personal questions have been answered, what is your agenda here? You have spouted a bunch of claims. Do you want to debate any of them? Many people here are qualified to take you on, and as I said if there's anything left tomorrow I will pick it up from there.

My agenda is to help secure peace in the world, which will hardly come from taps on a keyboard!

I represent debate, you could say, and would love nothing more than to get to the truth, whether you are right or David Blume is right, or both. My case is to get action taken, create awareness among people about our energy crisis, and to start implementing solutions that are valid.

I have no vendettas, but I do believe in localized energy creation rather than large, centralized processing facilities.
I believe in human ingenuity, and hope you make a breakthrough or Blume or whoever.

We just need it now - and good luck to your company.


Why even talk to a DA like PeakOilBoy? 26 million new jobs! And, the unions claim that in the last 27 years we have lost 40 million manufacturing jobs overseas. Lets get those 40 million jobs back along with DA's 26 million - that will be 66 million new jobs. With 6 million unemployed, we will only need another 60 million "undocumented workers" (illegal aliens to the rest of us) in order to fill these jobs. Can someone compute what our gasoline, excuse me, ethanol, requirements would then be? (Be sure to factor in that each undocumented worker has at least one other family member.)

Peace is not one of the ingredients in ethanol, no matter what crop you choose to plant on the land you appropriate (expropriate?) for the purpose. Changing the social paradigm might help, but probably energy depletion will take the reines on that long before we can make any intentional changes.

I'm working on a largish biofuels project at the moment (for which Robert kindly edited the proposal). From a financial standpoint it is probably just great. From a local social standpoint it is also just great. The EROEI is quite good. From a national economiy standpoint, it is fantastic. From the standpoint of world fuel consumption it is without any meaning what-so-ever. Nada.

When you really start running numbers, you realize what gluttons we all are, and curing that habit is where peace will start. This is not a technical problem, and there are no technical solutions, but there is money to be made by those willing to humour naive believers in technology.

Ty in Seattle

My case is to get action taken, create awareness among people about our energy crisis, and to start implementing solutions that are valid.

Do you want to know why I do this? I received the following via e-mail today:

I am a farmer in Nebraska, where I farm 160 acres of corn (a "small" farmer by any standard). I have lived on my farm for 50 years. I wish people could see up close the devastation to the local countryside that this ethanol frenzy has brought---and is going on as we speak. Landowners are ripping-out beautiful windbreaks and tree stands of cottonwoods and elms, these were windbreaks that were planted by the CCC back in the New Deal days, and getting the land ready to grow corn. This past winter, a factory hog farm came in and purchased a neighbor's farm. This farm was a beautiful piece of property with a grand 100 year old home and excellent buildings. They outbid all of the local farmers who wanted to buy it. Within 2 months they had completely stripped everything away--it's all gone. It just broke my 88 year-old dad's heart to see it. Other farmers around me are busy plowing-up grass pastures for corn production, land so hilly and highly erodable I never would have thought it could be used for growing row crops.

This corn-for-fuel thing has everyone in my area plowing-up their alfalfa fields. Alfalfa is an excellent low-input crop. Once it is established it pretty much takes care of itself, doesn't need any fertilizer or herbicides. It produces alot of protein and naturally enriches the soil. It takes a good two years after planting to get a crop from alfalfa, so with the dissappearance of these fields I don't care to think about the long term effect it is going to have on dairy farmers in my area, who need lots of locally grown hay.

I'm just a farmer and not good at writing, but I hope I have given Alternet's readers some idea about what is happening "out here". I wish I could post some pictures I have taken of the devastation.

New-built and proposed ethanol plants are going-up in the cities around me. No matter that they require enormous amounts of water in an area that is experiencing growing water shortages. The Platte River, which is about 10 miles from where I live, is a major gathering place for birds migrating to Canada. It has completely dried up in the summer months the past several years.

Our senators Nelson (D) and Hagel (R) beat the drum for ethanol production with every speech they make. But that is probably because Monsanto and ADM were big contributors to their campaigns.

A very poignant letter. It turns your heart, especially the loss of the shelterbelts.

The high price of corn should hasten the demise of the factory hog farm. But too late for the farm.

I've posted before that I thought the long contract interval of the various CRP programs should stem the planting of most marginal land. (CRP doesn't address the prime land of the letter writer.) And that we'd have our act hopefully back together on this corn mess. Now I'm not so sure, at least for the east-midwest. Too much momentum. I'm saddened but not surpised by the conversion of alfalfa fields. Soybeans aren't the only crop substitution. Surely it will affect beef along with dairy.

Locally, and I imagine throughout the west, I haven't seen this occuring, but there isn't the moisture for corn. It will be interesting to see the tabulations for irrigated crop changes this year. Although percentage wise they are a small portion of cropland, much is alfalfa.

The farm bill still expires next year.

This 8.3:1 ratio is a canard if you are considering the energy required to produce a liquid fuel. The low heating value of ethanol is 76,000 BTUs per gallon. The heat of distillation required to distill a 12% solution of ethanol beer to 95% concentration (when it become azeotropic) is 15,000 BTUs. The energy required for dehydration from 95% to 99.5% concentration (the ASTM spec) is 8,000 BTUs. In total, distillation/dehydration energy is 23,000 BTUs alone, resulting in an upper bound of EROEI of 3.3, not counting any other energy inputs. Crediting is not a science; it's a preference. You can either not credit; credit on energy content; or credit on market value. Since we don't have an electricity based transport system, I prefer not to credit (plus, burning biomass instead of returning it to the soil for tilth and nutrients should be subtracted from the process). That means sugarcane ethanol has an EROEI of somewhere in the 2 to 2.5 range. Sugarcane ethanol is without question superior to corn-based ethanol, but it simply cannot play a major role as a future liquid fuel.

Being positive is not enough. Our complex society require enormous energy surpluses so that the energy producers can support all the energy consumers. As we move down the EROEI chain (and this is true for all biofuels), we move down the energy surplus chain, and we move down the complexity chain. Charles Hall, environmental scientist at Syracuse, estimates the minimum EROEI to support a complex industrial society is 5--that means 20% of our economic activity, energy, etc. is devoted to the production of energy, and 80% supports everything else. Moving down the EROEI ladder means impoverishing ourselves compared to what we have now. Thinking that sugarcane ethanol, or biodiesel, or any low EROEI fuel will support continuation of business-as-usual is a pipe dream. The first and second laws of thermodynamics are harsh mistresses.

Robert, Have you ever seen any net energy studies on small-scale, local ethanol production?

What if....

I plant a quarter acre of sweet sorghum using hand tools.

Harvest with a machete.

Crank through a small cane press, perhaps spending several hours of electricity and a 500 watt motor.

Ferment and distill to 95%, not anhydrous, using a solar still.

Used the ethanol only within a couple mile radius of the farm.

Took the sorghum seed (using Dale variety that has mature seed at same time stalk is sweet) and fed to on farm chickens.

Composted the pressed stalks on site.

Would this be energetically defensible? Ecologically sound?

I have no idea if it's energetically defensible (probably is OK), but you'd probably be tired and broke.

How long would that take?

How were you intending to make your living and how much would that ethanol production distract from it?

I'd guess that most biofuel production, like all large scale chemical engineering, will be most economically and labor efficient on large scales when you can deploy expensive but productive capital and professional technical knowledge.

We're hung up on living in cities with refineries and industry on one side of the track and leafy suburbs on the other. To change that we need low capital cost high EROEI biofuel factories that can be dotted everywhere. That's still not the case even with biomass densification such as pyrolysis and torrefaction. I see Germany's Choren Industries proposes to set up a gasification plant at a port where wood chips can be shipped in from Scandinavia.

Therefore I think we need 2 big breakthroughs
1)'superbatteries' for electrical storage
2) single step high EROEI biofuels
Maybe what we have now is as good as it gets.

Finally. Someone else who understands. Jason, I do this every day. (Well, not everyday, but very often.) I use all kinds of feedstock, including corn. I use woody biomass for distallation instead of solar, but this amounts to the same thing...the energy comes from the sun. Direct solar isn't practical, even with alot of sun. Too expensive to concentrate it. Growing wood and buring the wood is much easier. Point is, you can get ethanol with *0* fossil fuel inputs. So, EREOI (as it is conventionally calculated as energy out over fossil fuel in) is infinite.

Further, in small scale processing you can completely recycle the outputs, and put all the nutrients back on the farm.

However, this system can't scale, which means Robert isn't able to see this as viable. So, you've hit the real problem which means...the western way of life has to change. As long as people are trying to work within the existing system, ethanol isn't viable. As soon as they reject it, and move to small scale production and low energy lifestyles, ethanol becomes a very powerful force.

I basically lurk and rarely comment, but this comment just struck me as a breath of fresh air.

Ethanol works on a small scale, and it works very well. But you'll never make $100,000 USD per year doing it, which seems to be many people's definition of success.

This idea is the real tragedy of ethanol discussions on this site. Wealth, like solar energy, doesn't concentrate very well in a viable biofuel world.

Change never comes easy, but people will change once they're starving. Big industry will crash when extra somatic energy become too expensive. Small scale will come back in vogue. Lots of people will suffer in the process.

Hopefully, some kind of ethanol distribution network will be in place to allow a minimum amount of travel after this happens. If the price for this is unsustainable ethanol production right be it.

Tom In Thailand

However, this system can't scale, which means Robert isn't able to see this as viable.

That's not accurate. Viability for some individuals is very different than viability for society as a whole. The Brazilian system is viable. It is not viable for the U.S. But that doesn't mean that I think the system isn't viable at all.

Face it. Very few people are going to produce ethanol in the way you have described above. Furthermore, if they did, there would be no wood left to burn. So it only works for you because everyone isn't doing it.

Incidentally, there have been a number of discussions over the proper definition of EROEI. Should it just be fossil fuel inputs in? Probably not. It should probably be total energy inputs in. That would count your wood as an energy input. The reason this approach would be useful is that it would allow you to compare various options for your wood. Is using the wood to purify ethanol an efficient use of it? Calculating EROEI in this manner would tell you that.

Finally, I would point out that your comment does not in any way address the key point of this essay: Ethanol is doing nothing to stop growth of fossil fuel demand. Therefore, I think the politicians and various venture capitalists are pipe-dreaming.


If you think ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane is viable, then why are we talking about American corn?
Given the EROI advantage of biofuels from tropical sources, wouldn't the future of ethanol lie with imports from the South, for better or worse?

Proving that the EROI of ethanol is lousy in the USA is just demolishing a straw man. It's the EROI in tropical countries which will decide whether it can make a significant contribution to future liquid fuel needs.

I guess people in the USA won't get excited about the idea of adding dependance on Brazil to dependence on Saudi Arabia. But they'll buy Brazilian ethanol when there's no alternative, right?

If we are to believe in things we cannot see or touch, how do we tell the true belief from the false belief?

If you think ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane is viable, then why are we talking about American corn?

Because in the U.S., that's how it's being made, and that is the method that is receiving heavy subsidies in order to continue making it that way.

Given the EROI advantage of biofuels from tropical sources, wouldn't the future of ethanol lie with imports from the South, for better or worse?

The politicians don't see it that way. They see it as trading dependence on the Middle East for dependence on South America. (LOL! I just scanned further down and saw that you had said this.) Besides, they have convinced themselves that we can be energy independent in the U.S. by making our own ethanol. That's why I write essays like this.

Proving that the EROI of ethanol is lousy in the USA is just demolishing a straw man.

Not when that's the policy that is being driven in America. A straw man would mean it doesn't represent the opposition. It does represent the opposition. Corn is what we make our ethanol from, and the policies that are being put in place just encourage more of this.

Ah, but congress is coming to the rescue. We get to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on coal to liquids. Ethanol from corn is just stupid and will never come close to fulfillinng our fuel demands. CTL is not only stupid but will destroy the planet as a bonus.

Could it be that most, if not all schemes to replace oil with some other kind of liquid fuel are a recipe for disaster? These promises of fuel independence from dubious sources just delay the inevitable need to radically change the way we move around. The goal needs to be not moving around so much.

As Robert said, that's the way it's done in the US. But there is more to it than that.

First, there are climatic issues for sugarcane, so the "where" becomes an immediate issue.

Second, Brazil's energy use next to the US is absolutely minuscule. If they used liquid fuels for transportation on the same per capita basis what the US uses, they would have no chance of energy independence. They don't and that is why the combination of their oil resources and their ethanol program works (for them).

Third, the EROI "advantage" for sugarcane is just an adaptation of the basic sugar processing. Instead of crushing the cane, refining and then drying the sucrose to powder form (using the bagasse as the energy source), instead they can leave the pressed raw sugar in liquid form for fermentation. The energy from the bagasse, instead of being used for drying, can be used to run the distillation processes.

Burning bagasse in boilers to operate these facilities is no easy feat because, as a fuel it has lots of undesirable qualities (like moisture content) that makes the combustion process less efficient than with fossil fuels. But it is a waste that can and has been used for a long-time. Until the soft-drink producers changed the taste of American consumers over to high-fructose corn syrup (it took about 10 years to do that), there would not have been any "spare" sugarcane capacity in the US.

Not that there is a lot anyway.

In my opinion, EROEI should have nothing specifically to do with fossil fuels. It should be an indicator of what the usable energy surplus of a given process is, after all of the energy consumed in creating the energy source is taken into account. If you did that, and counted the energy you consumed in burning the wood including all of the waste heat, your EROEI would likely be below 1.

From a purely physics standpoint, if we look at the earth as a closed system, there is only one usable external source of energy - the sun, in it's many, many forms. That's where the .3 of 1.3 EROEI of ethanol ultimately comes from (if it's that high). Wind energy, solar thermal, solar electric, hydro, and yes, fossil fuels all ultimately are energy received from the sun. Everything else is just shuffling the cards.

Further, in small scale processing you can completely recycle the outputs, and put all the nutrients back on the farm.

*clap* *clap*

This is the part the people who advocate things like 'lets get all the scrap wood from logging, burn it, then use that carbon to make zinc batteries' don't seem to understand.

Whatever bio-fuel scheme is thunk up is going to have to be 'local' so the farmer can get his/her outputs back onto the land.

Actually there are net losses there, eric, due to the burning of the ethanol which is released to the general atmosphere. The losses are small and can be made up by rotating crops, careful planting, etc., but there are some small losses for which we must account.

Of more importance, this shows the footprint of using such power schemes for agrarian usage - it is large enough that a small farm needs many acres of fast growing wood, several acres that can produce biodiesel and which can be rotated year to year, and then the acreage necessary for food crops and living area. This would suggest many acres per farm total and only in areas that support both fast growing wood and the targeted biodiesel fuels. Given that this selection represents a small fraction of the earth's overall surface, this would seem to be a simple demonstration of the need for far smaller populations if we are to live sustainably via a biofuels method.

Ghawar Is Dying
The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function. - Dr. Albert Bartlett


I dont think any studies like that exist - who would fund them?

The problem is that in this analysis you would be adding 2 major inputs into the EROI equation that are kind of ignored right now - 1)time and 2)labor. Both time and labor, if not allocated somehow as inputs, would increase the EROI of actual energy inputs - which is partially why Ive been arguing for more 'multicriteria analysis' on EROI - a paper I co-wrote on this topic will be in next months AMBIO - and I will post a link once its online.

A colleague has done something on more of a medium scale in vermont on canola/rapeseed - Ill try and get the numbers for you.

Vaclav Smil showed that an EROI of root vegetables was around 25:1, which added up the calories input during the year to the calories embodied in the carrots, parsnips, etc.
Not too shabby - I wonder if he did an HROI (happiness received on energy invested) of the test subjects?...;)

We are attempting to do this in Willits right now. Hope to have an answer in the winter.

The ethanol is probably nearly worthless as a cash crop compared to the sorghum syrup we will produce. We can likely sell sorghum syrup for $10 per pint, while ethanol may go for less than $1 per pint if meant to burn and compete with gasoline. Also, we wouldn't be able to use our ethanol in modern engines that require anydrous product. Getting ethanol from 95% to 100% purity takes massive energy inputs. Older engines can handle 95% though!

I am very happy doing this work. I get up early in the morning. Go outside and get moderate excercise in a beautiful setting. Watch the sky, the plants, the critters around me. Engange in interesting conversation with working. Take long lunches during the hot mid day, then back out in the afternoon. Often other people show up to help out and it becomes a social time. We snack on raw foods as we work. We eat a delicious meal, and many of the incredients we helped create, and go to bed tired so we sleep really well. I wake up in the morning eager to get started on another day. It doesn't matter if my clothes are clean and pressed either. The social feedback is enormously positive too.

Here's some video of what we are up to.

We are trying to get a still together by the fall.

I know that the book "Food Energy and Society" has agriculture EROI using human calories. We could easily compute that for our inputs. A hard-working human requires about a million food calories per year. There are two of us working about an acre of land. We will have yield date for the crops grown and can convert those to calories.

For example, our 1800 sq ft of potatoes, all sown by manual labor in about a week, will produce about 2000 lbs of potatoes. Potatoes are about 350 calories per pound. That's about 700,000 calories for just the potatoes. Add corn, sorghum, jerusalem artichokes, wheat, rye, dry beans, lentils, tomatoes....etc.

Sounds like a good appropriate technology, especially if wood instead of solar is used as the heat source (per another post) -- or if manure is run though a biogas generator, you could use methane as your heat source. An old-time, appropriate technology for pressing the sorghum stalks is to hitch a horse/mule/donkey/ox up to a long pole and have them walk around & around in a circle to crank the press. I have seen this done, sure is a lot easier to have the animal do it!

As most agricultural equipment runs on diesel (and thus on biodiesel) -- or at least it should -- there would be limited need for ethanol fuel on the farm; I suppose that fueling trucks for hauling to/from market would be best, although those could be biodiesel-powered as well. It would make more sense from my way of thinking for there to be a few farms in each community producing ethanol per your technology to provide fuel for those few high-priority engines that can't be powered by biodiesel. I am thinking that especially in northerly climes, having essential year-round service vehicles like police cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and shuttle buses that run on ethanol would be important, given that B100 will not stay liquid much below 0C. Your setup cannot provide enough fuel to keep the entire present fleet of motor vehicles running at present levels of usage, but it could make it possible for small communities to continue to keep a few essential vehicles in operation.

We have oil crops going too. The main summer one for our area we believe is sunflower. Over the winter, canola. This all requires another set of infrastructure for harvesting and processing that we are trying to obtain.

The newly manufactured equipment is hard to locate and not cheap. Or, we scrap together parts to make something work, but it is not necessarily efficient or right off the shelf so not easy to replicate quickly.

Sunflower is a relatively easy crop to harvest by hand in small quantities with a machette or such. For a farm just growing a couple of acres for their own biodiesel needs, it probably isn't going to be worthwhile to buy specialized equipment to harvest. To remove the seeds, just stretch and secure some chicken wire over a barrel, and rub the heads across it. I'd suggest trying to rig up a simple solar dryer/roaster -- pressing the seeds warm should improve your yields considerably.

Sunflower is a good crop to consider for small scale appropriate technology applications because it is very easy to grow and very easy to harvest & process, plus the yields are reasonably decent.

Canola is actually rapeseed, which is actually a brassica (cabbage family). The seeds yield higher, but are much smaller. Both rapeseed and sunflower fit in well in a multi-year crop rotation scheme.

To answer the query about Octane. Octane is a saturated hydrocarbon with 8 carbon atoms. The particular "octane" used as a measuring stick is a very symetrical molecule, The "Octane" number of a fuel is the resistance to pre-ignition, equivalent to that % octane in an octane/heptane mix, where heptane(7 Carbons)is classed as zero anti-Knock. Presence of Aromatics, or organic lead compounds can raise the "Octane", number.

Good to see population discussed - this is the elephant in the room of environmental argument, presumably because it overlaps with covert racism, but 6.5 billion people can only be sustained on fossil calories, and peak wheat can't be far off. The only argument against population reduction is the one that sees the economy as a giant pyramid scheme, and unless you keep feeding people in at the bottom there will be nobody to produce for those at the top. This might be true for a nation of idle intelligentsia that refuses to permit economic immigration, but it can't be true for a global population in which people are living longer and healthier than ever before - we just need to change our expectations of retiring on our 'investments' at 55 after a working life of doing not very much. Human nature is such that we will act in our own short-term interest, so population should be restricted to the planet's sustainable capacity for greedy individuals, which I would estimate at 1-2 billion. How to achieve this through fertility rather than armageddon: world bank loans at base plus population change? Dare one advocate literacy programmes for women??

Mission: improve the soil

As I see it, farming works because the "I" in EROI comes from nature and the "R" goes to the farmer. It would seem that civilisation believes that it can also take advantage of nature to not only feed it (current indications that its struggling), but also pick up the tab for its machines profligate waste of energy too. Probably a step too far for nature to accept or even deliver. The damage to our ecosystem is already well beyond that which it can withstand just providing food.

The belief that we can now also pressure our agriculture to provide fuel for our machines en masse is quite abhorrent. It reminds me of the precautionary tale about killing the goose that lays the golden egg.

We will be lucky if we can keep get enough to eat from our increasingly depleted soils. Yields, in terms of nutrition, have been falling since the 1950's and probably longer. Cardboard contains calories, but I wouldn't like to try and live on it.

Biofuels may have an important role to play locally, produced locally in small amounts, by local people, from local surplus and used to run essential local equipment. Anything else should be torpedoed IMO.

Triumvirate of collapse - Economy, Ecosystem, Energy

Ethanol gets 34% less gas mileage than gasoline

The rack (wholesale) price of ethanol is about $2.50

In 2003 it was about $1.25. The price of corn went from $2.00 a bushel to $4.00 a bushel.

There were calls for ethanol production to double. When the corn buyers go back into a tighter corn market without as much spare corn capacity they might find the price rising. Ethanol demand was greater in the summer than in the winter. There were times last summer when the price of ethanol per gallon was greater than the price of gasoline. Ethanol might not be a cheap ride. People were rioting in India over the price of corn. Many Indians were vegetarian. Corn chips rise in price faster than the price of beef.

Add in the fact that the ethanol-gasoline mixture gets lower gas mileage. Ethanol gets 34% fewer miles per gallon than gasoline; thus the cost of ethanol is higher than gasoline and the myth of ethanol is exposed.

Italy is making biodiesel look good.

The bus from Venice to Padova now runs on biofuel.

Fuel Ghoul posted a fascinating personal account of his riding a biodiesel bus in Italy - he was so impressed he kept the bus ticket!

The Swedish Farmer university(SLU) came out with a report 2006-03-29 by Hillevi Helmfried and Andrew Haden.

Sweden is a sparsely populated european country with vast forrest recources.

The report concludes, that the agriculture would not be capable to produce biofuels even to meet the needs of fuels for the agriculture itself.

To substitute the liquid fuels with biofuels from the forrest recources we would need tvice todays harvests, and to substitute the total oilimports we would need thre(3) times bigger forrest area than Sweden has, and then there would nothing left for sawtimber and papermills.

I am not personally any expert on theese matters, but one can only imagine what kind of problems the densly populated countrys in Europe would face if they tried to use biofuels at any scale.

IMHO we can forget the cars propelled with liquid fuels other than for essential society services(police, fire departments etc).

For privat persons there will be bikes and electrical cars. But can we really produce so many electrical cars in an enviroment of oil scarcity, or will they be available only for a well-off minority?

This isn't surprising, because ethanol just recycles gas. More ethanol means more tractors, more trucks shipping it across the country, more petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides. Driving a plug-in hybrid, and getting the electricity from fast-breeders, is much more promising.

More importantly, ethanol recycles natural gas:

From 1995:
Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies, The Fertilizer Institute (TFI) President Ford West recently outlined a number of steps the federal government should immediately take to provide relief to the industry. In the past few weeks alone, three of the largest remaining U.S. nitrogen fertilizer producers have each announced production capacity reductions of 50 percent or more, said West. Those reductions come on top of the 17 ammonia plants that have closed permanently since 1998, as well as another five plants that have been temporarily idled because of the escalating cost of purchasing natural gas.

Has the promoters of ethanol ever done a study asking how much natural gas would be consumed in increased fertilizer use and in the cost of drying/distilling corn for ethanol production if we were to attempt to get even so much as one quarter of U.S. current gasoline consumption from ethanol?

The corn growers and ethanol producers themselves have testified that the natural gas crisis is a crisis in the ethanol industry, and ironically, it is an industry that simply cannot survive without cheap natural gas. Again with great irony, we must notice that ethanol production does nothing to bring down consumption of natural gas but only raises it to higher and higher levels.

We are now on almost emergency planning and expediting of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) importing facilities. Much of the Natural Gas imported will come from OPEC nations. Thus, we have the ultimate irony of ethanol being touted as a "freedom fuel" to make America energy independent, while rushing to import fertilizer and natural gas to make the production of ethanol possible. Think about it for just a moment to understand the sheer folly of it all: We are building billions in infrastructure to produce ethanol, will need billions in infrastructure to transport and use it, and import natural gas to do it! And in the transaction we give up some 15 or 20 per cent heat content compared to gasoline, thus wiping a sizable chunk of the value of the fuel in lost fuel mileage on the road!

It is astounding that of all biofuel options we chose alcohol, and of all alcohol options we chose the worst in ethanol. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. The ethanol policy is the only alternative energy policy that one can imagine that fails not on a few important counts but on almost all of them.
Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

How much of our natural gas usage, once ethanol has scaled to where people are expecting, will come from ethanol distilleries?? I could make some guesses but havent seen this analysis - Roger?

In one of our freebie city papers, this is the main front page headline this morning:

Ethanol's promise may be a ‘scam’

Under the act, automakers receive credit for building vehicles that run on alternative fuel, but the vehicles are not fuel-efficient. Ethanol is a win because it costs manufacturers only $50 per vehicle to make it a flex-fuel vehicle.

However, the end product is a gas-guzzling, fuel-inefficient vehicle that will actually create more greenhouse gases than those that run on gasoline, Friedman said.


Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett on Tuesday filed for re-election to a ninth term serving Maryland's sprawling 6th Congressional District, campaign manager Melissa Bartlett said.

Great points RR.

Ethanol production in 2000, again according to the Renewable Fuels Association's page on industry statistics, was 1.63 billion gallons. According to their data, production in 2006 was 4.86 billion gallons, an increase of 3.23 billion gallons (77 million barrels)

You correctly point out that the INCREASE alone in our gasoline demand has offset the growth in ethanol, (and of course, this ignores net energy completely and refers to gross ethanol not net ethanol after energy costs are considered). A more relevant question, given that the US peaked in oil production in 1970 and has used approx 90% of total reserves (assuming URR of 220 billion barrels), we will have to continually import more gasoline and oil, even if demand remains flat. How much of the recent surge in ethanol production is overtaken by domestic oil depletion itself?

The increase of 77 million barrels of ethanol production from 2000 to 2006 was offset by an increase in 678 million barrels of yearly oil imports during the same time frame. So in the past 7 years, a tripling in ethanol production equated to only offsetting 9% of our import INCREASE alone from 2000 to 2006. (Source - EIA)

Again, this site over the years has looked at any and all solutions to our looming date with Peak Oil- attempts that try and 'replace' and 'substitute' are going to fall short, as net energy, population, ecological limits and resource depletion will cause the treadmill to run ever faster until we fall down. You've done a very good job of painting some of these corners that we can't scale. Eventually some smart policy person is going to see that the only corner that hasnt been painted is the consumption one.

I drove 450 miles over the weekend in Wisconsin and Minnesota. A very interesting gasoline situation is unfolding. At the majority of gas stations I passed, prices were roughly $3.45 for unleaded, $3.43 for premium unleaded and $2.95 for diesel. (Yes, premium was cheaper than regular)

I saw alot of people reach for the premium and even asked a few of them about it - if premium is cheaper than regular, why not? they replied. Well there was a bit of misinformation occuring - the premium contained 10% E85, so 8.5% ethanol which has only 62% of the BTUs as regular unleaded. So this 'premium' was 1% cheaper, but had only 96.7% of the BTUs as the 'regular'. I wonder who was making money on this missing 2.3% of BTUS through the subtle 'marketing' of ethanol??

I've seen a few energy balances done on ethanol, including some done here at TOD, and some show a slight gain in oil/gasoline replacement and some show a slight deficit - so reality is probably about an even trade. We use a barrel of oil to replace a barrel of oil (and make the ethanol lobby richer). Maybe that's not true for Brazil. I am wondering if anyone here has done an energy balance on LNG vs oil refined gasoline and how it compares to ethanol. We could soon be entering a severe natural gas problem here in North America, and we will be in a severe need to offload from the LNG tankers that have been criss-crossing the oceans since 1959 for two reasons: 1) to replace what is going to shortly come up missing from the oil tankers as Ghawar and other elephants enter the collapse phase and 2) to supply a fast growing NG demand curve (not counting having to replace the dimishing conventional crude). Global natural gas should remain much more plentiful than conventional crude, but North American production is peaking now. Alan Greenspan has repeatedly called attention to this problem saying that there is a dire need to put up LNG receiving terminals in North America. We will soon start to rely on LNG tankers the way we do oil tankers now. Even if there were no problems whatsoever with crude supply, we probably would be starting the switchover just for environmental reasons. When you do the liquefaction process on NG, it takes out almost all the pollutants and you have the ultimate in clean fossil fuel. It burns so clean that the fleet engines that currently use NG last much longer than typical dirty gasoline powered engines. All that's left is the CO2 problem. And every BTU from NG that displaces a BTU from the other major gasoline alternative to foreign oil, coal-to-liquids, reduces greenhouse emissions by half.
There is a lot of money going into replacing oil with LNG including the new company chaired by T. Boone Pickens, Clean Energy Fuels, that is building LNG plants and refill stations to use LNG as a motor fuel. The auto industry is busy with the E85 stuff, but maybe they should be busy with LNG instead. NG is a popular fuel for cars in Asia and South America. Energy balances are something of a black art, but I would think LNG would be better than ethanol or coal or tar sands. After all, you don't have to use vast amounts of fuel to dig it up, grind it up, heat it up, cultivate it, or whatever. It's energy dense and comes bursting forth to us from pressurized reservoirs all ready for us to use (just like oil). All we have to do is freeze it and deliver it in tankers (the tankers are even partially fueled by the onboard LNG). Once delivered to our pipeline system, we don't even have to haul it around all over the country - the pipelines do that for us.

One "solution" I've been advocating on ethanol viability:
(1) Revoke the $0.50/gallon ethanol subsidy.
(2) Add an extra $0.50/gallon gasoline excise tax.
(3) Give all taxpayers a $100 income tax rebate (to offset the tax cost to the poor)

For me this is not very bold, but at least would seem to address the issue of subsidy and questions whether ethanol production is honestly competitive.

I'm wondering if my simplistic proposal above makes any sense? (I know it neglects business fuel costs which will raise product prices, but still in a needed and good way, towards efficiency and innovation.)

On a parallel front, I recently calculated that my electricity rate is about 1/4 of the price of gasoline (at $3.00/gallon) for the same energy content so it would seem there's already a HUGE incentive to move towards electrifying transportation already, whether with mass-transit light rail, or electric or plug-in hybrid cars.

AND if its true that oil consumption for transportation CAN be significantly offset by electricity, THEN the oil companies are RIGHT to drag their feet on expanding refinery production capacity.

You could even say that HIGH prices ARE sending the right signal - that it is time for alternatives of all sorts to start fighting again for a market share.

If the federal government could just solidify this perception by a fat tax, alternative wouldn't have to be afraid their markets will dry up on the next (feared) gasoline glut, and investments would follow.

"To argue that ethanol has had any mitigation on gasoline demand..."

Perhaps Robert would be so kind as to find us a quote to substantiate the theme of this post. Should be easy to find, what with so many ethanol advocates out there making this assertion no?

And note the very subtle usage of the key phase 'fossil fuels' as opposed to petroleum in the first line.

Methinks someone is playing a very disingenuous game : ]

So, are you arguing that ethanol will not decrease gasoline demand?

Yes... that's it exactly.

Ethanol usage will not decrease gasoline demand.

It will, however, decrease gasoline usage.

Perhaps Robert would be so kind as to find us a quote to substantiate the theme of this post. Should be easy to find, what with so many ethanol advocates out there making this assertion no?

Are you kidding? I mean, seriously, whatever are you thinking? How many times have you heard ethanol advocates claim that ethanol will get us off of foreign oil? In Vinod Khosla's Outside the Barrel presentation, he shows ethanol scaling up and displacing 100% of U.S. gasoline usage. This post shows that such thinking is not based on any sort of demonstrated data that we have seen so far.

And note the very subtle usage of the key phase 'fossil fuels' as opposed to petroleum in the first line.

Again, this is incoherent babble. Since I plotted gasoline usage versus the scale up in ethanol, what exactly is your point?

Week. Very week.

Robert, Weak, not week.

Yeah, I wrote that because I was about to say "That was so week, it was a month." Then I changed my mind and forget to correct the spelling. :-)

True, there are many who claim that Kuntsler’s happy-motoring society will effortlessly glide into an ethanol fueled future, however, to make the assertion that ethanol advocates are claiming that gasoline demand will drop due to ethanol usage… well, that’s a bit of straw man now isn’t it?

The only thing that destroys gasoline demand is price - plain and simple.

I’ve heard many ethanol advocates state -correctly- that ethanol usage replaces foreign oil and yes, there are a delusional few who believe that ALL foreign oil imports will one day be replaced. This is nonsense.

The fact remains, however, that 6 billions gallons of what would have been petroleum derived gasoline, has been replaced by ethanol derived from the fermentation of corn and sugar – production paths that faults notwithstanding, have low PIRs or Petroleum Input Ratios.

This is why your straw man has legs made of fossil fuels and not petroleum.

Peak Oil is a liquid transportation fuels crisis, ergo, the price of petroleum derived fuels (gasoline & diesel) will disengage from historical norms because petroleum (as TODers are well aware) is held hostage to a geologic certainty.

As such, liquid fuel alternatives -whatever they may be- must have both a positive EROI and perhaps more importantly, a low PIR. Moreover, said alternatives must be capable of augmenting or replacing petroleum derived fuels PLUS have the capability to be made locally on a global scale in large quantities from renewable sources via a production path that comes as close to carbon neutrality as possible.

Ethanol and other bioalcohols, meet or exceed all of the above parameters.

The fact remains, however, that 6 billions gallons of what would have been petroleum derived gasoline, has been replaced by ethanol derived from the fermentation of corn and sugar – production paths that faults notwithstanding, have low PIRs or Petroleum Input Ratios.

Well, then you entirely missed the data I presented in the essay. Gasoline demand growth has been the same before and after ethanol scaled up. That was the point. It was only the past 2 years - when gasoline prices were sharply higher - that gasoline demand GROWTH slowed slightly. But as you should be able to see from the time ethanol started its exponential growth - it hasn't displaced any gasoline demand. The growth has maintained a steady pace.