Report: Brazilian Ethanol is Sustainable

For those who are expecting a Brazilian debunking, I am going to have to disappoint you. My previous debunking was not aimed at the issue of whether Brazilian ethanol is sustainable, but rather whether their example can be exported to the U.S. Whenever the topic of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol has come up, my response is generally that from what I have read, it appears to be a pretty good deal. Furthermore, I have never seen evidence to dispute the high EROEI claims of sugarcane ethanol. However, I will usually note that there are few comprehensive reports that have examined the process in detail, and I would feel more comfortable about the positive assessments if someone did such a study. My wish has been granted.
IEA Bioenergy has recently publicized a report entitled "Sustainability of Brazilian bio-ethanol". The report was commissioned by The Netherlands Agency for Sustainable Development and Innovation, and is in my opinion the most important endorsement of Brazilian ethanol to date. The work was conducted by the Copernicus Institute at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and at the University of Campinas in Brazil. The 136-page report is publicly available here (1.2 meg PDF).

The purpose of the study is explained in the introduction to the report:

The Dutch society recognizes the need for sustainable production and use of biomass. This has been expressed by environmental groups and the Parliament. The Dutch government decided to seek solutions by developing sustainability criteria and certification of biomass by a commission sustainable production of biomass. Between January 2006 and July 2006 these criteria have been developed. Parallel to these developments, in February 2006 this project was commissioned by SenterNovem on behalf of the Dutch Ministry for Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment. As Brazil is one of the most likely countries to export bio-ethanol from sugar cane to the Netherlands, the sustainability of Brazilian bio-ethanol is the main topic of this report.

The main objective of this report was a comparison of Dutch sustainability criteria and the current Brazilian practice, and quantification of the consequences for ethanol production in terms of production method and production costs if these sustainability criteria are applied. To this end, the Dutch sustainability demands for bio-ethanol were investigated, including stakeholder consultation in the Netherlands, and an extensive assessment of the current ecological, economic and social impacts of ethanol production based on sugar cane in Brazil was carried out.

This is precisely the kind of study that has been needed to verify that claims of Brazilian ethanol sustainability are on sound scientific footing. According to the report, there are some areas of concern, but none that should prevent Brazilian ethanol from meeting the sustainability criteria:

While the current study contains many different types of uncertainties, no prohibitive reasons where identified why ethanol from São Paulo principally could not meet the Dutch sustainability standards set for 2007. In many impact categories, Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane scores average to (very) positive, see also Table I for a summary. For a number of other criteria, problems are identified, but it also appears that these may differ strongly between the individual plants. Furthermore, for most of these issues, measures can be identified to improve performance (when needed).

For the future and the whole of Brazil, too many uncertainties remain to determine whether also additional criteria from 2011 onwards can be met. First of all, it is as yet unclear how additional land use for sugar cane may cause indirect / induced land-use, and how large the actual impacts will be on land use, biodiversity etc. Second, it is also uncertain whether and how the Dutch sustainability criteria will deal with these indirect impacts, as these criteria are not yet clearly defined.

It is important to recognize that sustainability criteria lead to higher production costs - depending on the strictness of the sustainability criteria, we estimate additional ethanol costs of up to 56%, though in case mechanical green harvesting is applied, additional ethanol costs are estimated at 24%.While the latter may not necessarily be prohibitive given current oil prices, it is clear that some financial support is most likely needed to stimulate sustainable ethanol production.

The report examined a number of sustainability criteria. However, in this essay I will mention only two: EROEI and soil erosion.

What's the EROEI?

One the issue of sugarcane ethanol EROEI, which has been debated here a great deal, the study mentioned two different literature reports. The first was by Oliveira et al. in 2005, and it concluded that the EROEI was between 3.1 and 3.9. The second report was by Macedo et al. in 2004 and it concluded that the EROEI was between 8.3 and 10.2. (Note that the "bad" EROEI was still over double the EROEI of corn ethanol.) Due to the huge disparity between the two papers, the authors took a look at the underlying numbers, and concluded that the discrepancy involved the amount of diesel used in the agricultural operations process. They ultimately tracked down another paper that agreed with the Macedo study, so they reasoned that the diesel consumption numbers used by Oliviera were erroneous. They therefore concluded that an EROEI between 8.3 and 10.2 was legitimate.

Not surprisingly, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reduction for sugarcane ethanol was estimated to be >80%. EROEI and GHG emissions are very closely related, such that a renewable energy source possessing a high EROEI should demonstrate a high level of GHG emission reduction.

Soil Erosion

One area that did not fare as well as sugarcane ethanol advocates have often advertised is on the issue of soil erosion. I have been told a number of times that there is no erosion from sugarcane production, or that production is managed such that the topsoil actually increases over time.

While the report noted that the erosion is lower than for crops such as corn, it did note:

Soil erosion in sugar cane is generally limited compared to conventional agricultural crops such as corn and soybeans, although the exact difference is dependant on local conditions. However, soil losses for sugar cane may vary dramatically from 0.1 t/ha/y to 109 t/ha/y, depending on many factors, such as the declivity, the annual rain fall, the management and harvesting system, etc.

The report did state that data on erosion from sugarcane production was limited, and that there were some studies that suggested little to no erosion. The report also indicated that the erosion issue should be studied more closely, and that a soil erosion management plan is required. They state that new compliance criteria are to be developed for 2011. In concluding the section on soil erosion, they state:

Soil erosion during sugar cane production can be a site-specific problem. Soil erosion rates under sugar cane production are limited compared to conventional cropland, but are likely higher compared to pastures. Data on soil erosion rates under various land use types are however uncertain. Soil erosion can be prevented in various ways, although it cannot be avoided completely. Consequently, only in case very strict soil erosion rates are applied (which goes beyond the approach applied in existing certification systems and guidelines) soil erosion could be an important bottleneck for certification. As far as soil erosion can be prevented, the costs are likely in the order of magnitude of a few percent of the production costs of ethanol. We conclude that soil erosion can be regarded in general as having a medium impact factor on soil erosion.

My guess is that the last sentence in that section was supposed to read "We conclude that soil erosion can be regarded in general as having a medium impact factor on the sustainability criteria."

Implications for Tropical Countries

Based on the findings in the report, it suggests that many tropical countries have the potential for sustainable fuel production. This should be particularly true of any country that can grow excess sugarcane according to Brazil's methods. The major caveat is that the soil erosion issue must be appropriately managed. Not only would this help certain countries achieve some level of energy security, but excess fuel produced for export would open up new opportunities for farmers, factory workers, etc. and generate income for the country.

Implications for the U.S.

The reason the Netherlands commissioned this study is that they want to transition to fuels that are produced in a sustainable manner. If Brazil or other tropical countries can produce enough fuel for export, it will benefit the U.S. just like it will benefit the Netherlands. However, the U.S. does have an import tariff in place that penalizes Brazilian ethanol in order to protect (unsustainable) homegrown corn ethanol.

One way the Brazilian example does not benefit the U.S. is in providing a template for success. As I have argued previously, Brazil's particular situation is not applicable in the U.S. As I wrote in an article for World Energy Source, the U.S. uses 7 times the energy per capita that Brazil does. Our supply/demand imbalance gap is 16.9 barrels per person per year. Theirs was 0.2 barrels per person last year, prior to the opening of a new Petrobras platform earlier in the year (immediately after which they declared energy independence). Furthermore, we rely on a crop (corn) in the U.S. that is much less energy efficient, and has ten times the soil erosion of sugarcane production. Finally, we are not in a tropical climate, and therefore have a much shorter growing season than does Brazil.

Brazilian ethanol expert Milton Maciel, has echoed these arguments:

Sugar cane ethanol from Brazil is NOT a realistic target or a comparable model for USA ethanol from corn. It is very easy to replace all gasoline when you would only need 8 billion gallons per year and you have a generous plant that thrives rain-fed under tropical conditions, occupying less than 1% of a country's arable land, to produce alcohol to replace 50% of all that gasoline. However, this cannot be extrapolated for USA's conditions, neither for corn, not even for sugar cane in Southern states. So, realistically, let's understand that sugar cane ethanol in Brazil is mangoes and corn ethanol in USA is apples.


The Brazilian example does suggest some avenues ripe for exploration in the U.S. There are certain crops that are far less erosive than others. According to Table K.1 in the report, soil erosion for sugarcane and corn was 1.24 and 12.0 (t/ha/y) respectively. Note that erosion from corn is 10 times the erosion from sugarcane. Another listed crop, potatoes, had about half the erosion level of corn. However, the level of erosion for potatoes is still not sustainable, so we need to look to other crops if we are to maintain the integrity of our topsoil.

Imagine a couple of scenarios. First, imagine a variety of sugarcane that is bred/engineered to withstand more temperate climates. Imagine the Midwest covered in sugarcane instead of corn, and we would have taken a big step toward sustainability. Alternatively, imagine a plant that currently thrives in the Midwest, does not contribute to soil erosion, and produces sugar (easily converted to ethanol). I could envision something like Miscanthus, with an engineered gene(s) that allows it to produce sugar. If you have ever seen the ancestor of corn - teosinte - and compared it to modern corn, this idea does not seem out of the question. Again, if we could pull something like that off in the U.S., it could offset some of the decline in conventional oil production without exacting the high environmental price of alternatives like coal-to-liquids.

Selective Breeding Turned Teosinte into Modern Corn


The sustainability of Brazilian ethanol appears for the most part to be as advertised. The indications are that the EROEI is at least 8.3, which would actually make it better than for gasoline. (Incidentally, that brings to mind the question of why Brazil would want to export any ethanol; I would use my ethanol internally and would export my oil instead). The sustainability criteria that were used in this study are an example of what we should be doing for all of our fuel sources, and we should encourage those that meet these standards.

[editor's note, by Prof. Goose] If you would like to see Robert's engagement of venture capitalist Vinod Khosla (which was done over three or four posts), you can either search for it over in the right sidebar, or you could go up to the title of the post and click "all tags" and then search for Khosla's name or ethanol or whatever else you want to read about. That's what the tags are for!

Thanks RR. It's important to separate what is sustainable including being location specific. What works for Brazil is not generally applicable everywhere. I think the main issue is what you mentioned in your first post about Brazil's energy independence:

Oil consumption in Brazil is 4.2 barrels per person per year. In the U.S., oil consumption is 27 barrels per person per year, 6.4 times as much per person as Brazil's.However, we do produce much more oil per person than Brazil. Each year the U.S. produces 11 barrels per person, compared to 3.35 barrels per person for Brazil. In order to achieve energy independence, the gap between demand and production must be closed. Brazil has to close a gap of 0.85 barrels per person per year (4.2 - 3.35). They produce sufficient ethanol to close this gap, and therefore they are energy independent. The U.S., on the other hand, has to close a gap of 16 barrels per person per year. The U.S. gap in production/demand is almost 19 times greater than the production/demand gap in Brazil.

It's just shocking how much oil we use per person. That's where we need to start.

A major take home message needs to be: We are not Brazil. Even if Americans were willing to cut their energy usage to Brazil's usage, we still don't have the correct crop to replicate what they have done. But the chances of us willingly cutting our consumption to Brazil's levels are nil anyway.
Exactly. Each country - indeed each local area has many different circumstances that affect its sustainability. What works in Iowa probably won't work in New York. Indeed Upstate and downstate New York are dramatically different in many ways.

Everyone should focus on developing their strengths and understand their limitations and weaknesses to best overcome them.

Robert, PG (or ?) - could we have a page on gasification?  I have read a little about it being a better alternative to corn based ethanol, using indigenuos grasses and trees. There is some old literature on the net from the 1940's.  It would be interesting to know the EROEI to this process.  Another page about that someone building a plant that coverts(cracks(?)) waste(turkey guts from a turkey proccesor + plus other stuff) into oil  with high heat and pressure.
Robert, PG (or ?) - could we have a page on gasification?

Actually, the next post I will do is going to be on gasification. It will be a post discussing Khosla's newest venture, which the media is calling cellulosic ethanol, but which is actually gasification.

If cellulose is the feedstock and gasification the process by which you get your end product (in this case EtOH) then you have yourself cellulosic ethanol.
Gasification -or thermo-chemical conversion of syngas->EtOH- is perhaps the best production path we could ever hope to achieve for producing ethanol (and higher order alcohols) from abundant waste and renewable carbonaceous materiel in quantity enough to mitigate the effects of Peak Oil which as you know, is a liquid transportation fuel crisis.

The problem, however, is that there are but a handful of research labs, groups and government entities dedicating the time and effort to this production path because said path is not easy in a world of limited funding, cheap oil and entrenched interest.

Every Drummer here knows full well that the current US administration is acutely aware of the dire ramifications that Peak Oil presents modern society -from Simmons and Woolsey to Bartlett and Hirsch (who works for SAIC of all companies)- everyone recognizes that we need to start developing alternatives like... yesterday.

That said, I've posted here time and again that in light of the above, should the United States government really want to come up with an alternative to gasoline usage, the full weight and might of America's fiscal, political and technical resource base would be given proper prioritization and motivation to remedy the crisis at hand.

Cultivation of sugar cane in Brazil seems to be widespread handwork. I read about the 'catastrophic conditions' in which even children are working there - in contrary to US corn agriculture that seems to highly work with machinery.

So how can one compare the energy input correctly?

I read about the 'catastrophic conditions' in which even children are working there...

Child labor was a part of their sustainability criteria. While they flagged it as a concern, it didn't appear to be widespread, and they felt like it could be addressed. On the other hand, even if they don't address it, someone else is still going to buy that ethanol. That is going to be a problem unless everyone adopts the Dutch sustainability criteria.

The child labour issue is mentioned in passing here:

But this is a paper, prepared for the World Wildlife Fund, which should be read for other reasons as well.  First of all it shows that sugar cane cultivation can (but doesn't necessarily have to) impact negatively in ecologically varying areas.  In fact rain forest areas seem only marginally under threat from sugar cane. (We should perhaps spend a little more time considering the impact of mining other low entropy resources, such as old growth woods from North American rain forests.)

One key point made in this paper relates to the impact of subsidized European and U.S. sugar production (mostly from beets) on sugar cane cultivation practices in poor countries.

Of particular value in the paper is the contention that Best Management Practices can mitigate, if not entirely overcome, negative environmental and social impacts of sugar cane cultivation.

This is of course what Milton Maciel has been telling us for years.  

Now, I don't know if Robert was referring to posts I have on occasion made when he wrote:

"One area that did not fare as well as sugarcane ethanol advocates have often advertised is on the issue of soil erosion. I have been told a number of times that there is no erosion from sugarcane production, or that production is managed such that the topsoil actually increases over time."

Milton Maciel has made numerous posts on Yahoo Groups - Energy Resources that organic sugarcane cultivation, and we of course assume best mangagement practices, does improve the topsoil over time.  Is he wrong?

I guess once a European or North American agency verifies the evidence then we will have "precisely the kind of study that has been needed to verify that claims ... are on sound scientific footing".  After all, what the hell is Brazilean research worth anyway?


The WWF paper does not cover Brazilian->EtOH production and with respect to Brazil proper, the paper does not mention child labor but rather gives out an arbitrary reference about North East living standards.

NOTE: Brazil isn't even listed as one of the countries that the WWF is working in.

This paper does indeed highlight best management practices such as using vinasse for fertilization, bagesse for cogen heat and surplus electrical generation - practices all utilized in Brazil.

A key point -yet again- is the effect that decimating 1st world protectionist trade policy is having on 3rd world agro economies.

8 workers/hectare is not 'handwork' It is industrial human labor and is not calculated in these rosy eroei calculations. A hard day is 3000 calories. The food, transport, room and board, and medical costs for these labors are 10X that amount.

No one calculate 30,000*8 laborers/hectare in the energy formulas

Sugar cane is not energy positive and studies that suggest it are not robuts.

This is one of the areas of net energy analysis that needs to be expanded upon. We live in an interconnected world where it is increasingly difficult to parse everything into one common denominator. Society has attempted to do this using a global monetary system, but its proving difficult to put proper dollar values on air, water, ecosystem services, etc. Would you rather a new $50,000 mercedes or clean air to breathe for the next 10 minutes?

Net energy analysis in my opinion, will be critical in the coming transition from fossil fuels to renewables (irrespective if there ends up being 10 billion people or 1 billion). But to parse everything into energy terms is not paying attention to systems analysis. We need to consider the impact on land, on labor, on soil, etc as well as energy. We still dont have a mechanism to synthesize and compare all these things. EROI is one measure. Dollars are another. We need something better.


Look at the scientific work of H.T. Odum on emergy. Emergy provides a accounting system for the work of nature and humans.

I should have written 'we still dont have a system other than Odums eMergy' for assimilating all inputs other than energy
In fact, the criticism of the paper with the lower EROEI, in addition to having the diesel input wrong, was that it represented emergy, and not energy.
"8 workers/hectare is not 'handwork' It is industrial human labor and is not calculated in these rosy eroei calculations. A hard day is 3000 calories. The food, transport, room and board, and medical costs for these labors are 10X that amount."

Sure.  And to get a fair comparison let's calculate the energy burned by the advertising agency staff for the heavy machinery for the oil and gas service industry trade show.  And for that matter, their babysitters, so that the ad agents can work overtime.  Yeah, and the energy burned by the mother's of the pimply faced servers at the fast food joints, who send up sandwiches to the security staff so that the ad agents babysitters can babysit without risk of kidnappers.

this is unreasonable because all these post production costs are exactly the same for ethanol and petroleum

no, the cost of those 8 field laborers is repeated year after year in the field while the crude essentially flows under its own power into the refinery. 240,000 calories are burned for the production of that hectare. I wonder what percent of the final fuel that represents?

240,000 calories are burned for the production of that hectare. I wonder what percent of the final fuel that represents?

Less than 1%.

240,000 calories = 8 gallons of gasoline (source).  Brazil is getting about 7,000 litres of ethanol per hectare (source), meaning that 240,000 calories is only about 0.8% of the energy content of the fuel.

i.e., totally, completely, and rather obviously inconsequential.  Think about it logically -- if the energy for food was more than the amount of energy in the fuel, how could this be economically viable, which it clearly is?  Drop your preconceptions and think about it for a moment.

Drop your preconceptions and think about it for a moment.

If pstarr dropped his/her preconceptions what would he/she have left?

There are some real serious concerns about biofuels, primarily the environmental impacts of biodiesel on rainforests in South America and SE Asia. It is esential to address these and to recognize that they will and should limit the use of biofuels.

However those sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting EROEI, EROEI, EROEI aren't helping much.

240,000 calories = 8 gallons of gasoline (source).  Brazil is getting about 7,000 litres of ethanol per hectare (source), meaning that 240,000 calories is only about 0.8% of the energy content of the fuel.

i thought 8 gallons for the workers is per day while 7000 liters is per year?

If the workers were consuming 240,000 calories per day they would explode.
Apparently that's not relevant. What can I tell you? I never believe any numbers that don't match mine. But I've got none in this case and you've got nobody to contradict you. So I've got to go with my original statement. Apparently nobody gives a shit that people will blow up. Maybe I phrased that wrong. Maybe I should've have said the proletariat. Careful. There are hardcore communists in our midst. I'll draw the fire. But you may have to carry it.
Brazilian sugarcane production is shown to be energy positive study after study after study and yet some of us just don't seem to get it do they pstarr?
Many Brazilian farms are mechanized with specialized vehicles for harvest and transport and due to the overall success of the industry, real wages and living standards for those involved have increasd.

Please provide the link or source for the so-called catastrophic conditions and child labor in the Brazilian sugarcane industry.

don't know whether you accept a german wikipedia page as reliable:

The last paragraph says:

"Today sugar cane is grown worldwide and produces 55 per cent of all sugar. Main production nations are India, Australia, Thailand, South Africa, the Caribbean and of course Brazil.
Working conditions on the fields are partially catastrophic. Often children and women are employed as laborers, poor payment is widespread in sugar cane cultivation anyway.
Brazilian plantage laborers earn some 2 Reais (appr. 70 Euro-Cents, as of aug 2006) for a ton of chopped cane.

Daily performance of good workers is 8 to 10 tons. That's why cane sugar can be sold so inexpensive, however it is not  competitive in the EU against beet sugar due to heavy duties."

This aspect is not mentioned on the english wikipedia site about sugar cane. The harvester is described there.

I may apologize when some expressions appear to be rude (maybe "performance" while speaking of human labor isn't nice) - I don't mean to insult anyone. This was a quick translation of the german text, and I am no native speaker.

Thanks for the follow-up.  

I fully agree that places such as India/Africa have big child labor issues albeit this problem is in every sector of their respective economies not just sugarcane production.

Moreover, working conditions for menial farm labor in any 3rd world country are not exactly going to be terrific by any western standard, however, wages and conditions would likely improve if the world market prices for crops produced weren't so artifically low.

And as posted below re: WWF article as it relates to our subject... Brazil is not a country the WWF is too concerned about.

I should add that I had read a story recently which outlined how Brazilian cane cutter's lives were improving because of the ethanol fuel industry.  I will try to find it and post the link for you.

Sugar cane in Thailand is grown almost exclusively on small farms owned by the farmers. They are protected by a governmnet scheme that requires sharing of profits between farmers and refiners.

This is one reason why cane prices here are higher than Brazil.

Thanks for the post. A little off topic, a few days ago I asked the following question, however no one seemed to have an answer.  
Currently a pound of 10% moisture corn will yield about 3/4ths of a cup of ethanol or about 6 Oz. How does this compare with yield from 1 pound of biomass; switch-grass, corn-stocks, or pine-logs, using the current yield from pilot plant or lab cellulosic ethanol process?
Iogen has reported that their yield is 70 gallon per ton. Theoretical yield for cellulosic is reported to be 114 gal/ton.

Syntec, using a gasification process (not cellulosic ethanol), estimates that their yield will be 114 gal/ton, while theoretical is 230 gal/ton for their process. Maybe our good friend "Syntec" would like to elaborate.

Theoretical yield for cellulosic is reported to be 114 gal/ton.

If we end up looking for good cellulose crops, the current champion is one that the human race has over 10,000 years of experience with: industrial hemp. Not only does it provide the highest cellulose yield, but it also produces large quantities of non-cellulose fiber that is superior to wood pulp for paper and, with modern processing techniques, nearly the equal of cotton for cloth. Hemp seed is nutritious or can be pressed to obtain useful oil. It grows in every climate zone in the US with the exception of true deserts, requires no herbicides because it will choke out everything else in the field, and requires minimal or no pesticides. It works well in rotation with other crops.

A variety of experts have testified that, except for the low-level THC content that still exists in industrial hemp, we wouldn't even be looking at other crops for fiber or cellulose. If we're looking to tinker with the genes of a crop that grows well in temperate climates in order to get it to produce sugar, let's start with hemp and just get rid of the THC while we're at it.

Hemp was never more than a minor niche crop.  Cotton was king for fiber with wool #2 and linen #3.

Flax is a better choice than hemp, because the "high THC" flax cannot be hidden amongst the low THC flax.

Flax is also highly productive, edible, etc. but no one talks about it .



And Flax seed oil is extremely good for you. It's a good source of Essential Fatty Acids which are direct precursors of Omega-3 fatty acids.

Flax seed oil is a good alternative to salmon, which is not particularly sustainable.

Hemp was never more than a minor niche crop.  Cotton was king for fiber with wool #2 and linen #3.

For most of a thousand years, every village in Europe had a communal hemp field that was the source of fiber for rope and the majority of the clothing of the common people. Cotton is a relative latecomer in much of the world. In most of the world, hemp was the main fiber for paper before the 1900s (when duPont et al developed industrial-scale processes for using wood fiber and lots of duPont chemicals). And of course, from an ecological perspective, in terms of how much pesticide and artifical fertilizer are required, hemp is vastly superior to cotton, and somewhat better than flax.

My point was that if you want a field crop for cellulose, hemp has the best yield for that and produces other useful components. In a world that's short on petroleum, natural gas, and possibly energy in general, ignoring industrial hemp because it's too easy to grow high-THC marijuana on the sly is probably a bad decision.

I think your EU history is a bit skewed.  From distant memory both England and Ireland raised flax, not hemp, and wool for fibers.

No knowledge of Germany, etc. but I suspect the same.


Certainly in the area I live in (rural south-east France) hemp was the second crop, after grain. There are (remains of) water mills every few hundred yards along the small stream that runs through my property. More than half of them were for processing hemp into useable fibre.
You cannot hide mary jane in a field of hemp - we've covered this 1000 times Alan.

And no, flax is not a better choice than hemp - another subject covered here extensively.

A good friend of mine is right now working on a cellulosic ethanol project and his number 1 feedstock of choice is hemp for all the reasons discussed here on previous occasion.

You know its a tragedy, THC has massive medical uses-- it's a really great drug, with positive implications for:

  • treatment of pain, especially in late stage AIDS patients
  • muscle spasm eg MS patients
  • anti-emetic - nausea from chemotherapy
  • glaucoma - very effective at lowering intra-ocular blood pressure
  • neuropathic pain - it's made my aunt mobile again, after 10 years of not being able to walk due to degenerative diabetes (she uses Sativa which is prescribable here in the UK)

We haven't been able to separate out the beneficial effects of THC itself from those of smoking pot (like smoking opium v. shooting up heroin, there seem to be some distinct benefits from smoking pot, perhaps the main one being control of dosage by the user).

If as societies we weren't caught in this 'marijuana madness' about what an evil drug it is, we would use it therapeutically without too much bother.

If someone could reinvent it now as a $100/pill patented medicine, then I am sure some drug company would lobby it through and get it on the market.

But because it need only cost cents per dose, here we are...

You can add offsetting alzheimers to the list as well.

I think the 'madness' your refer to is mostly a US issue - not so in Canada and EU.

paranoid psychosis seems to be the main problem, particularly with the stronger street strengths now available.
Are you talking about me?
No. Better yet. We've got got our eyes on you. Don't move. Put your hands behind your back and face the wall.
If your feedstock is cellulose and your end product is ethanol than you've got yourself cellulosic ethanol.  If your feedstock is coal or NatGas than you've got synthenol...   you're planning on making my job just that more difficult aren't you Robert =]

As for gasification yields - our team works on a base conversion of 100 gallons per ton of biomass.  The numbers posted by Robert (good memory btw) were done for us by an engineering group out of Houston using biogas as our source feedstock.

Smithfield Foods has a bioenergy unit working on producing bio-methanol from manure that uses a similar production model.

If your feedstock is cellulose and your end product is ethanol than you've got yourself cellulosic ethanol.

Not really. No, not at all. In these debates, words and definitions have meanings. When people start to redefine biomass gasification, and call it cellulosic ethanol, they really confuse the issue. Cellulosic ethanol means that that the cellulosic components are being converted via fermentation. Gasification/pyrolysis means that all of the carbon is getting converted. In the case of gasification, the conversion is much better, since lignin is being converted.

As an analogy, consider petroleum diesel. It is true that that diesel is made out of ancient biological material. Should anyone object if I start calling it biodiesel for that reason? Of course, because that's not the generally accepted definition of biodiesel. Biodiesel is something different, just like cellulosic ethanol is not biomass gasification.

Sorry but I disagree.  No one is trying to redefine what biomass gasification is nor does the act of fermentation determine what is and what is not cellulosic ethanol.  The same feedstock (biomass) and end product (EtOH) is achieved irrespective of the process used i.e. enzymes, acid, gasification, microbes or what have you.

This apples (end product) to oranges (process) comparison is not going to fly.

No one is trying to redefine what biomass gasification is nor does the act of fermentation determine what is and what is not cellulosic ethanol.

So then you wouldn't have an issue if the oil industry started calling their product biodiesel? After all, same feedstock (biomass) and end product (diesel) is achieved irrespective of the process used i.e. long-time cooking in the ground, or what have you.

Seriously, they aren't the same. Cellulosic ethanol specifically converts the cellulose. Gasification converts all of the carbon via a different process. I think the whole reason some ethanol folk are anxious to blur the edges is I suspect it is pertinent toward whether subsidies are received. Either that, or they want to be the first to lay claim to production of cellulosic ethanol.

But if we are going to start blurring distinctions like this, then I filled up with cellulosic gasoline today.

I have no problem with the oil industry calling diesel biodiesel because technically speaking, that's exactly what it is.

Cellulosic ethanol on the other hand, is the end product of a feedstock->process->EtOH production path.  Cellulosic ethanol doesn't convert anything and the term itself references the feedstock used for the end product, not the process used to make the product.

I'm sure you are aware of DOE & NREL's Biomass Program of which there are (2) competing processes or platforms (their words) for the conversion of the same feedstock (biomass) to the same end-product (EtOH).

Technically speaking, I suppose myself and my colleagues at these and similar institutions should be calling the end-product bioethanol, however, as is the case of 'biodiesel' you cite, we too are trapped by what the general public determines to label our work.

Thanks Robert. Very interesting post.

One fear I have is that tropical countries will become exporters of sugar cane ethanol, but in doing so we will lose much of our rainforests. The article didn't seem to mention this, so the assumption is either that rainforests were not harmed in the making of this ethanol, or that the destruction of rainforests is acceptable in the quest for replacing fossil fuels. Do you know which it is?

Tom Anderson-Brown

This would be my number one concern too.

The rainforest is already being cut down at an alarming rate, and a lot of the cleared land is used to grow soya for export for use in European animal feed. Robert's article says that just 1% of Brazil's agricultural land is used to grow sugar cane at present, but obviously if Brazil starts exporting significant quantities of 'sustainable' ethanol, the land devoted to sugar cane growing will increase rapidly, increasing the pressure on the rainforest.

The article also says that the plant 'thrives rain-fed under tropical conditions', but cutting down the rainforest is accelerating climate change, and once enough of it is cut down, Brazil's climate will no longer be the same.

Coilin -

I think some of us are concerned that it is not just Brazil's climate that will no longer be the same, but the world's. We are already too close to the tipping point where feedback loops will cause climate change to increase beyond livable bounds.

What exactly are the optimal growing locations for Sugar.  I know warm and wet are key, but somewhere I read they would not be displacing tropical rainforests because they are more subtropical in nature.  If thats the case then maybe they wont force the wanton destruction of the forests
I'm not sure it matters. Brazil is already a huge agricultural exporter. It is the world's leading exporter of soya, beef, coffee, orange juice, sugar and chicken. When the amazon is cleared, it is often planted to soya. Soya can, I think, grow in the North and South of the country. If sugar cane can only grow in some areas, and there is a large increase in demand for ethanol, then presumably it will just deplace soya meaning that more of the Amazon will be cut down. Each year an area the size of Belgium is cleared. I would like to see the world decreasing its reliance on Brazilian agricultural exports, not increasing it.
It is telling that people get up in arms over ethanol, which appears to have minor if any direct impact on the rainforest, but are quiet on beef consumption which is a real cause of massive destruction.

Can anyone explain why this is not utterly hypocritical?

If climate is an issue, consider that ethanol from sugar cane reduces climate gas emissions by over 80% from gasoline on a lifecycle basis.

Your argument is a Red Herring and is bogus.  We're not discussing Brazilian beef grazing practices, we're discussing sugar cane ethanol.  Of course, to the extent that beef pasture is converted to cane fields, and then more rainforest is burned for beef pasture, ethanol does matter.

I'd also like to see your evidence that ethanol has 'minor if any direct impact on the rainforest'.  Of course, 'direct' may be the key word here, but I'd still like to see it.

And just because climate is an issue does not automatically mean that we have to be in favor of sugar cane ethanol.

Well your argument is a very, very red herring, it is double bogus and your mother dresses you funny.

All of the studies linked below address the issue of environmental impact and deforestation. The Worldwatch Institute is probably the best, but requires registration. The World Bank study may be asier to access.

If you think food versus fuel is an issue with regard to sugar cane-based ethanol, look up sugar deficiency in Google. You won't find much. it is not nutritious.

As I note elsewhere in this thread, the sugar versus food food or junk food versus food issues are more legitimate than the fuel versus food issue.

1) IEA Automotive Fuels for the Future

2) IEA: Biofuels for Transport

3) Worldwatch Institute & Government of Germany: Biofuels for Transport  (Link to register - study is free)

4) Potential for Biofuels for Transport in Developing Countries 161036/Rendered/PDF/ESM3120PAPER0Biofuels.pdf

Well your argument is a very, very red herring, it is double bogus and your mother dresses you funny.

Nice one, you got me there.  That proves that sugarcane ethanol isn't displacing rainforest.

If you think food versus fuel is an issue with regard to sugar cane-based ethanol, look up sugar deficiency in Google. You won't find much. it is not nutritious.

Another Red Herring.  I never mentioned food vs. fuel.  I would prefer that the cane fields did not exist, period, to the extent that they either directly or indirectly cause rainforest to be burned or destroyed.

It's telling that the main links you provide are from the IEA and the Worldbank.  The Worldwatch link, while I haven't read it, appears to be specific to Germany.  But we are talking about sugarcane in Brazil here, and whether or not it displaces rainforest.

Could you point me to where, in those documents, it says that rainforest is not being burned and destroyed to make room for new croplands?  I see this quote from one of the IEA docs:

In the extreme, such as if a rainforest is replaced by bioenergy crop
plantations, the impacts could be strongly negative.

But I don't see anything saying rainforest is not being destroyed.

The Worldwatch link, while I haven't read it, appears to be specific to Germany.

The fact that you couldn't be bothered to open the document and find out that not only does it cover global biofuel production, but has a detailed Brazil case study, pretty much sums up your apparent level of committment to actually learning the facts.

Read the links or this document by the WWF, cited above. I will find the place in the linked documents that discuss rainforest impacts, but may not get to it today. In the meantime, I would suggest opening the documents, refering the detailed table of contents, and finding the lengthy discussions on environmental impacts in any of them.

Take'em down Jack!
Yup.  Telling indeed.
SUVs are much more voracious than people.
I haven't a clue what you are on about. You say this in a reply to my post which specifically mentions that Brazil is the world's leading beef exporter and in which I said I would like to see the world reduce its dependence of Brazilian agricultural exports, which obviously includes beef.

Really bizarre post.

I haven't a clue


Yes, I agree. In 2000, Brazil was already the world's 4th largest emitter of greenhouse gases, despite its relatively small industrial size. The vast majority of these emissions were caused by deforestation since the Amazon is a vast carbon sink. The Amazon also obviously regulates rainfall, and cutting it down is going to make South America much more arid.
There is plenty of evidence that mining, logging and landclearing for cattle is devasting Amazonia and that these activities are driven by import demands in rich countries, as well as by the demands of rich elites in poor countries.

It isn't sugarcane cultivation which threatens the global environment.  It is the necessarily expansionist nature of our economic system.  The economy has to grow, and as all attempts to bootleg entropy ultimately prove futile, the economy searches out every available bit of low entropy that nature provides.

Search and destroy.  That is capitalism's mission.  And for a while that was the mission of Soviet socialism as well.

If you want to save the rainforests, be they in Brazil or British Columbia, you have to overthrow the economic system.
Greed must be seen as sin, and not as virtue.  We may be stuck with elites, as Georgescu-Roegen suggests, but that doesn't mean we have to tolerate greed.

It's time to move on.

Your rainforests???

Less that 1% of Brazil's land resource base is utilized for sugarcane production.  Tropical and Central American countries would love to be able to work and contribute to the world economy with a valuable end-product such as EtOH.  1st world protectionist trade policies, however, have dashed their hopes considerably.

Ironically though, the solution for this dilemma may in fact reside in the mandatory biofuel usage legislation of 1st world nations.


Excellent post and I applaud you for your objectivity and open mindedness.  This is often what the public debate lacks.

Two comments about sustainability and "costs"

On cost of sugar production:
It is important to recognize that sustainability criteria lead to higher production costs - depending on the strictness of the sustainability criteria, we estimate additional ethanol costs of up to 56%, though in case mechanical green harvesting is applied, additional ethanol costs are estimated at 24%.While the latter may not necessarily be prohibitive given current oil prices, it is clear that some financial support is most likely needed to stimulate sustainable ethanol production.
This is is a dollars cost and is only pertinent if your measurement criteria is money profit.  If your measurement criteria is not using fossil fuels, or reducing carbon emissions, or any number of non dollar measuring sticks; then the additional cost of sustainable sugar cane is not relevant to the discussion.

On sustainability of land:
Data on soil erosion rates under various land use types are however uncertain. Soil erosion can be prevented in various ways, although it cannot be avoided completely. Consequently, only in case very strict soil erosion rates are applied (which goes beyond the approach applied in existing certification systems and guidelines) soil erosion could be an important bottleneck for certification. As far as soil erosion can be prevented, the costs are likely in the order of magnitude of a few percent of the production costs of ethanol. We conclude that soil erosion can be regarded in general as having a medium impact factor on soil erosion.
Clearly this relates to the money question above.  To maximize profits we tolerate some soil loss in all agriculture today.  This includes sustainable operations like sugar in Brazil.  However if we start to value land health (build soil, prevent erosion, develop symbiotic soil organisms, etc.) than the long term sustainability issue can be solved.

Both of the issues above speak to the main problem of trying to compare sustainable practices (farming, energy, waste recycling) with conventional methods.  The current conventional methods are all about driving for the lowest cost for that operation without regard to downstream cost that are someone elses headache.  As long as that environment exists alternative approaches have an up hill battle establishing market positions.  They cost more and if dollar cost is the only criteria they will always fail.

Brazil fostered a system to get their sugar can ethanol to very large scale at which point variations can be compared to each other.  Sustainable cane vs high fossil input cane so the true costs can be evaluated for all parameters.  We need a similar comparison in the U.S. for commodity crops.

Thanks again for bringing this article to TOD and fostering discussion.

[[Excellent post and I applaud you for your objectivity and open mindedness.  This is often what the public debate lacks.



For RR (Big Oil Employee]

  1. Keep using oil because everything else is just not sustainable enough.
  2. Defeat a few extra cents royalty off the coast of California (Why: Does big oil needs the extra money to drill some more holes.). That money would have funded alternates to OIL.

Your post is too glib and too fawning of RR. Raises suspicion bud.
In other words you don't believe in objectivity, or providing the least bit of credit where it is due.

"That money would have funded alternates to OIL."

If 87 passes, keep track of where the funds actually go. Then give us all a big HA HA HA. Politicos never lie.

Given the posts you have entered in the last week, it would appear to me that you have a serious biasness issue as well.

RR is dead on in that we need to find a scalable, sustainable fuel source to replace fossil fuels probably in conjunction with a demand destruction phase so that we can meet somewhere in the middle.

If we simply replace one unsustainable fuel for another, then we will have done nothing but bought perhaps a little more time, and more than likely put ourselves into a deeper hole as we would've used up another resource in the mean time.  In the case of bio-fuels, that resource would be arable land and in many cases we would still be eating away at our remaining fossil fuel supply.

As for his stance on prop 87, I've seen him be very even-handed, and if you've read his postings over the last month you have seen him sway back and forth on the viability of this proposition.  The fact that he has openly expressed concerns and excitment about this proposition tells me that he is in fact weighing this measure very carefully and trying to determine if it is good law.  The fact that he seems to be settled against it finally after weeks of debate, and after going through an iterative process, looking and re-looking at the arguments indicates to me a lot of thoughtfulness.

I personally don't have to deal with prop 87 as I live in Texas, but seeing debate from both sides now, I've come to what I think are similar conclusions to RR and many others.  The sentiment of prop 87 is nice enough, but the details of the thing have quite a bit lacking from it.

My concern is that prop 87 is going to turn into another political dole system to special interests which may or may not truly be after a sustainable and environmentally friendly fuel.

And so yes, because I don't want another 400 pound resource hog industry developing, I'd much rather settle on relying on "Big Oil" til we can find something that will net us sustainable, and environmentally friendly energy.

For RR (Big Oil Employee]

Keep using oil because everything else is just not sustainable enough.

Defeat a few extra cents royalty off the coast of California (Why: Does big oil needs the extra money to drill some more holes.). That money would have funded alternates to OIL.

You have been posting for what, 2 days now? Your first post on the board was one that attacked me directly, and now this one. I think other people know me and my motives a bit better than you do. Your preconceptions about me are wrong. Sorry to disappoint. But if you really want to understand me a bit better, read a few more of my essays. And now I will take some good advice, and not argue with the trolls. If you have a contribution to offer, on the other hand, I will be glad to engage you.


Obviously other people have weighed in but you deserve a response from me directly.  I have been posting here beore RR was posting.

First I come from a biology/plant scientists production background, almost opposite of Robert Rapier's oil industry experience.  I do not see eye to eye with RR on all issues, and we have posted our positions before.

I do enjoy RR's thoroughness in bringing data to the discussions (better than me actually) so that hard numbers are debated.  And just because we don't believe the same things doesn't mean there isn't a hell of a lot of overlap.  The debate is about the differences not where we agree.

I live in Iowa, live 5 miles from a corn ethanol plant, have heard Khosla speak in person, and still have some serious issues with wholesale biomass to energy solving our energy problems.  I am a big proponent of ethanol, biomass, and sustainability, particulary for the farm state economies.  Those states alone will not solve our peak oil problem.

RR, myself and other posters on TOD are correct in trying sort the rhetoric from the science in energy policy.  Listening to the arguments of people you disagree with is the best way to understand their viewpoint.  Which is critical if you want them to understand yours.

Fair enough.
Just found this on a German server. /13/2006

Chevron Energy Solutions to Prepare Proposal to Develop High-Efficiency Ethanol Plants for Ethanex Energy
10/12/2006 - Chevron Energy Solutions (CES), a Chevron Corporation subsidiary that develops energy efficiency and alternative energy projects, announced that it will conduct preliminary work to prepare a proposal for the development of highly efficient ethanol production plants for Ethanex Energy, Inc., a renewable energy company engaged in low-cost ethanol production.  

Under an agreement with Ethanex, CES will perform engineering, geotechnical studies, site and civil design work in order to prepare a detailed proposal for developing and building ethanol plants that use advanced technology to maximize the plants' efficiency. The proposal will include details necessary for CES to negotiate contracts to engineer, procure and construct for Ethanex at least three biofuel plants by 2008. The plants, to be located in Missouri, Illinois and Kansas, will each produce about 132 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol annually.

Jared Diamond claims in "Guns, Germs & Steel" that our ancestors were very good at recognizing and making use of most important domesticable wild plants. We certainly can't expect another Teosinte-to-corn with conventional domestication techniques.

I don't know how much genetic engineering changes this picture. Could be a lot, but I'm far from convinced that getting Miscanthus to produce sugar (while retaining its desirable traits) is easier than getting corn to fixate nitrogen, which might help solve the problem from the other side, and which has been a holy grail for years...

Since the conversion of biomass to ethanol appears to be to sending us back to hunter gatherer days by eroding topsoil, depleting groundwater, and killing off shrimp and fish via eutrophication of waterways, we might as well introduce a potentially invasive species like Miscanthus.  Let's just hope deer and buffalo will eat it so we'll have something to hunt.

Adding Biofuels to the Invasive Species Fire?

S. Raghu et al. Science 22 September 2006: Vol. 313. no. 5794, p. 1742

...Executive Order 13112, attempts to protect the United States from invasive species, unless benefits clearly outweigh potential harms. The ...traits deemed ideal in a bioenergy crop are also commonly found among invasive species: C4 photosynthesis, long canopy duration, no known pests or diseases, rapid growth in spring to outcompete weeds, partitions nutrients to belowground components in the fall, high water-use efficiency.

Kudzu gasification to the rescue!

Or, more likely, Pongamia Pinnata and Jatropha Curcis orchards everywhere there is cheap labor to harvest them and soil that's semi-arable.  They grow very quickly wild anywhere that doesn't get a lot of rainfall.  They're both mildly toxic long-lived nitrogen fixing trees native to India, which is trying to turn them into national biodiesel crops(though mostly, it's to address rural India's fourth-world status amidst desertification, economic standstill, and overpopulation).

Hemp and Kenaf both outcompete weeds as paper and fiber crops vastly more productive than most trees - I wonder how suited they are compared to wood for furnaces, and how high the yields are on no-till, unfertilized land.

Which of course adds to the case for switchgrass, a native North American perenniel.

But as I've previously argued, there is no future in ethanol, except that produced from sugarcane.  Biomass will be burned for space and water heating, and even for electricity generation.  The ethanol buyer will not be able to compete at the farmgate with the bio-heat merchant. This is because the latter merchant will be able to pay much more for any given energy content of whatever crop, because of the much higher eroei which attains to the solid fuel vs the liquid fuel.

Once the decline in natural gas production in North America hits full stride, and the price rises to reflect this decline, North American ethanol is dead.  

Corn-stove America!

Do we have enough steel to make all those stoves?

Words written by someone who knows not and does not work in the industry.

Thanks for more food for thought!

For your information here's a somewhat pessimistic view, from 'Energy Tribune', September 2006 (not on line, I've scanned it in). The note is titled 'The Myth of Brazil's Ethanol Success':


Certain media and politicians have been admonishing us to follow the success of Brazil's sugarcane ethanol and gain independence from Middle East oil. Among other claims: ethanol has displaced 40 percent of crude oil use in Brazil. The real story isn't so rosy.
First, Brazil is a developing country whose consumption of crude oil is actually minuscule, 10 times less than the U.S. Interestingly, for the last 40 years, the energy consumed in Brazil as crude oil has been less than the total calo¬rific value of corn grown in the U.S.!

Second, if one divides the total energy of ethanol consumed in Brazil by the energy of crude oil consumed there (crude oil is used for many things other than gasoline) the ratio is a mere 8 percent.
Third, Brazilians use twice as much diesel fuel as gasoline. The ethanol the country gets from sugarcane has added 40 percent only to the country's gasoline supply.

Fourth, Brazilians are now almost self-sufficient in crude oil thanks to their oil company, Petrobras. Thus, they are selling sugarcane ethanol to Sweden, the U.S., and other countries, while driving on petroleum products at home.
Therefore, we should stop deceiving our-selves about the possibility of duplicating Brazil's model unless we are prepared to do the following here in the U.S.

-The U.S. must cut its oil consumption by a factor of 6 in order for its per capita oil use to equal Brazil's.
To achieve this, all non-personal U.S. vehicles could be driven only one day per week. -And all passenger cars and SUVs could be driven only one day every two weeks.

There are other costs to Brazil's ethanol. As it aggressively expands its sugarcane plantations, it has been moving other crops, e.g., soybeans, into the Amazon basin, which has been cut and burned at an ever-increasing rate. Over the past 15 years, the defor¬ested area has reached roughly the size of all the U.S. farmland dedicated to corn production. The biodiversity hot spots in the Cerrado region have been reduced to one-fifth their original size, and pollution is rampant. Whole sugarcane plants are used to produce ethanol and no biomass is recycled back to the plantations. There are few environmental controls on the sugarcane ethanol plants, which produce many pollutants, the worst of which is vinasse, a corrosive substance which contains high levels of organic matter, potassium, and calcium. In the long run, Brazilians will be overwhelmed by the soil erosion, nutrient depletion, and environmental pollution caused by sugarcane plantations and refineries, and will have to subsidize these plantations with fossil fuels and reduce its cane production.
Considering the displacement of other crops from the Cerrado to the Amazon region and the resultant deforestation and horrendous pollution, one wonders about the grotesque deception being sold here as Brazil's ethanol "success."

That essay reads much like my earlier Brazilian essays. The two points of view are not mutually exclusive. On the one hand, it is a myth that Brazil farmed their way to energy independence. It is a myth that we can adopt their model. On the other hand, it appears to be true that Brazilian sugarcane ethanol is sustainable.

Another take home message from all of this, is that the Dutch are to be highly commended for attempting to define and examine the sustainability question so rigorously. I hope others follow their example.

OK, I am an engineer so if I took the time I could examine the calculations on biofuels and come to my own conclusions about the assumptions, calculations, consclusions etc.   However, I admit I get enough engineering at work, and I get lazy about these things, so let me pose rather qualitative questions.

Does the energy returned from growing fuel, essentially come from the sun?  If so, the closer to the equator, the more potential return you would get?  The type of plant basically determines the efficiency of the whole process of turning sunlight into useable energy, to include how easy it is to grow said plant, harvest, its impact on soil, growing season etc? It seems that it would be possible to genetically engineer the 'best' possible plant for a given latitude/water/soil right ?  Note:I realize GE might have its own problems.  

So, is there analysis already out there of what is the best case for growing fuel (which I assume will be different for different regions of the globe).   I don't know what units it would be in, but I picture something like the wind maps or solar PV maps that show how different regions have access to  these types of energy.  Is there anything like that out there ?  

I have a book called "Other homes and garbage" written by students at Cal-Berkley(?) - Heavy on sustainable - biomass, solar(active,pasive,PV) wind, hydro, conservation, R values of almost any building material you can get a hold of. I remenber seeing a solar map of the US in there.  Great book!
You are looking at the amount of sun light energy being captured by plants and then turn into biofuel for our consumption.  If looking at that angle, solar panels are more efficient than plants in capturing sun light.
Solar panels get around high teens to low 20's.  Plants only get in the teens.  These are percentages of total solar energy hitting the ground.

The other question being optimize different types of plants for different locations.  Rather than one plant fits all regions.  I am not sure there is a list that keeps track, but people use EROIE and basic economics to determine which plants will be best suited per region.  This has little to do with sunlight, but more to do with weather and water.  Still, the biggest obstacle has been technology to harvest the plants and convert to biofuel.  Right now, we have palm oil, corn and sugarcane for ethanol.  There are many small scale pilot programs working with other plants, but until someone invests major $$$ to develop these, they will always have technical stumbling blocks preventing other plants to be source of biofuel.

"Solar panels get around high teens to low 20's.  Plants only get in the teens. "

Heck, plants typically convert only half of one %, with a theoretical mximum of 3-4%.

In the long run, photosynthesis is not the way to go.  Solar captured through PV, solar thermal, etc will be much more effective, efficient and sustainable.

In the long run, photosynthesis is not the way to go.  Solar captured through PV, solar thermal, etc will be much more effective, efficient and sustainable.

I think this is a crucial point.  For the US, with an advanced economy and no comparative advantage to ethanol production, it would seem to make sense to spend resources on transition to electricity for transport, rather than wasting it on corn subsidies.

However, for poor tropical countries that can grow sugar cane, the short-term matters too.

Ethanol is a minor, temporary niche fuel in the big picture. However, it will be very important to certain countries who don't think they arev unimportant just because they are in a niche.

Do solar panels seed themselves, or are they seeded by tractor driven implements?
They are Preceded by tractor-driven implements.. but granted, they make a lousy breakfast cereal.  I think we should hang onto photosynthesis for a while..
What never seems to surface in these ethanol debates is what kind and what quantity of inputs are required to grow sugar cane year after year.  From a farm background I know if in industrial agribusiness one does not apply some source of N then the corn yield is nearly low enough to starve locusts into extinction.  Having seen sugar cane fields first hand my observation is that it is a large grass that sucks up N perhaps more than corn and where does that come from?  Doing some quick math on corn ethanol to produce the approx. 2 gallons of ethanol you need a $2.50 bushel of corn, that covers the inputs of industrial ag leaving then the miracles of yeast and industrial knowledge to do the rest.  What is the secret to sugar cane that multiplies this on a sustainable level?  FTR I think bio-fuels have a place if they are considered a by product or produce a profitable/sustainable enterprise.  I wish Wendell Berry would pen an essay on the bio-fuels crusade.
"I wish Wendell Berry would pen an essay on the bio-fuels crusade."

I would be very interested to see such an essay. In fact, now that you mention it, I'm very surprised that he hasn't yet. Or perhaps he has and I just haven't come across it yet.

- sgage

I would welcome the thoughts of Gene Logsdon on the industrial agriculture's foolish pursuit of the bio-fuels utopia.  He did mention the ever shrinking amount of fossil fuels in his book "All Flesh is grass", but I don't think he took specific aim at the industrial cconglomerates.
"The Brazilian example does suggest some avenues ripe for exploration in the U.S. There are certain crops that are far less erosive than others. According to Table K.1 in the report. . . ."

    What troubles me, when you sweep past all statistical analysis, is that this argument is basically in the service of continuing our extreme car dependency. We ought to recognize that keeping the cars running by other means (than gasoline) is not an optimum strategy for facing an energy-scarce future. In fact, it is a tremendous distraction from the task of making other arrangements for daily life. -- Jim Kunstler


I think we all wish you would post here more often. I am a big fan of your work, as are many others here.

I agree with your sentiments above. I hate suburban sprawl. I hate seeing subdivisions built on top of good farmland, forested areas, etc. I would love to see us move toward a less car-centric society. I have often commented on European cities and villages, and the efficient way they have managed their land. We could learn much from them. But as a society, you know we (the U.S.) won't give up our lifestyle easily. We are going to do everything we can to maintain this easy motoring lifestyle.

Sometimes I talk about what we will do (coal to liquids, tar sands. etc.), but that doesn't mean that I think it's what we should do. My ideas on what we should do are the same as yours.

Exactly JHK.
Too often on this site, and in the general debate still, the argument starts out with we need X TW to maintain this lifestyle. Or the variant 'alternative energy x can never replace existing technology y'. No it can't.  The debate, in my view, should focus on how much we REALLY need to live comfortably by modifying our collective lifestyles? As JHK consistently maintains.

Why is it easier for the human (western?) pysche to consider modifying nature, or to attempt some technological miracle before considering a modification of behaviour? Arrogance? Hubris?

Another stat that should feature more prominently in the US mind and on this site is this.

Congratulations America. 600,000 "excess deaths" in Iraq. Great going, I hope they enjoyed the "freedom from tyranny".

Terry Jones has some words for your own Dear Leader

No disrespect JHK, I put this here so it might be seen.

And being time shifted 180 degrees out of phase with you people I will not be following this up. Bed time.

BTW where is Stuart?

"Why is it easier for the human (western?) pysche to consider modifying nature, or to attempt some technological miracle before considering a modification of behaviour? Arrogance? Hubris?"

My goodness, baka, I do believe you have come up with the question of our century. It remains to be seen if it really is the human psyche, or if it is just the (western?) you allude to. The Chinese certainly seem to have no problem with grandiose modifications of nature (can you say "Three Gorges Dam"?). But maybe that's just indicative of the heroic communist thing, combined with their new capitalist bent, i.e., Western.

What a world.

- sgage

I don't think that the rational analysis of sustainable energy alternatives is in the "service" of any one particular view of how society will need to transform to deal with the loss of fossil fuels..  

We all know that fossil fuels are unsustainable.  But the reality is that as access to fossil fuels decline, sustainable fuels will be substituted.  And so it is critical to understand what energy forms are sustainable, and how well they scale.  Studying that does not mean that one believes that sustainable fuels will be able to fully offset the loss of fossil fuels.  Nor does it presuppose that the current energy hungry lifestyle can be maintained.

If anything, seeing how poorly some highly touted "solutions" scale, is quite sobering.

Testudo says:

But the reality is that as access to fossil fuels decline, sustainable fuels will be substituted.

Perhaps I wouldn't disagree so totally with your statement had you included some kind of qualifier(s).  The reality is, as we all know, that, at best, they can only supply a small portion of future fuels at present consumption rates.

It is possible that they might supply a far higher percentage if today's consumptive economic paradigm collapses.  But, that would really be due to demand destruction.

To a great extent, I wish there were grants available to experiment with new, really sustainable ways of living because that's going to be more important than quasi-techno fixes.  Somehow, people have to get over the status quo approach.

Todd; a Realist

What exactly are you disagreeing with?  He said that sustainable fuels would be substituted, not that they would make up for all of our current fossil fuels.  If out of the entire world, even one gallon of ethanol is made and that is used instead of a gallon of gasoline, ethanol has been sustituted.  It says nothing about the amount of substitution actually possible.  
Regarding getting over the status quo, I don't see the point in that sort of thinking.  I don't see too many around here who are not willing to adapt as necessary to different circumstances.  Unfortunately, the public at large is not going to hold that same degree of open mindedness, nor are they going to accept or believe that their current life style is not sustainable.  

Besides developing a very general blue print of what we can do (more mass transit, etc), there's no point planning for the shorter term based on massive societal changes.  People are only going to accept those sorts of changes over time, as it becomes clear that things can't continue as they are and that they have no choice other than to change the way they do things.  There is no question about it, we're going to try to do anything and everything to sustain our current car culture for as long as we possibly can.  

I agree that maybe that is stupid, but it's what we're going to do regardless.  I mean, if we were really forward thinking as a collective we'd have done a lot more to transition away from our dependency on oil already.  

I agree that change will be resisted so priority one will be to continue the current high-energy lifestyle.  And the corrolary is that we will burn every last drop, lump, or cubic foot of fossil fuel that we can get our hands on.

The one thing that I have read recently that made me feel a little better is that the greenhouse emmisions from the fossil fuels only stay in the atmosphere, causing global warming, for about 100 years.  That's much less than I had assumed.  So in another 150 years or so, Earth can start healing itself from our fossil fuel binge.

In RR's reply to JHK, he observed that we americans are going to do everything we can to preserve our "easy motoring lifestyle."

Even as our planet staggers on with the weight of that lifestyle -- global climate change, toxic pollutants in air, water, soil, various kinds od key resource depletion --we continue to keep on doing the same old things in the same old ways.

I read the article by Jean Arnold from Catalyst that OilDrum linked to yesterday, and noted this quote:

"The glory of the 20th century is now the burden."
- Kevin Phillips, American Theocracy, 2006

That pretty well sums it up, eh?

I deeply appreciate RR's thorough work on this topic.  I do think that we need to emphasize clearly and at every turn that there is no way to continue the easy-motoring lifestyle that seemed to be the crowning glory of the 20th Century.

I have committed to developing personal life changes -- riding cargo trikes, learning to grow food, collecting rainwater, and so forth -- while talking with people in my community as I go about trying to live "culture change" into being.  I believe that this is the best strategy for bringing about positive culture change.

Meanwhile, the technical research and analysis provided by RR and others can widen the discussion for culture change.

I guess I would have ended RR's post slightly differently.  If I may use a bit of humor here, these are my options for ending RR's most excellent post:

1.  Put on a chicken suit and hold a sign saying "the sky really is falling unless we forego the easy motoring lifestyle!"  Have a photo taken of me in this outfit with some beautiful Brazilian women surrounding me, smiling and waving, with heaps of sugar cane around us showing how much sugar cane it would take to keep the average US motorist going for a year.  (How much would that be?)

We could repeaty this with corn and switchgrass photos to show the emphasis.  Of course we would need beautiful Iowa farm girls to go with the corn theme, and who would help to pose with switchgrass?

2.  Put on sackcloth and ashes with a "the end is nigh, whether we want it to be or not!  Repent of the easy motoring lifestyle!"  (I've not had time to think this all through, but that's the idea.)  Pose at the edge of one of the Canadian tar sands toxic water containment reserviors.  Photo-shop another photo of said "prophet of doom" on a hurricane ravaged oil platform in the GOM, and into a scene from post-Katrina New Orleans.  In order to make this attractive, and as a salute to AMPOD, place recruit attractive women to pose along with the prophet of doom.

Well, you get the idea.  I think we need to highlight the absurdity of trying to use any combination of techno-solutions as a way of continuing the "easy motoring" thing.

I also think that radical personal lifestyle change is the best way to promote the needed cultural changes.

I think when we hear politicians talk about ethanol, they are not really talking about alternatives, they are talking about continuing to ramp up demand and using ethanol as a supplement to whatever oil we may have in the future. This is their de facto policy because they have nothing serious in mind when it comes to bringing demand down to the feasible supply of biofuels rather than making desperate attempts to bring biofuels up to what is an unsustainable level of demand.

So much for the politicians.

However, I think you will find that most of the thoughtful posters on this board are more nuanced than that. Certainly RR is. And certainly others are. Some sustainable biofuel in conjunction with at least a 70% reduction in fuel usage would go along way to dealing with both oil depletion and global warming. Beyond that, we need to deemphasize the auto as our primary transportation mode with much of the reduction in fuel use represented by walking, desuburbanization, bicylcing, electric bicycles, eletric scooters, buses, trains, light rail, subways, etc.  

What few autos are left after that,i.e, those few uses left that simply can't be accomodated by the above could be fueled with some biofuel and some electricity, eventually created by solar based alternatives.

Regardless, all this clearly envisions the end of what you have called the easy motoring lifestyle.  Autos should be anciallary to the overall goal of moving people. Learn to move people by means other than the auto.  

The danger, of course, is when so called alternatives are touted as a way to continue to the gas guzzling SUV/Hummer/Big Truck lifestyle.

But to do all this we would have to have goals with mandated  courses of action to get us where we need to be. That is not on the political horizon.

So James. Or JHK. Or Jim. I'm not sure how to refer to you,

There's a burning question here. Who did you mean by "Trust Fund Geeks?"

Tell everybody I'm right.

Jim there's no need to worry... we simply cannot produce enough biofuel to continue extreme car dependency as it is now and most biofuel proponents know this all too well.
Two comments regarding EROEI of sugar cane ethanol:

1. You wrote:

The first was by Oliveira et al. in 2005, and it concluded that the EROEI was between 3.1 and 3.9. The second report was by Macedo et al. in 2004 and it concluded that the EROEI was between 8.3 and 10.2. (Note that the "bad" EROEI was still over double the EROEI of corn ethanol.)

This is one reason why I prefer net energy in comparing energy gain. EROEI is a RATIO, not an absolute. So, the "bad" EROEI of 3.5 (average of 3.1 and 3.9) has a net energy of 2.5 (3.5-1) vs corn ethanol of .2 (1.2-1) so is actually 12+ times better. A comparison of EROEI would generally be OK for high numbers (e.g 60-1 is twice as good as 30-1) but for marginal processes, mutiplying and comparing a ratio doesnt work.

2. More importantly, I believe the classic EROEI formula has a blindspot for 'chaining' technologies like sugar cane and cellulosic ethanol, that use part of a byproduct (bagasse) to generate heat. What society cares about is the thermodynamic heat loss to the system.  I am working on a paper for publication on this and will post a story on it as soon as accepted. Looked at in this way, sugar cane ethanol would have lower EROI than gasoline (but still much higher than corn ethanol)

Nate Hagens -

I agree with you on this one.  I've always felt there was some important consideration not quite coming through when comparing alternative energy processes solely on the basis of EROEI.

To take an extreme and perfectly ridiculous example, take two biomass-to-ethanol processes: one with an EROEI of 1.1 and another one with an EROEI of only 1.OO1.  While the EROEI figures are within about 10% of each other, the latter only produces about 1/100th the amount of net energy as the former. So, as you implied, EROEI as a criterion tends to insufficiently capture poor net energy performance.

One other thing that has bothered me about some of these EROEI assessments is the manner in which the energy content of biomass is considered.

 If I understand correctly, the principal reason the the Brazilian sugar-to-ethanol route has such a favorable EROEI is that they fuel most of the conversion process by burning the bagasse residue.  As such, it appears that they are essentially saying that the energy content of the bagasse burned is a zero energy input, essentially a freebie, a gift from Santa Claus.  

While I understand this thinking,  I think it is highly flawed. The fact that the bagasse arrives along with the sugar as a co-product does not negate the fact that it has its own value as a fuel, a fuel that can be used for something other than running an ethanol plant.

This flaw becomes more apparent if we consider the case of a hypothetical sugar-to-ethanol plant that for one reason or another does not burn bagasse, but rather imports wood chips from a nearby lumber operation. In this case one WOULD consider the energy content of the wood chips as an external energy input. But when you get right down to it, there really is no difference: one is still buring a valuable biomass fuel that could be used to heat homes, generate electricity, etc.  The burning of the bagasse is sort of an energy 'opportunity' cost, as economists are fond of saying.

I don't think I am too far off in saying that the solar energy content in any biomass is very close to its heating value when burned under normal conditions. Water plus CO2 becomes biomass via photosynthesis, biomass is burned, releases said energy, and then becomes water and CO2 once again.  If one looks at how much of the original solar energy input to the biomass actually become energy in the form of ethanol, the process looks pretty poor.

But of course, if the goal is to produce liquid fuel usable in an internal combustion engine, then biomass to ethanol does do that. It's just that there is so much internal friction and so much grinding of gears to get very little out the other end.

And doesn't even touch on the food-vs-fuel issue, which is a whole other can of worms.

precisely. you said it better than I.
I agree with that as well. It will always be energy intensive to distill ethanol away from water. It probably would be more efficient to use the bagasse to produce electricity. I favor electric transport anyway, so it would be a better use IMO of where we should be headed.

I think the reason the EROEI is coming about better than for gasoline is precisely the accounting system you mention. Gasoline in a refinery is not counted in the same way. If we cannibalize part of a barrel of oil to purify that barrel of oil, we still count those BTUs as inputs. What if I used the bagasse to instead refine a barrel of oil? I would have a much higher EROEI. Therefore, I can see the dilemma.

This is generally true, but more complicated. You would have to ship the bagasse to the oil refinery, which would consume energy.

There are also gaps between theory and reality. Right now, most of the energy in bagasse in Brazil is wasted in the burning process as the electricity regulations don't encourage sales to the grid. Ethanol mills have invested in low pressure boilers and don't get the full benefit from the bagasse. In Thailand, the more favorable grid regulations encourage a a more efficient use.

But more importantly, if you are countuing all impacts, isn't unfair to overlook the fact that sugar cane based ethanol emits 80% less climate gasses on a lifecycle basis.

Brazil is not going to realistically convert to electric vehicles overnight. In the meantime, don't you have to count climate impacts against oil in your calculations?

In the meantime, don't you have to count climate impacts against oil in your calculations?

Sure you would, but that wasn't the point. I am not actually suggesting to use bagasse to refine oil. I am just pointing out an example of the sort of thing that Nate and Joule were talking about.

I agree that Nate and Joule's points are theoretically correct, but do want to point out that:

  1. Sometime reality intrudes, and

  2. This approach seems to be veering towards let's count every single bad thing even if the justification is fairly weak, but overlook a large set of good things, even if they are extremely important, such as climate change mitigation.

As I have said before, I generally tend to agree with the entirity of your analysis regarding ethanol. It is at best a niche solution in both time and place. US (and Chinese) corn-based ethanol is a farce and given adequate time, transition to electricity based transport is a far better use of resources. Biodiesel in many tropical countries should not be produced because of the likely destruction of the rainforest. Thailand has produced bagasse for years and never used a pound of it to produce electricity until ethanol provided an incentive structure.

However, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Brazil, Thailand and others are not going to be able to transition to an electricity-based vehicle system until after developed countries pave the way.

In the meantime, what is wrong with these countries using a locally produced product that not only helps mitigate the impacts of peak oil, but also mitigates the impact of the one thing most of seem to admit will be worse: global warming?

Keep up the great work.

Jack, do you have any data sets on BR biomass-electrical usage?  I had 19% from biomass.
" one is still buring a valuable biomass fuel that could be used to heat homes, generate electricity, etc.  The burning of the bagasse is sort of an energy 'opportunity' cost, as economists are fond of saying."

What home heating?  Are you suggesting that the bagasse is a candidate for shipping to Scotland? (Or maybe to the oil refinery, as I assume RR isn't suggesting to move the oil refinery to the sugar plant.) There is no useful comparison to wood chips, which would have to be transported to the plant where the bagasse is already the residue of pressed sugar cane.

The bagasse is derived from processing the sugarcane and helps unlock the potential energy of the sugarcane juice.  It is a gift from Santa Claus. Without the bagasse the sugarcane juice is wasted or would require energy from another source to be processed into either sugar or ethanol. And then what of opportunity cost?

Excess bagasse is burned for electricity generation, where circumstances permit, but only bagasse in excess of the demand for sugar and ethanol production.  This is a very rational decision since the objective of sugarcane cultivation is to capture, convert and increase the density of solar energy.  Even if some way to turn sugarcane juice directly into electricity could be developed, there still are advantages to energy stored in a transportable liquid form: the advantage of flexible transportation, and a storage advantage.  

The concept of opportunity cost is critical in all discussions of energy futures.  It is because of opportunity cost that land some foresee producing crops for ethanol in North America will produce crops for bioheat - solid fuels- instead.  But you have not employed the concept properly in your commentary.

Give a little credit to the Brazileans.  They produce ethanol without subsidy (and with minimal net CO2). And they do so in a market in which hydrocarbons are still very cheap. Moreover, industry leaders like Milton Maciel are showing the way to cultivate sugar cane while building soil.

As for the food vs fuel debate, what about coffee, tea, cut flowers, grains for booze, grains for animals, golf courses, not to mention sprawl, obesity, iceberg lettuce...

Did the study suggest how much ethanol Brazil could produce sustainably?

I don't believe they said.

Where are you this evening? Thought you were going to be in Billings.

"Did the study suggest how much ethanol Brazil could produce sustainably?"

IMO, this is probably the most important question to ask about any bio fuel system.  

Ethanol from corn in the US could be sustainable if it was done on a sufficiently small scale.  But that caveat is too often spun out of the ethanol discussion.

What about South Louisiana ?

As I look out my window at my neighbor's hard to kill stand of sugar cane (anyone that wants some for a barbeque, etc. is welcome to the stalks), I wonder if we have a viable option here.

Not for 50% of US fuels, probably not even for 1%, but some small fraction.  Many farms can be flooded every few years from the Mississippi spring floods so land degradation can be controled.

AFAIK, only local labor is used in harvesting and processing  and that is mechanized.  But the local demographics have changed since Katrina.

Our sugar cane growth rates are a bit slower (winter) than in Brazil, but we have been growing it for over 250 years.  Sugar was first crystalized where Tulane University now stands.


Best Hopes,


Alan - you are absolutely right - but the business world will not jump at US sugar cane ethanol exactly for the reason you pointed out - its only a local solution - they want silver bullets not BBs.
The bad news about the good news is this:  If cellulosic ethanol (sugar cane ethanol is a form of cellulosic ethanol, is it not?) works in EROI terms, then we will begin to adopt it.

As its use expands, it will begin to gobble up space and compete with agriculture and environmental/biodiversity uses of land.

Because we have established no political value, no deep cultural value, for using less energy, the better this works as an energy solution, the more we will use it... until someday... 20 or 100 years from now.... we realize that we have turned our entire planet into an energy focussed biomass production system.

So if cellulosic ethanol or some other biomass harvesting system is viable, I suppose I should be happy, but I'm not because we still lack an "ecological governance" model for life on the plane earth.    We still lack a way of valuing biodiversity.  We still lack a way, or even the will, to consider the  effect of first world hunger for energy on food availability and economic development in the third world.

From a values perspective and from an "ecological economics" perspective it is harder to be happy about the prospect of sugar cane or cellulosic ethanol.... it's success may not be the human race's success.

The first was by Oliveira et al. in 2005, and it concluded that the EROEI was between 3.1 and 3.9. The second report was by Macedo et al. in 2004 and it concluded that the EROEI was between 8.3 and 10.2. (Note that the "bad" EROEI was still over double the EROEI of corn ethanol.)

I have attempted to verify these energy returns from these reports and have been frustrated along the way.

Neither is as transparent as Pimentel and Patzek and the numbers are suspect. A brief persual of P&P shows that the largest energy input is fermentation, distillation, and concentration of ethanol. The fact that cane sugar is not hydrolyzed in no way detracts from the still vast energy inputs.

Until input and output numbers are laid out in a simple table aka P&P, and the human labor energy costs are included in this analysis, I will be suspect.

eroei trumps 'sustainablility'

Essentially there are two components working here - an energy extraction process (growing sugar cane) and an energy conversion process (turning it into alcohol). The high extraction return when combined with a low conversion return gives a decent overall EROI. But is ethanol (due to demand for liquid transportation fuels) the best use for the bagasse?  We need to focus on better conversion returns - turning biomass to alcohol is unlikely to be one of them (perhaps burning it or gasification might be).
"Until input and output numbers are laid out in a simple table aka P&P, and the human labor energy costs are included in this analysis, I will be suspect."

Laying out the numbers is clearly a good idea, but it is not so clear that "human labor energy costs" should be included for this purpose.

The human laborers will have to be sustained by the society whether or not they are working on energy production. For this purpose their labor may be very nearly free.

In the US the situation is obviously very different. Many people here going to and from work consume large amounts of resources and produce outputs of questionable value in return. How much energy could we save if we told these workers to stay home and simply continue to pay some significant portion of their salary?

Just which jobs really are useful to society? If not faced with economic disaster, could you find something more useful to do with your time?

Save the automobile!!!!!

Whatever you do, save that wonderful auto.

Cause, you know, without that auto what would we be? Just another monkey hanging around waiting for death.

I'm so glad we can stay focused on the important things such as saving the automobile.

God bless you, Mr. Techno.

I don't know. What else are we going to do? I mean, I've agreed with you for a while. I try my best. I've moved this message for long before I agreed with you or even knew you. You got any better ideas? I'm talking about implementation.

We are going to burn everything. There is no other option. How do you solve that equation? My life is devoted to this riddle. Help me. Please.

"We are going to burn everything"

I concur.  Which is why I work on projects that will hopefully take advantage of and steer the inevitable into as much good as possible.  If that makes sense.

When comparing the growing seasons of tropical and temperate areas you not only have to calculate the advantage of the year round growing season of the tropics but also consider the advantage of the increased  solar radiation available due to longer periods of daylight in the higher latitudes of temperate areas. A more cold tolerant variety of sugar cane adapted to temperate areas could produce surprising yields in the reduced growing season that has longer daylight periods.  
While it was already mentioned in some of the above posts, what cost the destruction of the rainforest?  Whether it is a direct consequence of the need to plant more sugar cane, or indirect (soya fields replaced with cane, more rainforest burned down to plant more soya), the process of destroying the rainforest to plant monoculture just isn't right.  Morally or logically.
As Jack has already pointed out, the ecosystems of most agro economies (in this case rainforest) are not being destroyed for monoculture as much as they are for beef.
So we're in agreement, then, that either is wrong?
On beef yes. Sugarcane no.
If there is soil erosion, it is NOT sustainable, regardless of the arbitrary conditions set by the Dutch (they will have stricter sustainability criteria for 2011, so current criteria are obviously arbitrary).

How are the nutrients extracted by the growing cane replaced in the soil?

The stricter criteria to be applied in 2011 will be interesting as many object to this method of creating transport fuel because of the displacement of rain forests in creating the sugar plantations.

Were all energy inputs considered? What about the energy inputs of the workers involved (in buildng their homes, growing their food, heating their homes, recreation, transport, etc.), throughout the production and delivery chain? At least some portion of that input must be applied as the energy invested, and some of that almost certainly comes from fossil fuels at present.

Intuitively, the EROEI seems far too high, compared to gasoline from oil, which is the compressed sunshine of millions of years. However, maybe there are a few crops that can get this high, leaving aside sustainability issues.


The moment humanity threw down the spear and picked up the hoe, we have had to deal with soil erosion.

I guess we never should have progressed beyond the H/G society for fear of the environment?

Yes, but it takes a hell of a lot more land to fuel a car than to feed a person.  The average American car consumes 20 times the energy of the average American.  
Do you have a link for this? I would like to learn more about energy in food versus transportation. Clearly if you are only counting end calories, the 20 times figure is probably conservative. But what about all the energy that went into producing the food.

People are periodically linking to stories about the massive energy content in food (although usually it is the same semi-hysterical article from Die Off or something).

I don't have any one link that tells the whole story.  I had to find the raw data and do the math myself, but I can go through the steps.

Annual gasoline consumption in the US is around 150 billion gallons.  There are lots of sources out there that give similar numbers.  The link below has it at 146 billion, which comes to 400 million gallons per day.

The next link can convert a gallon of gasoline to nutritional calories (kilo-calories).  I use calories for food vs. fuel discussions because it is more familiar to most people than BTUs or other units.
The conversion comes to 31470 Calories per gallon of gasoline, X400 million gallons per day is 12 588 134 135 855 Calories divided by 300 million people is 41960 Calories worth of gasoline per person per day

I averaged the caloric intake numbers for men and women from this link and got 2105.

41960 / 2105 is 19.9 times the caloric intake for a person.  Now that I think about it, I should have said the American auto fleet uses 20 times the energy of all Americans.  My first statement assumed that there were an equal number of cars and people, but the point about fueling cars vs feeding people is still valid.

Good on you, Johnny.

Now I would like one of the electric car advocates to show how their 'solution' to the 'liquid fuel crisis' will reduce the caloric intake ratio.

Excellent work commenting on this study.

I have been and still am skeptical to the ethanol hype and its advocates, like Khosla and other VCs. But it strikes me that unless we can get the infrastructure up and ready - that is, flexifuel cars, ethanol pumps, etc. - it will be difficult to get funding for all the potential ventures that want to engineer new plants or bacteria for optimal ethanol production. In other words, if we can't create market conditions where these ventures have a reasonable time to revenue, it will never happen - for financial reasons. What do you guys think about that and how it relates to the debate? Let's say that Khosla is wrong about ethanol from corn, but would he be right if that created a viable market for others following?

Academic, you are right about Khosla and the ethanol debate. While I think its a dog chasing its own tail(ethanol) the important thing is to start doing something. We can more easily change course than overcome the initial inertia. The educational value of a real ethanol experiment will help wake up Americans to reality-the use of fossil fuels for transportation is unsustainable. So if I lived in California rather than Texas I would vote for the proposition.
  Although the EROEI of sugar cane seems pretty good, we all need to remember that Brazilian cane workers live a life that is close to slavery. In the cane fields of south Florida US Sugar imports Dominican guest workers because they are more easily exploited than Americans. The mechanical harvesters used in south Louisiana probably really change the energy economics from Brazilian practices to something similar to corn ethanol. That's a hunch, not something for which I have statistics.
  I think what the automobile has done to my country is contemptable. On the BBC this morning they reported that according to the British medical journal The Lancet 655,000 people had been killed in Iraq since '03. May God have mercy on our souls, we have allowed a bunch of murdering criminals to take over our government and kill in our names.
Oilman Bob,

I believe your animosity for the automobile is unfounded.  And your insinuation that you live in a democracy is misplaced.  Well, you do live in a democracy, just with limitations.  Just like Iranians live in a democracy, but the candidates have to be vetted by the clergy before they run.  In your democracy the candidates have to be vetted by the coprporations before they run.  Because it is corporate money that finances their campaigns and pays them through lobbyists after they are in office.

It is not murdering criminals who have taken over your government, it is profiteering capitalists.  They are not criminals, no, they change the laws.  And don't fear your God, your soldiers don't kill in your name they kill in the name of their stockholders.

I do not think the mechanical harvesting has much impact on the EROEI.  One pass every year or two cannot take THAT much energy.  Traditionally, sugar mills are within a few miles (15 or less) of the fields, minimizing transport costs.

An interesting article (for ChemEs and MechEs) on recent changes in sugarcane cultivation.  A new variety of sugar cane increased production by 30%/acre, but required a different harvester.  Now a second hi-yield variety is out.

Also, different temperatures for clarifying sugar cane juice with lime are discussed.  A move from clarifying juice at 105 F to 225 F.  For ethanol, this step may not be required.

BTW, your thoughts Robert ?

Best Hopes,



One other thing that is a problem for building a sugarcane ethanol industry in the U.S. is sugar subsidies. My understanding is that it is much more profitable to make sugar than to turn it into ethanol.

They grow a lot of sugar beets around here, and I have often wondered about producing ethanol from them. But I think the sugar subsidies again make it undesirable to do so.

Molasses, the byproduct of sugar cane after the high quality sugar is removed, is often sold as cattle feed.  A potentially viable source.

Also, if a lower cost/energy clarification process yielded less refined sugar and more ethanol yield via byproducts, the increased value of the byproducts (going to ethanol rather than cattle feed) may justify the lower yield, lower energy clarification process.

Just hypothecticals that have not been fully explored IMHO.

Best Hopes,


Regarding "Brazilian Ethanol is Sustainable", your well written essay pertains to the production of the ethanol. Any new technology that gives us a very high EROI risks becoming unsustainable in the downstream multiplier effects of the energy gain. At 8.3:1 (which I dont believe but cant as yet refute), the brazilian entrepreneurs will split this large energy gain with the ultimate consumers. I dont know their spending habits, but like most rich people, they will end up having extremely large footprints with their excess funds. Furthermore, the people buying the ethanol will save money and spend that money on more sponge-bob toys, poker chips and garbage.

Finding new energy sources is vitally important. Changing how we use energy is as important.

I notice that their criteria includes regular use of chemical fertilizers. I have a hard time understanding how such a requirement can be considered to be sustainable, but perhaps someone who knows more than I do can clarify. How can this be sustainable if it depends on regular additions of chemical fertilizers?
Chemical fertilizer is one of the energy inputs into the equation (since it rakes energy to make the fertilizer).  Some of the others are the energy needed to harvest the crop and the energy needed to distill the beer.  As long as more energy comes out of the process than goes in (as a bunch of solar energy is captured by the plant's leaves), then the process can be sustainable.
Since chemical fertilizer requires energy, the only way to sustainably produce it would be by means of a truly sustainable energy source. The only one that comes to mind is solar, which I have seen mentioned here. [perhaps it could come indirectly from a plant-based source, but I suspect that would lower the EROEI calculations considerably.]

I do understand that EROEI, as well as scalability, are significant potential constraints for biofuels. I'd really like to see more discussion on how big of a constraint fertilizers may (or may not) be. Even this document acknowledges that continuous use of chemical fertilizers are necessary, but it doesn't discuss the sustainability of producing this steady supply of them.

To put it another way, the need for fertilizer seems like a separate dimension than just considering EROEI or scalability.

Since chemical fertilizer requires energy, the only way to sustainably produce it would be by means of a truly sustainable energy source.

I have read that sugarcane fixing nitrogen, which would lower the need for nitrogen fertilizer. From the Milton Maciel article I linked to:

Sugar cane is a semi-perennial culture (6-7 years cycle) that needs far fewer nutrients (fixing nitrogen from air through Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, for example) than corn. It is the less soil-eroding large crop in Brazil because soil remains covered most of the year or all year round. Sugar cane in Brazil is not irrigated.

Vinasse -a nutrient rich by-product of cane processing- is sent back to the fields.
Great article, Robert.  Informative and objective - a combination that's greatly appreciated.
Brazil can produce a gallon of ethanol for 90 cents. The president of VeraSun claims his company produces a gallon of ethanol for $1.33 currently. He doesn't mention that his company is hiding behind a 54 cent a gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol.

Far from being an energy independence project, American produced ethanol is merely another industrial farming boondoggle at taxpayers' expense.

"As long as more energy comes out of the process than goes in (as a bunch of solar energy is captured by the plant's leaves), then the process can be sustainable."

How can this be ?  What about Entropy ??

Lester Brown deals with biofuels is his Plan B (2.0). One point he raises: biofuels compete with food. The world's food acreage is under assault from various directions. As the price of oil goes up, more acreage will go into biofuels and away from food, raising the price of food. This tendency could well be disastrous for those at the bottom.

Additionally, just like all agriculture, biofuel production consumes water, not all of which is renewable. I don't know how this plays out in Brazil. Water is another looming disaster. Was this taken into account?

At some point, what's going to have to be faced is the need to reverse direction and reduce our footprint on the planet. There will always be another fix tempting us into further delay, some fixes less destructive, some more.

Additionally, just like all agriculture, biofuel production consumes water, not all of which is renewable. I don't know how this plays out in Brazil. Water is another looming disaster. Was this taken into account?

Yes, that is part of the sustainability criteria. Sugarcane in Brazil is not irrigated. The refining process will consume a lot of water, but Brazil gets lots of rain. My guess is that it isn't as big an issue as in the U.S. where we get less rain, irrigate corn, and use lots of water in the ethanol plants.

Stick "sugar deficiency" into Google. It doesn't seem to be a huge problem. The main symptoms are headaches and grumpiness.

At this point in time, I see the food versus fuel issue as primarily a red herring. Does anyone really believe that we are making efficient use of crop land? I am sure we could feed ten times as many people from the same land mass if we reduced sugar consumption, ate less meat, abandoned Cheetos, Twinkies, Oreos, etc.

Junk food versus food is a far more legitimate issue both in terms of human welfare and scale.

I wonder how many people will actually read your statement and understand its importance. I was going to buy you a copy of Tainter, but it's $40. That's crazy. I don't even know what postage across the Pacific is or how long it takes. Your society will have collapsed by the time it gets there. Even though it apparently took less than 10 years for the book to go out of print. I wonder why it has been re-released for $40 a pop when most books do fine at $28 or $14 in paperback. But I haven't read it. Next Stop. Library. OK, I'll slip out before Leanan starts to get mad at me.
Correct.  Food vs. Fuel is a huge myth propagated by those with vested interest.  1st world protectionist trade policy is the number 1 sticking point with 3rd world nations trying to compete on the global trading floor.

Ask yourself how much corn and water would be available to the world if Coke, Pepsi and other soft drinks did not exist?

'Food vs. Fuel is a huge myth propagated by those with vested interest.' Sort of like the myth of blood for oil? We can certainly discuss to what extent humans will be impacted by using part of a harvest for fuel, but to think that a typical American suburban inhabitant will care anymore about the people they would potentially deprive of calories than the people world wide (Columbia, Nigeria, and Iraq come to mind for Americans - people living in Grozny for the Russians, for a bit of balance) currently ignored to provide fuel for their lifestyle is naive.

As for Coke or Pepsi - they are water exports, so to speak. I have heard on German radio that grain exports are really water exports - an interesting perspective, actually. I truly can't remember the ratio, but a ton of grain represents a large amount of water in terms of it growing to be harvested. Since it is much easier and lighter to export grain than that amount of water, the market for grain is not what a lot of people assume it to be. You can also begin to understand why climate change is so threatening, from such a perspective - there is no way to realistically compensate for drought, except to import someone's else surplus of water/arable land.


In the case of Coke and Pepsi - they are most certainly not water exports but water usurpers as the product is bottled in country.   Read about India's experience here:

Bad for your teeth, bad for your bones, bad for your digestive system and full of sugars made from corn which is bad for the environment.  I dare say that we would do well to eliminate this product from our diets.

So, you mean the clean water that somebody would drink is then 'usurped' because somebody drank it with sugar and coloring added? This is no defense of Coke or Pepsi, but I knew somebody would fall into another Milchmädchenrechnung. And yes, I am sure that bottling Coke takes more water than merely bottling water, and bottling in general uses more water still than simply having it delivered from a tap. However, the difference is not that large - unless, like in Germany, they are using returnable bottles which are repeatedly cleaned - that takes a decent extra amount of water and energy. But then, such a green alternative as no throw aways is always good, since it is a water usurper, using water for cleaning insted of drinking? Complicated world.


Hi expat,

Following up on our conversation yesterday regarding the transfer of economic activity to developing countries as a way to avoid labor and environmental constraints, this seems like a step in the right direction:

New York Times

China Drafts Law to Empower Unions and End Labor Abuse

Published: October 13, 2006
SHANGHAI, Oct. 12 -- China is planning to adopt a new law that seeks to crack down on sweatshops and protect workers' rights by giving labor unions real power for the first time since it introduced market forces in the 1980's. 9-bB4xNcOrmjVKVHT+whS/7g

Sorry to reveal my ignorance, but what is a Milchmädchenrechnung

> Milchmädchenrechnung

That's german slang, meaning a naive assessment.

Yet another concern: what land is being used for the ethanol source? Nothing to do with the Amazon I would hope? It's hard for me to believe that the competition for land use will not have at least an indirect impact on the Amazon.
About 1% of arable land in Brazil is dedicated to sugarcane.
America Is Not Brazil

I really should have trademarked that phrase! That was almost what I entitled my "Lessons from Brazil" article.

and interestingly, grain prices skyrocketed this week, as expected plantings for next year were way down. This is the producers way of saying (like Chesapeak did with natural gas) that at these prices, we will reduce production.