A gentle cough for the Washington Post

The growth in ethanol production and the increase in gas prices combine to lower the amount of crude oil that must be imported to meet the nations needs. And though the increments on ethanol production are not great, when placed in context of the margins between supply and demand they become significant. As the Washington Post notes this is having a significant impact on the fortunes of Iowa farmers.
Iowa, the top corn-producing state, is the nation's ethanol leader, generating 25 percent of U.S. ethanol in towns such as Coon Rapids and Steamboat Rock. In addition to 22 ethanol refineries in operation, the state has seven under construction and at least 20 are being planned.

The boom here has largely been a grass-roots phenomenon, fueled by clusters of growers, bankers and small-town professionals. Aspiring biofuel plant owners have been barnstorming the state, delivering investment pitches in firehouses, schools and community centers.

Six thousand farmers have bought in.

The concern that I have with this story and the growing publicity it is a part of does not relate to the EROI of the process, that is best discussed by others. I am concerned however that it seems to imply that we have found something that will significantly change the transportation fuels situation.

But consider what else the story says

The state legislature this year passed incentives designed to increase the percentage of ethanol and biodiesel in Iowa fuel sales to 25 percent by the end of 2019. Three of every four gallons of gas sold in the state contain at least 10 percent ethanol, although most of the state's production is shipped elsewhere.
In the most productive corn state, ethanol will only, in fifteen years, supply 25% of the fuel needed. Given that this is the case, one wonders whether there is a great deal of sense in building a significant number of vehicles that can drive at the higher levels of ethanol concentration, since there being only a limited space where corn will grow profusely and the statement
unlike that of crude oil, the potential supply is virtually unlimited and close to home.
is not really true.

Nevertheless, as I commented some weeks ago, those that are currently investing in plants are seeing a relatively rapid return on their investment

When Horan and his partners sought $20 million for each of three new biodiesel plants, no request took longer than 10 days to fulfill. In one case, the offer was fully subscribed in eight days and the organizers sent $2.5 million back. Horan said banks have been willing to lend large sums with no collateral other than the refinery itself.

"People will drive all the way across Iowa to come to a meeting," said Horan, who grows soybeans and corn on 4,000 acres in Knierim, about 100 miles northwest of Des Moines, with his brother Joe. "It's the opposite of Big Oil. It's Little Oil. It's our oil."

I can see the sense in investing in ethanol at present, but I don't see the benefit in making vehicles that will drive at the high percentage concentrations (85% and above) since I cannot see how we can expect to see more than perhaps 7 - 10% contribution to the overall supply in the next fifteen years and at those concentrations the current engines will, I believe, function quite well.

In my incomplete and nonrigorous way, I've been asking at places like Gristmill, why E85?



Maybe that's preaching to the crowd over there, and here, but for all the progress we are making on peak oil, I think "E85 everywhere" is the most pernicious of current memes.

Maybe that's preaching to the crowd over there, and here, but for all the progress we are making on peak oil, I think "E85 everywhere" is the most pernicious of current memes.

I don't know why it took so long for what you are saying to sink in. I had "heard" you before, but I hadn't really HEARD you. It just sunk in. Right now, gas stations nationwide can sell E10. Yet we can't even make enough E10 to saturate all of the gas stations. So, why even put in more expensive E85 pumps? Why demand them everywhere, when there is not hope that they could actually deliver, except in very small numbers?

I think that will be my next essay here. It is time to put some rigorous calculations out there to show just what a pipe dream this push to E85 actually is. Maybe that will provide a reality check for some of the proponents.


Hi Robert,

While doing my researh I came accross what Ted Trainer from University of New South Wale in Australia has been doing.

Here is a first link :
Can Renewable Energy Sources Sustain Affluent Society?

And a second :

Renewable Energy:  What are the Limits?

And I'm sure you know about the Pimentel study on this.

Since this study is allready made, I was thinking it was better to lead people to thoses studies.  Trainer has a way to write about this stuff that can be the most anoying possible and there is not much tables.  

In the Renewable energy study he use Australian$ or US$ ar a way to compare some kind of renewable energy an a coal plant.  

In this study there is a lot regarding the liquid fuels from biomass.  Here is the table of content for the hole study :

Renewable Energy:  What are the Limits?

Ted Trainer*
September 2003

The Context
PV Solar Electricity
    PV module cost
    The "balance of system" cost
    How does this figure compare with the cost of a coal fired plant?
    Other cost factors
    Dollar payback periods
    What difference might technical advance make?
    PV roof cladding systems
    Concentrator PV technology
    Other storage options
Pumped storage vs hydrogen storage
Solar Thermal Electricity
    Heat storage in molten salt
Wind Energy
    The problem of variability
    The areas required
    Exclusion factors
    Offshore wind potential
    Inter-Continental systems
    Conclusions regarding Wind energy
Liquid Fuels
    Biomass yields and quantities
    Non-plantation sources
    The photosynthetic limit to yields
    Energy Return on Investment, (EROI)
        What proportion of energy in the biomass ends up in the liquid fuel?
        How much energy is needed to produce the liquid fuel?
        How large must energy return be in order to meet dollar costs?
    Net ethanol production
    The demand for liquid fuel
    Can the demand be met?
Thinking in "Footprint" terms
What about the "hydrogen economy"?
    Derive hydrogen from coal?
How much energy might we get from renewables?
The Significance of the Commitment to Growth
What about "dematerialisation" and transition to a service and information economy?
What about technical advance and "factor four" reductions?

I read it and it was really knowledgeable.

I didnt had the time to read the other one but here is an excerpt :

Figures commonly quoted on costs of generating energy from renewable sources can give the impression that it will be possible to switch to renewables as the foundation for the continuation of industrial societies with high material living standards. Although renewable energy must be the sole source in a sustainable society, major difficulties become evident when conversions, storage and supply for high latitudes are considered. It is concluded that renewable energy sources will not be able to sustain present rich world levels of energy use and that a sustainable world order must be based on acceptance of much lower per capita levels of energy use, much lower living standards and a zero growth economy.

I know its old stuff but really worth reading.

Trainer has a way to write about this stuff that can be the most anoying possible and there is not much tables.

LOL! I was thinking the same thing when I read it. The information was very, very good. I will bookmark it and refer to it. But most people's eyes are going to glaze over when they are reading it.

What I am going to write about is E85. I am going to calculate how much we can realistically produce. There is a lot of hype out there that E85 will make us energy independent, so the calculation will be timely.


Here in Australia we grow sugarcane on the narrow coastal strip in Queensland (the north-eastern state). Unlike Brazil, which only uses the first crush for crystal sugar, we try and get as much sugar out as possible, leaving the residual molasses that goes to stockfeed.  This cheap stuff is what the ethanol industry is based on.

CSIRO (government research) calculates an ERoEI of about 2,  so E10 (90% gasoline, 10% ethanol) only saves 5% of fossil CO2 emissions.

Total area of cane = 441,000 ha
Total molasses = 1,273,000 tonnes/year
Distillery conversion rate = 237.5 litres (ethanol) / tonne
Total ethanol from molasses = 302 MegaLitres / year
Australian gasoline consumption = 19,867 ML/year
Therefore maximum blend possible = E1.5

So talk of mandating E10 is impossible using only sugarcane molasses, even for a country that produces 6 times more sugar than it consumes.

ERoEI for ethanol from spoilt wheat is only about 1.2, but will that stop them ? No, its clean green energy from the sun and don't you dare say different.


so what he is saying is this right?
there are too many people in first world countrys for alternitives to work?
Hello TrueKaiser,

Yes, there is way too many people for us to continue this  easy-motoring, easy feeding Paradigm.  Please read and study the hundreds of pages at Dieoff.com, although the first graphics you encounter will reveal 90% of the info you need to know--that is why I barfed within seconds of the first time I clicked there.

Bob Shaw in Phx,AZ  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

TrueKaiser, there are not too many people, but simply too high overall energy consumption. This is not the same thing.

We can only understand the role of the alternatives and renewables against the background of the overall global net energy production - the volumes and the EROEI. Basically, it is not the SUV driving Americans that are important, the world total energy is. If there were abundant, high EROEI energy other than oil available somewhere in the world, the Americans could import it (if it would be abundant and the EROEI high it would also be cheap - so no trade balance problems), make liquid fuels out of it and drive like mad (maybe we should worry for Climate Change, but not energy). But, unfortunately, there is no such energy source available.

Energy imports is no problem per se, most countries import most of their energy as they import many other things. The US never strived for autarchy.

The idea of energy independence and ideas that ethanol or some other alternative fuel could enable the Americans to keep their energy consumption level at present levels or even increase it are dangerous. They are too good to be true. The idea of energy independence or even curbing imports significantly is an old cry. All these programs have failed miserably. The reason is that nobody has not wanted to face the consequences of the very simple measures that could achieve this - tax oil heavily. This is the real test.

All energy indepedence schemes that do not envisage considerably lower consumption are doomed to fail. They only lead to the situation we have now - a try to grab the oil of others. The oil independence can mean also that the US oil companies produce oil in countries occupied by US troops and governed by US-minded puppet governments. This is of course the real "oil independence" program now. Annex Iran and Iraq and Saudi-Arbia and there will enough "domestic oil".  

> Must accept lower living standards.

I disagree with this.  One can higher living standards.

One can have REALLY good software, very high capacity & speed broadband, great tasting food, live in an interesting and beautiful neighborhood, have 5 places to buy food within 6 blocks, a couple of world class restaurants nearby and more within a streetcar ride (streetcars just a couple of blocks away).  Great music easily accessible, interesting people (and architecture) all around.

All for, say, 6 gallons/month and an average of 350 kWh/month in direct consumption.  Most goods can be brought by energy efficient rail and water trabsportation.

I live a higher quality of life than my two brothers, for 1/10th the energy consumed.

Alan from Big Easy, you count it wrong. It is not only your own direct gasoline and electricity bill that tell how much energy you use. There is also all the infrastructure, all things you buy, all the services you use, all the environment you live in, all energy you use in your job and all the company or organization that provides the job is using, all the energy the administration is using, even all the energy your government is using in the wars you pay for.

But I agree that people can live very happily in a quite low-energy environment. Personal happiness is a diffeent question. But, unfortunately, we know that a sudden drop in energy use and the economic and social disruption connected with it do make people quite unhappy. The problem is mostly the change, not the level, as long as your most basic needs are satisfied.

> It is not only your own direct gasoline and electricity bill that tell how much energy you use.

I noted this with my remark that rail (we have six Class I railroads*) and water (ocean and barge) can bring all essentials to us in energy efficient ways.  How much and how fast modal shift occurs is still an open question.

Yes, there is the larger question as well for all the "indirect" energy use.

* Union Pacific, CSX, Burlington Northern-Santa Fe, Norfolk-Southern, Canadian National, Kansas City Southern

You may not be aware, but in order to grow most of the food that you bought in those stores, a whole lot of fossil fuels is needed.  

It will be harder to live in the next 10 years mainly because most of the people have been accustomated to low endosomatic enerfy use.  Growing a garden will be applied first, then permaculture will probably get on rapidly.

Being a Cisco professional (among many other things) I can tell you that powering the whole internet infrastructure takes lot of energy.  Even Google complained about the enery cost of computing last summer.  In order to compute all the stuff they do, they need lots of power.  For that power, the liquid fossil fuels needs to be up and running.

You will probably be able to live good, but you will have to do more that just surfing on the web in order to do so.

You may not be aware, but in order to grow most of the food that you bought in those stores, a whole lot of fossil fuels is needed.

Wolfric, I am sure Alan is very aware of the fossil fuels needed to bring food to the stores. Have you read any of his posts? He is one of the best contributors to TOD...

  This is your standard of a quality life. I work three weeks on three off and enjoy traveling all over the place.  I would go crazy staying in one place for an extended period of time.  

Your examples only apply to a few metro areas.  Light rail will not satisfy the transportation demands of the countryside.  So with limited transportation someone in a small town will not have the music and architecture etc.  Fine restaurants are great but how much will a shrimp dinner cost in Idaho five years after peak?

Everyone can't live in NOLA. (but everyone should visit at least once)

> I would go crazy staying in one place for an extended period of time.

I felt the same way when I lived in Baton Rouge and Houston.  However, New Orleans has enough local diversity and distinct flavors to keep me remarkably satisfied for variety.

> Your examples only apply to a few metro areas.

Unfortunately true.  When in Phoenix, I sometimes wonder what "could have been".  Perhaps a series of medium size towns (~50,000) to large cities (~750,000) arranged in a ring of nodes on the Valley floor with rail connections in between and some "commercial only roads" between.  Each community set up on walkable, people orientated basis around each intercity rail node and an urban circulator rail system.  Human scale, multistory housing for most with community green space (yes irrigated, but limited).  Bicycles quite common, Golf carts more common than automobiles for movement within the local city.  Farm land and undeveloped desert outside each city or town, seperating each one.  Far less pollution than today.  Each city or town could have somewhat different demographics and architecture and resulting individual character.

In Europe, light rail does serve many small towns, but in areas with higher density than some parts of the US.  I could see service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that served La Place and Gonzales and West Bank service that services a half dozen cities.

We will be VERY past Peak Oil before the US does something comparable.

> Everyone can't live in NOLA

And many want no one to live here.  Destroy the living example of an American alternative.

> (but everyone should visit at least once)

Yes, we need the money !  :-) And one can learn as well "what could be" if one wanders outside Bourbon Street and the Convention Center.

I cannot discuss the technical ins and outs of the pros and cons of ethanol. But I do suggest looking at the political benefit when asking why something happens that does not otherwise make any sense. Does it help build anyone's constituency?

I think of ethanol as above-ground mining -- mining the soil. If this stuff really takes off, it will drastically speed up the disaster brewing in bread basket (dust bowl?)

I'm trying to remember the last great scheme that was going to save the family farm ... oh yeah, everybody was going to raise ostriches and emus.

I really wish everyone in America would read Kentucky farmer-poet Wendell Berry's brilliant essays on the importance of healthy topsoil and what industrial ag is doing to this precious, irreplaceable resource.

One of the great crimes of the millenium.

Is there a link to these or must one buy a book?
Link to Wendell Berry:  http://brtom.org/wb/berry.html

There are many others, of course -- he's famous.

Problem is, I guess, he just makes too much sense for people to pay much attention to him -- though Berry has a huge following.

But following his program, you can never get "rich", and that lets out the entire Capitalist enterprise.

"I hadn't really HEARD you"

HO worded it much better above.  But we probably all need to repeat it a bit, to see if the mathematics can permiate the general consciousness:

Even if we turned all the corn grown in the US into ethanol (no more corn chips) we would only be able to fuel 17.25%() of our cars on E85 fuel.

The drive to make all cars (and gas stations) E85 ready, is pointless.

( - My math is based on your statement that if we turned 100% of the corn crop into ethanol, we would produce the equivalent of less than 15% of our annual gasoline consumption.  Take 15% ethanol expand it by the gasoline fraction in E85 (100-85)=15% and you only have 15*1.15=17.25)

thats assuming current ethanol technology from corn starch - Vinod Khosla thinks we can power all vehicles from E85 from 55 million acres only using cellulosic. This (pipe)dream? will distract many from the need to conserve and turn our fossil resources into wind and solar as much as possible.
Funny how many shells there are in this game.  Which contains the pea?

The thing to push back on with cellulosic is that there is one production plant in the world (Iogen in Canada) and if they knew how to expand it, and beat corn ethanol on price they would.

The fact that we keep building corn ethanol plants disproves that we know how to build cellulosic ethanol plants.

"As the Washington Post notes this is having a significant impact on the fortunes of Iowa farmers."

It would be interesting, as Robert suggested, to see what would happen if they powered the entire operation, from plowing to final product with ethanol.  

In any case, the "significant impact" is true of all energy producing areas, from Midland, Texas to Iowa to Russia.    

Increasing economic activity is going to be concentrated in areas with net energy surpluses.  Conversely, the farther than one is away from energy sources, the more problems that the local economy will have.   IMO, among the worst off in this regard are going to be California and the UK.

Of course, we are just talking about the "Canary in the coal mine effect."  

Worldwide, IMO, we are seeing a probable decline in net oil export capacity show up as actual shortages in places such as Thailand.   IMO, a shortfall in net exports showed up here as a decline in imports, followed by a price spike, followed by a (temporary) rebound in imports, follwed by reports of actual shortages in less wealthy oil importing countries.  Again, just the "Canary in the coal mine."

It would be interesting, as Robert suggested, to see what would happen if they powered the entire operation, from plowing to final product with ethanol.

That's when the reality would set in that they can't run the process on animal feed byproducts, which account for the majority of the portion of EROI that's >1.0. They would realize that they absolutely can't maintain the process without fossil fuels.

Note the irony of the following testimony from a Missouri farmer, lobbying for production of more fossil fuels so ethanol producers can make "cheap" ethanol:

Corn Farmer: We Need More Fossil Fuels to Make Ethanol!

Now that is textbook irony. Why not just start running the process on ethanol, if energy is being created?


Everyone, please take the time to click on the link provided by RR

"Corn Farmer: We Need More Fossil Fuels to Make Ethanol!"

It is just TOO RICH with irony to pass up!!

Below are a few short excerpts to give you an idea of the convoluted logic implicit in the whole discussion

" Lower natural gas prices in the Middle East, Asia and South America make it difficult for U.S. nitrogen fertilizer producers to compete with these countries with much lower natural gas prices to take their excess natural gas, turn it into fertilizer and undersell U.S. producers, a practice that will only become more common in the future. "

"Higher natural gas prices will also negatively impact this country's growing ethanol industry.  The second biggest cost in ethanol production - second to feedstock - is the cost of energy, generally natural gas."

"The corn industry becomes more energy efficient every year, but we still must have adequate, reliable and affordable natural gas to fuel the industry." 

Note one or two little items....the mention of South America's natural gas advantage is important because that, combined with the known better energy balance of sugar cane....gee, could that help explain the "success" of Brazil's ethanol industry?  If Brazil can produce ethanol from it's own natural gas provided fertilizer, it sure must help...(even then, you have to wonder why they wouldn't just build/buy more CNG (Compressed Natural Gas) cars and trucks and just burn the gas directly and save the horrendous soil and water destruction, and avoid slashing and burning wilderness and rain forest (which will in the end prove to have been a catastrophic mistake for all mankind and all history....there will be no reversing that idiocy)

In the testimony RR quote above, the discussion then moves to the Alaskan North Slope natural gas, reserves that are said to be HUGE by any standard, and argues for the development of that gas.  There is a problem here.  

The consumers and businesses in Canada and the U.S. are hoping for that gas to help hold down the price of nat gas in North America.  But, the tar sand industry is already licking it's chops at the prospect of getting that gas for the tar sands industry.  Without it, when the stranded gas runs out, the tar sand industry will die if they can't get it.

Now, amazingly, the ethanol industry is eyeing that same North Slope gas hungrily, and claiming if they cannot get it, they can't compete and survive.

But, if the gas stays cheap, there is no way the extremely costly infrastructure and pipeline work simply can be justified.  The importation of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) suffers from the same problem.  Cheap natural gas means they are not economically viable.  (several gas industry people have testified to exactly this in Congressional hearings, and I can get the links if needed, but most of you here already know this)  

Whether we admit it or not, tar sand and ethanol are in many ways a GTL (Gas to Liquids) fuel switching operation, but doing it the long way around in the most inefficient way possible, so that it depletes soil, water and gas all at once.

Not too many days ago, I suggested converting some summer demand for motor fuel over to gas and propane (CNG and LPG).
I was severely dressed down by several TOD posters, is in:
 "What!!  You want to use priceless valuable natural gas in transportation or recreational motoring, the gas that people need to cook and heat with!"  
"Don't you know we are peaked on gas production in North  America?"
"We are already going to be importing natural gas by way of LNG, that is not freeing us of imported fossil fuel dependance!"

Of course, all the statements by my critics are correct.  But, what they failed to notice is that THROUGH ETHANOL AND TAR SAND OIL, WE ARE ALREADY CONVERTING NATURAL GAS TO TRANSPORTATION FUEL.

We are just doing it in the most expensive, least efficient and most destructive way possible.  MY POINT:  if we are going to take the long wasteful way around to use natural gas in transportation, would it not reduce the sin against efficiency and the insult to common sense to admit it, and at least do it efficiently and cleanly by direct use of the natural gas and propane?

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImOut

Politicians and pundits don't do numbers. They are innumerate. They are completely verbal persons looking for a way to solve problems with words. They may be smart, they may be clever but they don't do numbers.
I don't think they even know within an order of magnitude what they steal. They just do it.
There are rare partial exceptions. Maybe Al Gore.
Think of a drunk as a metaphor for a politician. The drunk is only concerned about getting the next drink. He has no idea what his bar tab comes to. He has no plan for how to pay off his bar tab. He does have exquisite perceptions about how he can use which saloonkeeper/bartender/host/hostess/enabler to get the next drink. And when no one will give him a drink he will head for the next town and make new friends before making  an accounting with his creditors.
Looking for just one more drink is what ethanol or GTL or CTL is about. It doesn't matter what the EROEI is. Perceptions and another drink matter.
The engineers and the numbers crunchers have gotta convince the drunk he's visited all the bars and all the parties and all the taps are dry. The drunk don't want to hear it.
Is it possible you folks have once again forgotten that we can substitute solid fuels like pelletized biomass  for a lot of uses for natural gas (home heating, eg)?

NOT EVERYTHING HAS TO BE A LIQUID!   forget the dad-blamed ethanol witchcraft.

And not to forget that there are people like me starving to death (figuratively) when if you slipped us a few crumbs of megabucks we could be following our DNA driven desires to be making solid  biomass-fuelled tractors that would work just dandy.

So true!  All of it!  We need to preserve natural gas for heating our northern climate homes in the winter, many of which are located in the very productive farming regions.  Burning it for regional short term economic gains is an outrage! That includes using it for A/C in the south (with doors open).  Dieoff.com, here we come.
Hello Kalpa,

Here in Phx, many grocery stores do not have doors, but a thirty foot opening with air propelled drafts running ceiling to floor.  I talked to one store manager about why they did this, pointing out how much energy this took to operate during a 24 hour period.  He replied that it made the store more welcoming to customers and vastly reduced injuries and lawsuits from customers as they and their grocery carts cannot get tangled up in using the old-style automatic doors.  Here is a link illustrating the process:


But eventually, as energy costs rise, these will become obsolete too.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Well, that's the question then: Can ethanol be used in place of natural gas (methane, CH4) to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer in a practical way? Does anyone with a chemical engineering degree know the answer to this question?

Excellent point, RR.

In theory, it could be done, but not in a sustainable way. If you had to go that route, your EROI would definitely be less than 1.

What they will do, as natural gas becomes more and more expensive, is switch to coal. So, the environmentalists who embrace ethanol should recognize that CTL, which they fear, will be here before they know it. In fact, it's here now:



Can ethanol be used in place of natural gas (methane, CH4) to manufacture nitrogen fertilizer in a practical way?

Why should all the inputs come only from ethanol?
Do they use oil to manufacture everything needed in oil production?
Have you seen any plastic oil rigs?
Are the metals needed to manufacture windmills mined using battery powered machinery charged using electricity from windmills?

I think you miss the point. The ethanol producers claim excess energy is being produced. Then, they are complaining that there is a fossil fuel shortage, hampering their efforts to make more ethanol. Well, the solution is simple. Ethanol is a fuel. Just feed that fuel back into the process, add solar energy, and voila! You have a machine that just churns out energy.

It's really more a thought experiment. If excess energy is being produced, you should be able to close the loop, or almost close the loop and just crank out energy. I suspect in reality that there is next to no energy actually being produced, which is why they will always depend on fossil fuels. And if they always depend on fossil fuels, ethanol is not a sustainable solution.


To put this another way, shutting down ethanol production would result in a net increase of fossil fuels.
According to this source (at page 324):
Ammonia is the most important intermediate chemical compound used to form almost all [fertilizers ... and] Practically all ammonia is produced from methane. All carbon in the feedstock methane is converted to carbon dioxide and, as a result, two pounds of carbon dioxide are produced for every pound of ammonia.

So the answer to my question is: No, you can't use the ethanol in a paratical way to make the fertilizer for growing more ethanol. It is not a self-sustaining cycle. Assuming the price of methane heads to infinity, the price of ethanol will also converge to infinity ... (a fancy way of saying that once we run out of NG we will also have run out of ethanol).

I see now, I didn't follow the thread back far enough.
You want ammonia from corn: pyrolyze the corn stover, use this to produce hydrogen using the water-gas process, use the hydrogen to produce ammonia using the haber-bosch process. May not be very effecient but it's what I came up with based on freshman chemistry at a community college.

Oh, and seeing how we are experimenting with denying ethanol producers fossil fuels, how about we deny oil rig workers alcoholic beverages, off duty too, lets see how much oil is produced before they go on strike.

LOL --there are many alternative hallucinigens to replace lack of ethanol for oil workers. Even if you take away all smoke-able or injectable substances, one can still resort to religion or meditation for placing the mind in an altered state.
Just for fun: A quick surf shows US alcohol consumption at about eight and a half litres per adult.  Not a lot in comparision to fuel consumption.

http://earthtrends.wri.org/searchable_db/index.php?theme=4&variable_ID=1186&action=select_co untries

^^^ sorry, the above link flies through when you go from google, but wants registration form here.
I do not know on how large a scale this is possible, but fertlizer is available from other sources...when growing up, I remember seeing huge burlap sacks of bat guano that he used for fertilizer on cotton. I imagine there are quite a few other natural sources out there. Not that it's near as easy to mass produce, but there are alternatives.
You can see by this essay that higher fuel prices mean higher subsidies... a positive eroei, if it existed, would imply that as fuel prices rise, subsidies should decline...
Will the politicians realize this when oil tops 100? 200?

I know you are taking a strictly US perspective here, but I'm tired of people bashing ethanol for fuel, instead of bashing the "process" of ethanol for fuel.

I have done a little thought experiment to see what kind of EROEI I would get if I invested in a corn to ethanol setup over here. Please feel free to tell me where I have made an error:

Corn (yield/hectare): 5 tons
Anhydrous Ethanol (yield/ton): 360 liters
Diesel energy: 8400 kcal/liter

Soil preparation (machine):
Turn dirt 2 times: 40 liters diesel/hectare

100 kg/hectare urea
40 kg/hectare P2O5
100 kg/hectare K2O

Now, assuming the fertlizer was made from methane, and including the BTU value of the feedstock in the calculation,
we can use the figure of 24,700 BTU/lb urea for fertilizer, or 13,700 kcal/kg. (From Patzek berkely paper). Energy usage of rock phosphate and potash is negligible by comparison. Since I can't find exact figures I will ignore them for now. It will not significantly affect the calculation.

Planting: 1 man month/5 hectares
Harvest: 1 man month/2 hectares
Decobbing (machine): 5 liters diesel/ton

Transport from field to still:
2 tons/tractor load
1/2 liter diesel/trip

Total energy invested/hectare:
Soil preparation: 336,000 kcal
Fertilizer:   1,370,000 kcal
Planting:   6900 kcal (50% 2300 cal/day diet)
Harvesting:   17,250 kcal (50% 2300 cal/day diet)
Decobbing:   210,000 kcal
Transport: 10,500 kcal
Total:  1,950,650 kcal/hectare


1083.7 kcal / liter

16,600 BTU/gal
4386 BTU/liter


1105.3 kcal / liter

Total energy used: 2189 kcal / liter
Energy provided: 5130 kcal / liter

EROEI:   2.34:1

So, by simply adopting 3rd world production practices, ethanol from corn becomes very attractive from a fuel standpoint. The problem is not now, nor has ever been a problem with the idea.

Note: I have not even taken a credit for the DDGS which I am producing, as is done in all the other papers. I would likely get an EROEI of more than 4 in this case. There is also the energy from the cob which can be used to offset the distillation energy, or else composted and used to offset the fertilizer input.

Please attack the inefficiencies of industrial agriculture in the US when framing your arguments, and not the idea of  corn ethanol itself.

As I have shown above, corn ethanol done properly is very net positive in terms of energy return, and it will provide a wonderful source of energy for developing countries.

Once the US begins its inevitable decline in wages and comes more in line with developing world economies, ethanol production in the US will become a very good idea as well. You simply have to abandon the idea that $200k machines are going to be doing the work which people should be doing.

Useful contribution, AsianFarmer.  Thanks!  

It would be interesting to run the same calculation for a target of pelletized biomass rather than ethanol.  And of course use the biomass for fuel in the machines, instead of diesel.

And of course, as a former farm worker in my youth, I am hoping those field workers are properly compensated with appropriate rewards of the things that make life happy, rather than being the slave I was.

One small quibble.  It would be ideal to use consistent units thruout, preferably SI (megajoules/kg, and so on).


Excellent post and perspective on the renewable fuels debate.  I live in Iowa and see the ramp up of biofuels.  I also know from reading TOD that these fuels will not replace current liquid fuels consuption for the entire nation.  I also keep posting here that that is not the point.

My father grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression.  At that time they used horses and no man made fertilizers.  They used open pollinated corn varieties with animal manure and got yields well over 100 bushels per acre in the 1930's.  Right around WWII they were pretty much forced to switch to nitrogen fertilizers and mechanize.  Yields initially went through the roof but came back down after 3-4 years.  They literally 'burned' all the surplus and biological diversity out of their soils.  They had to sell the farm in the late 1940's after owning it and thriving since the mid 1800's.

My point is we didn't get to a highly mechanized, nitrogen fertilizer, hybrid corn, fence row to fence row production system over night.  Unwinding that approach to a complex farming system is going to take a long time as well.  As rightfully stated above Iowa has gone from a huge energy importer to almost a net energy exporter in just a couple of years.  Kind of like Texas did after oil was discovered.  This helps our economy and ultimately allows investment into more sustaneable energy approaches than conversion of corn to liquid fuel.

As we approach peak someone has got to look for practical solutions.  Posters here can find the faults with ethanol and biodiesel but at least an infrastructure to make energy from biomass is being built in Iowa.  It will still be here when energy gets really, really expensive.  It won't satisfy the nations demand for liquid fuels, but I guarantee that it will supply the needs of all the people in Iowa.  We are a low population state.  All we have to do is use less energy than today.  We will have a surplus of energy for our population even at modest 1.5-3.5:1 EROI's.  Why is this a bad thing?

What are other states doing to make energy for themselves in the future?  Iowa has farmland, so crops are where people look for energy solution.  Plants convert sunlight to chemical energy forms.  It makes sense to use plants and wind in Iowa.  Sunlight can be used direct, as wind or as falling water if the terraine is right.  But what are New York and Florida and California doing to generate energy?  Is there a similar infrastructure being built to Iowa's to capture, sun, wind and water power?  Is there a massive reinvestment going on to get energy from any place other than petroleum?

We can't just sit and do nothing.  Don't fault the midwest for taking the first step even if it can be improved later.  I predict that an EROI of 2.5:1 will look golden someday when fossil fuel is scarce and expensive.  All we will have to do then is use less energy and we can have a sustainable lifestyle.  For the rest of the nation just using less energy by powering down when oil peaks doesn't solve any problems.  You still don't have enough energy.  Without alternative sources there is no target to shoot for in energy reduction.  All positive EROI solutions should be fostered not picked apart on this forum.

If all the $ being spent to produce ethanol (government subsidies, ethanol plant costs, fertilizers, land values, labor costs, natural gas, fuel, etc) in Iowa were being used to establish solar and wind energy (in Iowa), Iowa would be much better off.  What will sunlight cost ten years from now?  What will wind cost ten years from now?  What will the cost of producing a gallon of ethanol be ten years from now?
I agree and would love to see more solar in the state, we have a manufacturer here, but they produce almost exclusively for the military.  There is almost no incentive for solar on the electric utility front.  Major utilities are putting in mega wind but not mega solar.  Not enough power for them to mess with currently.  A decentralized system might work but ROI doesn't work at the current price of electricity and solar panels.  And it is very hard to get solar panels for residential grid tie systems.  Europe has bought a lot of the capacity for the next 12 months.

With respect to wind, Iowa is now in the top 3 for production.  But this data is hard to find because electric companies located out of state are setting up wind turbines here but shipping the power back to the home state so it shows up as green power for them and not Iowa.  Florida power and light comes to mind.  But there are huge, multi hundred unit, wind farms in north central and north west Iowa.  As well as individual megawatt towers in lots of small towns.

Iowa is also ramping up biodiesel which has better EROI than ethanol.  So of the big 5 possible solutions (solar, wind, hydroelectric, ethanol and biodiesel) Iowa is in 3 of the 5.  Iowa is too flat for hydroelectric, so only solar needs to be ramped up.  We also have a few experimental biodigesters and landfill gas locations.  As a total energy production Iowa is small compared to national needs, but for renewable energy production per capita it is way out ahead of the rest of the country.

http://www.awea.org/projects/ has state by state links to all capacity over 50 kW installed and planned.  

Unfortunately, actual load factors and production are not given, but assume 30% average production and you will not be far off.

BTW, Washington State & Oregon have you beat handily in renewable energy /capita.  All of those large dams :-) plus a little wind.

Idaho too and probably Montana.
If all the $ being spent to produce ethanol (government subsidies, ethanol plant costs, fertilizers, land values, labor costs, natural gas, fuel, etc) in Iowa were being used to establish solar and wind energy (in Iowa), Iowa would be much better off.

And that, of course, is exactly the point. The problem is the amount of money we are throwing at a "solution" that isn't close to being an optimal solution. There are many potential options that are both better, and less costly. Let's take a scientific approach and throw our money at the solutions that actually have a chance at sustainability.


That is why I am pushing my concepts.  A link to my "10% reduction in US oil use in 10-12 years" should be on-line tomorrow.

OK; 18 wheel diesel to diesel rail > 8:1 efficiency gain (using 2002 US data)

Electric motor (with regenerative braking) vs. Diesel-electric locomotive > 3:1 efficiency gain (perhaps 2.6, perhaps 3.1)

What is the EROEI on the energy needed to lay a second set of tracks next to an existing track, electrify both tracks and build intermodal transfer centers every 150 to 300 miles along the ROW ?

Figure useful lives of 30 years for electrification, 25 years for steel rails, 40 years for concrete ties, 30 years for intermodal centers.

There will be a large delta in energy for 18 wheel trucks vs. electric railroads.  Amortize the energy costs of building better electric railroads over the lifetime savings of these better railroads and 1000:1 EROEI may be modest IF they attract a good % of truck traffic.

What is the EROEI for building (as a good example of Urban Rail) the 103 miles on Miami MetroRail ?  

Today, 90% are within 3 miles of a proposed station, over half within 2 miles.  Development is already clustering near stations (I saw 15 of 23 building cranes in 2004 were within 3 blocks of a Metro station) so these numbers will jump when completed.  Lets say 20% of the population lives within 4 blocks of a station then.

Concrete supports should last 100+ years, steel rail & ties 40 years, railcars 30 years.  Station accoutrements (benches, ticket machines) a decade.

Figure 1 billion gallons of fuel saved a year (Fallacy, Miami may not have a billion gallons to use for all activities in a decade or three) but lets use that # anyway.

What is the EROEI ?  How long will it take for the energy saved to = the energy invested ? (5 months to a year is my SWAG).

Quite on point, Robert.
Pushing your car down the road instead of cranking it up and driving is a solution, too, but not a very good one.
That is the basic problem with the whole ethanol shell game...it's just a 'con', in the literal sense of the word, a confidence racket, doing exactly what it is set up to do: Bilk billions of dollars from taxpayers and line the pockets of ADM and Cargill with them. It is at this that it is most effective.
A massive waste of resources that could have been better utilized in a more meaningful way, such as restoring the pathetic excuse for rail system the US has left.
NC -

While I can understand the desire to "just do something", I think it is also true that a bad solution can be more harmful than no solution. And I think the greatest source of potential harm in the corn-to-ethanol and biodiesel routes is the inherent conflict between food and fuel.  This may not matter much when there are large crop surpluses, but there is not guarantee that such a situation will last indefinitely, particularly  with the volatile climate we're beginning to experience.

The other thing I have a problem with is this notion of considering  energy production and consumption of a state-by-state basis. We sometimes lose sight of the fact that in a certain sense a "state" has no physical reality, for it is really just a political abstraction and some lines drawn on a map. Plus the massive movement of people and commerce between states further lessens the importance of looking at certain things on a state-by-state basis. So what if Texas and Louisiana (and maybe in the near future Iowa) are net energy exporters while Delaware and Connecticut are net importers?

This is somewhat analogous to environmental data.  I have seen many of the distortions created by collecting and analyzing wastewater discharges, air emissions, and hazardous waste generation on a state-by-state basis. (A smokestack 100 ft inside the Delaware/Pennsyvania border is 'Delaware air pollution", while a smokestack 100 ft on the other side is "Pennsylvania air pollution." ) Analyzing energy generation and consumption on a state-by-state basis leads to the same sort of distortions and I see little value in it.  

This may not matter much when there are large crop surpluses, but there is not guarantee that such a situation will last indefinitely, particularly  with the volatile climate we're beginning to experience.

This is one of the reasons that I like the local ethanol and RME factories that are running and being built. They keep more local farmland in use and if there is a disaster I expect that cars will stop rather then people starve.

We will anyway not afford to finance an unused surplus, especially in an economic downturn, the alternative to producing a surplus that isent used for energy or used at all will not work.

Btw, the largest ethanol plant in Sweden use steam from a biomass combined heat and power plant burning low quality wood biomass.

I have done a little thought experiment to see what kind of EROEI I would get if I invested in a corn to ethanol setup over here. Please feel free to tell me where I have made an error:

OK, I am a bit tied up today, so I went directly for the single biggest energy cost in the entire process:

16,600 BTU/gal
4386 BTU/liter

This is the primary reason that you came up with the high EROI. So, let's look at it. We have a 1981 claim, referenced above, that claims 16,600 BTU/gal. The most recent 2004 USDA report, which surveyed actual ethanol producers, says that this step actually takes 49,733 BTU/gal. That is an enormous difference. Given that energy costs are the 2nd highest expense for ethanol producers (behind feedstock), don't you think they would actually use this 1981 process if it was actually that efficient? Ethanol producers who could slash their energy costs by this amount should dominate the market. My conclusion: The claim isn't true.

So, let's modify your calculation using the actual reported cooking/distillation usage for a state of the art ethanol plant. Instead of 16,600 BTU/gal, (1105 kcal/liter) we actually have 49,733 BTU/gal (3311 kcal/liter). This increases our energy input by 2206 kcal/liter. Now, we have total inputs of 4395 kcal/liter, and an output of 5130 kcal/liter. In one fell swoop, without scrutinizing any of the other inputs, the energy balance has been cut from 2.34 to 1.17.

This is exactly why pro-ethanol claims must be carefully scrutinized. 2.34 sounds great. These are the sorts of claims that keep this charade alive. A little bit of analysis shows that the real number is at best half that.



You make a reasonable point, but again you are jumping to conclusions where you really haven't done the math. It is the same mistake I pointed out above.

I'm not saying any figure is right or wrong, but you really peaked my interest with this and I just spent an hour looking for information. I found many people quote 33k BTU, and of course your figure above is even more than this, but nobody justifies these numbers. So I can't make a conclusive decision. However...

Let's look at some math. In a perfectly efficient world, it would take only 180 kcal/liter to distill ethanol from a 25 degree base temperature. This comes from a boiling point of 78, specific heat of 2.4 kJ/kg, and heat of vaporization of 838 kJ/kg. This neglects the final dessication step, but in my small setup where I can wait a day, my energy usage here is very small.

Of course, no heat exchangers are 100% efficient, so we know this figure is bunk, but it does give us a physical starting point.

You immediately discount the BTU's claimed in the journeytoforever site. You may be correct. I have not built the still. However, your reasoning is flawed. It may very well be possible to do this, but not economical on an industrial scale.

Example: I can build a car that gets 170 mpg by ignoring safety requirements of the US and specifying a maximum top speed of around 20 mph. This has actually been accomplished. By your reasoning, car makers would be jumping all over to build this car. Well...not really. They have to worry about safety specs, and they have to build things that go alot faster than this because of commercial demands.

I would be more inclined to accept your conclusion if that USDA report looked at only small farm scale distillation facilities. Large facilties need process rates that require larger energy expenditures. They are focused on profit, not EROEI. It simply may not be profitable for them to operate more efficiently but slower.

1105 kcal/liter is still way below 100% efficiency, and therefore is a completely believable number. There are sound reasons why an industrial company may not be interested in achieving this same efficiency.

You may be correct when you say the figure is not realistic, but simply stating that it is impossible because a commercial manufacturer doesn't do it is not sufficient. The paper is actually quite detailed in where this number comes from. I wouldn't discount it out of hand.

One thing I've learned over the years. Doing things smaller often increases efficiency. Bigger only helps with economics.

if you can find eough waste heat somewhere, maybe you have a chance of making a small scale system work.

other than that, i'd say contact suppliers of existing plants, get a list of their customers, and go visit them.  ask to see the gas bills.  if you are really going to get into this $eriously, that is due dilligence.

Boiling alcohol seems like an ideal solar process use.  Capital requirements could be small, especially if done seasonally.  Of course, zero current ethanol plants plan to do this.

In a bit of fancy, ship (via wind turbine generated electric rail) wet ethanol to Phoenix in the summer months.  Design special black tank cars with vapor capture and much of the work would be done before delivery :-)  Place rest on black coated galvanized steel under glass.

Bad math follows ...

A calorie is the energy required to raise 1 gm water (ml) by 1 calorie.  Start with a gallon (3,785 ml) of "mash" at 72oF and heat it to that azeotrope temperature of 172.67oF, 100oF increase or 38oC.  3,785 x 38 = 143,830 calories.

Now, how fast to boil it?  I need to figure out the average size of an ethanol plant.  There are 97 ethanol plants across the country. The plants have a production capacity of 4.5 billion gallons a year (link).  Average = 127,100 gal/day

143,830 calories/gal x 127,100 gal/day is 18,280,892,529 calories/day or 76,596,939,698 joules/day or 21,277 kWh/day

Assuming 6.5 kWh/m2 per day and 100% efficiency ... you need 3273 m2 collection.

Hmmm.  Is that a lot?

57.21 m on a side, doable for a simple glass covered collector.

More likely is a 10,000 m2 collector (10 m x 1 km) with a seasonal assist from burning something.

I wonder about black covered rail tank car that spends several weeks in transit.  Fumes from front of tank are collected and condensed and then put into tank (seperated from front tank by movable bladder).  Three weeks in the summer, how much alcohol would distill ?

Remember the above assumes 100% efficiency, start to end.  That means 100% of the solar energy heats the mash, and 0% is lost as waste heat.  A flat collector might have the easiest design for solar input, but at 170+ F it might lose something to the surroundings.

Maybe a chem eng has a handy guess for total efficiency on such a plant.  I'd guess that a solar furnace arrangement would concentrate the energy nicely ... interesting to see how big a 1MW solar furnace really is:


Be generous and say 5 hours of full power, 5,000 kWh / day, need about 5 of them?

170F is not required.  150F for a significantly longer time will do as well (think of water at 195F.  How long till it evaporates ?).

The large surface area allows plenty of process time if one goes that way.

One result may be a hot watery mixture/mash that still has significant ethanol left.  Extracting that last bit may require supplemental heat.

Has anyone done a low power slow ethanol production plant?

I know solar stills that work on this principle are pretty slow ....

In temperate climates, the Rainmaker 550 produces up to 1.5 gallons (six liters) per day in the summer, and approximately half that in the winter months. Thermal efficiency (60%) is equivalent to about 550 Watts when operated in full sunlight. Production is about 0.8 liters per sun hour (kWh/m2).

Technical Specifications
Size: 76 cm (30") x 122 cm (48")
Area: 0.93 m2 (10 ft2)
Weight: 26.4 kg (58 lbs)


That's 1.5g from 10 ft2 or 0.15g per each ft2

For that average 127,100 gal/day plant, you only need ...

127,100 gal/day / .15 gal/ft2 = 847,333 ft2 ?

Not to mention that we are trying to achieve separation, and i'm not too sure that the relative evaporation rates of water and ethanol will achieve that.
Numbers were taken from Ted Trainer's article mentioned above.

PV Cell are efficient at 13% for a square meter
Trainer then substract some losses for transportation (transmission), conversion and AC/DC conversion yielding to a 10,27% efficiency.  We can get some % from getting the PV near the production facility.

Assume 11% efficiency per square meter.

PV cell energy production is 4,25 kWh/sqm according to Trainer.  Having a dad who sell and implement PV Cell, this number is very high, output around 3 kWh/sqm is quite normal.  So we will use 3,5 kWh as a figure.

Energy needed : 21,227 kWh/day

Energy needed before losses : 21,227 * 11% = 233 497 kWh/day

Collecting surface : 233 497 kWh / 3,5 kWh/sqm = 66 713 sqm

Assuming you can get a wholesale price at 450 $US per sqm for PV cells

Balance of System (BOS) cost are roughly double the PV cost. So we can put forward a 900 $US cost. Since most of the BOS is made of Aluminium, copper and steel and the first study was made in 2003, you have to assume that BOS cost are at least tripple because of increases in commodity prices.  So we have a BOS 2 700$

Overall base cost : 3 150 $US/sqm * 66 713 = 210 million$

If you take for granted that the lifetime for PV panel is about 12 to 15 years (Taken from real life installations) we can use 15 years just to be ok.

210 million / 15 years / 365 days = 2 667$

Thats only for one ethanol plant.  You also have to add maintenance, extended cloudy periods, performance loss over time, overall performance losses. Maybe at least a 30% increase on that account, ammounting to 5 000$ a day

For a comparison, my own electricity bill is only 0.0683 $Can  /kWh.  I live in Quebec and I know that in average cost woulb be twice that in US.  It's only a figure, I dont know the cost for directly heating an ethanol plan.

cost for generating the needed power (home prices) :

21 227 kWh/day * 0.12 US$ = 2 547$/day

You can certainly put the price much lower because they use direct heating.

That is only for the heating part of the process.

Because oil and gas depletion will continue to raise the price of everything used for growing the corn, the overall price will only go up and never be less costly than the actual gasoline price.

And for other readers, can we put a ethanol iznogood link to some ethanol debunking website?  I can put together some material to do that.

If you take for granted that the lifetime for PV panel is about 12 to 15 years (Taken from real life installations) we can use 15 years just to be ok.
210 million / 15 years / 365 days = 2 667$
Thats only for one ethanol plant.

Errr, WHY the converstion from photon to watts to heat?

Why not use evacuated tubes and just go from photons to heat?

ethanol iznogood link to some ethanol debunking website?

Using PV?  It would make ya look silly.   Using evacuated tubes at the farm house level, its a fine plan to add value to crops.

A very minor point, you should be using the values of the the azeotrope of 95% alcohol rather than the ethanol tables.  It will make no difference in your conclusions and affect only the second digit of your calculations.

You make a reasonable point, but again you are jumping to conclusions where you really haven't done the math. It is the same mistake I pointed out above.

First of all, I haven't done "what math"? I showed that by using actual figures for state of the art ethanol plants, the distillation number is far higher than what you quoted.

I'm not saying any figure is right or wrong, but you really peaked my interest with this and I just spent an hour looking for information. I found many people quote 33k BTU, and of course your figure above is even more than this, but nobody justifies these numbers.

But I did justify the number. I pointed out that it came from an actual survey of ethanol producers. From the USDA's 2004 report:

Ethanol production facilities include both dry- and wet- milling operations. The energy used to convert corn to ethanol is based on a U.S. survey conducted in 2001
by BBI International. On the average, dry mill ethanol plants used 1.09 Kwh of
electricity and about 34,700 Btu of thermal energy (LHV) per gallon of ethanol. When
energy losses to produce electricity and natural gas were taken into account, the average
dry mill ethanol plant consumed about 47,116 Btu of primary energy per gallon of
ethanol produced. Wet mill ethanol plants that participated in the survey used 49,208 Btu per gallon of natural gas and coal, on average, to produce steam and electricity in the
plants. After adjustments for energy losses to produce natural gas and coal, on the
average, a wet mill ethanol plant used 52,349 Btu of energy to make a gallon of ethanol.

The weighted average was 49,733 BTU/gal.

Let's look at some math. In a perfectly efficient world, it would take only 180 kcal/liter to distill ethanol from a 25 degree base temperature. This comes from a boiling point of 78, specific heat of 2.4 kJ/kg, and heat of vaporization of 838 kJ/kg.

Is this what you call "doing the math"? First of all, let's look at your starting assumption. You assume you are boiling ethanol. Yet the feed solution is at best 15% ethanol and 85% water. So, you are boiling mostly water. It takes a lot more energy to boil water than to boil ethanol.

I can build a car that gets 170 mpg by ignoring safety requirements of the US and specifying a maximum top speed of around 20 mph. This has actually been accomplished.

But, you know why the car is not actually practical on a large scale. In the example with the Butterfield still, what you have suggested is that we do have a car that gets 170 mpg. Yet for some reason, nobody is using it. The burden is then on you to figure out why that is, given that I have provided actual numbers for ethanol manufacturers. He who asserts must support his argument. What you are asserting is that there is a much, much more efficient way, it's just that it is being ignored for some reason.


Once again, Robert gets to the meat of the matter.
Exceptional claims must have exceptional proof.
I can claim I can power an automobile with water.
Yet we all know how that turns out:
No physical evidence.

As Odograph says, contacting any existing plant will give you some actual numbers, or a some research (as Robert did) will give you referenceable numbers.

Surfing now I see that water issues are also coming up in the real world.  Googling "ethanol plant 'gallons per day'" I got a lot of water gallons per day:


Do you happen to know (1) if they distill under vacuum, and how that changes the true-life energy, and (2) how they go beyond the azeotrope and how energy-intensive that step is?

(I think using bottom line numbers from real plants is the answer, but I'm  curious.)

1. a vacuum requires energy too, you have to run a pump of some kind to suck out air. Not sure how much that would improve efficiency -- note that you need something cold enough to condense the vapor. Refrigeration?

2. There are a couple techniques used around the laboratory, but they probably don't scale to industrial processes. You can mix benzene with the water/alcohol and distill the three component system for the benzene-ethanol azeotrope. The benzene azeotrope will naturally separate because it is not fully miscible with ethanol. The other way I recall is to use anhydrite (calcium sulfate which has had the water of crystallization driven off) to absorb water from the ethanol mix.

Benzene is a wicked carcinogen, ne?
But I did justify the number. I pointed out that it came from an actual survey of ethanol producers.

I haven't found any reference from the USDA which actually goes through the math of where this BTU figure comes from in anywhere close to the detail the journeytoforever site does. If you have more information, please point it out. Commercial factories optimize monetary ROI, not EROEI. There is a difference. I only assumed 360 liters per ton of corn, not 398 as a commercial plant would try and achieve. If you want me to accept this reference as definitive, you need to provide further justification.

You assume you are boiling ethanol. Yet the feed solution is at best 15% ethanol and 85% water. So, you are boiling mostly water.

You clearly missed the point. I assumed a 100% efficient heat exchanger, which I later said was not realistic. Whether you start with 1% or 99% is irrelevant. A 100% efficient heat exchanger perfectly transfers the heat from the effluent to the incoming water. You have a particular mass at 25 degrees coming in, and a particular mass at 25 degress coming out. Only the ethanol which you evaporated is relevant.

Again, keep in mind this still was actually built in Paso Robles, CA. in 1981. Why current commercial enterprises don't emulate it I can only guess, but I suspect the real reason is that they are optimizing money and not energy. I submit to you again, please criticize the current methods used to produce corn ethanol, and not the idea of corn ethanol itself.

The required distillation energy does depend a lot on how much money you spend on recuperating the process heat.
Westexas: You are probably aware of the following info but I will present it anyway. Re your future bidding war for declining oil imports, I went to the CIA Factbook and divided a country's GDP by the country's oil imports in barrels ( a shorthand proxy for the country's ability to compete in a bidding war).Results (largest 12 economies ranked from worst to first in a bidding war)Note: No info available for Brazil-I think they have zero oil imports so they would be ranked #1 if this is the case.


My point is that the USA would be hard pressed to win a bidding war as the country/economy does not have enough money to compete against,e.g.China or India in a bidding war for marginal imported barrels.

I am not sure that basing current GDP divided by current imports is a conclusive argument that these nations rated at the top are in any better shape than others.  GDP and oil consumption will both change very fast if a serious recessionn/fuels crisis hits.

If the U.S. and other Asian customers of China drop into  even a mild recession, China's GDP will drop like a stone, and this is extremely important, because China is an export based economy.

What infrastructure and fuel they are importing is used to drive the exports.
The same goes for India.

Several surprises were in the rankings based on your way of counting:

Brazil?  Is that an endorsement of the ethanol economy?  Just kidding, because we know that Brazil is able to resist oil importation due to their home resources of crude oil and natural gas, much more than because of the ethanol (despite what "60 Minutes" says...).  How much do they have left?

That Germany or even more so the UK would rank anywhere near the front of the list is astounding.  With the decline of the North Sea, UK is set to become a massive importer of oil and gas very soon.  They do not have the military to police trading routes, and are already pretty lean on the consuption side compared to the U.S.  They simply have no where to turn given the complete missed guess on North Sea production, and they need to turn FAST.
I personally am using the United Kingdom as the "canary in the mine".  

Germany??  (!!)  A nation that survives by export markets, so in no better shape than China and India when recession hits, and high value added export at that, so they are the first to suffer in a world slowdown.  How many Porsches, Bimmers and Benzes can you sell in a fuel starved world recession?

What we should also not discount is natural gas and gas associated production.  YES, I know that North America  for now seems to be peaked on production, and but that DOES NOT MEAN WE ARE OUT.

Despite the narrow thinking of many Americans, business is already seeing the nat gas/Propane switch as doable.  What they wish is that people like me would not keep mentioning it, so the country at large will not try to make the switch and drive up the price  (they have no fear if I post here though, TOD's posters seem rabidly anti- gas/propane, so there is little danger of them trying the switch, and most motorists do not even believe a car can be run on nat gas or propane  (this explains what T. Boone Pickens meant when he said recently that he was surprised the CNG switch had not began 15 years ago, such is the lack of knowledge of the American people, most still have not even heard of it as an option)

If we take the natural gas resource in, that certainly bodes MUCH better for Canada, if they don't waste it all on tar sand, and bodes a bit better for us, if we can use solar hot water and better insulation in homes, distributed generation in business and geothermal heat pumps to reduce natural gas consumption, we can free up a lot of gas  (and if the winters keep staying warm and the summer mild....we could be buried in the stuff  (weather has huge impact on natural gas consumption, but of course, the other side of that blade is the hurricanes :-(

France, the high speed rail and good trains combined with nuclear assist them greatly, but the motor fuel for what cars try to run is still a problem.

Brief side note there:  If "plug hybrid" or "grid based" transportation will work at all, France is the place to try it, it is perfect, lots of electric rail, nuclear provided power, and a country that's not to big to make it doable....they actually could be in good shape in the future.

The U.S.  Still lots of gas, still produces a fair amount of crude oil, bio Diesel a possibility (I agree with RR that it is a much better choice than ethanol, if folks will drive Diesel cars!), lots of waste, which is bad, but gives us the ability to cut demand A LOT, if the will and the design is put to use....but....

alas, back where we started :-(

Roger Conner  ThatsItImout

Roger: You're right- this one ratio does not take into account changing future circumstances (for example in the UK). One point re China- it is already the #2 consumer market (by country).  

Your thesis makes for a darned interesting starting place, though....

If we could work in some more of the variables, we could maybe build a workable model for what could be "Overall Fuel Security in the event of massive supply demand disruption" or some similiar model...
(there's a project for our math and graph techies here on TOD, who better to attempt it!  :-)

If we extend that logic, it may be possible to persuade the "green hawks" (of the http://www.setamericafree.org  type to redouble the effort on efficiency, alternatives, and energy diversity, and make it marketable to the more "conservative" leaning crowd.

I have tried to think my way through the nations to see which ones would be most stable and least impacted if a true "fast cliff" peak were to happen NOW.

Australia comes to mind, if it can keep the invaders/thieves out...a fair amount of natural gas, great climate, low population compared to the resource base, lots of sun and lots of room for wind, and enough distance from everyone to maybe dodge the above mentioned thieves/invaders.

If not for it's close proximity to the U.S., Canada would be way up there, but it's cold climate makes a sudden cutoff of fuel a real life threatening danger.
(But, tons of timber, low population, still a lot of gas left, IF they don't waste it on the tar sands idiocy)

Note that both of these nations are not "export driven" economies in the same way that China, India, South Korea, and Japan are, and thus a big drop in world economies would not stop their money flow overnight.

Now, I am going to say something that is sure to be very unpopular here on TOD, going by other posts I have read, but this is just my reading of the world situation:
The United States is not in nearly as bad a shape comparatively as some would believe.

People forget that we still produce about 45% of our own crude oil and about 85% of our natural gas.

 It is our waste that is killing us.  With the willingness to conserve any at all, we could move the "crisis" point a great deal.

What we do have on our side is (a) a massive home market not completely relient on exports (b) one of the best technical education systems in the world, and an enviable variety of applied engineering shops, firms, and a technical and management class that knows how to use them IF there is a possibility of return on investment.  

On the economic/monetary side, we still carry a lot of debt.  However, many other nations carry more per GDP.  We could easily, if we had to, sustain an interest rate twice what it is now, and draw even more foreign investment.  This would probably set off a recession of at least some magnitude, but we have shown we can sustain recessions (the horrendous 1979 to 1982 recession as example) but we would want to make the investments with any money we recieved from investors at home or abroad very wisely, in reducing our waste and restructuring our system to run very lean.  I know, the odds are not great on that one....)

But we are back to where we were:  IT'S THE WASTE THAT IS KILLING US.
We simply cannot hope to come out well IF no business/governmental/intellectual group will not come out and be honest with the American people about this:  We must get lean, we must waste less (and there are many ways to do that without "destroying" peoples lives..[trying to convince people to change through surrender will not work, and this is where I most fault the "doom" wing of the Peak oil aware....what we must persuade the public of is that life will get BETTER with improved efficiency and less waste, not worse.  I repeat, the "surrender to doom" argument simply will not be accepted, folks will say, "bring it on then, we might as well find out.  If you ask me to save EVERYTHING by giving up EVERYTHING, where is the logic?  It is exactly like the General in the Vietnam War who said, "sometimes you have to destroy a village to save it."  Compare to:  "you must give up your lifestyle, your dreams, your wealth, your freedom to travel, your hope for your children's future....to save.....??? what?}

Note to close with:  note that I did leave out a big factor that the American nation has, whether we think the current use of it is correct and defensible or not:  American military power.  It is a very big factor and does give us leverage if we are careful in how we apply it.  Let's admit it:  It cost us a FORTUNE.  It should buy us some kind of leverage.  I know it's not popular to talk about, but it is there.

Roger Conner known to you as ThatsItImout

Personally, I think the problem is deeper than simply calling it 'waste' - but that is truly the core point. Though not a doomer in the sense you mean, I don't think America is capable of change in the sense you are believe in. Waste is America, at least in the sense of the society I was born into and grew up with.  

Waste, by any reasonable definition, is the foundation of America's current social, economic, and political system. America is a positive feedback machine on a grand scale, and again, it will become clear why no decent designer ever builds a positive feedback system.

A tiny example as illustration - reusable bottles for soft drinks and milk had essentially disappeared by the time I was 10, replaced by throw away glass bottles, which rapidly developed such innovations as thin foam labels. In essentially all ways, the throw away glass bottles (later, plastic, Tetrapak, etc.) were 'better' - more people employed making those bottles, more industries selling more raw materials/finished goods, increased tax revenues from the increased activity, more marketing games to be played with easily changed packaging, convenience in simply tossing container after one use, and so on. The only thing is, the one element which is 'real' - raw materials and energy - were being 'wasted' on a grand scale, for what most everyone saw as being to their tangible, immediate benefit. There is really no reason in virtually any American eyes to bring back such an outmoded system of reusable containers, which actually entail dealing with the results of one's consumption. As for the resistance of the throw away industry - take it as a given, especially since they are a well integrated part of the social/power/economic system, and any attempt to cut them off will be fiercely attacked - and since they provide more tangible benefits to more people in terms those people consider important, any attempt to cut down such waste, which necessarily leads to a certain reduction of economic activity, is already in a losing position. (At most, local initiatives at a local level, fueled by local concerns, can have even a chance at a short term reversal of such hugely dominating frameworks in the U.S.) The throw away industry, spun out by America's positive feedback system, is a very simple example of waste becoming integral to a certain, quite measurable part of America's economic well being, in terms which almost all Americans consider valid.

Personally, I think the system in America will shatter before it begins to voluntarily dismantle even pieces of itself (GM's current 'big SUVs will save us' plan is example 1). Certainly, that has been my observations from 1975 to 2005. Of course, past performance is no guarantee of future performance - but it tends to be the way to bet in the real world. Maybe another way to put it is that the system seems to consider any attempt to dismantle pieces of itself as a sign of shattering, which must be instinctively resisted as strongly (and blindly) as possible.

Historically, having a large standing military is a game that losers play - a fact very well recognized by America's founders, who want to make sure that they and their posterity, sharing in the benefits of liberty, would never be burdened with such. Of course, all dreams end.

Excellent post and I couldn't agree more.  However, all of these efforts, e.g., conservation, waste reduction and altenative fuels, while noble, are an attempt to maintain the status quo. What is needed is a new social and economic paradigm but it seems like only a few of us are pushing that idea here.
"note that I did leave out a big factor that the American nation has ... American military power."

I believe this is the central tenet of The Project for the New American Century (PNAC). The use of American military might to secure whatever the US reckons it needs to secure, wherever it needs securing. While it may be unpalatable to talk about, it is happening right now.

To some extant, we know PNAC is working. Putin's recent defence spending announcements make clear the arm's race is back on. Right now, of the major nuclear powers the US perceives as a threat, neither China nor Russia are in a position to go head to head with the US. It is widely believed that Russia is in far worse nuclear shape than China, and with the vast Chinese army sitting on its doorstep, is beefing up for that threat as well.

Thus the action today is all by proxy. In a direct confrontation, both Russia and China might fare far less well than the US. Both China and Russia will want this proxy situation to continue for as long as possible while they build a capability they feel is consistent with the threat they perceive.

The US has the capability to secure and maintain Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan. I believe, given American military might, she could secure and maintain much more as well. Excursions into the Monroe Doctrine playground might just be in a not too distant future.

The downside to all this will be what happens domestically. At some point the electorate will have to buy into PNAC, or the administration will have to pursue other means to achieve its agenda. If it were me, I'd be ware of conscription, as a start. I'd also be ware of increasingly draconian legislation, both by Congress and by administrative law (Yeah, there's this whole other nether world of law which is enacted not by the legislature and is not subject to the same judicial review.). The Patriot Act has gone a long way to destroying Habeas Corpus and friends.

I don't think much of this will matter in the longer term. As long as the US (and the rest of us, really), are in the position of having to secure resources that don't belong to us in order to maintain the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed, it is more than likely we'll be living in increasingly totalitarian nation-states.

If one is looking to their respective government to deal with the problem, they might as well think again. Ultimately change will come from the bottom up. Those aware of the issues, whatever they may be, have a much better chance than those, like the vast majority, who come to it late, don't understand it, and will turn to their "leaders" for answers. I don't imagine they'll like the answers very much.

Roger: You make good points. You're right- the "surrender to doom" argument is never going to sell.
I can't quite agree on the German exporting thesis - most Americans tend to see German exports in terms of cars, which is certainly true enough, but a lot of German exports are high quality machinery/materials - things like high efficiency turbines or windmills, for example.

And the market for Porsches (fairly small) is likely a very secure one for the next decade or two - being at the top of a pyramid is a plus, and that is where Porsche and its customers live. And Mercedes may suffer in the car business, but its bus division is likely to see some serious growth.

What is beyond question is that the world will look different as liquid fossil fuel peak, and there will be very few winners, and a huge number of losers.

But notice a couple of other things in connection with Germany and peak oil - notice the names of the people whose various processes are being discussed now, and look up Germany's absolute position in terms of worldwide coal reserves, or how 'industrial' German agriculture is (hint - by American standards, not really) - Germany is not really in that bad a position for an industrial society. Especially when you consider how very few self-respecting Russian energy czars would be caught dead without at least a couple of Mercedes at home.

'I personally am using the United Kingdom as the "canary in the mine"'

That is the conclusion I came to. If you want to see what will happen in the US, just keep an eye on the UK. Our situation is strikingly similar to yours.

Our NS is your Lower 48. Our credit card debt is the highest in Europe. Our consumer spending has been fuelled by mortgage debt (Re-mortgaging to recover the equity as liquidity and then spending it.). We too are in the midst of a housing bubble. Prices continue to rise, although there are some observers who say buyers are becoming less numerous. Funnily enough, there is a growing rabble extorting buyers to get in now as the market is in a long term boom.

As for energy, if electricity demand remains flat, we'll still have a 15% shortfall by 2012 as the bulk of our nuclear plants are decommissioned. We'll also face the spectre of uneven gas supply, which accounts for 40% of electricity generation and most home heating. At this point, while Blair has put nuclear back in play, we'll still need to do something to accommodate both of these circumstances. I predict we'll see a substantial coal renaissance.

Blair is facing growing discontent, both with the electorate and within his own party, not unlike Bush. Unsavoury revelations are near daily occurrences as is the growing number of scandals coming to light.

And probably the real kicker, unlike the US, the UK is relatively resource poor. And we have a rather high population density. Think a place the size of California that is home to a population of more than 60 million.

All in all, whatever happens come PO, or global economic meltdown, or even more participation in war, conventional or otherwise, I think America has a lot going for it and definitely has the capacity to survive even the worst of these scenarios in much better shape than most of the rest of us. Whether they choose to do so is another matter.

I disagree with several of your points.

The monies that the oil exporters nations get will not suddenly evaporate.  Some will be invested (H'mmm T-Bills from the US, Germany or France ?  Which is a better investment ?) but most will be spent.  And a good assumption is that the patterns of importation will not be greatly changed as oil prices spiral upward.  (Although China is AGGRESSIVELY seeking new markest in oil exporting nations).

Germany is the world's largest goods exporter.  There will be demand for their medical goods, machine tools, chemical processing equipment, etc. from the oil exporters as well as consumer goods.

Also, there is price elasticity of demand for oil in Germany & France, but not the US.  Their demand for gasoline is down 6%, ours about 0%.

France is building a tram line in every city (that voted correctly) of 250,000 or larger, two in cities above a half million.  England just killed a couple of plans that were well along in Leeds and ?.  Almost every German city of any size already has trams.  Thus the elasticity of demand.

New Urban rail lines in the US are about equal to those in France (US a bit less SWAG), but France has 1/6th the population.

Oil use today is MUCH less important than oil use tomorrow, post-Peak.  They can easily use less (see recent -6%), we cannot in the short term without a recession.

It is also worth pointing out that in Germany, all those city tram and bus lines are integrated into the German (and thus European) rail system. That is, you can buy a ticket from street address A to street address B - regardless of which transit companies are involved, and where the street addresses are, assuming a town larger than a few hundred people, at least. And you might have to walk a kilometer or two.

Or, at least in the case of Karlsruhe and its region, dual electric (city and rail system) streetcars are replacing trains on many routes - these long haul streetcars drive through a city center, then use the rail network to reach the next city an hour away. At this point, I believe some of these streetcars take somewhere around 3-4 hours to simply go from the farthest start point to the final stop - Freudenstadt to Heilbronn. This is why they are expanding the Karlsruhe KVV streetcar parking area - they need a lot of streetcars at this point, and to get the space, they actually tore up some of the old dead-end regional tracks next to the Hauptbahnhof.

And as part of that 6% decline in fuel use - the train I use seems to have certainly undergone a 6% increase in passengers. For most Germans, taking the train (or bicycle - at least two people I know commute with bike the roughly 20 kilometers for 8 months a year) compared to driving is an economic decision, not one based on absolute need to drive to maintain their current existence. A tiny example here too - every town wants to make sure there is shopping within walking distance of its citizens - it is considered part of the basic responsibility government is designed to handle.

My view remains that infrastructure (generally transportation - but then electricity is mainly about transportation too, except in the case of already existing hydro-electric) is where peak oil will make or break various societies. This makes me a pessimist in terms of America, but good luck anyways.

Steel production to make GTL, CTL, etc, is also important. Move Japan way, way, up.
Willis: This simple ratio (GDP/Oil imports) has Japan at the bottom, but you are right in that Japan's technological prowess cannot be underestimated. Also, Japan's incredible social cohesion give it a major advantage over countries such as the USA in  a post-peak environment.
A second observation is that the top 5 countries positioned to compete in a bidding war are all 3rd/2nd world countries.
The ratio of income to oil imports and the ratio of disposable income to oil imports are two different things.  What matters is how much economic output each additional barrel of oil can create.
Why the emphasis on disposable income and not income?
Are you splitting hairs here? China has 2.7 times the GDP per barrel of imported oil (compared to the USA).
No.  Brazil has a huge GDP per imported barrel because they have almost no imports.  You could get the same kind of result for an economy so poor that it imports almost no oil.  What's important is the output created by the marginal barrel of oil, not the average one.
"IMO, among the worst off in this regard are going to be California".

Is that because you guys in Texas plan to stop using computers, watching movies, and listening to music? Think the other energy producers aren't going to buy computers, movies, and music?

Not saying California's growth rate won't take a hit -- I'm sure it will -- but our core export competencies here are stuff people really want all over the world, which is why economic growth here has been so strong for the last 50 years. From 2002 to 2004, our average GSP growth rate was 4.5% while that of Texas was 3.2%. Even from 2000->2001, CA only lost 0.2% of GSP (not much given the prior three years of average 7.4% growth).

Source: Bureau of Economic Analysis

California has another HUGE advantage.  If oil starts to top $100 a barrel, California is where everyone will be shopping for alternatives.  Now, some can say "no alternative will work" but folks will sure as helll be willing to try them if it looks like it can save their butt!

California has done more groundbreaking work in wind, solar, electric cars, plug hybrid cars, advanced battery design, distributed generation and fuel cell and hydrogen research than any one place in the world.

California has a pool of technical talent unmatched in the world, and a population that is already becoming more and more accepting of the need to change, and willing to be the "early adapters" of new alternative and energy efficient technology.

I have a female friend who is VERY bright and aware, over 60 years old, and who spent the first half plus years of her life in California.

I have discussed alternative energy, conservation, ground coupled (geothermal) heat pumps, wind, PV solar, and electric vehicles with her, because she is familiar with them all.  When I showed her some promising energy ideas I and some fellow "amatuer techies" had worked up, she said, "What your doing is good but go to California, they will be interested....you can't give that stuff away here in coal country!"  (I am in central Kentucky)

As I said, she is very bright.  :-)

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

"Not saying California's growth rate won't take a hit -- I'm sure it will -- but our core export competencies here are stuff people really want all over the world, which is why economic growth here has been so strong for the last 50 years."

The problem I foresee for California is that it is a very large natural gas consuming region that is, like the UK, at the end of the distribution system.  In addition, it is a very high cost place to do business.  Periodic blackouts and natural gas supply disruptions are going to in effect dramatically increase the cost of doing business--even beyond the currently high rates.  

I don't think that it is a coincidence that the highest spot natural gas prices that we have seen in recent years have been in California and the UK.

I can't think of anything currently being made in California that can't be made in an area that is an energy exporter.  Of course, this is just a temporary phenomenon, which will be less of a factor as energy exporters become energy importers--if anyone is exporting.  The most logical place for a business--or any of us--to relocate to may be in an agricultural area close to windfarms.

Only 35% of my Southern California Edison power came from natural gas in 2005.
Also, for those who hadn't seen it:

Ethanol: Myths and Realities

There really wasn't much reality there, so I sent a comment that they ended up publishing. Not long after it was published, my blog got hit by a spammer attack. :^)


You've written a great Primer, Robert!
If I start with some nice round multiple of barrels of sour heavy crude (10^3, 10^6 ...), and crack half of it for ethylene, and somehow convert the other half to diesel, ammonia, roundup, and parathion in appropriate proportions; then spend a year growing corn, switchgrass or hemp; harvest, ferment, and distill as needed; then convert the ethylene into EtOH...

Well, what would be the ratio between direct-conversion and the crop which was so lovingly tended by *cough* family farmers *cough* and finally yeilded my ethanol?

At some point, there will be an interesting shakeout as the effect of global warming introduces weather issues. How are all these ethanol plants going to fare with a drought? massive storms or rain that keep crop yield low?
Using food for energy isnt going to go over very well really soon when people in the US are starving when the economic downturn starts.  Without cheap energy,  the american economy will not and cannot last. We are living an unstustainable way of life,  and it's going to become more apparent in the next couple years. People can spin it, or put bandaids on things for only so long,  but you cant polish a turd.  
Once people get desperate, they'll probably outlaw beef so that all the corn can be used to run their cars.

Maybe they should outlaw sodas instead; those things are all flavored with corn syrup ...

I have been pondering this exact point. I think the food - fuel conflict is far less urgent than it sounds. We could easily produce as much nutrients on half the land we now use just by reducing nutrient inefficent land use, especially livestock and sugar. If 90% of sugar was converted to ethanol production, the new nutrient impact would be positive (even if the EROEI wasn't).
It is obvious that a great deal of power and money are being applied to touting the corn-to-ethanol scheme.

Where there is money to be made, there are politicians lurking in the background; and that's where we are today re ethanol-from-corn.

Factual arguments about the poor EROEI of ethanol-from-corn mean absolutely nothing.  It has been decided that it is the NEXT GREAT THING, and no party-pooping, dull, narrow-minded engineering types are going to spoil the fun.

So, we will have our ethanol from corn, and the ag businesses will reap windfall profits; and we will find ourselves right back where we started from .... which is nowhere.

Quite apart from the obvious.  If we use food to fuel our cars so we can keep all those 4WD (SUVs) what do we eat?


"How common are country-level food shortages?

Global and even regional food availability estimates hide important variations in DES and food self-sufficiency of individual countries. Although Latin America as a whole has more than enough food to feed the region's population, seven countries in the region (with populations totalling 67.2 million people) had DES below requirement over the period from 1988 to 1990 (UNDP 1994). There are an additional 13.6 million people living in countries with inadequate food availability, despite being in regions where food supply is adequate. The remaining 721.5 million people living in hungry countries also live in hungry regions (Uvin 1996).

Food self-sufficiency is an additional issue and a potential determinant of food shortage. "Food First" advocates have argued that the only way for a country to prevent hunger is to promote food self-sufficiency or self-reliance (countries are able to trade for quantities sufficient to meet home country needs [Lappe and Collins 1978]). In their analysis, the country that lacks food self-sufficiency is a hungry country or, in our current terms, food short. Fortunately, the data do not support this oversimplification. Of the 99 countries that did not produce enough food to meet the needs of their national populations in the 1980s, only 48 (32 in SSA) were food short as measured by per capita DES (Uvin 1994). Thus, a country's dependence on imported food does not necessarily mean that more people in the country are hungry or that the country has exhausted its agricultural potential. Small industrial food-importing countries easily produce enough other goods to cover the costs of their food needs, purchased on the world market.

However, Lappe and Collins's assessment may be correct for countries with predominantly poor rural agricultural economies. The failure of a city-state such as Hong Kong to grow enough to feed its urban population has hunger implications that differ greatly from the failures of predominantly rural African countries whose export earnings are low. For poor agricultural populations, whose entitlements to food may come in large part from home production, their country's deteriorating position of food self-sufficiency may be an indicator of their own reduced access to food and resources to produce food."

On the subject of liquid fuels ... a commenter on Realclimate pointed to this excellent UC Davis working paper on lifecycle greenhouse gas costs for various transportation fuels.

It had several new (to me) ideas, and a discussion section pointing towards a very ambitious future for this kind of lifecycle analysis, taking into account factors like price response to policy changes.

Among other features it made a strong attempt at examining the nitrogen cycle (N2O and NO2), and one-time carbon sink changes resulting from planting crops.  Because of fertilizer-related N2O emissions, soybean-based biodiesel comes out pretty badly compared to other lifecycle analyses that leave out the nitrogen cycle.  Corn ethanol figures are about on par with that review article from Berkeley, i.e. a small net reduction vs. gasoline.

Similarly, conversion of non-crop land to energy-feed cropland usually means a net loss in biomass, except in the case of woody crops.  The author argues that such a front-loaded loss of carbon sinks might outweigh a longer-term benefit, and brings up the (IMO very reasonable) notion of discount rates for carbon mitigation.  In general cellulose-based ethanol, methanol, or hydrogen still look pretty good compared to other biofuels.

Anyway, I'm still digesting it, but I think it's a well-balanced and important read.

I have said it before, it needs be said again and gain: How we do business is the center of the game.  While small individual efforts are fine, how business is actually conducted nationally and globally--the rules governing its behavior--are central.

With ethanol we have the stereotypical motivation: uncontrolled, ill-advised, and poorly grounded.  Farmers, eager to get their cut, now become part of the PR campaign.  Eager to seem knowledgeable, politicians join the chorus.  They rarely lead.  Science and understanding are sacrificed in the name of short-term profits.  There is nothing rational in the way business is conducted.  We have grown expert in pushing PR buttons; we have grown inexpert at making or recognizing real arguments.

I hope Robert Rapier is successful.

We are told that the short-term greed of each of us leads to the greatest aggregate good.  No one examines this assertion.  Do we do a head count?  Do we say it works because those in the wealthy suburbs happily are blessed?  Do we measure it in GNP and not ask who are the primary recipients of that GNP?  

This short-term interest pervades every activity, from politics to news to, of course, the marketplace.  The principle of modern economics is now the modus operandi of most behavior.

The true cost of a thing includes all the hands that produced it; all the resources it required.  That it became cheap for us does not mean that it was cheap at all.

We leverage many things for our own gain: cheap labor, the environment.  Now we are leveraging our future.

Yeah, probably every inch of natural landscape and wildlife habitat that can possibly be plowed will now be turned into biogas.

It's the return of the sodbusters, the people who ruined the western prairies and created the dust bowl.

Nothing big to say, as I read the thread for the last time before getting some sleep, (it's off day for me and I am a night shift worker,,,so I know, I am out of sync with the world....but I did want to say this....

What a very interesting, thoughtful and informed thread this has been!

This is what the internet is good for, folks, I have seen thoughtful ideas, interesting perspectives, mind opening discussion, and just all around GOOD natured folks who often differ, but politely!


Stormy, I agree.

I find the reasoning like in http://www.setamericafree.org  very sacary. They present the issue as a security one. "We fund the terrorists", they say. What does this mean? Are the Canadians "terrorists"? Are  Europe, Japan, India and China the real "terrorist funders" because they import far more oil from the ME than the US? Why not say that the structure of the US imports should be changed. Not all oil import is "funding terrorists". Security isssues are not the same as energy issues.

Sometime shortly before the outbreak of the WWI there was a book, titled something like "The Struggle for Oil", published in Nazi Germany and authored by Anton Zischka. In that book Zischka cites the French WWI leader Clemenceau: "Every drop of oil is worth a drop of blood", tells about the early "oil wars", bashes the international oil companies etc. Then he tells, quite clearly and correctly, how much better fuel oil is compared to coal and why the German economy needs it (remember, the Germans were building the first modern highway sytem in the world at that time). He presents the oil imports issue as a security issue, too. He also wanted to set Germany free from oil dependency - then the enemy was the "Jewish conspiracy".

Then he tells about the huge CTL projects the German government was realizing at that time. And says that exactly these CTL projects will "secure the peace", because they will secure domestic oil for Germany and Germany will be "oil independent" and will not need "oil wars" to get it. Nice, but we know what happened.

Now, if we flip back some pages in the book and return to the chapter about CTL, and check the numbers there, we realize that what Zischka in fact told his readers before WWII was why the war would be invevitable.

The CTL was the clue. For a reader who knows something about energy, the numbers presented by Zischka showed clearly enough that size of the CTL projects was far too small to make any difference and they could no way satisfy the German demand for oil (those projects were really for the war). And it was already obvious that CTL could never produce enough liquid fuels because there was not enough coal in Germany for that (Zischka touches also the EROEI problem). German "oil independence" was not possible inside the then German borders. And a thrive for it could only mean one thing: war, grabbing Caspian and Persian Gulf oil resources.

Here we have the real meaning of "oil independence", CTL and ethanol. I read SettingAmericaFree.org telling exactly what   Anton Zischka told the Germans in the end of '30s: why the war is inevitable.

Well, the US is already at war in Iraq and will be soon in Iran.  

I love this site....
Now you know why I promote PHEV's as the best and most important response to the "oil problem".
I wonder if this meeting occurs, that someone from the TOD will be in attendence??

A bold idea: Hold fuels summit in Iowa

Newt Gingrich, who likes to think of his Republican Party as the party of ideas, had a good one the other day.

During an interview on "Meet the Press" a week ago, Gingrich suggested that President Bush convene a national summit on renewable fuels at Iowa State University.

That would be the right topic at the right place at the right time.

Developing alternative energy sources needs to move to the top of the national agenda and stay there. Surely the public would respond enthusiastically if the president elevated oil independence to the level of national scientific crusades of the past, such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program. (Iowa State, coincidentally, had a role in the Manhattan Project.)

"I think the country wants us to lead," Gingrich said. We think he's right.

Just the place for calm, objective, sceptical discussion of corn ethanol :-)