It’s Time To Move Past Ethanol

There is a moment in Bill Jaeger’s latest biofuels paper when his scholarly posture crumples a bit and he seems to want to shout loud enough for policymakers in Washington, D.C., to hear him all the way from Corvallis, Oregon.

After meticulously detailing the role various forms of biofuel might (or might not) play in “achieving significant reductions in fossil fuel input use and greenhouse gas emissions as compared to alternatives,” Jaeger brings down the hammer. “In fact,” he writes, “all of (the) biofuels mandates combined, if achieved, would have the same effect on total U.S. fossil fuel use as a $0.25/gallon gas tax increase, but at an estimated total social cost of $67 billion versus $6 billion with a gas tax.” Boom!

biofuel policy

image via Shutterstock

Jaeger is an economist at Oregon State University. He has long, silvery hair, and when we met over coffee he was wearing jeans and a blue fleece vest and unless I was imagining things, there was an earring in one lobe. His tree-hugger-professor appearance, combined with a thoughtful countenance, belies the important role he is playing – or ought to be playing – in moving the U.S. away from spending scant public resources on biofuels. Call him the biofuels slayer.

Well, OK, he isn’t alone in his pursuit. He is, rather, a big voice in the new scientific consensus questioning the aggressive pursuit of plant-based transportation fuels as an answer to climate change.

For a long time, the argument against biofuels support was made mostly by conservative commentators, laissez-faire types who chafed at what they saw as wasteful government meddling in the unfettered operation of markets (never mind that government has always meddled in markets, especially energy markets). Meanwhile, the other side of the argument was represented by environmentalists – people who looked like Bill Jaeger, if you’ll pardon the stereotype. They provided the moral suasion that, combined with the Capitol Hill muscle of big agricultural interests and corn-state politicians, led the U.S. to embark on an aggressive campaign to back biofuels.

That campaign’s first really big victory came with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 [PDF], which instituted a renewable fuels standard (RFS) that required refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuel into gasoline sold in the U.S., peaking at 7.5 billion gallons by this year. An even bigger win followed: The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 [PDF] extended and enlarged the RFS, mandating 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022, broken down as 16 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol, 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol and 5 billion gallons of non-cellulosic advanced biofuels, including at least 1 billion gallons of biodiesel.

But while the politicians were plunging forward with biofuels, science was beginning to chip away at their rationale. Various strands of emerging doubt about U.S. biofuels policy were pulled together in a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report to Congress. It noted the role of emissions generated by fossil fuel combustion during the process of manufacturing and transporting biofuel. It cited the possibility that converting land to agriculture, as would be required in expanding biofuels production to the levels the law requires, “may disrupt any future potential for storing carbon in biomass and soil.” Ultimately, the independent assessment said, “RFS may be an ineffective policy for reducing global greenhouse-gas emissions because the effect of biofuels on greenhouse-gas emissions depends on how biofuels are produced and what land-use and land-cover changes occur in the process.”

Then there is the not-so-small matter of reality not meshing with hope when it comes to cellulosic ethanol, a biofuel that would use non-food feedstocks like ag waste and “energy crops” that could be grown on marginal land. Despite support for the sector – which continued in 2011 with loan guarantees for new plants in Iowa and in Kansas – cellulosic ethanol has so far been a huge bust. The EPA’s recently released mandates under the RFS call for a mere 8.65 million gallons to be blended into gasoline in 2012, a drop in the bucket compared to the 500 million gallons originally planned for. And even at that, refiners are complaining that the tiny target is unrealistically large.

image via Poet

Is it time to throw in the towel on biofuels? I think so, with an allowance for the military to continue its pursuit, since it can make a case for having strategic and security interests in developing biofuels sources, and for modest investment in research that might bring true breakthroughs.

“The more you look at it,” Jaeger told me, “the more it’s clear there is something fundamentally amiss about trying to grow stuff to make a liquid that can then be a fuel. If you think about it, it’s a very convoluted way to use solar energy, where instead of photovoltaics, you’re relying on photosynthesis and a lot of other inputs. It just doesn’t pencil out.”

Biofuels advocates have often responded to such criticism by noting that despite its shortcomings, biofuels are useful because unlike solar or wind, they are fuels that can go in our cars and help us meet our transportation needs. But in truth, we don’t need them to go in our cars. We don’t need cars that run on them. We need to move past that entire paradigm. Let’s go electric. Then we can embrace a full range of renewable energy sources – real solar, and wind, and whatever else proves itself worthy – not a woefully ineffectual one.

Sports columnist, newspaper desk guy, website managing editor, wine-industry PR specialist, freelance writer—Pete Danko’s career in media has covered a lot of terrain. The constant along the way has been a fierce dedication to knowing the story and getting it right. Danko's work has appeared in Wired, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Frank

    This is crap. “Going electric” is no better–and may be worse–for our economy and environment than relying on biofuels. If you think all of the electricity needed to propel 240 million vehicles would come from wind and soalr, you are crazy. It would come from the lowest-cost feedstcok: coal.

    • http://twitter.com/petedanko Pete Danko

      Frank, yeah, I’m actually not expecting every driver to turn in his or her gasoline-powered vehicle tomorrow and get an EV. The point is to begin moving in the direction we need to go. Therefore: instead of continuing to waste resources on the miserable failure that is ethanol, we should invest in the long slog toward electric vehicles — and in developing the renewable resources that can power them while helping us reach our climate-change goals. As for coal, in this country at least we’re seeing it become a smaller and smaller part of the energy mix: In the first nine months of 2011 it accounted for 43 percent of net electricity generation, when as recently as 2003 it was at 51 percent.

    • Jim

      @Frank, Electric cars running on electricity generated in coal plants are still cleaner than internal combustion engine cars. Having one big, stationary, working at stable output level, ICE power generating unit *properly* calibrated and filtered is much easier (as in- possible at all) that doing the same with thousands of smaller, mobile ones, especially if their ability to recycle waste heat for additional power generation is exactly zero, which just happens to be the case. Unfiltered coal plants are the only ones that pollute more the ICE cars, but they’re a whole other issue, and even those do not lose out CO2, but on the toxic exhausts which cars tend to deliver smack dab in the middle of population centers anyway. Lastly, as Pete pointed out, coal *is* shrinking, and that alone is enough to take the tailpipe dream of oil companies that biofuels are, and dump it like a flaming bag of moist crap. The biomass from agricultural byproducts can be utilized for plenty of other purposes, it isn’t gona go to waste.

  • Kevin C Fletcher

    This article seems overly biasd against bio-ethanol. Sure it hasn’t replaced gasoline, but that sort of goal is un realistic in the first place. It has replaced approximately 10 percent of our gasoline needs which I, for one, believe to be a great achievement.

    • http://twitter.com/petedanko Pete Danko

      Keven — Thanks for the note. It’s true — in 2010, our 138.5 billion gallons of gasoline contained 13.19 gallons of ethanol. But unfortunately, biofuels don’t provide a gallon-for-gallon trade-off. When you look at their costs, fossil fuel inputs and GHG implications compared to gasoline, you find just a scant 3 percent reduction in gasoline consumption. That’s three-quarters of 1 percent of total U.S. fossil fuel use. In a global context, it’s essentially a zero contribution toward fighting climate change. That’s Jaeger’s point. And my point is that continuing to pursue ethanol fuel keeps us locked into a transportation paradigm that we need to move beyond, maybe it a net negative.

      • Kevin C Fletcher

        Well, the corn was going to be grown anyway, mostly to feed livestock. As such, I question the validity of considering the farming fuel in the equations. Today instead of corn the distillers grain is fed to the livestock. It is debatable how much nutritional value is lost , I’ve seen numbers range from 2/3 food value lost to as little as 5 percent. As such, it’s clearly beneficial to get two valuable products (food and fuel) for nearly the price of one.nnElectricity has serious deficiencies and until (if) these are overcome I certainly support implementation of a partial solution.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_TY7M6NHTHDJNMLCVA4FEB2XEAE broonsby

    2 Words: Cellulosic Ethanol. Ethanol itself is not the problem. It is the source of the ethanol. Food crop based ethanol is too energy intensive and drives up food costs because it competes with feed for animals. Not good on either count.nnCellulosic ethanol on the other hand would use yard and farm waste. What farmer wouldn’t love to get money from crop wasted that they would normally burn creating significant air pollution in the process? In addition you could reduce theu00a0decompositionu00a0problem of yard waste generating methane which is 20x more potent a green house gas than CO2.nnThen there are people using these cellulosic feed stocks in order to create both gasoline and diesel as well. In other words we could use these liquid fuels for long distance vehicles until high density electric storage is created.nnEthanol is not the problem, its source and current method of creation are. Change those and things improveu00a0dramatically.

  • Srrwilliam2

    If the us government would get real about industrial hemp and allow farmers to grow the plant as a crop here in the US, it would be a big boom for all involved and a legitimate feed source for bio-fuels.

  • DaveD

    Good analysis Pete.u00a0 I was really hoping biofuels would be an answer, if not the answer.u00a0 But the realities of implementing them in the real world don’t match the potential.u00a0 They are not yet cost effective and their environmental benefits are questionable depending on whose statistics and assumptions you believe.u00a0 nnSolar or wind powering EVs seems to be a much more effective use of the total solar energy per unit of land.u00a0 The biggest drawback has been the variability of them as an energy source.u00a0 This is being balanced out by their continuous drop in cost, the ability for them to help balance each other and the advent of new storage types of batteries that look to finally be cost effective on the horizon such as those from Dr. Cui at Stanford (http://www.technologyreview.com/energy/39168/).nnEVs are more expensive up front, but volume production, the rising price of fossil fuels and the advances in batteries and a drop in price are converging.u00a0 At some point, we are going to stop pretending that our military is not a machine geared towards insuring oil flow around the world.u00a0 We are on the brink of yet another potential war because of Iran and the Strait of Hormuz over oil flow.u00a0 When was the last time we had to go to war to fight someone to deploy a solar array?u00a0 Wind turbines? Just doesn’t happen.u00a0

    • phor11

      They can also be used to produce hydrogen, which solves both the power variability issue and the battery performance issue if you use it in an internal combustion engine.
      It does decrease efficiency when used in that manner, but it maintains the convenience we’re used to in the transportation industry.