Seems like I’m always hitting the ground running whenever I come back to the office from vacation. After enjoying a leisurely break down south, I stepped through Scribe’s doors, only to have today’s Wall Street Journal laying on my desk with the lead story proclaiming: Ethanol Craze Cools As Doubts Multiply.
I read through Lauren Etter’s 2,000+ word article with an equal amount of enthusiasm and dismay. I cannot thank Ms. Etter enough for touching upon many of the strikes that corn-based ethanol had against it in a well-researched and easily understood manner. However, the article often uses the terms “biofuels”, “renewable fuel” and “corn ethanol” synonymously, which though logical, is deeply troubling.
Without a doubt, corn ethanol is king in the United States’ biofuels portfolio. We produce more corn ethanol in the United States than we do any other biofuel, so it would follow that corn ethanol should serve as the flag-bearer and representative for the biofuels industry.
The problem is that corn ethanol is quite possibly the most detrimental, short-sighted and dangerous biofuel in existence and it is at the forefront of the U.S. biofuels debate. If we continue to accept corn biofuel as the predominant representative and symbol of what biofuels bring to the table, then all of the other biofuels alternatives out there are in for a monumental backlash of misdirected public dismissal and defunding. We cannot allow corn ethanol to serve as red herring and strawman that will inevitably degrade and prevent the greater promise of an elegant and integrative global biofuels solution.
I understand and applaud Lauren Etter’s article and as a journalist I understand that it’s difficult to write an exhaustive overview of the biofuels industry and make a convincing point about corn losing favor at the same time in under 2000 words on deadline for a monster publication like the WSJ. So this is me picking up where Ms. Etter’s article left off and what I would like to stress is that we need to start decoupling corn-ethanol from its direct association with the bigger biofuels picture.
Corn biofuel is an old idea — it is essentially 19th century technology that cannot competently fulfill the complexities of today’s energy market demands. Two critical aspects need to change with respect to how biofuels should be advanced beyond corn ethanol: the feedstock and the fuel.
In terms of feedstock options, we can do better than corn, which exists as a monocropped, GM’d, subsidized, resource straining, (and I would argue) overly corrupt fuel source. Look to feedstocks like jatropha, sorghum, and algae if you want a more flexible, productive and sensible biofuels solution.
I am a little partial to algae myself, as can be intuited from my recent interview with Glen Kertz of Valcent, an innovative and promising algae biofuels company here in El Paso, Texas.
On the other end of the pipe is the product. Ethanol is horribly stifled by several restrictions that rest in the inferiority of the fuel. Ethanol has low BTU’s per weight, cannot be used in existing pipelines as it easily takes up water, can only blend with gasoline up to 85 percent with specialized power trains or system modifications and the fuel may not even be that clean in the long run, both in its production and in end use.
Furthermore, we are talking about redirecting a food crop into a destabilizing market that has no end for its demand. This raises the price for grains and cereals, further stifling poor countries and creating an even worse economic picture for already strained populations that value food more than clean fuel.
Furthermore, corn ethanol becomes less profitable for growers and producers due to the glut of new plants coming online and the rising price of the feedstock. Margins shrink while markets, growers and resources suffer. What is being unleashed in the case of corn biofuel is a destabilizing bull in several fragile markets, with very little payout or environmental benefit. This is the reality for corn ethanol, but it is not the promise for the other biofuels out there.
Look to products like biobutanol, syngas, biogas, biohydrogen assist, bio-DME and HTU diesel for inspiration, funding and development if you want a more complex and efficient fuel product. Simply look to local-scale, sustainable, distributed biodiesel systems that utilize waste vegetable oil, instead of palm or soy, for a readily available alternative.
If you find 2,000 words a little too much to wade through, please allow me to pull and post a few of Ms. Etter’s key graphs:
Ethanol prices peaked at about $5 a gallon in some markets in June 2006, according to Oil Price Information Service. The price soon began to slide as the limited market for gasoline containing 10% ethanol grew saturated. New plants kept coming online, increasing supply and dropping prices further. Today, the oil refiners that purchase ethanol to blend in need pay only about $1.85 a gallon for it.
The low prices reflect soaring output. Global ethanol production has grown to a projected 13.4 billion gallons this year, from 10.9 billion gallons in 2006, according to the International Energy Agency. The U.S. production is more than half of that total, or about seven billion gallons this year, up 80% in two years. It equals less than 4% of U.S. gasoline consumption.
Analysts expect U.S. production capacity to keep growing, encouraged both by high oil prices and by the hope that Congress will stiffen the mandate for refiners to use ethanol. Some observers regard the profit squeeze as part of an ordinary industry shakeout that will ultimately leave the best producers in a position to thrive. As ethanol prices were pushed lower and corn prices stayed high, ethanol profit margins dropped from $2.30 per gallon last year to less than 25 cents a gallon.
This year, even as the production glut was driving down ethanol’s price, critics and opposing lobbyists were turning up the heat. Environmentalists complained about increased use of water and fertilizer to grow corn for ethanol, and said even ethanol from other plants such as switchgrass could be problematic because it could mean turning protected land to crop use. Suddenly, environmentalists, energy experts, economists and foreign countries were challenging the warm-and-fuzzy selling points on which ethanol rose to prominence.
- Curtiss Martin