Friday, January 11, 2008

The Case Against Ethanol

I've long been an opponent of ethanol as a viable source of alternative energy for America. At best it's a short sighted and inefficient attempt at energy independence at worst its just another way to subsidize corn. Over at Scientific American the recently published an article showing the results of a five year study on switchgrass and found that acre per acre it produces over twenty one times more energy than ethanol.

But yields from a grass that only needs to be planted once would deliver an average of 13.1 megajoules of energy as ethanol for every megajoule of petroleum consumed—in the form of nitrogen fertilizers or diesel for tractors—growing them. "It's a prediction because right now there are no biorefineries built that handle cellulosic material" like that which switchgrass provides, Vogel notes. "We're pretty confident the ethanol yield is pretty close." This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is partially funding the construction of six such cellulosic biorefineries, estimated to cost a total of $1.2 billion. The first to be built will be the Range Fuels Biorefinery in Soperton, Ga., which will process wood waste from the timber industry into biofuels and chemicals. The DOE is providing an initial $50 million to start construction.

"Cost competitive, energy responsible cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass or from forestry waste like sawdust and wood chips requires a more complex refining process but it's worth the investment," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said at the Range Fuels facility groundbreaking in November. "Cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases than ethanol made from corn."

Additionally switchgrass can be grown on land that is of marginal use to farmers meaning that farming it won't raise the price of food the same way diverting corn to ethanol production has.
There is bound to be resistance to the loss of corn subsidies to be sure. However those lawmakers that do resist are most likely much more interested in staying in office (by securing pork/subsidies) than they are in solving problems. Hence those are exactly the type of lawmakers we can do without.

H/T to The Glittering Eye