Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Article Critical of Biofuels in NYT

The New York Times recently published an article from the Council of Foreign Relations entitled "How Biofuels Could Starve The Poor".

This is a hot-button topic for me, having encountered any number of intellectually shallow and/or downright dishonest arguments along these lines.

However, this piece is different. It's well researched, and I largely agree with it's premise and conclusions. It contains a nicely summarized background on ADM's role in the biofuels industry, and how biofuel feedstocks came to be dominated by corn and soy largely by ADM's efforts.

There is an interesting take on the Mexican tortilla situation, highlighting the intricies of the global economy. The article notes that most tortillas in Mexico are made from locally produced white corn, but high prices for yellow corn - mostly used as a feedstock for processed products, including corn syrup, animal feed, and ethanol - led Mexican agribusiness concerns to buy white corn instead, thus raising tortilla prices.

Nonetheless, there are a number of significant flaws in the piece. Most glaring is that little attention is paid to alternate feedstocks and their significance, except to point out that they are not presently economical. Well, with corn and soy so heavily subsidized, what do they expect? It is also frustrating to see biodiesel largely lumped in with ethanol, despite significant differences that are mentioned but minimized.

Where the article really goes off the rails is not on the discussions of food security, which seem to be pretty sound, but instead where the authors attempt to make the argument that biofuels will provide little benefit to offset the food security impacts. First, they try to argue that biofuels take a significant amount of energy to make, thus, do not provide much benefit from the standpoint of reducing foreign oil dependence; then, they also try to argue that reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are insignificant. Yet, the numbers they cite in the text give lie to their own arguments.

First on energy balance. Excerpting at length:

"Nor is corn-based ethanol very fuel efficient. Debates over the "net energy balance" of biofuels and gasoline -- the ratio between the energy they produce and the energy needed to produce them -- have raged for decades. For now, corn-based ethanol appears to be favored over gasoline, and biodiesel over petroleum diesel -- but not by much. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have calculated that the net energy ratio of gasoline is 0.81, a result that implies an input larger than the output. Corn-based ethanol has a ratio that ranges between 1.25 and 1.35, which is better than breaking even. Petroleum diesel has an energy ratio of 0.83, compared with that of biodiesel made from soybean oil, which ranges from 1.93 to 3.21. (Biodiesel produced from other fats and oils, such as restaurant grease, may be more energy efficient.)"

This use of language completely glosses over several salient facts. First, soy biodiesel is clearly much more beneficial than corn ethanol - by something like a factor of 2. Their parenthetic disclaimer that biodiesel made from resturant grease "may be more energy efficient" completely buries the lead. This feedstock results in a much higher net energy ratio, simply because it is being produced from a waste product; thus the only energy that goes into it is that required to collect and convert it, which is relatively very small compared to growing, crushing, and transporting soy oil. Finally alternate biodiesel feedstocks are simply not mentioned. Again, massively improved energy ratios are expected from dedicated feedstocks.

But this is a mild gripe compared to their egregious treatment of perhaps the most salient issue:

"Similar results emerge when biofuels are compared with gasoline using other indices of environmental impact, such as greenhouse gas emissions. The full cycle of the production and use of corn-based ethanol releases less greenhouse gases than does that of gasoline, but only by 12 to 26 percent. The production and use of biodiesel emits 41 to 78 percent less such gases than do the production and use of petroleum-based diesel fuels."

Again, ethanol and biodiesel are lumped together - despite a 3 to 4 fold difference in the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions. I don't know about you, but I would consider a (conservative) 50% reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases from the use of biodiesel highly significant. From a climate change perspective, this is the functional equivalent of doubling the mileage of every diesel vehicle using the fuel! Minimizing this is basically irresponsible.

They cap it with this doozy:

"Another point of comparison is greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven, which takes account of relative fuel efficiency. Using gasoline blends with 10 percent corn-based ethanol instead of pure gasoline lowers emissions by 2 percent. If the blend is 85 percent ethanol (which only flexible-fuel vehicles can run on), greenhouse gas emissions fall further: by 23 percent if the ethanol is corn-based and by 64 percent if it is cellulose-based. Likewise, diesel containing 2 percent biodiesel emits 1.6 percent less greenhouse gases than does petroleum diesel, whereas blends with 20 percent biodiesel emit 16 percent less, and pure biodiesel (also for use only in special vehicles) emits 78 percent less. On the other hand, biodiesel can increase emissions of nitrogen oxide, which contributes to air pollution. In short, the "green" virtues of ethanol and biodiesel are modest when these fuels are made from corn and soybeans, which are energy-intensive, highly polluting row crops."

Where to start? First, the assertion that pure biodiesel is "also only for use in special vehicles" -- similar to flex-fuel vehicles for ethanol -- is obviously and patently false. Someone really fell down in the research department on this one. Second, again, we have this significant burying of the lead.

The article is stating that you can cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2/3 compared to gasoline with E85 made from celluosic ethanol - and again, nearly an 80% reduction using neat biodiesel! Even the 23% from corn ethanol isn't too shabby.

This is extremely significant and has enormous implications, but the authors characterize these gains as "modest". I challenge them to find another near-term solution that has the potential to cut total US CO2 emissions by over 18%*! I would hardly call that modest; it's a huge "wedge".

Finally, I must point out that the NOx issue is very unfairly characterized here. Stating that biodiesel "can" increase NOx emissions is technically true. However, the jury is very much out on whether it actually does increase NOx emissions in real-world driving. Recent research has increasingly found this to not the case; yet the NOx increase found in a old testbed engine study always seems to come up, with the more recent and more comprehensive studies rarely cited.

Well, it's not all bad; they do point out that:

"The benefits of biofuels are greater when plants other than corn or oils from sources other than soybeans are used. Ethanol made entirely from cellulose (which is found in trees, grasses, and other plants) has an energy ratio between 5 and 6 and emits 82 to 85 percent less greenhouse gases than does gasoline. "

Right...meaning that celluosic ethanol could cut oil imports for vehicles that are today gasoline fueled by something like, conservatively, a factor of 6. An 83% reduction. Oh, but wait:

"For now, however, the costs of harvesting, transporting, and converting such plant matters are high, which means that cellulose-based ethanol is not yet commercially viable when compared with the economies of scale of current corn-based production. One ethanol-plant manager in the Midwest has calculated that fueling an ethanol plant with switchgrass, a much-discussed alternative, would require delivering a semitrailer truckload of the grass every six minutes, 24 hours a day."

This just made me laugh. I mean, this sounds like an awful large volume of material, until you think about oil tankers and coal trains; a single large coal-fired powerplant requires 10,000 tons of coal daily; that's a hundred, 100 ton rail cars daily.

The question is not how much material needs to be transported in, but how switchgrass compares to corn. Presumably a significantly larger volume of switchgrass would need to be transported, but I doubt that this is really a deal breaker on the economics.

What is significant - and the article does an excellent job on this - are the massive subsidies given to corn and soy that make any other feedstock uncompetitive. Really, the purpose of the article is to point out that the incentives for corn and soy feedstocks to make biofuels are truly perverse. These incentives, in concert with speculative hedge fund activities, do have the affect of raising food prices for the poor by significantly affecting agricultural markets globally in highly complex ways. Moreover, the benefits -- both from the standpoint of petroleum dependency and greenhouse gas emissions -- are suboptimum with these feedstocks.

I completely agree with this assessment. What gets me is that the article does a poor job of distinguishing the current state of the biofuel industry from where it should go, and needs to go, which is actually extremely promising. The piece mentions, but fails to discuss in any depth, that these other approaches - based primarily on crop waste, wood crops, and dedicated biofuel crops grown on degraded land - will have negligible impact on food security.

From the title on, the piece gives the impression that biofuels are not a solution, minimizing the benefits and maximizing the spectre of the starving poor. Rather than encouraging excitment about the right way to do things, and highlighting why these approaches are different, it pretty much lumps all "biofuels" together as either destructive or infeasibile and undermines attempts to move towards more appropriate feedstocks by marginalizing biofuels in general.

*Transportation is 33% of CO2 emissions. Gasoline is 60% of this, or ~20% of total emissions. Cutting this by 66% reduces total emissions by 13%. Taking diesel to represent half of the remaining 40% of transportation fuel emissions (a swag), and reducing this 20% by 78%, gets another 5% of total emissions. So, about 18%.


Oberon said...

......wow.....great blog.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Great Blog

The only thing I would like to know is - Biofuel security in the future.

If coporations change their fuel usage over to biofuel, will production be able to support the increasing demand for it?

And if so is there enough space to construct more facilities with an ever increasing pressure from a expanding population?

Would it be more benifical to use both biofuels and fossil fuels at the same time until technology is able to develop an even cleaner fuel source? In other words should we use biofuels to offset the fossil fuel usage until technology catches up?

corey said...

Bio fuel is probably only slightly better than burning crude, but why dont we start with running our cars on air:


anything put out by the CFR has to be questioned.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion everybody should drive a Prius.


Anonymous said...

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Kaleigh and Sky said...

long detailed post :)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting blog!

Keep up the good work!

Librahitech said...

Dear Sir,

It is a very thought provoking artcile indeed. Let's help the poor genre of this world.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

very interesting

Gledwood said...

Hi this is all very involved..! Guess how I came to be here..? As I signed into Blogger, under "blogs of note" ... "Heliotropic"... couldn't click on it right then (why do they advertise stuff when if you sign in you cannot get back to click on it?) so Googled you and here I am!
I agree with anonymous 3rd down, yeah this is a fantastic blog... I do wonder just how viable biofuels are as an alternative to petroleum? Don't get me wrong, I'd far rather live in a society run on biofuels than on gasoline/petrol, but is it feasable to put all the infrastructure/etc down? To be honest I think the reason America loves oil is that those independent oil producers who sell on the rights to multinationals are too powerful a lobbying force against the American govt... and that is why the present situation is as it is... Am I right or wrong?
I'm at http://gledwood2.blogspot.com do drop by and answer my point, if you're up for it...
ok all the best 2u
"vol 2" ...

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Anonymous said...

no way biofuel is not good at all. look at prices they are soaring. if it was not for ethanol prices of everything would be better not only for people driving cars but also farmers corn prices are dropping like a rock and it is all because of ethanol. not only is ethanol not good for all cars it has worse gas mileage than regular gas and now it is driving the price of regular gas up. if the tree hugging wackos in this country would let oil companies build some refineries then everything would be better and prices would be lower. there is no reason for ethanol

Anonymous said...

Hey! sugar don't want to burst your bubble. You can have it your way. Name calling isn't necesary

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Awesome blog!!!

Why don't we turn to windmills to harness energy? My hubby and I hope to afford a windmill in the future. We already heat with wood.

Joy said...

Excellent information. It was a pleasure to read.

Anonymous said...


Good catch on the editorial screwups: they imply that efiicency is not there but the numbers are backwards,

We should do what we can, not wait for a perfect solution. So ,start with corn/soy and add sawgrass etc.

Any reduction in pollution is preferable to any increase. So, go with biodiesel/recycled grease.

THanks for THINKING. It's such a pleasant thing.

Irene Grumman said...

Thanks for the corrective review.

Can you get your rebuttal into the newspaper?

What disinformation!

Anonymous said...

Dropping a line to Gledwood

Thanks for the support I am anonymous (3rd down) I agree with you I also think the reason America loves oil is that those independent oil producers are a powerful lobbying force and have become experts in the monopolisation of the oil industry.

To Anonymous 13 the reason corn prices are so low is that corn, like soy is a fast, reliable growing crop. At present farmers are not utilising the by-products of other crops such as sugarcane. (Use the husks instead of burning them to make ethanol)

Also the high subsidisation from the government is causing farmers to choose corn over other crops. So ultimately it is the farmers and the goverment to blame for low prices. Farmers themselves choose the crop and the government promotes it.

And in response to the kilometers being less compared to gasoline, isn't it better to get slightly less kilometers and save on pollution production than eating away at our limited fossil fuel supplies. When the gas runs out ill still be the one laughing in the end.

Anonymous said...

man, maybe you could have a picture, or maybe i'm just used to

S. Scott Craft said...

Someday, we shall return to animal power as the main source of transporation and then these agruments won't mean anything to the people of the future.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Renegade said...

Very interesting topic! Keep blogging!

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"Act now or die before you get into action"

Jack White said...

nicely written post

theremingtonblog.com said...

You have a nice blog. Good Job!

ElectricJoe said...

I've throughly enjoyed reading your blog and unforunately a way to show it is by tagging you...sorry.

see Doublethemyth.blogspot.com

Keith said...

I find it interesting that we in the USA choose to produce fuel with our surplus of food, rather than even considering using it as FOOD to send to all the starving people in the world.

Very informative posting though. I really enjoy your blog.

Anonymous said...


chook said...

Enjoyed your informative blog. Will the oil companies have control of biofuels?
I have just found your blog so don't know if you have touched on compressed air cars. I posted some links on my blog this morning www.artmusicfood.blogspot.com

Mills said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kel said...

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patagoniacommunity said...

Enlightening. Thanks for posting that.

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Gene Roddenberry/Anima Mundi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gene Roddenberry/Anima Mundi said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
valentin10 said...

really amazing, it's very great very intereresting blog , congratulations !!!

Joseph Stevens said...



Knit Creature said...

Thanks for debunking the debunkers - well-expressed blog.

We recently bought a diesel car from Japan and run it on 100% bio-diesesl while the weather is warm. It is great...costs a little more but the price is always predictable unlike at the regular gas stations. We'll switch to a reg. diesel mix as the temp. drops in the fall.

Do you happen to know how much bio-diesel is made from recycled vegatable oil from restaurants as opposed to raw source materials? I am not sure... Thanks again, I like your blog.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Carl Lenox said...

First to respond on the comments on compressed air cars.

I can see where they are going with this idea, but there is a major flaw that rarely gets discussed. It is simply this - air compressors are notoriously inefficient energy hogs. The car doesn't "run on compressed air" - compressed air is just a way of storing energy, like a battery.

In the short film on U-tube the "personality" talks about filling up at a gas station. Compressor efficiency varies but a rule of thumb is that it takes 8 HP input to get 1 HP in compressed air power out, that is, 12.5% efficient. Your gas station compressor is probably quite a bit worse, maybe 10% or less, while a well maintained high-end machine might top 15%.

Actually, it's likely impossible to just fill up at a gas station because as he mentions, the pressure in the storage tanks is far higher than this type of compressor could possibly achieve.

But anyway, at best, 15% of the electricity fed to the motor ends up as usable energy in the tank.

There are other losses to consider. I assume that the compressed air system in the car is very well optimized, probably over 90% efficient, let's call it 95%.

Let us also assume that the electrical generating plant is 50% efficient. This is about right for a gas fired combined cycle turbine - one of the most efficient types of powerplants; and call transmission and distribution loss at 7%, that is, 93% of the power generated actually makes it to the motor.

Putting all that together, this means that less than 7% of the energy in the fuel burned at the powerplant reaches the wheels of the car - and that's pretty much best case!

If you took that same natural gas and just used it as fuel in an IC engine, you're looking at around 20% efficiency.

So, perhaps you can see why I'm skeptical of this scheme...

Carl Lenox said...

The other big theme in the comments is on the question of if it's possible to make enough biofuels. That depends on the assumptions you make. I happen to think that with the right feedstocks (i.e. high yielding algae, etc.), efforts to significantly improve vehicle efficiency (i.e. plug-in diesel hybrids getting 100+ mpg), AND investments in infrastructure / changes in lifestyle. This means getting people off the road -- big improvements in public transit and changes in housing patterns like European quality rail and infill development.

So it's a combination of things. But yeah, the "biofuel revolution" will be anything but if we're talking about everyone running around in Expeditions fueled with corn ethanol.

Which gets to the question of ownership. The above scenario is ADM's wet dream and certainly Big Ag is jockying to be the next Big Oil. Meanwhile, the oil companies are pretty well out of the loop on this stuff, other than to try and block it. So no, the oil companies aren't likely to control biofuels but it's nieve to think that there won't be other powerful and entrenched interests looking to corner the market. This is energy, it is the Big Time.

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