Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ethanol Fuel Not The Answer?

This is a discussion about some alternatives to gasoline for powering vehicles. It presents some useful facts to consider.

Shuck the ethanol and let solar shine
Solar power and compressed natural gas offer more-efficient energy technologies than planting, fertilizing, harvesting and refining fields of corn into fuel. Investors, take note. Congress, listen.

By Jon Markman
New research by a University of California petroleum engineering professor suggests that worldwide crude oil supplies will start to run so low over the next nine years that resource-blessed countries like Saudi Arabia will begin to hoard them for domestic use instead of exporting -- and states with large reservoirs of natural gas, like Montana, will seek ways to avoid sharing with less-advantaged neighbors like Oregon.

Attempts to forestall the political and economic damage by turning aggressively to agriculture for "renewable" transportation fuel in the form of ethanol will prove futile, according to professor Tad W. Patzek, as new calculations show that the entire surface of the Earth cannot create enough additional biomass to replace more than 10% of current fossil fuel use.

The process of sowing, fertilizing, reaping, distributing and refining corn and grasses for ethanol feedstock uses up nearly as much carbon energy as fuel farmers claim to save, and it generates so much soil degradation and toxic byproducts that widespread use will leave the Earth denuded and hostile to human life within decades, according to the professor's data.

Apocalypse now, again Patzek, in a controversial paper presented last month to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, says military battles over fast-depleting fossil fuels will combine with insufficient replacement strategies and escalating population growth soon to imperil the human race unless coordinated global efforts to curb energy demand are taken quickly. "Change will be made for us unless we make changes," he said in an interview from his UC Berkeley office this week.

Of course, we are accustomed to apocalyptic statements about the environment these days, after recent campaigns to raise awareness of ecological disasters ranging from global warming to the destruction of the rain forest. But we can't really do too much about those beyond changing a few light bulbs and recycling cereal boxes.

Yet a provably insane public policy focused on ethanol production is something we can urge politicians to halt. We can also demand that tax dollars and product development funds be spent on more long-lasting transportation fuel solutions based on solar energy and compressed natural gas. And as investors we can take positions in companies that are likely to benefit from improvements.

Let me explain the problem in the simplest terms. The main thing you need to keep in mind is that all energy on our planet comes from the sun. Through the magic of photosynthesis, shrubs and trees hundreds of millions of years ago grew plentifully worldwide in swamps. They died, were covered by layers of sediment amid tectonic change, and were then baked via geological processes into oil, gas and coal.

Fast-forward to the early 1900s, and petroleum engineers figured out how to discover, exploit and transport this buried treasure on a mass scale. Then followed the greatest explosion of industry, freedom and wealth the Earth had ever known. For 100 years, as long as supplies were abundant and cheap, all was well. Enter the sport-utility vehicle, air conditioning, two-hour commutes to work, $200 cross-country flights and skyscraper cityscapes lit up all night.
The big drain Is this sustainable? At the risk of sounding like an environmentalist crackpot, maybe not.

It's now becoming clear to scientists that half a billion years' worth of natural energy production has been drained in a century. As production has slowed amid intensified demand from emerging nations, prices have risen eightfold to allocate diminishing resource to those with the greatest ability to pay. Now scientists like Patzek say depletion has reached the phase when it will accelerate exponentially with rising needs.

Figure there's maximum another 100 years left, but after only another eight years the difficulty of acquiring it will be felt so dramatically that governments of exporters will feel compelled to stockpile instead of trade.

As importers foresee an impasse -- and observe the painful ineffectiveness of simply grabbing resources, as the United States is accused of doing in Iraq -- new sources are needed or our way of life must plainly end. The solution? That's where it gets interesting.

Sun block The U.S. agriculture lobby is incredibly powerful, and it has somehow managed to convince Congress that our next 100 years of energy should also come from the sun. Not in its most efficient route, directly transformed by the magic of electronics from solar rays into electricity via large and small grids of photovoltaic cells. But in the most inefficient way possible: From the growing of corn and then its refinement into fuel.

How inefficient is the ethanol solution? When you break the "agrofuels" system down scientifically, you can see that 99.9% of the energy in sunlight is lost in the process, with the greatest waste coming in the creation of ammonia-based fertilizer from natural gas, and in the refinery. That is, for every unit of energy that is put into creating agriculture-based fuel, almost three-quarters of it is dissipated before it actually does any work. The greatest amount of energy lost is not in the creation of ammonia-based fertilizer, as many believe, but in the refinery.
Of course, an even bigger problem is that the 6.6 billion people on Earth need all the food they can get, so every acre taken out of wheat, rice and soybean production to feed our 1 billion cars is an acre that won't feed starving kids. As Patzek notes pungently in his paper, after a lot of math to prove the point, "Our planet has zero excess biomass at her disposal."

One better solution is solar energy created at the municipal level by massive photovoltaic cell facilities, at the street level by home-based grids and at the transportation level at lots where electric vehicles' batteries can be charged. Photovoltaic cells lose only about 80% of the sun's energy to dissipation, making them at least 100 times more efficient than ethanol after the fuel cost of growing and refining the biomass feedstack is accounted for.

The sun doesn't have its own lobby or a voting bloc in the presidential primaries, so research and funding has lagged. U.S. and European industrial giants General Electric (GE, news, msgs) and Siemens (SMAWF, news, msgs) are working hard at this solution, as are many intriguing U.S. and Chinese small and midsize companies such as Suntech Power (STP, news, msgs), First Solar (FSLR, news, msgs), Trina Solar (TSL, news, msgs) and MEMC Electronic Materials (WFR, news, msgs).

For transportation, most energy experts agree that compressed natural gas, or CNG, is an ideal long-term choice. It is not only much more plentiful in North America than oil -- negating the need to depend on unstable regimes in Nigeria, Venezuela and Russia -- but also many times more efficient. CNG only loses 5% of its power in the transportation and refinement process, and has two other benefits: Its emissions are much less toxic than gasoline or diesel, and when a CNG tank is hit in a crash it is much less likely to explode than a gasoline tank.

As I wrote back in August, many countries are depending on CNG trucks for their large truck, taxi and bus fleets, so this is not some pie-in-the-sky idea. What's lacking in the United States is a distribution network and convenient filling stations -- though you can actually install equipment at home to fill a CNG car or truck from your current heating gas line.
A pilot project in California, moreover, may pave the way for thousands of heavy-duty trucks to be retrofitted with fuel injectors made by a Canadian company called Westport Innovations (CA:WPT, news, msgs) in conjunction with engine maker Cummins (CMI, news, msgs). The conversion kit allows Peterbilts and Kenworths to run clean-burning CNG instead of filthy diesel.

Stall on ethanolIt's been a hot year for ethanol, but has it been too hot? Two industry executives discuss the problem.
In short, there is nothing we can do about the depletion of the sun's bounty from the bowels of the Earth. But we can stop the politically cynical ethanol scam in its tracks, and try to move the debate and our own consumption toward solar and CNG. Of course, the best solution of all is to cut down on wasteful uses of energy such as long-distance commuting, and shipping off-season fruits and vegetables up from the southern hemisphere, and to encourage cities to step up mass-transit development efforts.

It's easy to just ignore the problem with our usual American bluster, but 30 years from now our grandkids are really going to wonder what the heck we were thinking.
Fine Print To learn more about Patzek, visit his Cal Berkeley Web site. Here is the paper he presented at OECD, titled "How Can We Outlive Our Way Of Life?" (.pdf). It's quite readable every for lay people and explains a lot -- so take some time to go through it. To learn more about Clean Energy Fuels, click here. To learn about Westport Innovations, read here. . . . Learn more about GE solar projects here. . . . To read more about Suntech, click here. . . . Learn about MEMC Electronic Materials here. . . . To learn about First Solar, check its Web site here. . . .
When it's available next year, I'm thinking about trading in my trusty Ducati Monster , which I use for my two-mile commute, for the Enertia electric motorcycle. There's also a hydrogen-powered motorcycle in the works called the ENV. . . . There's a sweet Mercedes-Benz, the 200 NGT, available only in Europe, that runs on CNG. Check it out here. To gas it up at home, check out the Phill by FuelMaker. . . . For more background on the ethanol craze, check out my April 5 column on the corn boom.

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