February 17, 2005


Not Your Father's Ethanol: A new blend could reduce U.S. dependence on oil and cut greenhouse gas emissions (Otis Port, 2/21/05, Business Week)

A new white-knight fuel could soon be coming to the rescue of motorists fed up with roller-coaster gasoline prices. It should also get a warm welcome from environmentalists.

This wonder fuel is ethanol -- with a twist. Unlike the ethanol that has been blended with gasoline for 20 years, the new flavor of ethanol isn't made from corn or other grains. Instead, it's distilled from the plant waste left in fields after farmers harvest their corn, wheat, or barley for food or animal feed. By trucking these plant stalks to the biorefineries that may soon sprout in the Midwest and in Canada, farmers could rake in an extra 15% in sales.

This new breed of ethanol promises a bigger gain. It would reduce significantly both the U.S. dependence on imported oil and the enormous output of greenhouse gases spewing from the 220 million vehicles on U.S. roads. When burned, cellulosic ethanol -- a name used to distinguish it from grain ethanol -- scores a modest reduction in tailpipe emissions, compared to gasoline. Factor in the CO2 that's sopped up by biomass crops grown for fuel, and the bottom-line decrease can be 90% or more.

Last December the bipartisan National Commission on Energy Policy released a report, Ending the Energy Stalemate, that analyzed the potentials of various alternative fuels, including both types of ethanol (which is just an industrial grade of alcohol). Only cellulosic ethanol got a decisive thumbs-up. By 2020, the commission predicts, its production cost could be less than 80 cents a gallon. In stark contrast, after 20 years producing grain ethanol, it still costs $1.40 a gallon to produce -- roughly twice as much as gasoline.

Good time to cut their subsidies.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 17, 2005 7:40 AM

Presumably, the small cost figure results from treating the raw materials as scrap left behind after harvesting, and thus they need not count the cost of growing the plants (which in traditional ethanol takes more energy than the ethanol contains). The problem is that they should not then be able to take credit for the biomass carbon sink, resulting (even if we believe the report) in only a modest advantage over gasoline.

Posted by: David Cohen at February 17, 2005 10:33 AM

Ok, then what are those farmers going to do for silage (stuff you plow under to build your soil back up.) No soil for oil!

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 17, 2005 11:48 AM

Mr. Shropshire;

This is distinct from tillage. Tillage is basically the roots (everything else is lost to the wind). What would be used here is stalks and leaves.

Mr. Cohen brings up the really interesting point, which is whether this effort is actually a net energy win, once you account for the costs of collecting the biomass, converting and then distributing it.

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at February 17, 2005 3:19 PM

Thanks, AOG, & call me joe.

Posted by: joe shropshire at February 17, 2005 6:07 PM

The only biomass systems that can ever be of economic interest will be those that take collected waste and process it for a net win. If you could stick something under the outfall pipe of the local sewerage plant you might have a case for it.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 17, 2005 10:21 PM