It was good to see a major newsmagazine like Time do its cover story on the corn ethanol scam this week. I’ve been worried about corn as a source of biofuel for some time. So far, it makes no sense, and is only used because of the power of the corn lobby and senators from agricultural states. I’ve read various arguments (all with political agendas) about just how much petrofuel is burned in order to make corn based ethanol. Some figures calculate it takes more petrofuel than you get ethanol out — in other words, by putting ethanol in your car, as we all do 10% during the summer in California, you’re actually burning more fossil fuel than you would otherwise. E85 (85% ethanol) is even worse. Other figures, supported by the corn ethanol lobby, say it is not nearly that bad, but even with their best numbers they can only make it a modestly positive gain.
It’s hard to work out who to believe, but the most telling fact I learned was this: None of the corn-ethanol producers run their whole system — tractors, trucks and ethanol conversion plants — on their own product. Since they should be able to get their own product at a discount, this makes no sense.
Adding to the confusion is that a gallon is not a gallon. In particular, a gallon of ethanol has only 70% of the energy of gasoline, so you’ll only get 70% of the mileage. (Diesel has 12% more energy per gallon than gasoline, which is the real reason why diesel cars get better mileage. They aren’t really much better per kg of carbon burnt.)
The only ethanol source that’s provably positive is sugar cane. More on that later. There are a lot of worthwhile efforts to develop ethanol from cellulose (like switchgrass) or algae, and they could make a real difference. The corn lobby is not that excited about those.
In spite of this, we watch ads describing E85 cars as green, when they are anti-green. People see E85 priced 19% cheaper than gasoline (national average) and think it’s some bargain. It isn’t.
Corn for ethanol is driving up the price of corn. That make more land get converted to corn. In turn, Time found, that was making shifts in land use in Brazil, and the result was that more land in the rainforest is being cleared (often by burning) than ever before. But now there’s a horrible irony — all this is happening because people imagine they are doing something green by using corn based ethanol. (Brazil uses sugarcane for its own ethanol production.)
Now on to sugar. In the USA, sugar costs more than twice as much as the rest of the world. That’s why Coke from Mexico has real sugar, because sugar is cheap there. In the USA it has — surprise, surprise — high fructose corn syrup.
Sugar is expensive in the USA because there are import taxes and quotas that benefit a fairly small number of families who are really sugar agribusinesses. Those families love their little monopoly on sugar production of course, and fight to defend the laws that provide it. But the corn lobby joins in to help of course, to sell more high fructose corn syrup. (Though now HFCS has dropped in price to be closer to the world sugar price so we would not entirely get rid of it.)
We need to:
- Immediately remove laws that require the addition of ethanol to gasoline. Find something besides MTBE or ethanol if need be.
- Clearly label corn based ethanol and E85 as lower mileage and non-green, punishing those who advertise it as green. Or make them run their machines on their own ethanol and publish the numbers.
- Put more into research of truly net-positive biofuels that don’t use existing crop-lands or involve clearing of forested land, and use them only if we can show they are net-green.
- Abandon sugar quota and sugar tarrifs
- Consider growing more sugar cane if we want biofuels, but again, factor in the cost of the crops displaced or land cleared.
Biofuels are a hard problem. Using recycled veggie oil is great, and we’ve run our Burning Man camp on that, but there is only so much of that out there. Even if we converted all our croplands to biofuels, we would only modestly dent our fuel consumption. This suggests that only solutions like algae or wild grasslands could work.