Energy is a very important issue in our society and the people writing our laws and news articles are often very poorly informed.  One of the things I bring to the table is my experience as an engineer.  Often the reasons some proposed laws and amendments don’t make sense are very easy to explain, but the explanations don’t make it to the table.  If I am on the floor I will be able to explain, quickly why some proposals don’t pass the laugh test.  The article below explains why our various biofuel programs are mostly boondoggles that are costing us Billions of dollars of borrowed money.

In response to an article about some biofuel pipedream in the Spokesman Review, I got a bee in my bonnet and wrote a “Guest Editorial” that was published in the Spokesman Review.  There was a hard limit of 750 words on the article so to hit that limit I had to take out some words that would have added clarity.  The comments on this article were in general pretty good and I replied to them at length.  Here is the article and the comments and replies.  If I add some words here they will be underlined.

Spokesman Review July 22, 2012 in Opinion

Biofuel crops are a bad idea

Tom Horne

There is lots of happy talk about using alternative energy to reduce carbon dioxide. Does any of it make sense? Some of it clearly does not. I offer two examples, one where we dodged the bullet and little money was wasted, and another that is costing us billions of wasted, borrowed money.

The Energy Policy Act of 2003 required the secretary of energy to develop a program to assure 100,000 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles would be available for sale by 2010, and 2.5 million such vehicles available by 2020. Sixty-seven senators, including both Democrats from Washington, and 16 Republicans, voted for the amendment.

It is now mid-2012, and nothing significant has been done to reach this goal, and no effort is apparent in this direction. Why not? It is because this was such a wildly impractical idea that no effort could stand even a superficial examination; it could not pass the laugh test. The details are simple but would require a separate article. The fact that this enthusiastically passed idea has been so completely dropped should provide some perspective on the wisdom and knowledge applied by our leaders to the alternative energy issue.

There are other bad ideas that are not so wildly impractical on which we are wasting billions of dollars of borrowed money. Biofuels from oilseed crops is such a bad idea. The rational for biofuels is to reduce net CO2 emissions and reduce foreign oil imports. On both, the impact is minimal at best.

U.S. land withdrawn from food production to grow corn and oilseed, for subsidized alcohol and biodiesel fuel, has resulted in a worldwide increase in food cost. Consequently, all over the Third World, marginal land is being opened for subsistence farming using slash and burn methods, leading to increased CO2 emissions short-term, and decreased CO2 absorption by old growth tropical forests long-term.

When fertilizer and farming fuel inputs to grow and process biofuel crops are accounted for, the net gain to replace imported oil is not as great as would be thought. Any discussion of biofuels that does not include real numbers for energy balance and fuel yield per acre is puff.

Even Al Gore now admits that making alcohol from corn is a bad idea. On an energy basis, it is like chasing your tail. Claims about the energy balance of corn alcohol range from negative to slightly positive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses a figure of 1.34, meaning for each unit of energy input, in this case from natural gas and diesel fuel, you produce 1.34 units of corn alcohol energy, a 34 percent gain. The claims for biodiesel also vary widely, from a little negative to positive 6. USDA uses a figure of 3.2, meaning for every one unit of energy input, you get 3.2 units out, a net gain of 220 percent.

One of the first questions that should be asked about biofuels is never asked. How much of our oil can we replace with U.S.-grown biofuels? The numbers are large, but the calculations are simple. If all of our transportation fuel was biodiesel, we would need 200 billion gallons per year. We have one billion acres of crop and grazing land. Our various U.S.-grown oil crops yield an average of about 100 gallons per acre, neglecting the substantial fuel and fertilizer inputs. So we could grow 100 billion gallons of biodiesel, half our transportation fuel requirement, and have nothing to eat. (All our crop and grazing land would be required, so no land for food) Given this limited fuel potential and the consequent rise in world food prices, does it make sense to devote even one acre to biofuel production from oilseed crops? It might if biofuel was cheaper. There would be no biofuels without mandates, subsidies and tax credits, sufficient proof that biofuel is uneconomic.

Remember Solyndra? Half a billion tax dollars committed to back a politically connected solar panel company down the drain. Similar boondoggles are underway with biofuels. The U.S. Navy is now spending four times the normal cost for a jet fuel equivalent biofuel mix, and a crony company is involved. There is no technical mystery to create fuels from vegetable oils, yet from the justifications for these expenditures you would think that there was. Google “splash and dash” diesel to read of $1 billion wasted. Borrowed money, which you are on the hook for, is being wasted on biofuel boondoggles. Money spent on obviously bad ideas is gone, and cannot be used to carefully explore possibly good ideas, biofuel from algae, for example.

Tom Horne is a retired professional engineer.


Comments and Replies:

  • The author is correct about the net energy balance of growing food crops for fuel. But like most defenders of the current hydrocarbon culture, he erects a straw man, the burns it down, adding a lot of smoke to the discourse, but no light.

    This might make him feel righteous; but it’s off point. Two key omissions in the author’s arguments:

    First, biofuels are not being proposed as a complete substitute for petroleum-based fuel, only as an alternative that might produce enought additional liquid fuel to help insulate us from geopolitically-created shortages of petroleum in the future.

    Second, food crops are not the only source of biofuels being explored. Second cut (stalks from seed crops that are now burned or landfilled), food wastes and animal wastes are also being developed as sources for biofuels, as is algae. The sun stores billions of kilowatts every day in plants and animals that we currently discard as trash.  (my reply, way below, explains the falicy of thinking we are going to get significant transportation fuel from “wasteland” or agricultural waste)

    The long-term solution to our growing energy demand is a combination of conservation first, and development of ALL the energy resources (oil, natural gas, solar, biofuel, wind, tidal) at our disposal without trashing the biosphere. Diversity of energy sources is the way to a secure energy future.

    Trashing the development of the biofuels alternatives because it has a negative net energy output today — in early stages of its development — is shortsighted.

  • Every technology has its trade offs. While proponents tout the positive opponents tout the negative. From the research I’ve done, exploring alternative energy as a cash crop, the bottom line is that what works localy on a small or individual scale often fails to translate to mass production/profit.
    I absolutely agree that converting productive farmland to fuel crops is foolish. However, much of what is now considered “wasteland” can be used. ( addressed in reply below )Again, matching the local conditions to the proper alternative fuel source. For example, using sawgrass to produce ethanol or blue-green algaes for oil.
    It is interesting to note how gasoline prices have managed to stay just below the threshold of what would be competitive with alternative fuels–going up just long enough for investors to start up alternative fuel companies then down in time to crash the start ups.
    Identifying information deleted

    Fuel producers were just fined Five Million dollars for not adding “cellulosic ethanol” to their gasoline blends. The problem; “cellulosic ethanol” doesn’t exist. We need a real Energy policy, one that doesn’t count on Flubber gas or Pixie dust to save us.

    • Legislators get a lot of their energy ideas from Hollywood and
      Entertainment Tonight. Then they pass laws mandating the “trendy” ideas…and tell Avista what percentage of energy must come from which source.
      They mandate things Science hasn’t thought of. They desire
      to amend the “Laws of Physics” because they were told George
      Bush and Halliburton put them on the books.
      Most obscene are the Billions of dollars in breaks and subsidies the Greens extort from these clueless Legislators. The corrupt
      unfortunately give a bad name to those who actually care and rely on actual Science.

    • Mr. Home misstates what was in the 2003 Energy bill which was superseded by other subsequent legislation anyway.

      Another crank retired engineer exclaiming he knows more than everybody else.

      Gee, what a surprise.

      Probably still uses a slide-rule.

      ( addressed in reply below, greenlibertarian changes his tone and tries to add some light later )

      An absolute good vs bad judgement on biofuels is oversimplistic. The comments that biofuels will only be a portion of a total renewable energy portfolio are spot on. And the economists will also argue that the investments in biofuels have displaced past direct farm subsidies that have artificially supported crop prices to keep American farmers in business. The author correctly points to most analyses that indicates corn to ethanol as a break even proposition in terms of net energy gain and CO2 balance. Its considered first generation biofuel, an entry point into the fuel market that establishes a foothold in the petroleum industry monopolized market. Biodiesel, a research and development focus here in the PNW, also first generation, offers a better energy gain and positive CO2 balance. EPA estimates on average system wide 50% reduction of greenhouse gas production over petroleum diesel use, and with our ability for higher than average fertilizer use efficiency in our semi-arid environment, we can improve on that 50% reduction. The potential for building local crop oil production and processing for food and fuel is high in WA. Oilseed crushing and processing facilities are in place, farmers are increasing production of canola in rotation with wheat, buoyed by decade long increases in world crop oil demand and prices. The crop diversification for the region has potential for increasing sustainability of cropping systems and markets, both food and fuel. Our Canadian neighbors discovered decades ago how good canola is for wheat rotations. There are a lot of reasons to stay positive about biofuels, as long as we keep sound expectations. Finally, the author offers algae as a more sensible solution, its a sexy topic, but as others have pointed out, every technology has its +/-, the feds have invested in algae for over two decades, and we still await major production. As even Henry Ford predicted, as long as engines are powered by C based liquid fuels, biofuels will be part of the fuel portfolio.

      Hello Greenlibertarian. Word count constraints resulted in some editing, making the second paragraph not being as clear as I wanted. Here it is a little clearer:
      “In 2002 Senator Dorgan of ND offered an amendment to the Energy Policy Act of 2003 requiring the Secretary of Energy develop a program to insure 100,000 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will be available for sale by 2010, and 2.5 million such vehicles available by 2020. 67 Senators, including both from WA voted for the amendment.”
      This is an accurate representation of the gist of Dorgan’s amendment. If you don’t think so take a look at the last paragraph of this 4/22/02 Maria Cantwell press release where she proudly claims to have co-sponsored the amendment.
      The point is that these 67 senators did indeed vote for this wildly impractical requirement in the energy bill. It does not matter if it was superseded at some later date. Superseded by what, when?

      Hello Jim Wavada and Rhizodoc: Indeed we are in the early generations of biofuel technology. This is the stupid phase. The problem is that political considerations are outweighing reason. Things such as the energy balance for boifuel production with various feedstocks, land requirements and costs can be calculated fairly accurately. The results have always shown that biofuels from corn and oil seed crops are uneconomic and always will be. The proof is that there would be no corn ethanol or biodiesel from US oil seed crops in the absence of mandates, subsidies and tax credits. In an era of vastly increasing domestic and world oil and gas proven reserves, due to horizontal drilling and fracking we are pretending that we need biofuels, and borrowing money to subsidize its production.

      I don’t know if algae can produce a viable biofuel, but if the yield per acre numbers now touted can be accomplished then it might be. Lets not throw borrowed money away subsidizing an oil seed biofuel pipedream.

      Using borrowed money to subsidize Biofuels, to reduce CO2 emissions? First I am a skeptic on the CO2 reduction claimed. Second, we are on the cusp of vastly increasing our coal shipments to China, where they are completing a coal fired power plant almost weekly. Do you see a contradiction here?

      As for biofuel from new “weed” crops on non farm land, “wasteland”, do the numbers. DOE calculates that a ton of waste biomass produces 80 gallons of ethanol. At 6.584 pounds per gallon — 2,000 pounds of biomass produces 527 pounds of alcohol, which seems pretty good at first glance. The problem is the huge amount of biomass that has to be collected, over a wide area then trucked to a processing plant. As an example, consider cellulosic ethanol plant with a capacity of 80 Million gallons of ethanol. It would need 1 Million tons of biomass to produce that much ethanol. Due to the low density of biomass and the wide area of collection over various quality roads, figure each truck load will be 15 tons of biomass. This plant will require about 67,000 truck loads of biomass per year, a 15 ton truck load every 8 minutes. This plant would be producing 0.025% of our transportation fuel requirement. Four plants like this would produce one tenth of 1% of our transportation fuel requirement.

      “The comments that biofuels will only be a portion of a total renewable energy portfolio are spot on. ” NO THEY ARE NOT. The portion of our fuel addressed here is the portion suitable for use in transportation.

      OOPS, I hit publish a little too early. Next to last paragraph above should be extended by:
      Where can you imagine in the USA that a significant number of these new weed biofuel plants and their attendant truck traffic will be viable or welcome? Imagine the water required for processing. Do you think that the scale of the effort required to produce a significant portion of our fuel from “weed” alcohol would be economic? If so, why? Numbers please.

      The basic problem with all of this green energy happy talk is that the scale of our energy usage is not widely understood by the people making our laws, much less the general public. Our energy infrastructure has been built over the last 100 years. We have over 150,000 miles of petroleum distribution pipeline and over 300,000 miles of natural gas pipeline. Since 1950, 2.6 million oil and gas wells have been drilled on and offshore USA. In 2011 alone, 40,000 oil and gas wells were drilled on and offshore USA. This is a huge invisible infrastructure, employing hundreds of thousands of people at good family wage jobs. It is one of the foundations of our economy.

      I tried to illustrate it with the example above. If we used every acre of crop and grazing land in the USA for oil seed crops, we could only provide half of our transportation fuel requirement. Transportation fuel is less than 30% of our energy usage.

      So the basic question is: In this era of increasing proven oil and gas reserves, how much land do we want to use growing uneconomic fuel? Remember, we do need to eat.

      In response to GreenLibertarian attaching an article about an Algae Biofuel project in Australia I reply:

      I hope for the success of this OZ algae fuel project, and all others, but I don’t want to spend much borrowed money to fund them. Unsubsidized commercial success will be the final proof.

      Wow, no constraints on word count or format, like FaceBook. This is a good forum for discussion.