Green Energy, Part 2: Ethanol and Biodiesel

As a groundswell of support in this country is building for the development of biofuels as an alternative energy source, Americans are measuring the strengths and weaknesses of every available option. Among these, of all the first-generation biofuels in the U.S., veggie oil is arguably the cleanest, easiest and most straightforward to implement. However, it doesn’t have the field to itself. Quite the contrary — its virtues may actually work against it.

Big farming and big industry — Archer Daniels Midland and DuPont being prominent examples — are actually behind two other, much higher-profile alternative biofuels: ethanol and biodiesel.

Priming the Pump

The U.S. is now the second largest producer of ethanol in the world with 91 million gallons produced in the U.S. last year — and the Renewable Fuels Standards resolution of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 mandates that this should double to at least 7.5 billion gallons annually by 2012.

We’re likely to reach that goal several years early, noted Thomas Dorr, Undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in June during a partial, preliminary release and presentation of “Biofuels for Transportation: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture, Energy, and Security in the 21st Century.” Global in scope, the 400 page report took one year to complete and was produced jointly by the Washington, D.C.-based Worldwatch Institute and the German Agencies for Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and Renewable Resources (FNR).

“The U.S. biodiesel industry is relatively new, but is literally growing like the proverbial weed in the bean field. … In the broad picture, though, these are still in effect niche fields, but exponential growth simply can’t be ignored for long. Ethanol this year is projected to absorb nearly 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop and biodiesel will absorb 2.3 billion pounds of soybean oil, and frankly, no matter how you cut it, that’s a big number,” Dorr said.

Which Way Do We Go?

Each biofuel, be it ethanol, biodiesel or vegetable oil, has its particular advantages and disadvantages, as well as proponents and detractors. However, ethanol and biodiesel, or biofuels in general for that matter, may not be the best choice in terms of the possible alternative renewable fuels available, certainly for every purpose or in terms of energy efficiency and environmental effects, according to a number of research studies.

“We try to mainly use recycled vegetable oil that has been already used for cooking. This is an important distinction from biodiesel,” Veg Powered Systems’ Jon Austin said. While producing biodiesel begins with vegetable oil, volatile and toxic chemicals — methanol and lye — are introduced to the relatively viscous oil to thin it out, enabling it to burn in conventional engines without pre-heating. Besides producing toxic, polluting chemical waste by-products that need to be either further processed for other uses or disposed of properly, this chemical process also adds significantly to fuel production costs.

Moreover, it often doesn’t yield the desired result — more often than not, biodiesel has to be pre-heated anyway, Austin added. “The point is that if biodiesel needs to be heated as well [just as veggie oil fuel does] and it involves using dangerous polluting chemicals in the production process, why would anyone use it over good old straight vegetable oil? Veg oil needs to be heated and that’s it– aside from removing the calamari and eggroll bits. Straight, pure vegetable oil is a much simpler, cleaner way to go.”

Ethanol also has its detractors. Several ethanol studies, including one released in late June by Tad Patzek of the University of California Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, argue the salient point that in addition to being heavily subsidized, the mass monoculture approach to producing corn for ethanol in particular has significant detrimental environmental effects, both to the land and the air, and requires significant amounts of fossil fuels and volatile, toxic chemicals to produce.

On balance, Patzek and others have concluded that growing corn to produce ethanol is uneconomic, energy inefficient and environmentally destructive compared to other alternatives. This begs the question: Should it be those first to market or those with the most capital and political influence that determine the course of America’s future energy supplies and infrastructure?

“The U.S. is the single largest corn producer in the world. Large overproduction of subsidized, cheap corn forces corn producers and processors to invent new ingenious uses for their product.

In terms of their large negative impact on the society and the environment, two corn products — ethanol and high-fructose syrup — stand out. About 13 percent of the U.S. corn production is now diverted to produce ethanol. U.S. corn production could be reduced by at least 13 percent with significant benefits to the taxpayers and the planet,” Patzek wrote.

Time for a Change

Although it seems that the pendulum has definitively shifted in the direction of building a diversified renewable energy infrastructure, the extent to which the U.S. does so, and which energy sources will be made use of, remains unclear. Three decades after the first OPEC oil crisis, our economic and material well-being, as well as our international diplomatic and military policies, are still inextricably bound to the production and consumption of petroleum and other fossil fuels. What transpires will have a profound impact on our environment, economy, national security and daily lives for generations to come.

Certainly, much has transpired since the OPEC oil price hike of 1973-’74. During the ensuing three-plus decades, research into and development of a variety of cleaner, renewable energy sources continued, even through the lean years when the price of a barrel of oil remained under — and for long periods, well under — US$30 a barrel.

With the price of a barrel recently surpassing $75 and the U.S. once again embroiled in a war in the Middle East, where strife between Israel and Lebanon is further complicating the oil price picture, the economic and national security incentives are now as great as or greater than they were back then.

It was Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., speaking at the Brookings Institution Leadership forum, who stated the U.S. energy policy situation as well as I have heard or read it described:

“… my message is that the balance of realism has passed from those who argue on behalf of oil and a laissez faire energy policy that relies on market evolution, to those who recognize that in the absence of a major reorientation in the way we get our energy, life in America is going to be much more difficult in the coming decades. No one who cares about United States foreign policy, national security, and long-term economic growth can afford to ignore what is happening in Iran, Russia, Venezuela, or in the lobby of the Corinthia Hotel in Tripoli. No one who is honestly assessing the decline of American leverage around the world, due to our energy dependence, can fail to see that energy is the albatross of U.S. national security.”

And lest we forget, the citizens and industries of the U.S. can do a lot to reduce dependence on imported oil and fossil fuels by simply improving fuel efficiency, a goal that has faded into obscurity along with low oil prices and the popularity of vehicles such as SUVs. “Biofuels hold the potential to play a significant role in our future fuel mix; however, they are not the whole answer. While developing sustainable biofuels, we also need to make great strides in reducing our total fuel use through improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency, improvements in public transportation, etc.,” said Worldwatch’s Suzanne Hunt.

Green Energy, Part 1: A Second Coming Green Energy, Part 3: Fostering Change via the InternetGreen Energy, Part 4: Not Politics as Usual

1 Comment

  • I find it interesting that the majority of our diesel fuel is refined from crude oil. Diesel is the best fuel for reducing our dependence on foriegn oil. It can be made from coal, natural gas, crude oil, or any oil producing plant. Europe has been refining diesel from coal for years, Why not America? Maybe because big oil runs the government!
    Even if diesel fuel stays at $3.00/gal I would rather know my energy dollars are going to West Virgina, Wyoming, Oklahoma, or Texas instead of Iran, Venezuela or other countries that hate our guts. Woundn’t the billons of dollars spent on oil to foriegn counties help our economy if we kept those dollars at home?
    Wouldn’t using coal and/or natural gas to refine
    diesel make good business sense, since we have most of the worlds coal right here in North America and a glut of natural gas?
    All the easy oil is gone. We need to look for ways to produce the energy we need for the economy to prosper without depending on foriegn countries. It is a matter of national security. I hope we don’t let big oil interests run this great country into the ground.

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