Arnold Kling  

Dissing Ethanol

Faith in Leaders... The P-I-E Model...

John Baden writes,

First, the energy content of ethanol is low when compared with gasoline or diesel. While diesel contains around 140,000 Btu per gallon, and gasoline 115,000 Btu, denatured ethanol contains only 78,000 Btu per gallon. We can’t cheat physics. These numbers translate into low fuel mileage.

...What could be wrong with using carbohydrates to replace hydrocarbons? Here are some unintended consequences foretold by Peter Huber, an MIT engineering Ph.D.: “To improve on wood-burning fires, or grass-eating cows, perfect the cellulose-splitting enzyme. Then watch what 7 billion people will do to your forests and your grasslands.”

Essentially, he fears if the process for producing cellulosic ethanol becomes cheap and easy in poor countries, it would hasten the conversion of forestlands and other wilderness into a fuel source. Huber concluded: “History has already taught us what a carbohydrate energy economy does to a rich, green landscape -- it levels it.”

Pointer from E. Frank Stephenson, whose post includes a bunch of other good links on various topics.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Kent Gatewood writes:

The market is right (prime directive).

The market might be wrong in this case, but just not in America. Don't libertarians let people live or die with the consequences of their actions?

As a conservative I'm conflicted between lessening the US's dependence on dictators and keeping desperate third worlders from destroying their homes.

Econ in AK writes:

There real problem is that solving the 'Carbon Crisis' involves (at least 3) crucial steps - not just a magical cure all (Ethanol - it's not a magic cure all).

- First, yes, improve the cellulosic-splitting enyzme. Making ethanol out of corn isn't the future, first of all, it isn't as clean, secondly, the yield is lower, and lastly, it's a slower growing crop which is more expensive to raise. An acre of corn yields about 200 gallons of ethanol. An acre of switchgrass, a fast-growing weed I used to spend hours picking out of my dad's corn fields, can yield about 1100 gallons of ethanol. This is the first step - more efficient production.

- Next, because ethanol doesn't have the same energy capacity, we can't all keep driving the same SUV's. Fuel efficiency and hybrid technology must be advanced.

- Thirdly, smarter city planning. Commute times, and home/office locations should be taken more seriously. People are starting to get it now (congestion/cost/tolls), but it will take awhile before the distance from home-school-work can be reigned in. Basically, suburban sprawl is costly.

The market will move towards these objectives naturally in my opinion, unless battery technology or hydrogen technology takes a big step forward (towards becoming cost efficient).

The MIT guy is being a bit melodramatic in that we're going to hack down the remaining sequoias (or whatever) to turn into fuel. A more likely solution is that we can grow 2-3 crops of switchgrass per year in areas that aren't being utilized right now anyway. Also, it should be noted that for a good chunk of history, the American Midwest was considered a desert. It was basically a treeless landscape of khaki-colored native grasses. Switchgrass is one of those, IIRC. There's others that make for good cellulosic ethanol as well.

Let's not roast this industry over the coals just yet, it's still quite young and big things are possible given enough time.

Dezakin writes:
There real problem is that solving the 'Carbon Crisis' involves (at least 3) crucial steps - not just a magical cure all (Ethanol - it's not a magic cure all).

Ethanol has almost nothing to do with carbon emitions. CO2 emitions from coal powered plants exceeds the US transportation emitions, and can all be replaced at modest cost with nuclear power plants. Ethanol isn't a substitute and cant even be scaled up to US demand, let alone global demand.

Jeremy writes:

i think that worrying about this now is unnecessary. there is still alot of crude oil left to be drilled and who knows by then we may have invented a better burning ethanol. and i personally think that in america we produce enough garbage that could be used to fuel cars so that we wouldnt have to drain our landscapes for fuel.

zoevans writes:

I fail to see the ethanol/gasoline problem. It’s clear that our oil supply is diminishing rather quickly, and there might be some truth in what John Baden believes. If we had to solely rely on ethanol as our source of fuel it just might end up disastrous. I find it hard to believe we would level our nation, because we have millions of acres of non-inhabited land which we could grow Switchgrass or perhaps cud zoo which also grows extremely fast and our problem would be solved.
I find it much more promising that hydro car will be in production soon, long before we completely turn to ethanol. October 17 of this year, Ford and BP have “Opened a New Hydrogen Station to Fuel Ford Focus Fuel Cells Being Used as Official City Vehicles” ( in Tyler, Michigan. It’s believed that by 2015 the Hydro car will be in production, eliminating the fuel problem altogether.

Bob Knaus writes:

Wow. Do people just not get it? The actual fuel used in cars doesn't matter. BTUs are BTUs. Some substances carry the BTUs more compactly than others. Some substances burn with fewer pollutants than others. Some substances are easier to manufacure than others. Fuel capacity, emissions control, and cat cracking are engineering problems. So far, they've been reasonably easy to solve.

The real problem is the source of the BTUs. If they come from burning coal, oil, or natural gas, they add CO2 to the atmosphere. If they come from biomass, nuclear, wind, solar, tidal, hydro, etc., they don't.

That problem is an economics problem, because all of the non-CO2-contributing energy sources have a higher cost per BTU. If you're in favor of government action on the issue, you should be pushing for research into technologies that LOWER THE COST of alternative energy sources. Only when they are cheaper than oil, gas, and coal will we solve the problems of CO2 emissions.

Econ in AK writes:

Ethanol might be a non-issue if car companies could allow themselves to realize some sunk costs and engineer a passenger car similar to the Tesla roadster. It would mean employing a radically different frame, and other building processes.

The 'Tesla' is an electric car that costs pennies per mile and goest 0-60 in 3.9 seconds. It's got a long range too. Sticker price is about $75,000, if you can get one. Real quick, it looks like I'll feed my truck about $15,000 worth of gas over my 5-year loan on it. That's nearly as much as I paid for it.

Check it out if you haven't heard of it.

One problem the electric cars faced is they were designed by auto engineers, not computer/electrical engineers.

Clint writes:

Yes I must agree with you on this. Killing our forests isn't usually in the eyes of those wanting cheap fuel but yet it is when your working for the national forest or etc. This could not only take away jobs, but create new ones. Its good in some ways and very bad in other ways. The demand for fuel is high as we seen this summer even with gas being sky high people still flocked to the pumps blowing their money. Does American society ever change their ways? Or will it take millions of acres of lands being destroyed for the point to get across something needs to change...maybe a bike could get me from point A to poing B if I just left 10 minutes earlier to go five miles...hell I ride a bike everyday and 5 miles is nothing!

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top