Friday, February 6, 2009

Ethanol | Worse than Gasoline

... says a study from the University of Minnesota on corn-based ethanol

Ethanol continues to get hammered as another study, this time from the University of Minnesota, says the costs are much higher than originally anticipated, and is higher than gasoline when taking into account all factors.

Health, environmental factors make conventional ethanol costly, but the market for alternative fuels is tanking

As noted in The New York Times yesterday, researchers from the University of Minnesota compared the cost of corn-based ethanol to the cost of gasoline and found that ethanol costs more when environmental and health factors are included.

The process of making ethanol is energy-intensive, and the most expensive ethanol is made with corn in facilities that burn cheap but polluting coal.

According to the study, “Climate change and health costs of air emissions from biofuels and gasoline,” the numbers are grim.

“For each billion ethanol-equivalent gallons of fuel produced and combusted in the U.S., the combined climate-change and health costs are $469 million for gasoline, $472–952 million for corn ethanol … but only $123–208 million for cellulosic ethanol [ethanol derived from prairie biomass, corn stalks, switchgrass or other sources],” the study says.

The huge range of cost for corn ethanol is due to the different methods used to produce the fuel. The $952 million number is for ethanol made using coal, a method that’s being used in an increasing number of ethanol facilities.

As Grist noted back in 2006, “More and more ethanol manufacturers are looking to power their plants with cheap coal instead of its cleaner and increasingly expensive competitor, natural gas, thereby potentially limiting ethanol’s environmental benefits.”

The University of Minnesota study includes charts and maps, including one that shows a big, dark red blotch — next to New Mexico — that indicates where corn ethanol is made with coal.

Without those handy state border lines it’s a little hard to tell what’s what in those pictures above. But here’s another map that puts it in better perspective:

The map is a little old; there are now three plants in operation in Texas and seven more planned.

That green dot in New Mexico is the Abengoa Bioenergy plant in Portales. Built in 1985, it was producing 30 million gallons of ethanol before a temporary shutdown in October due to fluctuations in both the grain and oil markets.

Most of the city of Portales gets its power from Xcel Energy, which sells power generated New Mexico and Texas, including two coal fired power plants in West Texas. About half of Xcel’s power — 52 percent — comes from coal; 41 percent comes from natural gas and 7 percent comes from wind and other renewables.

“The coal plants run about 24-7 because its the least expensive and the most efficient,” says Wes Reeves of Xcel.

More than 70 percent of New Mexico’s power is generated at two coal-fired plants near Farmington (pdf). Carbon dioxide emissions from coal make up more than half of the emissions from power plants in New Mexico.

Because producing ethanol is so energy intensive, many ethanol plants don’t buy electricity; they either buy natural gas or they have their own power plants, which burn coal or other fuel, such as cow poop.

When the Abengoa plant is running, it uses the cleaner, but more expensive, natural gas. Abengoa, which is headquartered in Spain, does not have any coal-fired ethanol plants, says Vice President Christopher Stanley.

The Portales ethanol plant had to close temporarily because the high price of grain sorghum and milo — the raw ingredients it uses to make ethanol — is relatively high, while the price of gasoline, which largely determines the price of ethanol, is low.

“It’s all market-driven,” Stanley says. “It’s our intention to resume production as soon as the market improves.”

And the market is not good. As the Times noted earlier this week, the crummy economy and the credit crisis have put a serious dent in the market for alternative energy. Companies that make wind turbines and solar panels have all laid off workers; biomass and geothermal groups have also seen a slowdown. Meanwhile, the falling price of oil has put a kink in alternative fuels’ chain.

One ethanol plant in Hereford, Texas, which broke ground in 2005, planned to use manure from nearby dairy farms rather than natural gas or coal for power. But less than two weeks ago, the company, Hereford Biofuels, filed for bankruptcy and announced it was putting the still-unfinished plant up for sale.

Algae-derived biodiesel is attractive in part because conventional biodiesel is made from soybeans, and like corn-based ethanol, is subject to the “food or fuel” debate. And demand for biodiesel is increasing; in 2007, the New Mexcio Legislature passed the Biodiesel Standards Act, which will require 5 percent biodiesel in state vehicles by 2010 and for all vehicles by 2012. The state is also offering tax credits to facilities that install blending equipment.

The Center of Excellence for Hazardous Materials Management, working in partnership with Los Alamos National Laboratory and New Mexico State University, has developed an algae biodiesel test project near Carlsbad.

“In Carlsbad we’re hoping to take microalgae to market. The project has the potential to make biodiesel that wouldn’t use a field crop but would take advantage of some wide open spaces and brine water,” says Fernando Martinez, director of the Energy Conservation and Management Division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

But is algae biodiesel economically viable? Last year, Doug Lynn, the center’s executive director, said he was cautiously optimistic that biodiesel could be produced from algae for $80 per barrel. That’s a lot better than last year’s $150 per barrel prices for oil, but not compared to the $40 we’re paying right now.

In the aftermath of yet another study critical of corn-based ethanol, ethanol backers are expressing frustration with what they consider faulty research.

Dr. Martha Schlicher is the former head of the National Corn to Ethanol Research Center and now vice president of Illinois River Energy. She says the recent University of Minnesota study, like others in the past, fails to recognize dramatic technology improvements occurring in corn ethanol production.

“Science grows and develops and gets perfected with time,” Schlicher says. “We have a willingness to accept that in the medical field—I think brain surgery and heart surgery have probably improved dramatically. Antibiotics have improved dramatically.”

In the Minnesota study, for example, Sclicher says researchers failed to mention that natural gas and electricity could eventually be eliminated from the ethanol production process, which would greatly alter its emission profile.

While negative to corn ethanol, the Minnesota study was very positive to cellulosic ethanol. However, Schlicher thinks it “over-promises” on the potential of cellulosics.

“If we think for a minute that cellulosic-based ethanol, or an advanced biofuel, is going to be perfect when it gets to market, we’ve got another think coming,” Schlicher says, “and then we’re right back to the same old starting point and we’ll never have an alternative to gasoline.”

Schlicher says cellulosic ethanol is an important part of our renewable future. But while it is being developed, she says America should optimize the base of production that it has today in corn ethanol.

Even with these continuous misguided and dishonest calls for ethanol as a biofuel, and even looking to the more expensive cellulosic ethanol as a future alternative to corn-based ethanol, it looks like its backers are looking at it as a form of environmental religion, as they continue to ignore the disaster that ethanol in whatever form it takes is.

1 comment:

Aaron said...

Too bad people that seem to have an almost religious fixation on ethonal don't look at the reality of the debacle. IT JUST DOESN'T WORK!

We need to just admit it, and go on from there. The ethonal industry is a artificial one propped up by taxpayer dollars. Even then it is so terrible companies are going bankrupt right and left because of the lack of a real market for it.

When and industry can't even surivie when it's subsidized, it's time to just get rid of it.

There's no real energy crisis at all, it's just a bunch of dishonest people who refuse to dril into their mother earth in order to extract the billions of barrels of oil - especially in America - where there's more oil in shale than there is in all of Saudi ARabia.

This doesn't even take into account the coastlines and billions more barrels in Alaska.

Shortage of oil? What shortage? It's a lie put forth to keep people and companies from getting access to the billions of barrels known to be available.

Ethonal is a joke, and the sooner we get rid of it the better.