The corn-based ethanol producers in Iowa and elsewhere must be throwing money at their congressmen as their industry is starting to look more and more threatened, both short term (high corn and low crude prices) and long term(Do we need corn-based gasoline when we are awash in domestic crude oil?). And we haven’t heard much about biodiesel recently, though this is more of a European issue, where diesel is a much more important car and truck fuel.
A recent story in the January 29th issue of New York Times is very timely. It points out that in almost every way, it is very clear that growing a crop on purpose for making a biofuel does not make sense versus other alternatives to generate useful energy while keeping a low carbon profile. As far as ethanol is concerned, it has always been obvious that growing corn for the purpose of making gasoline is very poor practice, given the effect on corn price, the world’s growing need for food (70 percent more required globally in 2050) and the world’s decreasing amount of arable land. It is true that oxygenates (including alcohols, including ethanol) are in fact, needed in relatively limited quantities to blend with gasoline for producing a clean combustion mixture for cars, but technology for making ethanol from crop wastes (e.g.cornstalks), switchgrass, etc has been commercialized in Europe and is now in operation at an Ineos plant in Vero Beach, Florida that uses wood waste and non-food plant wastes and makes 8 million gallons a year of ethanol while sending 6 megawatts of power to the local community.. A 25 million gallons per day cellulosic ethanol plant using crop wastes built jointly by Poet and DSM is about to start up in Des Moines, Iowa. Others are planned, though the amount of potential feedstock is limited and logistically difficult to assemble and transport to processing units versus corn, which is already collected in large silos, giving a ready-made infrastructure. In any case, cellulosic (nor corn-based) ethanol technology should be the only process receiving government subsidies under the Renewable Fuels Standard. Renewable energy costs from solar are now quite low: the article points out that solar panels are 50 times more efficient at capturing the energy of sunlight than growing corn on purpose for making biofuel(!).
Another use of biomass is also coming under criticism. An increasing amount of wood, converted into pellets, is being substituted in Europe and the U.S. for coal as part of a strategy to replace fossil fuels. Newer thinking is that it would be better to let the trees stand to capture more carbon and again rely instead on solar and wind energy to replace conventional fuels.
Fundamentally, we are talking about sunlight or wind power converted into energy. If the world were facing a dramatic decline in crude oil and natural gas production and alternative technology were not economical or practical, biofuels might be an answer (except for coal and nuclear). But is is now obvious that “peak oil” will not be reached any time soon. So we don’t need to make biofuels from perfectly good edible corn. Some of the corn-based ethanol plants could be converted to non-corn based cellulosics. So, let’s ease off on “gasohol” and do the right thing carbon-wise! Congress and the Administration, are you listening?