A reader recently e-mailed me the following link from Reason Online:
An Open Letter to Vinod Khosla
This letter to Mr. Khosla, from a fellow Indian émigré, echoes a number of points I have made regarding Mr. Khosla and California’s Proposition 87. Some excerpts:
Now you have become the prophet of alternative fuels that, you believe, are going to revolutionize the energy industry, much as the internet revolutionized communications. You are impatient to cut by half President Bush six-year timetable to bring cellulosic ethanol produced from farm waste to the market.
But, with all due respect, even a man of your stellar track record can’t simply will markets to do his bidding; an economy is not a machine that can be manipulated according to its maker’s grand designs. If it were, India’s central planners would have made rivers of energy flow into every Indian home.
I understand that there are a lot of Khosla fans out there who think that letters like this, and my debunking of some of Khosla’s claims, are simply due to the fact that we just lack Khosla’s vision. But as I have pointed out, Mr. Khosla’s expertise in computers does not imply credibility on ethanol issues. I agree with Tad Patzek of UC-Berkeley, who said that Khosla may be a great guy, but asked if you would you allow him to do brain surgery on you. Or would you rather have someone qualified do it?
This is the disconnect that we have here. Khosla’s sycophants are quick to hand-wave away the technical problems, because they do not understand them. We aren’t talking about merely being able to throw a lot of money at this problem and solve it, or it would have been solved long ago. It is a tough nut to crack. I believe it will eventually be cracked, but progress will come in bits and spurts. (I also believe that we will eventually colonize Mars; we just won’t do it next year because significant hurdles remain – hurdles that require a lot more than cheerleading to overcome).
For you computer tech guys, consider this analogy. Let’s say I promise to mass-produce a 30 gigahertz personal computer in just 3 years. It will cost less than $500. Let’s say I successfully lobby the government for funding for my venture. Furthermore, let’s say that other important research gets pushed to the borders because people believe that my claim is credible. Now you, being knowledgeable about this sort of thing, start to critique and challenge my claims. Would I be justified in claiming that you are a naysayer and you merely lack vision? Or is it more likely that your criticisms are due to the fact that this is your area of expertise, and you understand the challenges that prevent the promise from being fulfilled in the time frame I have promised?
The bottom line on this is that it will be great if cellulosic ethanol scales up quickly (from essentially zero today) to displace a large fraction of our gasoline demand. I advocate a large amount of funding for cellulosic ethanol. But if we are counting on this, and making energy policy decisions based on this happening with a high degree of probability, then we are making a grave mistake.
(I hadn’t realized until I started formatting this that the following paragraph links to an essay that I did for The Oil Drum on Prop 87). More excerpts from the letter:
Proposition 87—which you are personally spending $1 million to promote—would force oil companies to pay taxes (or royalties, as you call them) for drilling privileges until the state has raised $4 billion for seed money toward alternative fuel ventures. You argue that California is the only state that does not collect drilling royalties, something that oil companies can well afford to pay given their “abnormally” high profits. But California imposes all kinds of other taxes that make its oil among the highest taxed in the country. Proposition 87 would raise these taxes another 50 percent, forcing Californians, who are already paying among the most exorbitant gas prices in the country, to forego energy consumption.
Your cause might involve very cutting-edge technologies, but you are promoting it with curiously outmoded economic thinking. It might be worth questioning your Prop 87 crusade by revisiting the lessons of failed policies from home.
If you have read my previous essays on Prop 87:
More on California’s Proposition 87
Then you know my feelings. Ironically, the “foregoing of energy consumption” mentioned above is one thing I think is a positive from Prop 87. However, this reduction in consumption is not what the proponents are promising. Furthermore, the proponents are conducting a very misleading campaign. I could give numerous examples, but I will give just one. The proponents claim time and time again that this is an excess profits tax. It is no such thing. It is an extraction tax. In theory, profits could be zero for an oil company, and they are still going to get taxed as long as the price of oil is above $$$.
Now, carefully consider this next passage:
Yet, the issue is, if ethanol has all the advantages you says it does—if it is renewable, cleaner, less volatile, more reliable, easily transportable etc.—surely you of all people could convince enough investors to cough up the $4 billion that Prop 87 would raise. Are you not turning to taxpayers because you don’t want to assume that kind of risk—and can’t convince fellow investors to either? That is hardly socially responsible.
Bingo. I have said this before. If all of the advantages that Khosla is claiming are real (including his claim of lower cost of production than gasoline!), then raising money for this shouldn’t be a problem. This should raise some caution flags.
However, I still think Prop 87 will pass. There is too much anger at oil companies, and the proponents have painted this as a way to get them back. Will the voters get what they think they are getting? I think not. I also think it is possible that there will a voter-backlash well before the fund-raising goals have been met. I am glad that I will get to watch this experiment play out from outside California.
Where oil companies have used the government to create barriers or tipped the playing field against alternative fuels, we should fix that. (And, no, it is not an illegitimate barrier, as you claim, when oil companies don’t install enough E-85 pumps in gas stations to distribute ethanol; not carrying products that don’t maximize your profits is not the same as impeding others from offering those products).
I have pointed this out to Mr. Khosla before. If oil companies aren’t installing enough E85 pumps to suit him, then he should build his own stations. Remember, Khosla has claimed a tremendous number of advantages for ethanol. So, why not convince investors to build a lot of E85 stations? Seems like a no-brainer, UNLESS ethanol isn’t quite at the stage Khosla claims it to be. (In fact, as I have pointed out previously, we can’t produce enough ethanol to justify a fraction of the E85 pumps Khosla demands).
Mr. Khosla hasn’t listened too much to what I have said to him during our exchanges. Or perhaps he listened and decided to ignore it. Either way, maybe the same message coming from a different source will garner his attention.
I Can’t Believe My Eyes
In the strange but true category, someone e-mailed me the following link:
Khosla: Ethanol Not Final Fuel
In this story, Khosla is quoted: “Contrary to what you might believe, I think it’s extremely unlikely that in 20 years we will be using any ethanol in cars.”
I simply don’t know what to make of this. He is pushing us to spend billions of dollars to roll out all of this ethanol infrastructure, and he thinks ethanol won’t be fueling our cars in 20 years? What about all of those charts and graphs showing us making 200 billion gallons of ethanol in 20 years? Has he had a change of heart? I don’t know, but this is about the last thing I expected to come out of his mouth.
Over at AutoblogGreen, one of the posters suggested that my debunking/dialogue with Khosla helped prompt a change of heart:
Khosla: Ethanol is just a stepping stone
While I would like to think that our discussions made some difference in his opinion, it was clear from talking to him that he was not going to be easy to budge from his position. At the moment, I am at a loss to explain his apparent about-face. Maybe this is just another example of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Khosla?
26 thoughts on “Another Khosla Critic”
As a 27 year old engineer in the semiconductor industry it is hard for me to understand why our government gives NASA a $16.5b yearly budget when the benefits for this program are most of the time transparent to the general public. I understand why NASA was formed (cold war), but why it still exists today (post-cold war) as a government agency is beyond me.
Yet you give this guy that is trying to rally support for getting an alternative energy industry off the ground a hard time because it isn’t the absolute best solution for our oil dependence problem. I beleive there were a lot of people that had a problem with the way we went about getting to the moon. But we still did it, mostly by throwing a lot of money at it. So what’s the big deal with ethanol? It sure beats not doing anything.
Yet you give this guy that is trying to rally support for getting an alternative energy industry off the ground a hard time because it isn’t the absolute best solution for our oil dependence problem.
You have missed the entire point. I am not giving him a hard time because this isn’t the absolute best solution. I am giving him a hard time because this is no solution at all, and yet he is lobbying governments to fund these ventures with taxpayer money. The very least is that the claims he is using while lobbying for this money should be vigorously challenged. That’s what I am doing. Also, by having an honest debate, instead of one based on misleading claims, perhaps we can get to a better solution.
So what’s the big deal with ethanol? It sure beats not doing anything.
Are you sure about that? If we take 1 BTU of fossil fuels, turn it into 1 BTU of ethanol plus some animal feed, deplete the topsoil and pollute the waterways while growing the corn, does it really beat not doing anything? That’s the whole debate here. Ethanol’s benefits, when taken in summary, are marginal. We can pursue better energy policy. We will only figure out what that policy should be by debating facts.
Please enlighten me with how growing corn for ethanol depletes topsoil any more than growing corn for food? Got any articles from AG trade journals you can point me to?
What happens to your argument when the ethanol source is switchgrass? I’ve got an empty lot behind my house full of weed/grass type plants that has absolutely no problem growing vigorously in the Texas heat with little water. Native prairie grasses are suppose to thrive much the same way.
To call ethanol not a solution is like calling building new roads to ease traffic problems not a solution. Sure it would be cheaper, less of an environmental impact, and a quicker solution to try to convice everyone to drive the exact same speed. But that’s not going to happen, just like having an energy policy based on petrolium that will allow for a clean and safe world isn’t going to happen either.
I applaud you for attempting to stick up for the taxpayer. The problem is the taxpayer whether they like it or not is funding big oil. The effective tax rates for big oil are significantly lower than that of other large companies. By leveling the playing field we could provide plenty of research money for alternatives. Your call for vigorously challenging claims is the right thing to do, lets just make sure we vigorously challenge both sides.
Please enlighten me with how growing corn for ethanol depletes topsoil any more than growing corn for food?
By encouraging expansion of the process. All of these ethanol plants increase demand for corn, which leads to expansion on marginal lands. You are right, though, that growing corn for food also depletes the topsoil. Topsoil depletion has toppled many civilizations. And according to this, 75% of our original topsoil has been depleted. Corn growing is one of the worst offenders. All of this “green” ethanol business encourages that. I am an environmentalist, but I think ethanol is causing more harm than good.
What happens to your argument when the ethanol source is switchgrass?
That’s the big question, isn’t it? I was turning switchgrass into ethanol in grad school. It is an energy intensive and capital intensive process. At some point, someone probably will figure out an economic way to do it. And government should fund research into this. But Khosla has made promises that merely hand-wave away the technical challenges. The message that the public gets is “everything is going to be OK”, when the message should be “we are going to have to get serious about conservation.”
To call ethanol not a solution is like calling building new roads to ease traffic problems not a solution.
Would it be a solution if we built the new roads on top of the old ones? That’s the point. The energy balance for corn ethanol is so poor that you don’t gain much, if any, from the fossil fuel inputs. Instead of converting 1 BTU of natural gas into 1 BTU of ethanol, why not just use the natural gas directly as a transportation fuel?
I’ve just read your original post debunking Khosla’s claims and the one about your conversation. I have to say I truly admire your conviction and the pains you took to argue your position so convincingly.
I’m not fan of Vinod Khosla but I do admire what he has achieved. At the same time I too believe strongly that ethanol is not the correct solution and I share your concerns about legislation and developments for its production.
I think Khosla is a sensible person and although biased, eventually he would see the truth when confronted with it. My guess is that your conversation with him led him to question and recheck his fundamental assumtions. As a result of which we now see him taking back some of his support for ethanol. If so, it is a wonderful achievement for you and a great example of the power of internet.
Personally, and again I agree with you, it’s electricity from renewable sources that is the ideal solution for the looming energy crisis. Energy storage alternatives such as ultracapacitors and rooftop concentrated solar power devices are on the threshold of becoming feasible and cost competitive. Why aren’t the research billions being poured into these technologies I have no clue.
Anon, “Please enlighten me with how growing corn for ethanol depletes topsoil any more than growing corn for food?”
Growing corn for food and growing corn for ethanol both abuse the soil and environment. One of the biggest marketing scams Corn Belt politicans and the ethanol cartel have gotten away with is convincing most people that corn ethanol is a renewable and sustainable fuel. Corn ethanol is neither, and fuel alcohol made from corn is totally dependent on consuming “unrenewables” mostly in the form of natural gas and diesel fuel. (High fructose corn syrup, corn flakes, and the pork chop you ate that was cut from a corn-fed hog are also all totally dependent on consuming “unrenewables.”)
90% of the nitrogen fertilizer corn farmers must use is made from natural gas. Take away that natural gas-based fertilizer and there would be no modern, industrial corn farming. (It is possible to grow corn in a sustainable manner — the Amish do it all the time w/o using fossil fuel energy inputs, but the Amish also rotate crops and are true stewards of the soil. But their yields are also only about a third of that of the industrial corn farmers in the Midwest Corn Belt. How do you think an Iowa corn farmer would react if you asked him to adopt the Amish way of growing corn and actually become sustainable?)
The truth is that industrial corn farming and ethanol plants are both addicted to fossil fuels, and the claims of the ethanol cartel that they produce more energy than they consume doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny.
You’re an engineer, so let me ask you this? What has always been the traditional test for a perpetual motion machine when an inventor claims it produces more energy than it consumes?
For years the U.S. Patent Office has tested the validity of such claims by asking the inventor to connect the output to the input and see how long the machine runs. (If you know anything about thermodynamics, you know that those machines immediately sputter to a stop when trying to power themselves.)
Unfortunately, no one has ever made the ethanol industry connect the “output to the input” to see if corn ethanol is truly sustainable.
Before Congress puts another dollar of taxpayer money into ethanol subsidies, they should first make the ethanol industry pass this test: “OK boys, if what you say is true, connect the output to the input and let’s see if it keeps running.”
Anon said, “What happens to your argument when the ethanol source is switchgrass? I’ve got an empty lot behind my house full of weed/grass type plants that has absolutely no problem growing vigorously in the Texas heat with little water.”
The only hope for fuel ethanol is cellulosic made from plants such as switchgrass. But, never forget, there is no free lunch.
Weeds and switchgrass grow behind your house, but have they ever been harvested? Once they are harvested, the nutrients in the soil that made them grow go away along with the grass and weeds. If you attempted to harvest switch grass from the same field year after year, the soil in that field will soon be dead unless you somehow replenish the nutrients. And how do you replenish that soil? A constant application of fertilizer is one way as industrial corn farmers do; or you could do as the Amish and rotate crops, apply waste from the farm animals, and even sometimes let a field lay fallow for a year or two to collect moisture.)
Switchgrass may require less fertilizer and water than corn (almost every crop consumes less “unrenewables” than corn) but you still have to somehow replenish the soil if you expect to harvest switchgrass from the same fields year after year. You can’t continually take energy from the soil w/o replenishing it.
And as Robert said, we also don’t yet know how energy intensive it will be to convert cellulose to ethanol, or even if it is actually possible, or economically feasible.
Personally, I would like to see us make fuel ethanol from the cellulose in the billions of tons of leaves that fall to the ground each autumn. (That thought occured to me while raking my lawn last weekend.) But I don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.
I never said corn ethanol was the final answer. But to say it isn’t a step in the right direction is foolish. If you look at any of the latest research reports (within the last couple of years) you’ll find that even the least efficient ethonal production process is energy positive at around 1.3 BTU output for every 1 BTU input into the process. The whole reason I stumbled upon this blog is because I read an article on Khosla’s E3 plant that is 5:1 energy positive. I was looking for more information and found Robert’s criticism.
What you are forgetting is that ethanol production is a business. Businesses are in the business of making money. With competition the ethonal industry will continue to increase efficiency. Which means corn will get replaced by higher energy potential plants like switchgrass. By-products will get put back into the energy chain. Plus no matter what, we need to provide at least 10% of our gasoline consumption with ethanol to replace MTBE in the form of E10 blend. I don’t think we can produce that much yet.
And I can already hear the rebutal that farmers and ethanol producers are getting too much government money. Well farmers have been getting kickbacks for bumper crops for decades and the ethanol companies aren’t getting any more than big oil. At least the money is staying on our shores instead of funding some Saudi prince or crazy Venezuelan.
The other point being debated here (which I would like to say has been civil and enjoyable, thanks!) is soil erosion by widespread farming. On the corn side (again I’m not an advocate for it as the final solution), we have been farming corn for 200+ years. Large scale corn production for at least the last 50 years. As much as I could find online, crop yeilds are up. One of the results of soil erosion is decreased yield. What sense does that make? For the switchgrass case, water and fertilizer requirements are much lower than that of corn. That’s why it has the upside of being much more energy positive.
One last thing, please don’t put any engineer on the same level as someone working at the USPTO. When I graduated college I entertained a job offer at the USPTO. Those that work there are not only the lowest achieving technical people available (who would want to make $35k/yr in Arlington, VA?… those with no other choice) but the system is rediculous. I have a degree in Microelectronic Engineering (the science behind semiconductor processing), and yet they would have placed me in a group responsible for telecommunication patents.
Thanks Robert for the fun exchange of thoughts.
– Eric in Austin, TX
I never said corn ethanol was the final answer. But to say it isn’t a step in the right direction is foolish.
Of course it’s not foolish, Eric. I don’t think the implications of the energy balance have sunk in. Let’s try this again. Let’s say that it takes 1 BTU of fossil fuel to produce 0.8 BTUs of corn ethanol. Some studies actually suggest that this is the real number, once all of the inputs and externalities have been accounted for. Now, let’s just assume for a moment that this is in fact the case. Would corn ethanol still be a step in the right direction? In this example, every BTU of corn ethanol would cost more burning of fossil fuels than had the fossil fuels been directly consumed.
The whole reason I stumbled upon this blog is because I read an article on Khosla’s E3 plant that is 5:1 energy positive. I was looking for more information and found Robert’s criticism.
First off, E3 is not Khosla’s plant. Second, E3 is definitely a step in the right direction, and I have written positively about what they are attempting. I have spoken to their project manager at length on the phone, and I have a copy of their energy model. But, they are not up and running yet, so any claims about energy return at this point are speculative.
Plus no matter what, we need to provide at least 10% of our gasoline consumption with ethanol to replace MTBE in the form of E10 blend.
That’s only in regions with RFG requirements, and current ethanol production is great enough to fill that demand. You may be interested in an article that I just had published in Financial Sense, where I reviewed my predictions on the ethanol bubble:
The Ethanol Bubble has Burst
One of the results of soil erosion is decreased yield. What sense does that make?
The yields will decrease once the topsoil erosion is great enough to impact the root system of the crops. If you have 10 feet of topsoil, and now you have 3 feet, your crop yields won’t yet feel it. If you get down to 6 inches, you bet your yields will go down.
Robert Rapier (who spent 15 years in Texas)
Anonymous posted at 8:48 AM: “…I read an article on Khosla’s E3 plant that is 5:1 energy positive.”
If I’m not mistaken, and I believe I am not, Mr. Khosla has no association with the E3 project in Mead, NE outside of perhaps a pat on the back endorsement. Secondly, E3’s estimate of a 5:1 return is conceptual. The complex should be operational by November of 2006.
My apologies for linking Khosla to E3, I was under the impression his investment company has invested in E3. After re-reading the Wired article, that link was not made.
Robert, the energy balance has sunk in, but it seems like you and I disagree on what the balance looks like for corn based ethanol production. Is there any reason not to beleive
Natural Resource Defense Council?
So is the Pimentel/Patzek publication an outlier like these other publications suggest, or is everyone else wrong in their assumptions? As an engineer the procedure in defining and modelling the energy balance in these papers makes sense, so what am I missing?
As far the MTBE replacement goes this report (couple of years old now) shows that the 2004 projected consumption of ethanol for MTBE replacement was 2.73 billion gallons and the 2003 estimated ethanol capacity was only 2.86 billion gallons. Sure it’s covered, but doesn’t leave much ethanol for anything else does it?
Robert, the energy balance has sunk in, but it seems like you and I disagree on what the balance looks like for corn based ethanol production.
Actually, we probably don’t. I actually accept that the energy balance is probably in the range of 1.0-1.3. I used 0.8 to show you why it isn’t necessarily foolish to say corn ethanol might not be a step in the right direction. One thing all of those studies that you mentioned have in common is that they admittedly omit certain inputs into the calculation (all of the secondary inputs). In addition, they don’t attempt to quantify things like soil erosion, or the dead zones that have been created in the Gulf of Mexico due to pesticide and herbicide runoffs from industrial corn operations. So, understand that those estimates you linked to are actually on the very high side, given that they omit inputs. So, is corn ethanol a step in the right direction? That’s what the debate is all about. The only way to figure that out is to debate all of the facts out in the open.
As far the MTBE replacement goes this report (couple of years old now) shows that the 2004 projected consumption of ethanol for MTBE replacement was 2.73 billion gallons and the 2003 estimated ethanol capacity was only 2.86 billion gallons.
Current ethanol capacity in the U.S. is about 4.5 billion gallons.
Eric said, “One last thing, please don’t put any engineer on the same level as someone working at the USPTO.”
Oh I don’t know Eric. Albert Einstein got his start in a patent office reviewing inventions and he didn’t do badly. 🙂
My point was that the Patent Office has had a lot of experience reviewing proposals where an inventor thought he had come up with a machine that produced more energy than it consumed. They simply ask the inventor to connect the output to the input and see if it keeps running.
Whether an engineer is a Nobel laureate or graduated last in his class at Buzzard’s Breath Tech, it is not difficult to ask why no one has applied that same classic test to the ethanol industry.
Eric said, “So is the Pimentel/Patzek publication an outlier like these other publications suggest, or is everyone else wrong in their assumptions? As an engineer the procedure in defining and modelling the energy balance in these papers makes sense, so what am I missing?”
If those studies that say making ethanol produces more energy than it consumes are correct, the ethanol industry should be able to connect the output to the input and show they can continue making ethanol without fossil fuel inputs. So far they haven’t done that. Why do you think that is?
I repeat: Before our lawmakers throw any more money at the corn ethanol industry, they should ask Big Ethanol to pass this test: “Connect the output to the input, and let’s see if it keeps running.”
If making corn ethanol really produces more energy than it consumes, they could pass that test. My opinion is they couldn’t even come close, which I suspect is the primary reason they have never tried.
Eric said, “What you are forgetting is that ethanol production is a business. Businesses are in the business of making money.”
We haven’t forgotten that. How profitable do you think the ethanol industry would be without tax credits, subsidies, and protective tariffs? Right now, that government support and protection is the only reason ethanol — particularly corn ethanol — is a money maker for farmers and ethanol plants.
That is also the primary reason why venture capitalists such as Vinod Khosla are eager to invest in ethanol. What kind of investment could be safer than one where a profit is guaranteed by tax credits, subsidies, and protective tariffs?
Gary said..If those studies that say making ethanol produces more energy than it consumes are correct, the ethanol industry should be able to connect the output to the input and show they can continue making ethanol without fossil fuel inputs. So far they haven’t done that. Why do you think that is?
Take the 5 minutes and read the reports I linked to in my last post. They clearly show that the amount of fossil fuel input to create ethanol is lower than the amount of energy the ethanol creates. Nobody ever said you didn’t need fossil fuels to produce ethanol. The fact is that the fossil fuel requirements for ethanol are lower than they are gasoline. That’s why ethanol should be called an alternative fuel instead of a renewable.
Robert said..One thing all of those studies that you mentioned have in common is that they admittedly omit certain inputs into the calculation (all of the secondary inputs). In addition, they don’t attempt to quantify things like soil erosion, or the dead zones that have been created in the Gulf of Mexico due to pesticide and herbicide runoffs from industrial corn operations.
Why didn’t they include these secondary inputs? Because you can’t put numbers to them. Are you an advocate of solar energy? Should I share with you all the nasty “secondary inputs” that solar cell manufacturing should have included in its energy balance equation?
There is going to be an ugly side to any alternative energy argument. It would be one thing if we only needed energy for stationary objects. It is quite the challenge to create energy and store it for transportation and mobile applications. Maybe we need life size electric slot cars tied into an electric grid powered by nuclear? Could solve the traffic problem we talked about before!
The fact is that the fossil fuel requirements for ethanol are lower than they are gasoline.
Depends on what you mean by “requirements.” If you consume 1 BTU of fuel to produce either ethanol or gasoline, you end up with 1.0 BTU of ethanol (plus some animal feed), or 5 BTUs of gasoline. That is because it takes a lot less energy to extract oil from the ground than it does to grow corn.
Why didn’t they include these secondary inputs? Because you can’t put numbers to them.
Of course you can put numbers to some of them. The USDA, in their report, said they didn’t include secondary inputs (inputs for building the ethanol plant, for instance) because the numbers they had were outdated. Therefore, they just left them out. But in doing so, we have to recognize that the actual energy return is less than the claimed return. The Berkeley group, in their recent letter to Science, also acknowledged that we somehow have to factor in costs for soil erosion, etc. But since it isn’t easy to do this, it gets ignored.
That’s the important point here. Ethanol is a marginal energy return fuel (at best), and several factors are being omitted from the equation. Therefore, it must be very carefully evaluated. In fact, we won’t know whether corn ethanol actually is a step in the right direction until we do so.
Are you an advocate of solar energy? Should I share with you all the nasty “secondary inputs” that solar cell manufacturing should have included in its energy balance equation?
I am an advocate of solar. The difference is that the energy return for solar is much greater than for ethanol, so those secondary inputs won’t affect the energy balance by much. Direct capture of solar energy, as compared to photosynthesis and all the energy intensive steps required to make ethanol, is no contest. But we certainly do need to factor in those secondary inputs. What you will find is that they don’t matter much.
There is going to be an ugly side to any alternative energy argument.
What we have to do is figure out if the ugly side outweighs the good side. That’s what we are trying to do here.
One more point, which has been alluded to but not states explicitly: All of the analyses that show corn ethanol to have a positive energy return ratio are including various secondary products (animal feed and other materials). These secondary products are assigned an energy value based on the idea that they offset energy that would otherwise be used to produce them elsewhere.
That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it carries the implicit and often unexamined assumption that there is an effectively infinite market for these secondary products, relative to the planned scale for the production of ethanol. That’s not necessarily a safe assumption. If the market for secondary products becomes saturated, such that they are no longer offsetting production, their benefits to the energy balance basically evaporate.
RR can correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that even the most ardent corn ethanol proponent admits that the energy offset of these secondary products are essential to maintaining a positive energy balance. So if the market there is saturated, you could find yourself going from a return ratio of 1.3 to a return ratio of 0.8 (a net loss) overnight.
This is the whole problem with trying to create an equation for energy balance. You are convoluting an energy analysis with a cost analysis. Which way do you want it?
If you are strictly interested in the energy analysis what you really want to know is how much liquid transportation grade energy can you get out of the natural resources God blessed us with. How you get to that final number depends on if you are looking at a holistic petroleum process (gasoline) or a combination of processes that gives you ethanol or any other alternative. Since we all know (at least we should if you got a H.S. diploma) that energy is neither created or destroyed. So the equation really boils down to good record keeping of where the energy goes. And this is the crux of the problem. None of our accountants can seem to agree on which variables should be on the left side of the equation and which ones should be on the right side of the equation. Until that happens this debate will continue.
From the cost analysis perspective, there really isn’t a need for argument. The MBA’s of the world are off jump starting the ethanol industry with new businesses. Usually the first thing you do when you want to start a business is create your business model which includes your cost analysis. If you can’t make money, why start the business? Sure they get $.51/gal in fed incentives. I’m not so sure big oil doesn’t get more. It’s part of the game right now. So let’s level the playing field and let true capitalism work. I’ll bet you a dollar that the “green” guys are banking on the consumer at some point saying it’s worth more to buy E85 that lines the pockets of Americans than the gas that comes from foreign oil. It’s the same reason I don’t shop at Chinamart, I mean Walmart.
While I’m at it…
Robert said … I am an advocate of solar. The difference is that the energy return for solar is much greater than for ethanol, so those secondary inputs won’t affect the energy balance by much. Direct capture of solar energy, as compared to photosynthesis and all the energy intensive steps required to make ethanol, is no contest. But we certainly do need to factor in those secondary inputs. What you will find is that they don’t matter much.
You really don’t understand PV manufacturing. There is no doubt that PV’s output much more energy over the typical 30yr lifetime of the panel than a gallon of ethonal. You’re blatantly ignoring the secondary factors in the manufacturing process. I’ll try to find a comprehensive study of the environemental impact on PV manufacturing. The water, energy, chemical, and raw material usage per square mm of PV is huge. In the meantime, google “silicon supply”. The whole reason PV’s are expensive right now is that there is short supply of purified silicon. Think thats going to get better with widespread use of PV’s? Of course there are other innovations on the horizon like printable solar cells on flexible plastic films. Too bad those films come from petroleum!
I’ve spent too much time on here the last couple of days. Been fun.
Eric said, “None of our accountants can seem to agree on which variables should be on the left side of the equation and which ones should be on the right side of the equation. Until that happens this debate will continue.”
It doesn’t require accountants. All it requires is someone with the courage to ask the ethanol industry to do the ultimate, and traditional test of schemes that are supposed to produce more energy than they consume: “OK, connect the output to the input and let’s see if it keeps running.”
You never have addressed why the ethanol industry shouldn’t be able to pass that basic test if the claims of their accountants are true. 🙂
Eric said, “The fact is that the fossil fuel requirements for ethanol are lower than they are gasoline.”
Why do you think that? If you believe that you are falling into the same trap Vinod Khosla has fallen into and have confused efficiency with energy return on energy invested.
It’s true that for each gallon of rock oil taken from the ground we get only about 0.80 gallons of liquid fuels. But that doesn’t mean fossil fuels have an EROEI of only 0.8 to 1.
The present day EROEI of fossil fuels is probably in the range of 5:1 and may be as high as 10:1 from some oil fields.
And in the early days of the oil industry when oil was near the surface and gushed out of the ground under its own pressure, the EROEI may even been as high as 100:1.
The reason for the positive EROEI of oil is that nature did all the heavy lifting. Nature provided the energy and nutrients to grow organic matter over millions of years, and then provided even more energy in the form of heat and pressure to metamorphose that organic material into petroleum.
All we had to do was tap into those reservoirs of stored free energy and then use fractional distallation to separate the different hydrocarbon molecules into useful fuels such as gasoline, naptha, kerosene, jet fuel, bunker oil, paraffin, etc.
Nature provided the energy needed — free of charge — to grow organic material and convert it to a liquid. We only have to find it, get it out of the ground, and separate the molecules into useable fuels. (The reason the EROEI of oil has dropped from 100:1 to 5:1 is obviously because we now have to work harder to find it, tap into it, and transport it from Middle Eastern, Nigerian, or Venezulean oil fields.)
On the other hand, when we make corn ethanol, we have to provide and pay for ALL the nutrients and energy — other than sunlight — needed to grow the organic material (corn), metamorphose the starch into a liquid fuel (ethyl alcohol), and to separate the alcohol from water.
It takes a massive amount of energy and resources to make corn ethanol duplicating what nature provided free of charge over millions of years.
Green Engineer said, “But it carries the implicit and often unexamined assumption that there is an effectively infinite market for these secondary products, relative to the planned scale for the production of ethanol. That’s not necessarily a safe assumption. If the market for secondary products becomes saturated, such that they are no longer offsetting production, their benefits to the energy balance basically evaporate.”
You have said what I have said many times, only much more eloquently.
If we ever go into massive production of corn ethanol, we will never be able to get rid of the massive piles of the dried distiller’s grains (DDG) that will surround ethanol plants. On a micro-scale, cattle farmers can provide a market for DDG, but on macro-scale, no one will be able to use all the DDG that will be produced.
Ethanol plants will begin to look like the old coal mines in Wales that are surrounded by huge slag heaps, only the slag piles around ethanol plants will be huge mounds of DDG.
The ethanol industry’s accountants can only make corn ethanol a net energy positive by crediting DDG. You are absolutley right, if no one wants or can use that DDG, that energy credit becomes worthless and corn ethanol immediately becomes a net negative.
In my last 3 posts (and most importantly my 1st post) I never once mentioned corn. The only times I have mentioned corn is when it has been brought up as a reason not to invest in ethanol, such as the soil erosion argument. In those same instances I made sure that I wasn’t an advocate of corn-based ethanol production.
Let’s not forget that ethanol can be produced without corn.
Eric said, “Let’s not forget that ethanol can be produced without corn.”
That’s quite true Eric, but all the hub-bub and momentum in the U.S. right now for fuel ethanol is for corn-based ethanol.
I’m guessing probably 95% of the ethanol being made in the U.S. now is made from corn and that other 5% is being made industrially for use as a chemical solvent, or being made from grapes, wheat, rye, barley, and rice for recreational drinking.
The sole reason for the current fuel ethanol bubble and those tax credits, subsidies, and protective tariffs that make growing corn and turning it into ethanol profitable, is Corn Belt politics.
If you follow any of the marketing the ethanol lobby is now doing, you’ll see they feature a cartoon character called “Corncob Bob,” not a puppet named “Sadie Switchgrass.”
I don’t oppose research into cellulosic ethanol and do hope it pans out. But the current ethanol industry is corn-based — and unfortunately, making fuel ethanol from corn is woefully inefficient both in terms of energy and resources consumed.
By the way: You still haven’t answered why the corn ethanol industry should not be able to pass the basic test of schemes that say they produce more energy than they consume: “OK, connect the output to the input and let’s see if it keeps running.”
For more (much more) about the politics, economics, and ecological impact of industrial corn farming, read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Gary Dikkers: All it requires is someone with the courage to ask the ethanol industry to do the ultimate, and traditional test of schemes that are supposed to produce more energy than they consume: “OK, connect the output to the input and let’s see if it keeps running.”
I’m sorry, but this is absurd. No single energy sector passes that test today. Oil refineries use massive amounts of electricity from coal, nuclear, hydro, etc. Wind turbines are built in electrified plants and transported on diesel trucks. We live in an integrated energy infrastructure. To truly “connect the input to the output” you would have spend billions on a parallel single-fuel infrastructure. And even then it’d be a poor test, because the parallel infrastructure would lack scale and thus operate inefficiently.
EROEI attempts to address the issue on paper. EROEI is also imperfect — it’s highly sensitive to various assumptions and thermal-to-electric energy conversions can be problematic — but used properly it’s a good tool. Unfortunately EROEI is more often used improperly by people with agendas. The homage about liars and figures has rarely been more apropos.
Interestingly enough, Brazilian cane ethanol comes fairly close to your “connect input to output” test. Brazilians burn part of the cane to produce heat for drying and distillation and generate electricity to run pumps and such. Cane does not need much fertilizer and is usually harvested by hand. Cane thus eliminates many of corn’s largest energy inputs. The system is not perfectly closed — they still have fossil fuel inputs for transport and some fertilizer, plus construction of buildings and equipment. But these are small in relation to ethanol output, so EROEI is in the 10:1 range.
It is disingenous to continually allude to ethanol as some sort of perpetual motion scam. Even corn ethanol, with all its inefficiencies, is best viewed a process to convert natural gas, coal and solar energy into usable liquid fuel. The solar component dwarfs the other inputs by three orders of magnitude. Perpetual motion violates fundamental physics, positive EROEI ethanol most certainly does not.
Finally, even if corn ethanol contains no more energy than its fossil fuel inputs it might still make sense, because the energy inputs (coal, gas, etc.) are cheaper than oil and generally domestic instead of imported from often hostile foreign countries. Such considerations often transcend EROEI.
Despite how this sounds, I am not a corn ethanol fan. But the search for truth is as poorly served by silly “hook the input to the output” claims as it is when Mr. Khosla overstates the Brazilian “ethanol miracle”.
Looks like DoggyDogWorld beat me to the punch by effectively stating what my feelings are on this concept of a revolving input/output process you keep insisting upon.
I’ve actually been trying to get my brain wrapped around this idea of yours. Trying to figure out what it proves. We all know that perpetual energy doesn’t exist. The closest thing to it on our planet is nuclear energy, although that runs out of steam, pardon the pun, after a while. As Doggy mentioned, I can’t think of any other transportation fuel that can pass your test.
But wait, I’m going to take a leap of faith and assume you think the oil/gasoline process can work in this closed loop test. You’ll assume that all you have to do is take your 0.8 barrels of gasoline (output), power a drill rig with some of it, wait until a new barrel of oil spits out of the ground, spend a little more of that gasoline on powering the refining process, and viola, you have another 0.8 barrels of gasoline.
Now I’m going to take another leap of faith and assume you aren’t going to let me run the same test for ethanol production. The same test would allow me to find an undiscovered Mayan field of corn that I have spent 0 (ZERO) energy on growing, spend some of my ethanol energy to harvest, fermentate, distill, and purify it to get the same amount of energy I started with.
Isn’t that fair? You’re assume nearly zero energy input went into getting oil to the factory. That’s great today, but can you do that when all known oil deposits are expired? How much energy over how many years will it take to get that oil back into your process? That’s why you are so hung up on corn based ethanol. It’s easy to show oil wins when your argument proves that to grow the corn you need just as much oil based products as you would just to make gasoline. Are you going to keep singing “connect the output to the input” jingle when ethanol production changes to sugar beets? Or when cellulosic ethanol becomes mass produced?
The fact of the matter is that ethanol does not significantly alter the landscape of our transportation infrastructure. Everyone doesn’t need to run out and buy new cars, gas stations won’t need to be connected to high-voltage tranmission lines, mechanics that already have a hard time figuring out how to change a cars oil won’t have to enroll in community college for an electrical tech degree. What it can do is offset our dependency on foriegn energy supplies. Do you think Hugo Chevez would be the punk he is if he didn’t have the upperhand with repsect to energy? Show me some alternatives instead of beating on the big oil drum. Ethanol offers a path toward a solution. What do you offer?
What it can do is offset our dependency on foriegn energy supplies. Do you think Hugo Chevez would be the punk he is if he didn’t have the upperhand with repsect to energy?
Feel free to run the numbers on the acres of cropland and acre-feet of water that would be required to reduce our oil imports by any significant degree. Go for it.
The problem with corn ethanol is not whether or not it has a positive energy return. The problem is, the energy return is insufficiently positive by nearly an order of magnitude, relative to what would be required to make any difference to an oil habit as profound as what this country has developed.
Sugarcane ethanol, on the other hand, has an energy return ratio on order with petroleum (albeit on the lower end of the spectrum). And sugarcane can host a nitrogen-fixing soil microbe (true fact, much to my shock). But you don’t hear anyone (with money) in this country promoting it. Partly that’s because of our climate, but mostly it’s because corn is the darling of big agribusiness, and big ag dictates policy.
Show me some alternatives instead of beating on the big oil drum. Ethanol offers a path toward a solution. What do you offer?
Conservation, mostly. Much higher CAFE standards (and close the damn flex-fuel loophole, please). Continuing research into algae and sugarcane and cellulose as biofuel sources. Aggressive feebate programs for hybrid and high efficiency vehicles, funded by taxes on inefficient vehicles. Money for mass transit, including . A carbon tax.
In other words, actions and policies that recognize that tomorrow will look different than yesterday, that dramatic change is a necessity dictated by physics and ecology. Efforts of the sort that will make a real difference are, unfortunately, not politically viable with the spoiled-rotten American public. But current corn ethanol efforts are worse than nothing, because they give the illusion that the Powers That Be are actuallying Doing Something About The Problem. What they’re doing is rearranging the deck chairs while the ship continues to take on water.
I hate Blogger’s inability to recognize [a href=] tags properly.
Eric said, “I’ve actually been trying to get my brain wrapped around this idea of yours. Trying to figure out what it proves.”
If corn ethanol cannot pass the “connect the output to the input test” it proves that corn ethanol is not actually a renewable or sustainable fuel — the big selling and talking point the ethanol industry continually makes when they lobby for mandates, tax credits, subsidies, and protective tariffs.
DoggyDogWorld said, “Finally, even if corn ethanol contains no more energy than its fossil fuel inputs it might still make sense, because the energy inputs (coal, gas, etc.) are cheaper than oil and generally domestic instead of imported from often hostile foreign countries.”
It makes a lot of sense to make liquid transportation fuels from coal and natural gas.
But the way to do that is NOT to:
1. Make nitrogen fertilizer from natural gas.
2. Use that nitrogen fertilizer to grow corn.
3. Use diesel fuel to cultivate, harvest and transport the corn.
4. Use oil to make and apply ag chemicals.
5. Deplete the Ogallala Aquifer irrigating water-hungry corn if you live in western Kansas, Nebraska, or South Dakota; or eastern Colorado and Wyoming.
6. Let fertilizer and ag chemicals run off fields polluting streams, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico.
5. And finally, use even more natural gas or coal at an ethanol plant to mill and distill the corn.
It would be far more efficient to make liquid fuels directly from natural gas and coal through a chemical conversion process and skip that intermediate agricultural step.
Try this thought experiment: Pretend you are the CEO of a large company about to get into the liquid fuels business. You call your chief scientist or process engineer into your corner office and say, “Were about to get into the liquid fuels business. I’d like you to start with a blank piece of paper and devise the best scheme you can think of for converting coal and natural gas into a liquid fuel.”
Do you think a scientist or engineer given that task — starting with a blank piece of paper and with no political agenda — would come up with the idea of using agriculture as an intermediate step?
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