The Great Green Hope
Biofuels continue to gain critical attention as ethanol use grows
- By Katie McCarthy
- Nov 01, 2006
With the demand for oil growing and our resources dwindling, new technologies will certainly help fuel our future. A variety of energy sources are competing to ease the demand and to move us forward to greener, cleaner automobiles.
A year after passage of the Renewable Fuel Standard (Section 1501 of the Energy Policy Act), questions about the value of biofuels and their effect on the environment are being raised. Ethanol use is a hot topic as the fuel continues to be introduced to more pumps across the country, and ethanol subsidies and tax incentives from the federal government are driving a debate among competitive industries while some environmentalists and researchers say ethanol is inefficient and harmful. And ethanol isn't the only renewable energy source receiving criticism -- cellulose and biomass fuels are also in the mix.
As the United States ponders how to solve our oil addiction, are these technologies getting more attention than they deserve? What do biofuels mean for the environment? Is the future of biofuel the great green hope or just the great green hype?
The Rise of Ethanol
The summer of 2006 saw a rise in ethanol use as the petroleum industry continues to phase out the use of methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE). After being introduced in 1979 as a replacement for lead, the octane producer has come under criticism for health effects associated with the inhalation of the chemical. Independent researchers have found that inhaling high concentrations of the chemical increases the risk of developing cancer. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, health risks are still viewed as inconclusive and MTBE does not pose an imminent public health concern.
EPA does warn that MTBE is contaminating ground water throughout the country as a result of accidental releases from pipelines and underground storage tanks. In some cases, the contaminated waters are sources of drinking water and lower levels of MTBE can make water undrinkable due to its offensive taste and odor.
This summer saw a rise in ethanol use as the market shifted away from MTBE. The shift created a demand for 5 billion gallons of ethanol, according to Nathanael Greene, senior resource specialist for the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). With ethanol in high demand, not only is the profit margin rising for ethanol facilities, but the oil industry is receiving an array of incentives from the government.
"The incentives that the government has right now -- they don't make any sense," Greene said. "The government has this mandate, the Renewable Fuels Standard, that tells the oil industry, 'You have to use renewable fuels.' And then we have a subsidy to the oil industry that says for every gallon of ethanol used, you get a 51-cent excise tax credit. We're mandating it and we're bribing them to do it at the same time."
The government also instituted an import tariff on imported ethanol to prevent foreign ethanol from reaching domestic markets, Greene said.
The mandates, the incentives, and the tariffs all point to a government that supports ethanol production and use. And ethanol is the front-runner in the alternative fuel race. The standard is based around ethanol, and with the government paving the way for more oil companies to produce ethanol, the consumers at the pump are paying three times for a product that isn't as efficient as past gasoline blends that continue to do damage the environment. Drivers who fill their tank with gasohol (a blend of gasoline and corn-based ethanol) are paying three ways for their product: once at the pump, once in their taxes to government subsidies, and once in higher food prices, said David Pimentel, professor of ecology at Cornell University.
Gasohol leads to poorer gas mileage, and tax payers have been paying $1.4 billion a year in subsidies to help make ethanol production profitable for agribusiness firms, Pimentel said. As more corn is used for ethanol, consumers can expect to pay higher food prices.
In 2002, the National Center for Policy Analysis estimated that ethanol production adds more than $1 billion to the cost of beef production and raises the price of corn feed stock about 2 cents a bushel. Our stomachs also will be affected as ethanol becomes a more mainstream fuel.
In his article, "Supermarkets and Service Stations Now Competing for Grain," Earth Policy Institute President Lester R. Brown says that the world's food needs are not being considered as corn becomes fuel instead of food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that world grain use will grow by 21 million tons during 2006, and 14 million of those tons will be used to fuel cars in the United States. That leaves only 7 million tons for use as food. According to Brown, the grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol would feed a person for a year. A year's worth of gasoline, if the tank is filled every two weeks would feed 26 people for a year.
The number of ethanol distilleries has tripled in the past five years and they will consume an estimated 55 million tons from the 2006 crops, according to USDA.
New distilleries are popping up all the time, and the U.S. corn belt has seen many governors use ethanol production as a major pillar of their political campaigns. Ethanol production is clearly growing, but at what cost?
Turning ethanol into fuel may require more energy than it's worth. Producing ethanol requires about 29 percent more fossil energy than the resultant fuel can produce, according to a report published in the Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1). The same report found that competing biomass technologies (including switch grass) consumed 45 percent more fossil energy than they produced, wood biomass consumed 57 percent more, sunflowers 118 percent more. Leading the pack, but with a clear negative energy cost, deriving fuel from soybeans consumed the least energy, at only 27 percent more than produced.
"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," Pimentel said.
Despite such skepticism from a number of critics, renewables also have some strong proponents.
"We need renewables," said David Ownby, director of the petroleum and chemical industry services practice at LEGG, a global expert services firm. "Corn gets the carbon dioxide out of the air and gets us away from being totally dependant on foreign crude oil."
Current problems with ethanol transportation and cost will continue to diminish as technology improves, Ownby said.
Ethanol producers also are meeting the demands of the government and will likely exceed the 5 billion gallons needed by 2012, said Greene.
As the United State continues its mission to find better renewable fuels, new technology and other alternatives will have to play a role. But for now, it seems that ethanol is the policy winner, but all that may change in the future.
The Development of Biomass and Other Technologies
Research and development into new technologies for more efficient alternative fuel production will have to be taken seriously to produce quality, efficient biofuels, and Greene doesn't believe the government is doing enough.
"The existing Renewable Fuel Standard is very much a 'picking winners' sort of approach," he said. "It's based around ethanol. It allows other technologies to compete, but not in a smart way."
Robert Walker took his case to Congress. Walker, chairman and CEO of Bixby Energy, has been developing fuels from a wide variety of biomass stock, as well as municipal solid waste, sewage, wood waste, and tires. Walker appeared in front of the House Committee on Agriculture in June to ask the U.S House of Representatives to "level the playing field for multiple types of alternative fuels."
Walker wants the government to stop playing favorites and to open up to the idea of new types of technology and, possibly, even more efficient types of fuels. Wheat straw may be an up-and-coming competitor; it puts out 9,000 BTUs per pound processed while corn produces only 7,000 BTUs. Even the waste material from corn (stover) puts out more at 8,500 BTUs per pound processed.
Experts in science, engineering and public policy from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Imperial College London and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory recently recommended a comprehensive research and policy plan aimed at increasing the practicality of using biofuels and biomaterials as a supplement to petroleum. The review article, called "The Path Forward for Biofuels and Biomaterials," appears in the Jan. 27 issue of Science.
"We can readily address, with research, 30 percent of current transportation fuel needs," said Dr. Arthur Ragauskas, a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Chemistry and Biochemistry and a lead on the project. "But reaching that goal will require five to 10 years and significant policy and technical effort."
The group states that significant improvements need to be made in how biofuel is processed to make it a practical alternative to petroleum. The answer, according to the group, is a fully integrated biorefinery designed to use advances in plant science and innovative biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and chemicals from biomass.
"We need to be careful to focus on the outcomes rather than saying celloustic ethanol is the end all and be all of technology and that's all we need to do," Green said. "It's a very promising technology, but if we want to reduce our addiction to oil and reduce our global warming pollution, we need to focus on those goals first."
Currently, Congress has two bills sitting in committee that may affect how we drive. Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., presented a piece of legislation (S. 2196) in January calling for the secretary of energy to establish the position of an assistant secretary for advanced energy research, technology development, and deployment, and Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Texas, presented a different bill (H. 4435) last December, calling for the establishment of the Advanced Research Project Agency for the Department of Energy.
Research will lead us in a direction where new ways of thinking will lead to the development of new sources of energy.
Oil companies will continue to receive tax credits for blending gasoline and ethanol through 2008, and those subsidies will likely be extended through 2010, and possibly longer.
The future of our fuels is in the hands of our elected officials. Lawmakers will determine what fuels we will eventually produce and how we will use them. Although there is a lot of talk about biofuels, in particular a growing push for E85, Washington may not be thinking smart. Proposals need to focus on tying the Renewable Fuels Standard and greenhouse-gas emissions together. A performance-based incentive system offers better fuels that protect our atmosphere.
Hopefully, the fuel we place in our cars tomorrow will help us all drive toward a great, green future.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.