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Lawmakers avoid tough but practical energy choices, hoping instead for elusive technological solutions

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for the production of 250 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2011. We will struggle to produce 4 million gallons, as there is no effective production process for ethanol from stalks, leaves and corn cobs.

Undaunted, two new cellulose-to-ethanol plants from POET LLC and a DuPont subsidiary have been announced for Iowa, both with substantial taxpayer support. They will use corn stover, the leftover stalks, leaves and cobs from the harvest.

There is an eerie similarity between those program announcements and the 2007 dedication of Range Fuel’s cellulose-to-ethanol plant in Soperton, Ga. The Soperton project went through $350 million from investors and the government before its closing without product early in 2011. The Range Fuel 2007 dedication included Georgia’s then-governor, Sonny Perdue, flanked by dignitaries such as then-Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

“Range Fuels represents a new future for our country,” proclaimed Perdue. Bodman followed with, “By relying on American ingenuity and on American farmers for fuel, we will enhance our nation’s energy and economic security,” as he handed $156 million in grants and guaranteed loans to the project.

There are several fundamental reasons for the problems with biofuels, especially for those not made from the fruit of the plant, where the fruit makes the sugars more accessible.

Trying to replicate nature – only quickly
First, we are trying to replicate nature by doing what nature had the time and resources to do best. Oil comes from the very gradual cooking of biomass (ocean algae) into hydrocarbon fuel. A University of Utah study showed that nature needed more than 90 tons of algae to make just 1 gallon of oil. But nature had millions of years’ worth of prolific algae to produce those trillions of barrels of oil beneath the ocean bottom. So trying to use just this year’s corn crop, or its residue, to make a sufficient quantity of a gasoline substitute doesn’t work very well. It takes a whole lot of biomass to make a little bit of transportation fuel, especially when it’s the cellulose part. Second, even if you use the leftover corn stover, it takes a lot of fossil fuel to collect and transport heavy, low-energy-density matter to the processing plant.

Third, that stover is not useless. It slowly decays. Each ton of decaying corn stover offers 10 pounds of nitrogen, 2 pounds of phosphorous, and 45 pounds of potassium to the soil. The stover also provides essential protection for the soil from erosion by wind and water. This point is so important that the Departments of Energy and Agriculture are funding Iowa State University to study possible cover crops to replace the function now supplied by corn stover.

Lead researcher Professor Ken Moore notes that corn stover has traditionally been left in the fields after harvest as a way to slow wind and water erosion and to resupply the soil with organic material. The issue he says, “is how do you harvest corn stover in a way that sustains the productivity of the environment for producing future corn?” The Iowa State Agronomy Department chair, Ken Lamkey, notes that “corn doesn’t like competition. If you plant a ground cover crop, it reduces the corn yield.”

A long history since 1819 discovery
Finally, cellulosic ethanol has a long history. In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid, a process used today. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, both Germany and the United States had small plants producing alcohol from waste wood. In recent years several large cellulose-to-ethanol projects have started, all with taxpayer support. None has succeeded in reaching production quantities, and the EISA mandate for 100 million gallons in 2010 fell short by 94 million. For 2011 we may produce 4 million cellulose gallons against the federal mandate for 250 million.

There are some tough, but practical, choices that would help us deal with our oil import and cost problem. Those include high gasoline taxes, large investments in energy-efficient public transport, and mandates for smaller cars.

But we and our legislators continue to hope that technology will save us, thus avoiding choices unpopular with voters. Continuing research on fuels from nonfood sources is important, but don’t bet too much on premature production plants.

Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America. He is a guest faculty member for the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education. His fall-quarter classis is “Peak Oil or Peak Water; which one sinks us first?”

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by dan buechler on 08/11/2011 - 08:25 am.

    Mr. Westgard, I am curious as to your thoughts on car meters that charge drivers a fee for miles they drive. Minnesota has actually been on the forefront of this tho I have mixed feelings.

  2. Submitted by Matt Merritt on 08/11/2011 - 08:36 am.

    Not sure why you say there’s an “eerie similarity.” Range was attempting cellulosic ethanol, POET/Dupont are both doing cellulosic ethanol, but I guess if that’s “eerie” …

    Anyway, POET is considering soil quality. Iowa State and USDA-ARS are heading up the work in Emmetsburg. They’re working this year for the fourth year on stover harvesting/soil sustainability research. POET is well below the recommended removal rates. Of course, POET will continue to monitor that through continued research.

    You can download the data from this page:

    And next time, why don’t you feel free to give POET a call to find out what the company’s doing before writing? Full disclosure: I work at POET.

  3. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/11/2011 - 09:00 am.

    Rolf does a pretty good job of laying out the challenges that cellulosic ethanol faces. This perhaps provides a bit of a “reality check” to some cellulosic advocates (you know who you are) who constantly make pronouncements about their “superior” ethanol feedstock that nobody uses outside of the lab.

    I wish I had a dollar for every time someone asked me “But what about switchgrass?”

    Promising? Yes. Fueling any cars right now? Nope.

    I think that everyone agrees that if someone could make cellulosic ethanol work on a commercial level, it would be a good thing.

    As Rolf notes, there are only a couple large-scale plants testing corn stover as an ethanol feedstock, so I don’t think its time to sound the alarm on not enough old stalks, leaves and cobs to replenish the soil just yet. Besides, that is being very carefully studied at the fields sending stover to POET.

    As I lke to remind folks, the real issue is finding some cleaner and more renewable replacements for oil. It may be compressed natural gas, propane, electricty, ethanol or biodiesel — or all of these. All have their pros and cons, but from an air pollution standpoint (that’s were I stand), all are cleaner choices than traditional petroleum fuels.

  4. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/11/2011 - 09:07 am.

    Full disclosure: I’m the communications director for the American Lung Association in Minnesota, which recognizes E85 and biodiesel. Mr. Westgard and I often have lively chats on energy topics, most recently at MPR. He’s a good guy.

  5. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 09:23 am.

    Thanks for the disclosure Matt. I am very familiar with what POET is doing since I teach classes on the subject.
    As to the selective removal of stover, that increases the collection cost, which is one reason POET and the other ethanol producers need several billion dollars of our taxpayer money each year. And I do get an eerie(scary) feeling every time I think about it. And about all those dead zones in the Gulf as the corn fertilizer wastes are carried off in the Mississippi Basin.

  6. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 09:33 am.

    Thank you, Robert, for your comment. Although, we don’t always agree, your views are always rational and to the point. As you are aware, there are emissions issues with biofuels. Then, when you use food as a feedstock it compounds the felony.
    IMO, the fundamental problem with biofuels is the scale issue. It takes a whole lot of biomass to make a little bit of fuel. Nature did a very good job of concentrating buried sunshine in those hydrocarbons.

  7. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 09:37 am.

    Dan and car meters. I’m not too up on this one. There could be considerable expense, and the Hummer driver pays the same as the one with the small economical car. I think a gas tax is simpler with the mechanism for collection already in place.

  8. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/11/2011 - 09:50 am.

    There are emissions issues with every fuel used in any internal combustion engine. Electric vehicles have indirect emissions issues, as the majority (60%) of the electricty used in Minnesota comes from coal fired plants.

    As I said, pros and coms with all. But still better than the status quo.

    I don’t expect that biofuels can/will ever replace all petrolum fuels, that’s not realistic. But I do believe they have a role in weaning us off oil and setting our feet on the path toward cleaner fuels and vehicle technologies.

    Got my first close-up look at a Nisan Leaf the other day. Pretty cool.

  9. Submitted by Matt Merritt on 08/11/2011 - 11:05 am.

    I don’t think you are aware at all of what POET’s doing. Your response indicates as much. Please explain how you think our removal is adding so much to the cost.

  10. Submitted by Matt Merritt on 08/11/2011 - 11:07 am.

    Plus, you’re changing the subject now. You criticized POET for removing soil nutrients. I pointed out the research being done, and you responded with: “Oh yeah, I knew that, but it’s costly.”

    If you disagree with the research, have at it, but it’s being done by the very groups you cite in your story.

  11. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 12:24 pm.

    There’s not much research needed in picking up corn stover. It’s easier just to remove all or nearly than trying to selectively leave enough to protect and enrich the soil. Either way, just leave it as nature intended.

  12. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 12:26 pm.

    As to E85 which Robert Moffitt and the ALA support. I suggest using it in the Upper Midwest where we make the stuff, limiting transportation cost.

  13. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 01:48 pm.

    Matt, as I said in the last sentence of my article, research is good, but building premature production plants keeps failing. Einstein is often quoted,
    “Insanity is doing the same things again and again expecting different results.”

  14. Submitted by Robert Moffitt on 08/11/2011 - 02:12 pm.

    Rolf: If you look at a national map of E85 stations, you’ll see that that largest concentration of pumps are in the Upper Midwest. So there you go.

    Here’s a handy map to find E85 in the region:

  15. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 08/11/2011 - 02:51 pm.

    If you want consumers to value petroleum more dearly, raise the tax on it, and they will conserve it more aggressively than any CAFE standard could ever command. The same is true of electricity. Just because lawmakers are too craven to raise petroleum taxes doesn’t mean industry standards are a good idea; they’re just the least bad plausible idea. I can understand why a politician isn’t interested in telling voters hard truths, but I don’t know what forces restrain bloggers.

  16. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 03:25 pm.

    Richard, your first sentence says it all. But it doesn’t resonate in the capitol buildings in St Paul and DC.

  17. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 03:34 pm.

    For more on this topic, please go to the current issue of Scientific American. The lead article by David Biello is titled “The False Promise of Biofuels”.

  18. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/11/2011 - 03:37 pm.

    Corn ethanol and E85 are not better than the status quo. They are significantly worse. When production is taken into account, using gas results in less emissions than corn ethanol, and also doesn’t have all the other damaging side like draining aquifers for the huge amount of water required, and the increased run-off from extra corn production. From an environmental standpoint, E85 and any corn ethanol are indefensible. Environmental groups like the Sierra club are actively lobbying against ethanol subsidies and mandates. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of greenwashing and some people still perceive corn ethanol as environmentally friendly even though its just the corn/ethanol lobby pushing that.

    Robert, you seem like a guy who cares about the environment, so I don’t know why you consistently misrepresent corn ethanol as being a green solution. Did you buy an expensive flex fuel car and can’t admit it was a mistake? Is the ALA getting money from the corn lobby or something?

  19. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/11/2011 - 03:50 pm.

    Scientific American isn’t even contemplating corn ethanol any more because its such a bad idea. From the archives:

    “Corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 percent savings [in greenhouse gas emissions], nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years,” the researchers write. “We can’t get to a result with corn ethanol where we can generate greenhouse gas benefits”

    So Robert, every time you burn a tank of E85, you are producing double the emissions everyone else is. Depending on what you are driving, you may be the biggest polluter on the road.

  20. Submitted by Elanne Palcich on 08/11/2011 - 06:22 pm.

    No one has mentioned the fact the corn grown for ethanol is genetically modified, causing further damage by harming pollinators and requiring continued and greater use of herbicides. The truth is that we need to get thousands of cars off our highways, thus reducing rush hour traffic and life-style stress. The money spent subsidizing cellulosic fuel research would be much better spent on designing efficient mass transportation and/or revitalizing city neighborhoods to provide more local jobs.
    Bio-mass use of any sort is only efficient in select local situations. Why not use spare corn stalks to fuel greenhouses to provide fresh, healthy produce on a local level?
    The only ones standing to profit from ethanol production are the agri-farms that grow the corn. What we need are incentives to promote a return to small family farms and money to research new methods of less work intensive types of gardening.
    Unfortunately, it’s big money that elects our politicians. Ordinary citizens are going to have to figure out how to make their voices heard.

  21. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/11/2011 - 07:19 pm.

    There is a role for ethanol in our motor fuel supply. Originally, to raise octane we added lead to gasoline. For obvious reasons, this was replaced by a refinery made chemical, MTBE. It not only raised octane but added oxygen, providing a cleaner burn. Possible carcinogen issues rose with MTBE, and ethanol turns out to be an excellent oxygenate additive, doing all that MTBE did. But you only need to add about 5-6% ethanol to gasoline for that purpose.
    In the future, a heavier alcohol, butanol is superior to ethanol and could have a larger role as a gasoline additive. I won’t bore you with all the chemistry.
    E10 and E15 are a waste, with E85 having possibilities not too far from the still.

  22. Submitted by Dan Hintz on 08/12/2011 - 12:58 pm.

    I don’t have a problem using ethanol in place of MTBE as long as you are weighing the damaging effects of corn ethanol vs the “possible carcinogen issue.” The ethanol advocates aren’t talking about scaling it back to 5 or 6 percent – they want to go to 15 or 20, which will not only increase emissions, but will destroy every gas powered lawnmower in America. The reason you have to use E85 close to the still is that you can’t pipe it because it is so corrosive.

  23. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/13/2011 - 12:14 pm.

    The other pipe issue for ethanol is its affinity for water. There is often some condensation in the pipes, and you get a change in the E85 chemistry. That is also true for E10 or E15.

  24. Submitted by rolf westgard on 08/13/2011 - 05:51 pm.

    Energy ignorance among legislators in St Paul and D.C., especially with my fellow Democrats, is endemic. I don’t know the answer, but we need to correct this or we are in for trouble.

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