To follow up on the article “Potential Energy” by Rob Parsons in
your Feb. 15, 2007 edition, we first need to understand why the switch
to ethanol is happening. It’s called oil depletion or peak oil. Inside
an oil well, just as in a glass of water there is only so much liquid.
Since the pumps are so much better these days at getting oil out of the
ground we are emptying many of the world’s oil wells faster than we are
finding new oil to replace what is taken out worldwide year after year.
For example in Mexico, a well called Cantarell is the second largest in
the world after Garwar in Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest.
Three years ago Cantarell well produced 2.2 million barrels of oil
per day, this year it is down to 1.5 million and by the end of 2007 it
is predicted by Pemex State Oil Company to drop to 900,000 barrels per
day. This case is not only limited to Mexico, it is happening in 34 of
the 47 countries that sell oil on the world market every day.
This is exactly why the change over to ethanol and bio-diesel is
occurring, for no other reason than we are backed into a corner with no
other option. Currently there is no substitute to power our cars,
ships, airplanes and trucks that deliver what we need to keep our lives
intact. Solar, wind, nuclear, bio-mass gasification, hydroelectric
power or coal can never power the vehicles we use to keep the economies
of the world moving and goods delivered. We have fossil fuels and the
new replacements of ethanol and oils from plants as replacements for
transportation and farm machinery, period.
Now let’s talk about ethanol. It’s mainly produced from corn but
other crops can be used such as sugarcane, rice and tapioca. It takes
energy to make energy, and the amount of energy you must invest in the
process of making ethanol is called EROEI: Energy Returned On
One gallon net production of corn ethanol requires three gallons of
input for that production because corn ethanol has an EROEI of 1.34 to
one. When you multiply the extra energy gained from production of each
barrel by three, you get 1.02, or one extra barrel of positively gained
energy. It takes three barrels of oil to make one barrel of ethanol
(0.34 times three equals 1.02).
Sugarcane has an EROEI of eight. One barrel of energy input to turn
sugarcane into ethanol gives eight positive barrels of usable energy.
In addition, corn ethanol has less energy density (one gallon of
ethanol produces 62 percent as much heat as one gallon of gasoline) so
1.38 gallons of ethanol is needed to equal one gallon of gasoline
energy. So in reality one barrel isn’t really one barrel, it is a
barrel in liquid volume, but not in energy density.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that ethanol
distilleries will require only 60 million tons of corn from the 2008
harvest. But the Earth Policy Institute (EPI) estimates that ethanol
distilleries will need 139 million tons of corn, more than twice as
much. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) relies heavily on the
Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), a trade group, for data on ethanol
distilleries under construction.
In actuality there are four firms that collect and publish data on
U.S. ethanol distilleries under construction. RFA is the one most
frequently cited, but the other three firms are Europe-based F.O.
Licht, the publisher of World Ethanol and Bio-fuels Report; BBI International, which publishes Ethanol Producer Magazine; and the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), publisher of Ethanol Today.
Unfortunately, the lists of plants under construction maintained by
RFA, BBI, and ACE are not complete. Each contains some plants that are
not on the other lists. Drawing on these three lists and on bi-weekly
reports from F.O. Licht, EPI has compiled a more complete master list.
For example, EPI shows 79 plants under construction, RFA lists 62
According to the EPI compilation, the 116 ethanol plants in
production on December 31, 2006, were using 53 million tons of grain
per year, while the 79 plants under construction, mostly larger
facilities, will use 51 million tons of grain when they come online.
Expansions of 11 existing plants will use another eight million tons of
grain (one ton of corn equals 39.4 bushels, which equals 110 gallons of
In addition, easily 200 ethanol plants were in the planning stage at
the end of 2006. If these translate into construction starts between
January 1 and June 30, 2007, at the same rate that plants did during
the final six months of 2006, then an additional three billion gallons
of capacity requiring 27 million more tons of grain will likely come
online by Sept. 1, 2008, the start of the 2008 harvest year. This
raises the corn needed for distilleries to 139 million tons, half the
2008 harvest projected by USDA. This would yield nearly 15 billion
gallons of ethanol, satisfying 6 percent of U.S. auto fuel needs.
This diversion of the world’s leading grain crop for the production
of fuel will affect food prices everywhere. As the world corn price
rises, so do those of wheat and rice for human consumption and sorghum,
barley and millet for animal feed as markets look to other crops as
replacements, people and animals still need to eat. With traditional
animal feed from corn becoming more expensive look for dairy, meat and
poultry prices to rise along with all human and animal consumption
grains, starting now!
Let’s jump to 2015: Corn-based ethanol production would reach 31.5
billion gallons per year, or about 20 percent of projected U.S. fuel
consumption in 2015. U.S. corn production 2006 was 11 billion bushels.
Ethanol yield is approximately 2.5 gallons per bushel (39.4 bushels of
corn equals 110 gallons of ethanol).
Ethanol has less energy density (one gallon of ethanol produces 62
percent as much heat as one gallon of gasoline) so 25 billion
multiplied by 0.62 equals 15.8 billion gallons of gasoline energy,
equivalent to about 10 percent or half the 20 percent Bush wants so
these production numbers have to be doubled.
Keep in mind the grain it takes to fill a 25-gallon tank with
ethanol just once will feed one person for a whole year. This puts
Hawai`i in a unique position for ethanol production from sugarcane,
which has a high EROEI and provides a domestic fuel source for the
islands, with a possibility to export excess ethanol back to the
With all of this massive energy input to generate six percent of
U.S. fuel needs next year, consider we could save that six percent by
simple conservation measures. The wall to breakdown that exists in this
philosophy is conservation equals non-consumption, the 180-degree
opposite of corporations whose philosophy is consume. Thanks Rob for
getting the awareness started.
-David DuByne, former Maui resident now working on bio-fuel development projects in Thailand
(See Rob Report for Rob Parsons’ response.)
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