Damned If You Do

JROBI, a chess blogger, on energy policy:

A large study in Europe concluded that it takes more gas and oil to produce a bottle of bio-fuel than it does to produce a bottle of gas. What does this mean? It means that Bio-Fuel is more damaging to the environment in the long run, and on top of that it is driving up the cost of basic food supplies. Millions and millions around the world in a number of countries are unable to afford the rising food costs for basic staples like Corn, and for what?

If Bio-Fuel is not better for the environment, why are politicians and environmentalists getting behind this growing industry? I think it’s because it seems to be the “trendy” thing to do, and we all know what happens when the media promotes a new trend. We get tons of media coverage telling us why it’s a good thing, and hardly any coverage of the negative impacts. Already people from the Bio-Fuel industry are getting on television shouting out that there are many factors contributing to rising food prices, trying to deflect the fact that their destruction of food to fuel vehicles is the main culprit.

Actually, I suspect the emphasis on biofuels in the USA and Europe has to do with the fact that it’s the only alternative to fossil-based motor fuels proven to be sustainable and scalable:

The success of FFFVs, together with the mandatory use of E25 blend of gasoline throughout the country, allowed Brazil to get more than 40% of its automobile fuels from sugar cane-based ethanol in 2007.

I see no link to the European study in question, but previous studies have suffered from various faults; for example, the assumption that trucks transporting fuel cannot themselves shift to biofuels. I’m sure better analysis of the study is on its way.

But that’s not the most interesting thing, to me. More interesting: my general impression that a lot of the climate-change hysteria is just that.

If we hear what science seems to be telling us about the environment, and we think that something needs to be done, then we should do things that will actually work. One thing that really works is conservation: use less of the bad stuff we’re using. But we’ve done quite a bit on that front, only to hear that much, much more is required to make a difference. I’m not sure there’s much, much more benefit for us to realize in conservation, at least in the short term.

So, to make a real difference, we have to make more radical changes. Can we change our motor fuel?  Sure; starting with something that pollutes less, and that even absorbs some of that same pollutant in its production, sounds like a winner.

JROBI, again:

It makes no sense whatsoever to create Bio-Fuel when there are much better options on the table – for instance Hydrogen vehicles. When was the last time you heard someone on the news talk about Hydrogen initiatives?

I hear it every so often. But most talk, today, focuses on the very real problems with hydrogen as a motor fuel. There are many; just look at the discussions of hydrogen fuel tank technology for a sample. But one of the biggest problems is that of developing an infrastructure for delivering fuel to the customer.

No one talks about the problems of setting up an ethanol infrastructure. We already have it. Brazil has demonstrated that the current gasoline infrastructure can easily be adapted to deliver ethanol instead, and that there is a viable migration plan for gradually moving people off fossil fuels.

Now, this isn’t to say that the world of ethanol is hunky-dory. It’s arguable that, while ethanol may be sustainable, the corn-based system the USA has adopted isn’t. Some people are talking about sensible tweaks that may solve the food problems while continuing to support biofuels–removing our silly tariff on Brazilian ethanol, for example, or developing alternative feedstocks for ethanol production.

The problem is that hysteria seems to be breeding hysteria. Global warming is so severe, we are told, that we need solutions, and we need them immediately. So we develop solutions we can use immediately. But no! These solutions cost; we need something else, and we need it immediately, and we need it cost-free.

Practically, this kind of insistence on perfection–that we deploy solutions with no drawbacks, only benefits–has the effect of dampening our enthusiasm for environmental solutions. We tried, our leaders will tell us, but nothing was good enough, so we gave up. And so, rather than do something that helps, or even something that lays the foundation for helping, we continue our use of fossil fuels.

Perhaps ethanol is the wrong solution. But if it is, we should resign ourselves to the inevitability of the future, as foretold by science, or fervently hope that the global warming deniers are right, because other solutions will arrive too late to do much good.

19 thoughts on “Damned If You Do

  1. You’ve characterized the problem as “the perfect is the enemy of the good”. I have a different interpretation of the general reaction: people will happily do something about the problem, as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. Provide an alternative fuel source that saves people money, and people will use it. Provide an alternative fuel source that costs people more money, and most will laugh at it.

  2. I was just interested to read that Corn (capitalised, even) is a basic staple in places. Is this common in the Americas or elsewhere? I’ve certainly never considered it as a staple plant product here in Australia.

  3. I recently read a nice article in a local (Czech) scientific magazine. It claims, that energy return of “bio” fules is around 1, where energy return is ratio of energy obtained from the fuel to energy needed to produce that fuel.

    If it’s around one, it means you only get about the same amount of energy back that you invested in the production, so you would have been better of to use that energy for the final purpose directly in the first place.

    The trucks transporting biofuel can themselves use biofuel. Just note that if the energy return is 1, they would use it all and none would be left for other purposes.

    The article cites http://www.energybulletin.net and Science 317, 1743, 2006; R. Righelato, D.V.Spracklen: Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests? Science 317, 902, 2007 and M.E:Himmel et al.: Biomass Recaliciterance: Engineering Plants and Enzymes for Biofuel Production, Science 315, 804, 2007.

  4. I should of course and, that hydrogen has energy return less than 1. That is, there are two ways to get hydrogen — from water or from natural gas.

    Since hydrogen burns to water and due to law of conservation of energy, by burning hydrogen you can only get the energy you invested in the production, and there will always be some losses.
    So while hydrogen can serve as means to transport the energy produced at a powerplant to the cars, the energy still has to be produced in a powerplant in the first place.

    The second way to produce hydrogen is from natural gas. I am not sure how big energy return it has overall, but it has lower energy return than using natural gas directly.

    Note, that natural gas has lower fraction of carbon, so burning it produces less carbon dioxide for the same amount of power, so switching from gasoline to natural gas makes sense in the short term (obviously requires bulding infrastructure, though)

  5. http://etbe.coker.com.au/2007/08/28/hydrogen-powered-cars-will-never-work/

    My above post about Hydrogen fuel received many comments. I tried to summarise all the biggest problems with Hydrogen, and some more were revealed through the discussion. I think that Hydrogen is pretty well debunked, billions of dollars of tax-payer money has not produced a viable result, while Brazilians have been driving Ethanol cars for years!

    One thing to keep in mind is that there is a lot of money riding on the outcome of these issues. The Coal and Oil industries will fight just as hard as the Tobacco industry and use all the same tactics…

    The claim that the ratio of fuel input to fuel output from bio-fuels is obviously ridiculous. If that was the case then relatively poor countries such as Brazil would not be using such fuels!

    If you produce food crops and then try to use them for fuel (as they are doing in the US with corn) then the result will be massive inefficiency. Sugar cane is a more efficient way of producing material suitable for fermentation, and the methods of production for fuel can be different from those used for food.

    There are a range of other methods being developed, including algae for producing bio-Diesel.

    It seems that the long-term best option for electricity is a large number of wind-farms spread out over a continent and linked by HVDC. Then when you have electricity to spare you can charge electric vehicles. Get a sugar cane plantation farmed with vehicles powered by off-peak electricity and algae produced bio-Diesel to produce Ethanol and all the equations for efficiency look totally different.


    Incidentally the six-stroke Diesel engine idea seems to have some promise for increasing the efficiency of trucks (producing more energy from a given quantity of fuel while also having a lighter engine). It also seems likely that Diesel-electric technology could offer the same benefits for trucks that it does for freight trains.

    The people who claim that producing bio-Diesel is inefficient should consider the efficiency of producing oil from coal and oil-shale (both projects that the usual suspects are promoting).

  6. “”I should of course and, that hydrogen has energy return less than 1. That is, there are two ways to get hydrogen — from water or from natural gas.

    Since hydrogen burns to water and due to law of conservation of energy, by burning hydrogen you can only get the energy you invested in the production, and there will always be some losses.””


    Hydrogen is not a _energy_source_.

    Fossil fuels is a _energy_source_. Solar power is a energy source. So is hydroelectric power, geological thermal power, ethanol/bio fuels (potentially), and nuclear (as well as a few others).

    So hydrogen can never ever replace gasoline or natural gas or anything. It’s kinda stupid to talk about them in the same sentence.

    It’s like saying: “Why don’t we just replace power plants burning coal with power plants using massive batteries?”

    The whole concept and phrase of ‘Hydrogen-based economy replacing Oil-based economy’ is just illogical. Stupid and wrong.

    Hydroelectric energy sources are already used were it’s worth it. It’s a pretty much a tapped-out resource for most developed areas. Maybe a few places it still makes sense, but it’s not going to be ‘the future’ by any stretch of the imagination.

    Wind power is just a joke. At least it seems to me. It can work for a individual living in the country, or a commune living in a place with regular and predictable winds.. but for the vast majority of people it’s just a no-go from the start.

    Solar power has potential, but it’s not there yet. Maybe in 50 years. Depends.

    Geological thermal power is great when you can get to it. For Iceland this works out wonderfully well. It’s absolutely fabulous for them and is why hydrogen in Iceland makes so much sense. Maybe Hawaii also. A few places in South America and other places located near those ‘ring of fire’ of active volcanic regions.

    ‘Hydrogen Power’ really means ‘Nuclear Power’. The government and industry folks that promote hydrogen know this. Luckily for them the hippy/leftist folks that think hydrogen is a great idea can’t put 2 and 2 together. Otherwise there would be a lot more opposition to it. Hydrogen can work for everybody very well, but its going to require much more widespread use of nuclear energy to get there. It’s the only thing that can work with current technology.

    So just remember:
    Hydrogen power is code for Nuclear power.

    “”Note, that natural gas has lower fraction of carbon, so burning it produces less carbon dioxide for the same amount of power, so switching from gasoline to natural gas makes sense in the short term (obviously requires bulding infrastructure, though””

    Maybe. There is only a certain amount of natural gas in the world and it’s often found as a side effect of drilling for oil.

    It’s been a long time since I studied it or learned about it so I am very very foggy on the details, but there are very good reasons why we have the sort of fuels we have now.

    It has to do with the chemistry involved in refining and transporting fuel that causes us to have the prices and porportions of natural gas, fuel oil, diesel, and gasoline.

    I don’t know the hows and the whys, but it’s very likely that if you tried to replace gasoline with natural gas (either directly in the vehicle or indirectly through hydrogen) you’d just end up with massive amounts of cheap oil laying around in storage while everybody fights on a very limited and very expensive amount of natural gas.

    “I recently read a nice article in a local (Czech) scientific magazine. It claims, that energy return of “bio” fules is around 1, where energy return is ratio of energy obtained from the fuel to energy needed to produce that fuel.”

    This isn’t anything recent to were I am from.

    I’m from the midwest U.S.A. were there has been a massive push for things like Ethanol (and to a lesser extent biodiesel).

    This is because it’s very very profitable, potentially, for the farmers. The farmers have been pushing for this stuff for _decades_.

    It’s been contraversial because the farmers have a traditionally been very very blind to the real costs and benefits to society for their subsidies and protections on trade they try to get from the government. So people have been very suspicious of anything they try to say.

    With the production of ethanol it’s been well known that it’s a net energy loser. It requires more energy to refine then you’ll ever get out of it. So if you switch cars from gasoline to ethanol then you will end up using MORE oil, rather then less.

    So it makes the idea a non-starter.

    The second traditional argument revolves around how ethanol is harder on engines. For a while, a couple decades ago, a very good way of ending up with a dead car was to put gasoline/ethanol fuel mixture in it.

    The Ethanol industry folks claim that both are solved problems. I believe that the ethanol/gas blends are now safe.. but I don’t believe them that we will use any less oil if we make the switch.

    I think that it’s possible, but they are untrustworthy so I can’t automatically believe them. It’s very hard to find the truth in these sort of things. You can’t depend on the government to tell you the truth because of the political power the farmers have over them.

    Bio-fuels causing food shortages is probably somewhat bogus.

    Not totally bogus, but just somewhat.

    I’ll give you two reasons:

    1. With sustainable farms you have to rotate crops. Different crops have different properties and produce different sorts of effects on the soil. Some types of crops will replace nutrients taken from the ground by other crops. Also rotating crops cuts down on diseases and has other indirect effects and benefits.

    The sucky part is that if your a farmer rotating crops means you’ll make less money short term. Each crop has different levels of profitability. If the economy is bad or the farmer doesn’t have a lot of money they won’t rotate the crops because they can’t afford to do it.

    Bio fuels industry folks, by simple matters of economics and practicality, do their best to find ways to take advantage of these cheaper crops. They are cheaper and if you can use the cheap stuff to make fuel then this will make bio fuels more practical.

    So if bio-fuels get popular and the scientists have done their work properly then farmers will have more economic insentive to rotate crops. The demand for the bio-fuel will increase the price of the cheap crops, making them more profitable for the farmers.

    If farmers rotate crops and treat the land properly, as well as invest in better equipment and techniques, because they have more money to do so, then that land will simply start to produce more food. Net win for everybody.

    2. It’s very possible that bio-fuel folks can use non-food crops to produce their fuel.

    These non-food crops will probably be able to be grown in areas were farmers don’t traditionally work. They may be able to be grown in more arid or cool or hot places then you can traditionally grow things like wheat or corn.

    I am still not convinced on the merits of bio-fuel though. It may make sense for a minority of people to take advantage of. I just don’t know. The costs (in terms of waste, pollution, and economics) of it seem just to high right now for any sort of benefits you get from it.

    The answer, to me, seems that hydrogen for storage/transport and nuclear power source is just the way to go. With currently and predictable technology it is the only sustainable way to go forward if you want to get away from oil-based or coal-based energy. Supplemented with solar and other sources were appropriate, of course.

  7. Biofuel production from seaweed ponds could have a positive fuel spent to fuel produced ratio.

    Otherwise the most effective thing one could do is to use all electrical cars (or at least pluggable hybrids) with solar, wind, hydro and nuclear power stations on the grid.

    In my opinion all nuclear power stations in the world have done less harm to the environment than all coal power stations do every year.

  8. Good comments all.

    We have a real-world lab to measure the energy efficiency of ethanol vs. gasoline: Brazil. The article I cited notes that Brazil currently imports oil, but exports gasoline; they need the oil for other things. If ethanol were as inefficient as some of these studies say, wouldn’t Brazilian gasoline use increase along with ethanol use?

    The article also notes that Brazil doesn’t subsidize its ethanol use, which implies that ethanol’s continued popularity is the result of market preference, not government mandate.

    Critics of ethanol should talk about Brazil, since it seems to be a very large counterfactual to the idea that ethanol can’t work.

    I’m actually partial to nuclear power, but nukes and biofuels don’t have to be exclusive options. Ditto for the other “more trendy” sources like wind, as long as we recognize and compensate for their drawbacks.

  9. Maybe.

    It takes energy to produce ethanol. But the energy won’t have to come from gasoline, it’ll come from other types of fossil fuels.

    Currently its expensive to refine gasoline here in the USA. It’s part of the reason why gas prices fluctuate so much.

    Our environmental laws are so onerous that nobody has managed to build a new refinery plant since the 1970’s. So we are dealing with obsolete technology being used at capacity. The end effect is that it’s making gasoline artificially more expensive to create then otherwise is required.

    If Brazil is able to refine gasoline for a profit and resell the refined stuff to USA or other countries then this could effectively subsidize (not through government mandate, but through natural market forces) the increased use of oil for other purposes. Since, I think, that not all oil can efficiently be transformed into gasoline.. only a percentage can and the rest of the output need to be used elsewere. Due to the chemical processes at work.

    _I_think_. I am very very shady on all of this. Obviously need to do some more reading.

    Ethanol is very cool stuff and it would be great to have a renewable energy source.. if the intensive farming that it would require is sustainable and affordable.

    It’s definately something I need to look at to understand more about it and avoid the propaganda.

    I think the end result is that it’s going to require a mixture, a diversification of energy sources to slowly ween the world off of this dependancy for oil. Combination of Solar and Nuclear power and bio-fuels seems likely.

    I mean there is just SOOOO much energy in gasoline. It’s unbelievable. It’s very difficult to find something that compares.

    For example people here convert cars to use propane instead of gasoline. It’s not uncommon.. if you do it early in a vehicle’s life then it can substantially lengthen that vechicle’s engine lifespan. (gasoline is very dirty and byproducts are corrosive and destroy the lubricating capabilities of motor oil.)

    As long as you offset the higher burning tempuratures of propane with better electronic ignition and cooling then you can get very good results with this approach.

    Propane burns very efficiently.. you get like 80% of the energy actually being used by the engine. Gasoline, in comparision, is much much less efficient. Your only getting something like 20-30% or something like that. I don’t remember the numbers.. but it’s pretty bad.

    Even though a gasoline motor is still going to be noticeably more powerful and use less gallons (or have more range) then the same engine running propane.

    I think the only way it’s going to happen is through natural market forces. When gasoline gets very expensive then the profitability of alternative fuels will suddenly become viable. When that happens then there will be a huge economic interest in developing these technologies and the change over from gasoline/desiel to whatever will replace it will happen rather rapidly.

    This is probably due to happen in about a 150 years or so unless you get some breakthrough in cheap solar energy or people smarten up about nuclear. *shrug*

  10. “One thing that really works is conservation: use less of the bad stuff we’re using. But we’ve done quite a bit on that front, only to hear that much, much more is required to make a difference.”

    It’s impossible, as a consumer, to conserve, if the market doesn’t give you the information you need to do so.

    We’ve made enormous improvements in fuel efficiency over the decades. One of the results?: people drive more.

    The only way anything sensible is going to happen is when energy prices rise to the point where we believe they accurately reflect environmental impact.

  11. Actually wind power is better suited to large areas than small areas.

    If you want to use wind power for your home then you need to have batteries for when the wind stops. To implement wind power for an entire continent you don’t need batteries, you don’t have an entire continent lacking wind. The same thing applies to solar power, you can have cloudy weather in a region that reduces the solar power, but over a continent it doesn’t vary much.

    Regarding Ethanol being harder on engines, put current petrol in a car from the 1970’s and you will get a similar result. When leaded petrol was removed from sale in Australia they had signs at petrol stations informing people that they needed fuel additives or engine modifications if their car was to survive. Modern cars have better materials used to construct them.

    Any oil product can be transformed to any other oil product with a suitable amount of effort, expense, and energy loss. But one thing that should be considered is that there seems to be no practical way of using biological sources for lubrication oils (they either break down when heated or degrade seals). If we entirely run out of petroleum products then we will have some real problems even if we have bio-fuel/hydrogen/battery powered cars. It would be best to conserve the petroleum.

    As for 150 years, currently oil supply is decreasing and demand is increasing. We don’t have 150 years to solve these problems. I doubt that we have more than 5 years – which is unfortunate given that the average life-span of cars in Australia is greater than 10 years…

    Bruce: It’s also impossible as a consumer to conserve if everyone else is buying inefficient vehicles and the vehicle you want has not even been designed. For example if you want a car with the technology of a Prius but in the size of a Camry or a Tarago you have no options at all in Australia (I heard that a Prius-Camry has just been released in the US).

  12. Russell, I generally agree, though I’m skeptical of the “peak oil” hypothesis. Too much of what they say smacks of the same kind of hysteria as this “biofuels are bad” thing.

    But whether we’ve got 5 years or 150, it’s true that the oil will run out someday, and it’s best to switch from using oil when we can.

  13. Jeff: Being genuinely skeptical of unproven theories (as opposed to pretend skepticism as a way of denying evidence – which we see a lot of recently) is often a good thing.

    Proving the size of the oil reserves which are usable (IE the oil can be extracted for an energy cost that is a small fraction of the energy produced) would be very difficult even if there weren’t so many people lying. One issue is that OPEC rewards countries that claim to have very large reserves, so naturally such claims will be made without regard to the truth.

    If oil was cheap and the OPEC cartel was significantly reducing capacity to force prices up then it would be reasonable to be skeptical of any short-term risk of peak-oil. This was the case then the peak-oil theory was first advocated a few decades ago.

    Now that oil prices are reaching ridiculous levels and there is no cartel action to reduce supply it seems more reasonable to believe that oil fields are running out of oil.


    The wikipedia page has some interesting historical information about the peak oil theory being applied to US oil production in the 50’s.

    Finally while demand is increasing at an exponential rate, we don’t need the oil production to drop to cause significant problems, all we need is for it to not increase as fast as the oil use increases.

    PS Given the interest this post has received, I think it would be good if you could write more posts about similar topics.

  14. Most of the people I’ve read who talk about “peak oil” assume a sharp downturn in supply, usually based on the idea that producing oil pretty much costs the same no matter what you’re talking about. But the evidence seems to suggest otherwise; it’s cheap oil that will run out. Expensive oil will continue to be plentiful.

    Economists then like to point out that, as the cost of oil goes up, the attractiveness of alternatives also goes up, as does the incentive to find them.

    So, rather than collapse, I see a gradual migration away from oil in our future. There may be things government can do to smooth the transition for the less fortunate, and possibly hasten its progress while we still have cheap oil, but in general I have faith that the market will sort this out in the long run.

    Now, if by “peak oil” you mean something like that, then yes, I tend to agree.

    Beyond that, I wonder about whether the current situation is a result of other factors: speculation, political factor for places like Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela, etc.

  15. Energy conservation surely is a way to explore more. Our family (2 parents, 2 kids, 1 aupair) organized its life in a way so that we dont need a car. We can reach all destinations we go to on a daily basis by bike or walking. I think more people could do that if they actually put some mental efford into it. You save both money, energy AND stay reasonably healthy from moderate exercise. The normal excuse that it takes to much time to not go by car is does not apply to us.

  16. The “expense” of oil can be measured in terms of human work needed to obtain and refine it (the number of people involved in searching for oil deposits and devising new ways of extracting it), the technology and machinery (the amount of metal and other resources used – it’s been a long time since you could drill a hole in the ground and have oil gush out), and the amount of oil used in extracting oil.

    As the amount of oil used in the extraction of oil increases the cost (in all measures) will increase exponentially. For example if extracting a barrel of oil needed 1/3 of a barrel of oil (in Diesel fuel) then half the oil produced would be used in extracting oil.

    No-one thinks that oil will suddenly stop. It will gradually become more expensive (as it has been doing over the last couple of years).

    As for the political factor, at 9-11 even most Americans realised that lots of people in the middle-east don’t like them. Most people still haven’t realised that Saudi Arabia is both the most important oil exporting country and the country with the best support base for al Quaeda. If al Quaeda were to suddenly start sabotaging oil wells in Saudi Arabia they could significantly increase the monetary cost of oil overnight. It’s a pity that Fabius Maximus doesn’t focus more on such risks, he is quite good at his analysis of military issues (I’ve been reading his stuff on occasion for a number of years) but I don’t think he’s so good at economics and science.

  17. What needs to really be looked at are emerging technologies like the “pee battery”. This is a battery that in order to charge, you pee on it. If you have not heard of this already, it sounds like a joke, but it is real. Another area to really look into are magnets. A powerful generator can be build using strong magnets to repell another in order for the generator to spin for the life of the magnets, which is longer than you will live. We are very close to having small magnets that are small in size but large in mass that would be extremely effective. Nano tubing is probably the breakthrough that will bring new alternatives to the problem.

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