Fermenting the ethanol debate

[Note – editing in progress]

Doubting Thomas: Ethanol doesn’t solve the problem of unsustainable systems.

Poor Richard: It isn’t intended to. My proposal for green ethanol production has only three goals:

  1. replacement of fossil fuels for existing and any future gas-burning vehicles,
  2. economic opportunity and jobs for the progressive community, and
  3. a demonstration of the power of the progressive community to act for the common good with or without government support

Doubting Thomas: Maybe you’d like to burn it to create electricity to operate the electric cars and provide the energy for the auto plants and the several million employed in the sub-industries that feed into them…along with electric mass transit systems. Now on to air conditioning, heating and household appliances, etc..

Poor Richard: No. Those applications do not require transportable liquid fuel compatible with existing internal combustion motor vehicles. Solar-thermal generating technology is already capable of coming online as quickly as new nuclear capacity and at a fraction of the cost. But that’s a completely different subject.

Doubting Thomas: Ethanol isn’t capable of making a difference. It can’t be produced in enough quantities to replace oil as we use too much energy in the first place: The U.S. energy  requirements are close to 400,000 gallons per day  of converted  fuels. Maximum ethanol extraction from the greatest producing plants is 327 gallons per acre….or 327 million gallons per 1 million acres.. Less than one day’s supply per 1 million acres.

P1:  The figure I have for gasoline consumption for all U.S transportation needs is 250 billion a year. If you accept that figure, I have shown that 100 percent of that requirement could be produced with every county in the U.S averaging about 3,500 square acres of cattails in sewage reclamation ponds.  Also I have mentioned that existing mesquite tree’s could supply over 20 percent if their seedpods were harvested. U.S grass clippings would supply 11 billion gallons per year. Brazil has already shown this stuff works.

Doubting Thomas: Unfortunately you can’t use ethanol to power our existing fleet for the simple reason that most of those cars can’t run on anything better than a 10% ethanol mix. We could, and should, mandate that all new light vehicles sold be flex-fuel, including hybrids and plug-in hybrids. The additional cost in manufacture is minimal, about $100 IIRC, but more of a pain and more expensive to retrofit.

The previous point makes moot the arguments centered around how many gazillion square miles we would have to devote to fuel crop production to replace our current and projected gasoline consumption. We couldn’t use all that ethanol even if we had it available. And no one is suggesting that “The Solution” is doing everything the same but just doing it with bio-fuels anyway.

P2: I do have to differ a little bit. Orie Swayze has done a lot of rersearch which shows that most existing engines can use at least 30 percent alcohol without any conversion right now, and that the claim by manufacturers that only a 10 percent capacity is available is not true. Swayze has found many cars on whether the present fleet can run up to 85 percent alcohol without conversion. Though you do have a point that if we wish to be 100 percent alcohol we will have to convert to vapor alcohol engines. Again however these can be converted into existing vehicles, and would keep us away from the extreme energy usage involved in making a complete new fleet.

People legitimately have different needs in regard to personal transportation so we’re going to see a mix of different solutions. For many in urban areas better mass transit fits the bill. For many suburban commuters electric or plug-in hybrids will work best. For rural areas I see P1’s vision of locally produced ethanol — even down to the level of individual stills — as being viable.

Bottom line: No single solution. Lot of ideas. Decentralize and diversify. And drive it all by properly pricing our addiction to fossil fuels through taxes that and environmental regs that internalize the currently externalized costs to society.

Doubting Thomas: My problem with alternative fuels is simply that they will be developed with little concern for wildlife as people see open space as a means to the ends of fuel development. See Indonesia’s destruction of Oragutan habitat for the development of palm oil plantations, in addition to logging to satisfy an overpopulated world’s hunger for wood.

All your ethanol “solution” does is provide an alternative to oil with no real benefit and a lot of negative effects because it does nothing to change the way we live or how much energy we use. Therefore, all that will result will be that farmland will be diverted from food to fuel production and wildlife habitat destroyed to produce fuel to waste in inefficient and poor economy products. Your’s is no solution unless we as a society decrease our waste and resource use everywhere, which your “solution” doesn’t even begin to do. All it does is serve to delude people into thinking that everything’s fine.

P1: I think the meme which has gotten out about ethanol is totally off base. Yes the fact that ADM and other mega corn interests have run the show in ethanol is a problem. But I think that part of the equation has confused those on the left into believing ethanol is not a very significant possible solution to our petroleum crisis. For those who believe the story that ethanol production takes away from food production, I would hope you might consider some points. First off the year referred to in the claim that increased ethanol, or corn in particular, cause food shortages, I think you should be familiar with the fact that there was in fact one of the largest unsold surpluses in history. This does not seem consist with the idea of a shortage.

To me the best understanding of the possible utility of ethanol is how it is seen by the frame of relocalized economies looking for technologies which can be applied at a local scale to produce some of our basic essentials. Ethanol and the production capacities necessary for its production are very amenable to populations of just a few thousand folks. The total amount of viable soil will likely be limited in some cases, but many alcohol producing crops can be grown in the less desirable soils. In fact human waste ponds could be used to grow catails which could supply a large portion of the needed supply.

The CO 2 argument is real. Ethanol does produce CO 2, but that is at least partially offset by the increased vegetation inolved in it’s production. Do we still need to find ways to limit the amount C0 2 created from transportation in general? Yes, but at least ethanol brings the discussion of such efforts back under local or regional control where it belongs.

I’m hoping that mixed grasses will prove to be a practical ethanol feed stock. Mowing off the top growth for ethanol and leaving the permanent roots in the soil greatly improves the overall amount of CO2 sequestration.

I don’t see why in theory that ethanol couldn’t be made from mixed vegetable food wastes that currently go to landfills. Once ethanol is extracted from fermented materials they can still be further utilized as animal feed and compost.

There is still debate about whether biodiesel or ethanol produces fewer greenhouse gases. I’m not convinced one way or the other. Its hard to find good life-cycle comparisons with well-controlled variables. But unless we plan to replace the entire gas-burning fleet with diesels (how much waste and CO2 would that involve?), ethanol addresses the greater real need as something that will burn in most of our existing vehicles if blended with a little gasoline.

The amount of intentional disinformation on ethanol tells me that the oil industry fears it more than biodiesel.

P1:What is more interesting is the small-lot and co-generational possibilities for both.  We cannot create oil, but we can create alcohol.  We can use what is thought of as waste and by-product without harming food production, and food production cannot be industrial anyway.As our economic thinking adjusts to nature and reality, the scale of our economic units will make sense in new ways.  Big will not be “economy of scale” unless it really produces quality and does no harm.  It will just be a less efficient use of high capital investments for short term profits.

Conservation and creative use of “waste” will have a much to do with our energy future as “supply.”  The post about solar and scale made great points about efficiency and where our investments should be made.

P2: As our economic thinking adjusts to nature and reality, the scale of our economic units will make sense in new ways.  Big will not be “economy of scale” unless it really produces quality and does no harm.  It will just be a less efficient use of high capital investments for short term profits. Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered is a collection of essays by British economist E. F. Schumacher.  It is often used to champion small, appropriate technologies that are believed to empower people more, in contrast with phrases such as “bigger is better”. That was published in 1973. If our economic thinking is still adjusting to nature and reality, we are pretty slow thinkers.

P1: Doubting Thomas,  I am not sure what in my argument suggests we do not need to consider the resource limitations of ethanol production and our consumptive nature in general. As for water the Brazilians have come up with interesting technologies in terracing the sides of hills to hold both water and nutrients for the crops. Also there are plenty of potential ethanol crops which will need no irrigated water. Mesquite trees and whole host of other crops could be produced from rainfall alone, and grasses and cattails grown in wetlands would need no additional water. I am not sure how much water is used in petroleum production, but that would be an obvious factor in determining whether we would actually be using more water in a switch to ethanol. A lot of water could be saved by industrial agriculture if they were to develop watering systems which reduced evaporation. And finally we might have to prioritize at some point if we want water to be used to water our flowers and fill our swimming pools, or if we want some fuel to get to work.

Doubting Thomas: What about massive investment in public transportation?  At least in large metropolitan areas, where people in suburbia had the convenient and cheap option to take a train, tram or subway into work?

Also, I see lots of electric cars in London.  There are charge stands all over the city and they have small solar panels on them, as I believe the electricity is solar generated.  They are great for city living, and while not the best for freeway driving (although I believe they have made bigger, faster models), they certainly solve the petrol issue.

I don’t believe ethanol is a viable alternative.  What about at some point the land grab for crops just to fuel the ever increasing need to drive our cars?

Americans need to look at other forms of transportation.  The future of the gas guzzling car is probably just a few decades from being over.  If the country wants to compete in the 21st century it needs to change an entire mindset from getting in one’s car just to pop out for a gallon of milk!

Poor Richard: A few decades is a long time.

Until we replace the 135,932,930 vehicles (2007) on the road just in the US, we need to fuel them with something. Most of these existing vehicles won’t burn any alternative fuel but ethanol. The corporate overloads would like nothing better than for us to scrap and replace 135,932,930 vehicles.

Still think ethanol isn’t a “viable alternative”? In fact, ethanol is the only alternative for the existing fleet. That is why the corporate state spends a fortune on disinformation against ethanol.

Doubting Thomas: I never did understand the whole ‘let’s take the least worst option to address the problem, because the REAL solutions are just too hard.’ Investing in public transport is what they have done in Europe and much of Asia. The US really needs to get with the 21st century program if it doesn’t want to get left well and truly behind.Sorry, but ethanol is not the answer. We would have to use too much land to grow the plants required to create the fuel we waste. Alternative fuels are a delusion. The only answer, and I mean the only answer, is to reduce the global human population while at the same time reducing the amount of energy, actually all resources, each person uses.

Poor Richard: Did you not get the ethanol = ONLY optionfor existing vehicles?What do you suggest doing with the existing 130 million vehicles? Aren’t they REAL enough for you?

I’m all for electric (or compressed air) vehicles, mass transit, and bicycles, but the existing fleet will be on the road for decades. Ethanol is the only alternative to gasoline for those vehicles.

ETHANOL IS NOT A LONG TERM TRANSPORTATION SOLUTION, BUT IT IS THE ONLY NEAR TERM REPLACEMENT FOR GAS IN MOST EXISTING VEHICLES.

Poor Richard:  DT: “I suggest each of you that believes ethanol an alternative do the math:”

Here’s the math: 176,854,589,000 gallons of fuel burned annually in 135 million existing vehicles. Are you the car fairy who’s going to make those cars go away? Ethanol is the only possible replacement fuel for most of those cars. Ethanol is existing technology and can use the existing distribution system (pipelines, tankers, gas stations, etc).

DT: Ethanol is a waste of time, time that could be better spent developing…I’m in favor of you and anybody else going on foot if you want, and developing whatever alternative vision of the future you want.

Replacing the 176,854,589,000 gallons of gasoline burned each year by car-driving fools and maniacs is not a waste of time or land or a waste of anything else. No doubt the gasoline powered fleet will gradually disappear over the next few decades. We won’t need ethanol forever. But we need it NOW!

BTW, according to Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, replacing gasoline with ethanol would create as many as 3 million jobs and about 300-700 billion dollars in economic activity annually. Doing that for a few decades may not be a total waste of time, don’t you think?
P1:  I appreciate that you are interested enough in the question to submit some math. But what I do not understand is the insistence that supporting ethanol is equivalent to laziness and over consumption. Do proponents of wind, wave, or other green technologies face this charge? The question of how viable a technology it is and how much of it we choose to produce are separate questions. Jeff you seem to put ethanol in some kind of strange category that is seen as an “additional’ option to use up resources, and refuse to see it as a “separate” option from petroleum. So why don’t you tell us what we are going to use for the next hundred years for transportation while we slow down and localize our economies? Yes walking, living close to your work, public transportation, bicycling, carpooling, etc are all part of the fix, but so is replacing petroleum use with something clearly better. By the way I bicycle to work daily.

As to the math section, I am not sure what you think you proved. First of cattails grown in sewage can produce up to 10,000 BTU’s per acre per year. A lot of crops exceed your figure, but even if we took 1,000 gallons per acre as a given, what about that statistic suggests that ethanol is worthless? Use the 70 million acres which mesquite trees grow and some of the other unused land it is abundantly clear ethanol could supply 100 percent of our needs. But I guess that is part of the problem. If ethanol is “too good” a solution it will encourage people to consume too much. We better just stick with our status quo I guess.

As to the statistics about BTU’s per gallon. Yes petroleum and diesel have higher BTU’s per gallon. Again so what? You are not making an argument that petroleum is somehow more attractive based on this are you? The external cost of extracting petroleum are not worth mentioning are they? If your point is an argument for bio-diesel then that is different. I do not know a lot about bio-diesel other than I believe there are significant air pollution problems associated with it, not to mention the noise factor. I think Poor Richard might know a little more on bio-diesel than I do.

Also I think the job question gets lost here. Ethanol production could put millions of good quality jobs back in the hands of local control, and takes 100 of billions if not trillions out of the hands of the oil companies. If you are looking for a solution to the consolidation of power in this world, an end to the wars in the middle east, and a rebuilding of the middle class and american production capacity, it is staring you in the face.

Doubting Thomas: The jobs point is itself pointless as ethanol wastes more than it produces and will serve only to delude people, like yourself, into thinking that we don’t have to make the fundamental changes required for a sustainable economy.

Poor Richard: “Ethanol wastes more than it produces” is 50-year old mythology sponsored by big oil. Most published information on ethanol is wrong, and much of it is deliberately false.

I acknowledge the fundamental changes required for a sustainable economy, but I have a pragmatic inclination to take one step at a time.  Ethanol is a transformative economic opportunity with positive environmental impacts staring the progressive community right in the face.

Conservative mid-west farmers have produced commercial quantities of ethanol on their own without much public support. Why can’t progressives do it better, using grass and waste? What kind of fools are we ?

Poor Richard: DT wrote: “… not delude people into thinking that we can merely swap one energy source with another so that we can use our wasteful products and continue our wasteful lifestyle.”Ethanol is not an alternative to other reforms, it is complementary to them. It is an alternative to the fossil fuel used by existing vehicles. While those existing vehicles “run their course” they will burn many billions of gallons of fuel. Would you rather it be gasoline or ethanol?

Better efficiency standards only affect new vehicles. I’ve already pointed out that ethanol is only a solution for existing gasoline vehicles. Nothing else. Do you get that?

DT : “To concentrate only on ethanol production serves only to continue our wasteful ways and delude us into thinking we have the solution.”

Nobody in his right mind ever proposed concentrating only on ethanol to the exclusion of anything else.

DT: You choose to focus on replacing oil with ethanol and it won’t work. All it did when there was a push a little while back, was to increase food prices because it side-tracked farmland from food to fuel production. Ethanol proved itself to simply be another special interest that received government subsidies without the up-front research to support it.

DT: I would rather push for products that require less energy than press for alternative energy sources.

PR: Then why don’t you go ahead and do that and stay out of the ethanol dialog? You are contributing nothing but disinformation and obfuscation.

Regarding your claims of ecological harm, it is incumbent on the progressive community to implement the greenest possible version of ethanol production. The conservative mid-west farmers have done it successfully (without much public support) with old corn-based technology. The progressive community could do it better and greener. But you also have to factor the amount of oil replaced by ethanol into its ecological impact.

Again, ethanol is justified only as a transition fuel to replace gasoline in existing conventional vehicles. Electric and other non-combustion engine alternatives and more mass transit and more human-powered transport are the ultimate goals. What is hard about this?

DT: I already have told you, mandate high efficiency vehicles and end subsidies for sprawl. That will not only lead to a reduction in the amount of oil we need but also reduce how much ethanol we would need too. To concentrate only on ethanol production serves only to continue our wasteful ways and delude us into thinking we have the solution.

PR: But the point is that the two are not mutually exclusive, DT. We most likely agree that people need to cut back on their using up of resources, but the problem we have is that you treat the alternative green technologies as some sort of new temptation to use up resources. This might be true if we were a de-industrialized society which was getting ready to take on a new technology and might lead to increased resource consumption. But that is not the case, we have an oil empire and we need technologies to deconstruct it

P1: Cattails improve the environmental quality of wetlands. Further they could be grown on water involved in sewage treatment. This would mean that we would have to devote a little over 6,000 acres per county to cattail mediated sewage treatment to produce “all” of our present need for oil. As to where would the land come from, is this a question about land ownership or about limited resources. If it is legality of land ownership question, this is not really the emphasis here. It is a question which will be face, but the question of whether ethanol production is viable supercedes the question of how do we get the land to do it. So if the question is do we have land that is not devoted to other means, I do not think there is a question. Please remember we do not need prime farmland. If the already existing mesquite tree population were to have it’s seed pods harvested that alone would account for over twenty percent of our present petro intake.

DT: What you’re proposing is that we use even more wildlife habitat to continue our wasteful ways and I don’t accept that as any solution. You and other ethanol types are simply proposing substituting one problem, fossil fuel, with another, non-fossil fuel, when what is the only real solution is to reduce our need for energy.

PR: How many times can you beat this horse. I agree that people need to reduce consumption. Maybe you would like to limit the amount of food grown so people do not get fat. If your argument is that the problems with petroleum or in some way “similar” to the problems with ethanol, then I am missing something. All I see in your argument is that the difference between the two is insignificant to you because you wish to insist on a world where apparently virtually nothing is produced. I mean if growing environmentally friendly plants is too much, I cannot imagine what else would not be allowed.

DT: If we were to mandate high mileage diesels along with high mileage gas vehicles and implemented a tax on fuel, then the pressure would be to buy the most efficient vehicle, which would be high mileage diesel. These new vehicles would also be cleaner in operation. This not only would reduce our use of fossil diesel but also non-fossil diesel by default. Bio-diesel is also a non-starter unless we first reduce our energy requirement in the first place.

P1: I think Poor Richard touched on this. The amount of energy required to create a new fleet of energy efficient cars is much greater than than any savings of energy that the hybrids will create. In other words we are much better off using the old cars we have with ethanol than we would be by creating a new fleet of energy efficient cars. And as much as I tend to agree about conservation the continued incessant drumbeat is getting me to change my tune. Even if there was no increased conservation the switch from petroleum to plant based would be monumental from an ecological standpoint, a natural resources depletion standpoint, and from an anti-war standpoint

DT: I couldn’t care less about job production when that job is based on waste and continuing our bad behavior. The only solution is to reduce our energy requirement, which requires well educated engineers and by default reduces an individual’s reliance on others, from foreign oil suppliers to domestic fuel producers.

P1: This getting un-intelligble to me. What waste? Apparently your vision of an economy does not require transportation? Your mantra of reduce, does it have a definable endpoint? Are we going to have any individual vehicles? What is going to be the power source?

DT: Concentrating on ethanol solves no problems and does nothing to reduce the total cost of operation/ownership of a vehicle or of any product

P1: Sorry, but this is absurd. How are you measuring cost? Those dying in wars for oil? Natural disasters caused by oil production? Loss of American jobs?

PR: P1 wrote: “I think Poor Richard touched on this. The amount of energy required to create a new fleet of energy efficient cars is much greater than than any savings of energy that the hybrids will create. In other words we are much better off using the old cars we have with ethanol than we would be by creating a new fleet of energy efficient cars.

Yes, thanks for repeating this. I keep driving an old, inefficient pickup truck but I only drive about 2000 miles per year, so gas savings from a new vehicle would be tiny compared with the energy and materials cost of manufacturing the new one.

DT wrote: “If we don’t require better energy economies/efficiencies for everything we do and use, what will the effects be of merely switching energy sources?”
“”Merely” switching energy sources is a straw man. We all support most or all of the things you are advocating. No progressive sees ethanol as a substitute for conservation or anything other than fuel for existing gas vehicles.
DT wrote: “The only solution is to be found in forcing the American people to live more responsibly…”

Wrong, DT, that is not the only solution. There are multiple approacehes and all of them important.

DT wrote:  “The only reason I’m writing as I do is that I don’t see you advocating reduction, only ethanol use in place of oil.”
How many times to we all have repeat that we are committed to energy efficiency and thrift. I practice it in my life and sometimes I write about it. That just wasn’t the main focus of this discussion and it was something I thought just went without saying as a complementary issue.

My argument with you is your framing ethanol vs conservation as opposing issues and dragging in a bunch of misdirected objections to ethanol–misdirected because they were not determinative in the analysis of ethanol as a temporary transition fuel for existing vehicles.

You raised some valid ethanol issues that should be factored into our effort to develop ethanol in a green manner, adding to my very brief comments about using waste, grass, etc. I did not intend to get into a technical analysis of the very best way to make ethanol. I don’t access to the appropriate reference info right now.

DT: My one solution, mandated increased energy efficiency and use standards, is the only way that your preferred fuel source, ethanol, will provide a solution.

PR: Wrong. New standards only affect new cars. No doubt many new gas-burning cars will still be rolling off the assembly line in the next decade or so and new standards will affect those. But I doubt if as many gas-burners will be made as are already on the road before non-combustion vehicles start pushing them out of the new car pipeline. So you see, your mileage standards have a fairly short horizon, too.

DT: We have to get our priorities straight, since it is more important to survival to have topsoil to raise food than to use-up our topsoil on ethanol crops. My view on ethanol made from crop waste or non-food crops is the same, because it means that no plant matter is returning to the soil to replenish the topsoil. The U.S. loses the equivalent of a freight train nearly 1/4 million miles long filled with top soil to the sea every year.through industrial agriculture. Running our cars now so we can starve-to-death in the future doesn’t make much sense.

Nitrogen utilized by  crops in industrial agriculture comes from. fossil fuels and doesn’t include other nutrients which are gradually depleted. When a plant dies in place, it returns the nutrients to the soil. Animals return nutrients in the form of waste. . Buffalo didn’t flush their poop into the ocean. They fed grass with it. Ditto pigs, chickens, cattle  as they were once raised. The planet fertilizes itself when we don’t intervene. We should probably do it the way its done rather than what we prefer to gain maxiumum profit. Ethanol is another invervention in natural systems. More industrialized, destructive agriculture.

Univ. studies show U.S. agriculture isn’t sustainable the way its practiced. Ethanol is merely postponing one problem while adding another one to it.

PR: Three points:

  1. Topsoil conservation is important, but irrelevant to ethanol. The use of grass clippings, vegetable waste, or any products of properly managed green agriculture, do not contribute to erosion or depletion of soils. The part of the plant that is converted to ethanol comes from the air (carbon) and water (hydrogen and oxygen), not the soil. The ethanol molecule CH3CH2OH is made of elements that plants require, but the plants get these elements from air and water, not from the soil. .
  2. All materials used to ferment ethanol may be returned to the soil if desired, or fed to animals, and contain MORE nutrients than they did prior to fermentation. The organisms that give us the ethanol take nothing away because their bodies, full of nutrients, are included in the spent mash. It is a miracle of nature. What is left of brewers mash after ethanol is extracted can all go back on the land, and it can get there by first going through the digestive system of an animal. Do you think that what goes into an animal is a better fertilizer than what comes out the other end? The same is true of an ethanol plant.
  3. Mixed switchgrass and other perennial grasses can actually rehabilitate and reclaim waste areas that have been ruined by other crops, poor management practices, or environmental disasters.
DT: Richard, plants obtain carbon from the air. Nutrients from the soil are required to form with the carbon to make plant material. Almost 100% of plant life requires top soil…or it can’t grow, let alone live. The sun provides the energy. The sunlight energy  is stored in the plant. We eat the stored sunlight energy. We call it calories.

Plants removed from the soil take the nutrients with them. If that wasn’t so, we wouldn’t have to fertilize anything…ever. Multi-purpose farms, where the waste is returned to the soil required very little fertilization…even the top  soil tends to remain in place if it isn’t farmed stupidly.

Grass land ,if clipped or if grass is removed  will deteriorate if it isn’t fertilized.  The U.S. grass prairies were self-fertilizing. Plants, grass or otherwise, grown for ethanol won’t be self-fertilizing. When harvested, they will be soil depleting. They’ll need fertilizing with fossil fuels converted into nitrogen.

PR: You aren’t getting the point that what I call green ethanol must, by definition, be produced from materials that are also produced in a green, sustainable manner–not by the harmful methods you are talking about.

Micro organisms grown in mash neither add nor subtract to the nutrients in the mash. They merely transform the existing nutrients into themselves. Energy transformed into ethanol, and removed to be burned as fuel energy in a vehicle, is a subtraction. What we have is a splitting of sunlight energy…some remaining in the mash as dead and decaying organisms (releasing carbon as they decay),  and some energy being removed as ethanol.

DT: Richard, carbon comes from the air. Nutrients required to combine with it to form plant material come from the soil.

PR: The micronutients taken up from the soil are supplied (in green agriculture) by the activity of living organisms in and on the soil. If the soil ecology is healthy, very little added fertilizer is required. This is certainly true of prairie grasses. If soil depletion is a problem, then some of the fermented mash may be returned to the soil. Like the bison, the ethanol producer consumes the grass and deposits the residue.

DT: Micro organisms grown in mash neither add nor subtract to the nutrients in the mash. They merely transorm the existing nutrients into themselves.

PR: The organisms may or may not add/subtarct to the mass of the mash. I don’t recall the before and after dry weights. But “nutrients” refers to chemicals that animals and plants can use without further processing. The mash may contain no more material than the feed stock, but it contains many different new nutrient compounds and the rest of the material is left in a form more available to soil organisms if applied back to the soil, which would no doubt be needed occasionally as I mentioned earlier.

DT: Energy transormed into ethanol, and removed to be burned as fuel energy in a vehicle, is a subtraction. What we have is a splitting of sunlight energy…some remaining in the mash as dead and decaying organisms,  and some energy being removed as ethanol.

PR: What has been subtracted as ethanol has come mostly from the sunlight and the atmospheric carbon, all of which are in great surplus to the crops, especially grassland.

Finally, the duration of the extraction of ethanol from crops will only be the time it takes the existing transport technology to shift to non-combustion vehicles. Ethanol has little other purpose than as a transition fuel.

I hope you are learning a little, but real expertise take years to acquire and an extraordinary ability to recognize disinformation distributed by the corporate college ag departments, corporate influenced government reports, industry publications, etc.

One of the better sources for up-to-date ethanol info is Ethanol.com, but even they are heavily skewed towards corn. They occasionally cover some cellulosic ethanol news as does Ethanol Week.

P1: DT, I wonder why you do not even consider ethanol’s value within the relocalization movement. Perhaps you do not even give creedence to relocalization since I have never heard you discuss it beyond some refrences to Korten. Even if ethanol production at the local level were never to become substantial, I think it could at least provide a model and impetus for furthering such economic. I guess this similar to Richard in it would serve as a transition to future models, though I do not necessairily see ethanol as only transitional.

DT: You don’t understand that the core issue is sustainability and not just oil use. Your solution, replacing gas with ethanol, requires intensive agriculture that itself negatively affects the environment as I showed in the existence of dead zones. Also, biofuels are not benign as discussed in Global Biofuel Drive Raises Risk of Eviction for African Farmers, Some Biofuels Might Do More Harm Than Good To The Environment, Study Finds, Biofuel Crops That Require Destroying Native Ecosystems Worsens Global Warming, Projected Food, Energy Demands Seen To Outpace Production among many other studies.
PR: There are a thousand studies like that for every honest one, for many reasons:
  • Good studies aren’t approved and funded because of industry influence
  • Most of the actual study funding comes from the taxpayer, but little of that goes in the researcher’s pocket
  • Industry influences research institutions with grants, endowments, and cronyism
  • Industry influences the individual researchers with indirect perks, jobs, bribes, or threats
  • Almost all the raw “data” comes from the energy industry
  • Industry makes clear what the expected conclusions must be

P2: Another point about ethanol production, particularly corn-based. The prevailing meme is that farmers are growing corn that’s being turned into fuel and that is diverting from food production. Well that’s only partially true.In producing ethanol, the corn is ground up, fermented, and the alcohol is drawn off. The remain mash is called distiller’s grain and it’s just the cellulosic husk of the corn kernel. The ethanol refineries sell that grain, in both wet and dried forms as cattle feed to dairies and beef feedlots. This is high-quality animal feed, better in fact than the corn from which it came. Cows are biologically “designed” to process cellulose (from grass). The sugar/starch core of the corn kernel can be digested by them but too much of it gives them a gut-ache. So they absolutely love this stuff — it’s like candy num-nums to them.So I haul (I’m a trucker in Kansas) between 75 to 100 tons of this stuff every week to dairies and feedlots around KS, NE, OK, TX, NM, CO, SD, and WY. We even export some to China.Bottom line is that up to a certain point the corn grown for ethanol production is really just displacing corn that was originally grown for cattle feed and still ends up as cattle feed — and a better quality cattle feed — anyway. Now you can complain that this is just feeding into industrial agriculture and eating animals, blah-blah, yadda-yadda. And that’s true, but it’s a separate issue from ethanol production per se and the diversion of cropland from food production. So the production of some ethanol from corn — I couldn’t say how much — as a component of a diversified strategy to get off fossil fuels seems like a viable option to me.

DT: Fermentation doesn’t create any new nutrients utilized by plants. No new magnesium, no new potassium, and the like.

PR: Nor does it remove them. All the minerals and other elements are conserved. However, to stimulate yeast growth nutrients are often added to the mash prior to the fermentation. These added nutrients remain after ethanol extraction. The yeast cells in the spent mash offer a more complex cocktail of bio-available nutrients (as opposed to simple elements such as magnesium and potassium) for plants, soil organisms, and animals than the original feedstock. In addition, enzymatically and mechanically degraded cellulose is easier for all subsequent consumers of the mash to digest further.

DT: Every bit of stubble and left over material has to be returned to the soil to avoid ultimate fertilization requirements that will become on-going…… fertilizer created with fossil fuels. By-products of ethanol mfr. couldn’t be used to feed livestock.

PR: False. If you feed the brewers mash to stock in the field, most of the nutrients of use to the grass will pass through the animal and fall right back onto the field. I f the animals are contained then their manure can be mechanically spread back on the fields.

Poor Richard

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