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Common Thread to Ethanol Debate: Reducing Petroleum Dependence

There was one point of agreement among the four scientists presenting their opposing positions in a debate on the net energy balance of ethanol: the US needs a replacement for its petroleum-based fuels. They just don’t agree on how to do that.

Organized by the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) (earlier post), the event brought together Bruce Dale, a Michigan State University professor, and John Sheehan, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, to debate David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor, and Tad Patzek, a professor from University of California–Berkeley, on the merits of the latter two’s most recent energy balance study.

The format was too brief to allow a thorough rendering of the different stances and research, and a great deal of time was spent in attacking or defending by assertion data and inputs used in the different models.

Dr. Dale, a supporter of ethanol, would rather see the entire net energy balance issue go away. He commented that the concept of net energy is “dangerous...a convenient fiction, an academic toy.”

[The net energy balance] treats all energy as equal. That’s simply not true. It ignores energy quality and deals only with quantity.

Using Pimentel’s and Patzek’s method, Dale calculated the net energy value of other fuels. By his calculations, ethanol, with an energy balance of -29%, is better than converting crude oil to gasoline at -39% and coal to electricity at -235%.

Are we going to stop burning coal for electricity or refining crude for gas because they have negative energy balances? Of course not. But that is the direction the net energy argument takes us.

Dale’s point is essentially a pragmatic one—he’d rather see the discussion focus on petroleum displacement than net energy balance.

We have very few options for increasing our liquid fuel supply. Ethanol is one of them. We have very few options for reducing or holding down the price of gasoline. Ethanol is one of them, even if it’s only in small amounts. Why shouldn’t we do it?

Sheehan from NREL also was keen on the role of biofuels in displacing petroleum, and particularly excited about the potential for technology as it moves into the processing of cellulosic material for ethanol rather than just corn. (Dale also is very keen on cellulosic ethanol.)

There is a big future for biofuels as a source for replacing our unhealthy and insecure dependence on foreign oil. Studies that I have been involved with recently...have looked at the future of the technology and been able to construct powerful visions for the technologies’ future based on where the science is going, where we can get to to improve ethanol production as one example from lignocellulose...those scenarios show that we can virtually eliminate our reliance on foreign oil if we do the right kinds of things to develop a sustainable agricultural system that combines food, feed, fiber and energy as one source. So there is a big role [for biofuels] out there...

You can look at these issues with your low beams on or you can look at them with your high beams on. I, for one, choose to look with my high beams on, with a passion for what the technology can do and where we can go.

An awful lot of what we have heard today is mired in the details of sort of the nuts and bolts of what’s in front of us without paying attention to the real payoff that’s out there for biofuels.

As would be expected, Patzek and Pimentel each defended their data and their models. “If we omitted as many different inputs as the USDA did, we could probably achieve a net energy balance profit,” Patzek said.

Both Pimentel and Patzek are encouraging different renewables as an approach to sustainability—and conservation. That latter point came most strongly from Patzek.

Pimentel, while defending his anti-ethanol stance, is optimistic about the potential of biomass for thermal energy, as well as Coal-to-Liquids processes for fuel generation.

(Dale pounced on that statement several times as evidence that Pimentel was giving up on the net energy balance issue, as, by dale’s calculations, the net energy balance of CTL is -100%—i.e., much worse than ethanol.)

Of the four, however, it was Patzek (who earlier in his career had been a petroleum engineer with Shell) who delivered the most sobering assessment, on a larger scale, of the energy situation facing the US.

Look. No mater what numbers are thrown your way today by any of us, the biofuels are a tiny, tiny little addition to the runaway energy consumption we have.

If we want...if we are serious about increasing the role of biofuels in our energy portfolio in the United States, we have to start from cutting down...DOWN...the fossil energy use, and the proposal would be to cut it down by a factor of two.

Now everybody probably would start laughing here, but a factor of two would get us down to the average energy use in the most developed countries of Northern Europe and Western Europe, which have climate which is sometimes harsher than ours. So there is no other way around it.

As a petroleum engineer, I would like to point out that each of us here in this room uses over 100 times more energy than we need to live. Almost all of this energy comes from fossil fuels and uranium, and vegetation cannot produce this amount of energy in real time every year, no matter what we do...and so we have to start cutting own on our consumption of fossil energy.

Therefore, all biofuels from all sources will remain a tiny addition to the existing sources of energy no matter what else we do. As it is, all biofuels are heavily subsidized one way or another with fossil fuels...in particular with natural gas that we do not have. And I repeat, we do not have an excess of natural gas.

Kudos to the NCGA for organizing the debate.



all biofuels from all sources will remain a tiny addition to the existing sources of energy no matter what else we do.
This needs to be said loudly, and heard far more widely.

The guy who endorsed coal-to-liquids obviously doesn't think CO2 is a problem. Biofuels could be more like lubricants, liquids produced in small volumes to keep the wheels turning. If the average car got 80% of its energy from a grid powered battery, then maybe the other 20% could be biofuelled. The key players don't seem to be thinking along these lines.


Lovins recommends doubling oil efficiency and providing a quarter of the remaining demand with biofuels, ie 12.5% of current petroleum usage. Certainly more do-able than 100% :)

See: earlier GCC post


While I am a biofuels advocate, I also agree that increasing efficiency by (at least) a factor of two should really be the first thing that we do.

I am looking forward to the day that the best use for a large SUV will be to drop them in the ocean and convert them into artificial reefs.


One point left out is how much cleaner ethanol is compared to gasoline. No sulphur, very low or no CO, very low or no particulates, and if used at 180 proof no NOx.
The debate seems based on pure mathematics not on experimentation. The arguement could be settled within one year by using two side by side farms of equal size. Dale runs one farm by whatever tchnique he chooses using only ethanol and biodiesel and a distilling method of his choice while Pimentel and Patzek do the same next door. After harvest and processing we'll see who wins.



The problem with a singleton experiment like that is that it ignores all kinds of possible side-impacts on the study. While I agree that the entire debate shouldn't be "based on pure mathematics", its pretty clear that it isn't -- after all, there are all sorts of biofuels being made right now.

It seems to me that we could make an awful lot of environmental progress by doing the following two things:
1. Get more and more energy needs on the grid.
2. Get the grid off of fossil fuels.

Step 1 is pretty easy, actually. Tax oil and natural gas consumption, thereby making electric heat cost efficient. Push plugin hybrids and yank up the price of gas. You won't get to 100%, nor should you -- but you could really push more onto the grid.

Step 2 requires constant pressure. More wind. More biomass. More solar. Just keep working at it.


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