They Must Be Drinking Ethanol

The press provides us with two more bits of evidence that the ethanol lobby has stopped courting gullible reporters with three-martini lunches and moved up to chugging pints of pure ethanol.

The first item is a prudently unsigned Associated Press story in The Washington Times May 26 which spoke of the ethanol industry “lobbying blitz arguing that 8 billion gallons of ethanol would replace 2 billion barrels of crude oil.”

There are 42 barrels in a gallon of crude oil, so you’d need 84 billion gallons of ethanol – not 8 billion — to replace 2 billion barrels of crude.

Besides, the 8 billion gallons of ethanol cannot be produced from corn or sugar (the only sources politicians favor) without wasting a lot of petroleum. It requires petroleum to fuel farm machinery, to produce fertilizer and insecticide, and to transport both the corn and ethanol by diesel truck or train (because ethanol won’t flow through pipelines as oil and gas do).

The second evidence of ethanol poisoning is “Stirrings in the corn fields” from The Economist, May 14. This piece claims Midwestern U.S. drivers can save money by using 85 percent ethanol (E85), because the price near cornfields “is only 10 cents or so from being cheaper than standard gasoline even if there were no subsidies” (of 51 to 71 cents a gallon).

Even if prices of E85 and gasoline were identical, however, E85 would nonetheless be 30 percent more expensive because cars using gasoline get 30 percent more miles per gallon than those using E85. The government estimates, at www. fueleconomy gov, that a Mercedes Benz C320 gets 26 mpg on the highway with gasoline, for example, but only 19 mpg with E85. If gasoline were $2 a gallon, E85 would have to sell for about $1.40 to compete on a cents-per-mile basis. Incidentally, the much larger and more powerful E-series diesel Mercedes (E320 CDI) is rated at 37 mpg on the highway –nearly twice as fuel-frugal as the smaller C320 using E85.

The U.S. political impulse to produce more ethanol from corn cannot be justified on economic grounds, though tax-financed subsidies are always described as a brilliant idea by those receiving them.

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12 thoughts on “They Must Be Drinking Ethanol

  1. The energy density of Texas crude oil is 45 MJ/kg. The density of Texas crude oil is 873 kg/m^3. Thus, at 39285 MJ/m^3, a 42 gallon barrel of crude oil contains 6246 MJ of energy.

    The energy density of ethanol is 26.8 MJ/kg. The density of ethanol is 789 kg/m^3. Thus, at 21145 MJ/m^3, a gallon of ethanol contains 80 MJ of energy.

    Therefore, in order to replace 2 billion barrels of crude oil, you would need 156 billion gallons of ethanol.

    Or perhaps I’ve made a mistake somewhere.

    Anyway, my point is: don’t equate volume with energy.

  2. Never thought I’d say this here, but, I agree wholeheartedly.

    Ethanol is a completely unrealistic energy solution, as are hydrogen-based vehicles. Real solutions will need to include short-term and long-term goals. Mixing in biodiesel and hybrid technology is a good start, while we push for better electric vehicle technology. Increased mass transit will make infinitely more sense for commuting, especially in urban and suburban areas (When, oh, when will I get my BART in San Jose? Or at least some functioning light rail?).
    Better electricity generation, from improved nuclear technology and new, innovative sources, such as John Pina Craven’s Natural Energy Lab project, will be key.

    Hey, maybe Governator Ahnuld will drop the speed limit to 55mph and the American motor companies will drop their lawsuit to stop the state’s new fuel emission and mileage standards. That’d do wonders too.

  3. corn or sugar (the only sources politicians favor)

    For now, anyway. The soybean producers are persistent in trying to elbow their way up to the trough with biodiesel. I’m not sure how hard the corn lobby will fight this, or what American Farm Bureau’s position is, as they have to represent both constituencies.

    It’s so encouraging to be a free-market libertarian from a farm state and watch my neighbors step on each other’s heads like a litter of piglets racing for the mother sow.

  4. The anonymous point about energy density is correct, and is actually the same point I made when criticizing The Economist (that it takes about 30% more fuel in the case of E85 to drive as far as you would on gasoline). My point about 42 gallons per barrel is not the whole story. That adds up to two reasons the AP journalist should have been more skeptical before printing such an erroneous claim.

  5. the AP journalist should have been more skeptical before printing such an erroneous claim.

    Journalists and popular science writers get away with this nonsense because they, their editors, and most of their readers, are afflicted with basic innumeracy. It is actually considered a virtue to be innumerate in this country. Oh, I’m a people person, not a math person. Can you imagine anyone excusing their own illiteracy by declaring Oh I’m a people person, not a word person?? I was trained as an economic demographer and worked for serveral years in public health, and I have seen articles published not just in newspapers but in professional journals, containing numeric mistakes of factors of ten or more, leading to conclusions that the author would recognize to be ludicrous if he or she were only able to understand the numbers being slung around.

    You have to operate on the “Will Rogers” principle (All I know is what I read in the papers.) Considering the mistakes you see being made when you read an article on subject with which you are familiar — how likely are similar mistakes in articles about which you know next to nothing? And how then can you trust anything you read? I think in this respect the blogosphere is an excellent thing. It puts me in easy touch with people of ordinary intelligence who happen to have knowledge and experience of a particular subject, and these mistakes come to light much more quickly and are debunked more widely.

  6. My first try at the calculations I posted above yielded answers that were off by a factor of ten, by the way. But I check my work.

  7. Unfortunately the answer to energy issues can’t be solved technologically. They can only be solved with social corrections which are too politically painful for our government to ever actually attempt.

    ALL energy sources have drawbacks. Our energy policy to date is to use as much as possible as fast as possible. Consequently we steamroller toward those drawbacks which we promptly ignore until they are massive problems. We now have an industial sector that is poised for collapse due to it’s huge reliance on fossil fuel production which is likely to collapse in the next couple decades.

    However even if we find a way of replacing oil and gas (no mean feat) unless we change our patterns of energy usage we will just run into a new set of problems.

    We don’t need to build massively inefficient homes and cities. We don’t need to build wasteful appliances and offices. Unless we stop we are going to have an energy crisis for the rest of our species lifetime.

  8. and as the price of oil goes up, more clever solutions to providing power needs will be made available. As it stands, there is not enough money to be made for the research required into alternatives to burning oil, so it is not pursued. When it is profitable, people will do it.

  9. As much of the nation (and bloggers) begin to TALK about E85, we in Minnesota are using the cleaner-buring alternative in record amounts.

    It is now easy to travel all across Minnesota and not be far from one of the 150+ E85 pumps, where E85 is selling for 40-60 cents cheaper than regular unleaded.

    The American Lung Association of Minnesota supports E85 because it is less polluting than gasoline. See more at the ALAMN website:
    http://www.CleanAirChoice.org

    Bob from the ALAMN

  10. Bob from the ALAMN, surely you must be talking national polution and not the effect on Minnesota, or you have completely ignored the fact that E85 takes the refinement of fuel that was done elsewhere and brings it home here to MN. Combined with all the fuel (and chemicals) it takes to produce corn and turn it into ethanol, trucking it to stations, etc…, just at what point is E85 supposed to be making our air here cleaner? All this is of course while burning 30 percent more of it…

  11. Exhaust from vehicle tailpipes is the largest single source of air pollution in Minnesota. From what I have heard from the MN Dept. of Agriculture, we really are not planting MORE corn to make ethanol-based fuels, we are just using the crop in different ways. Farming, like most industries, has become much more energy efficent, as has ethanol plants. Many MN farmers use biofuels in tractors, combines and trucks. Sure, some petroleum has to be imported to create E85 — about 85% less than to create a gallon of gas.

    Question for anonymous: What kind of clean fuels are YOU using? If you have a better fuel that can be used by many vehicles and available at local stations right now, please let us know.

  12. Indeed, Anonymous can do math. However, I wouldn’t recommend him for a position as an engineer quite yet.

    While much of his argument is sound, he, like others, is confusing a feedstock (crude oil) with a finished product (ethanol). A 42-gallon barrel of oil is refined to produce 19.4 gallons of gasoline plus 9.7 gallons of distillate fuel oil plus some other stuff. This factor would seem to cut the estimate of 156 billion gallons down to 72 billion gallons.

    Yes, that 42-gallon barrel of oil does produce those other products, but bear in mind that it takes energy to refine that barrel of crude oil just as it takes energy to distill that ethanol.

    My take on this whole situation is that the government should get the hell out of the way and let the free market determine what is most efficient. Taxes, subsidies, and this seemingly atrocious energy bill only hide the truth and lead to inefficiencies.

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