Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Ethanol Can’t Solve it All!

When it comes to cutting Greenhouse gas emissions, reasons for being suspicious if not sceptical about the potential of ethanol-based biofuels are gaining traction. The initial promise, some say PR hype, of a clean and green fuel with the potential to solve it all has been dampened by the principal question mark – just how green ethanol fuel really is? The complex answer depends on what technique and which raw material is actually used during the production process.

In this game there are two principal players – Brazil and U.S.A - who between them accounted for some 90% of the world’s ethanol fuel production if 2008 is used as a cut-off point. Minneapolis-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) noted in a report in 2008 that only some type of ethanol production processes, which involved low water-absorption intensive techniques over the course of production, were likely to do much good.

This too came from sugarcane produced ethanol made by Brazil. Ethanol produced from corn, i.e. the American way or more specifically the Iowa way, is considered inefficient and expensive. While the Brazilian ethanol fuel industry is over thirty years old, President George W. Bush literally pumped-up a not so dormant U.S. industry in 2007 when he signed legislation requiring a five-fold increase in biofuels production, to 36 billion gallons* by 2022.

Alas when a politician steps in, lobbyists so entrenched in an industry touting its allegedly green credentials cannot be far behind. Woe betide any politician who messes with lobby groups (of all descriptions not just the ‘corny’ ones). By the time Bush signed the legislation, number of U.S. ethanol factories had already tripled over eight years from 50 to 140. The former President was merely following a long drawn out campaign by the American corn ethanol industry that he was doing some good. For them that is, not mother earth.

Research suggests that a typical corn-fed ethanol factory producing 50 million gallons of biofuels a year needs about 500 gallons of water per minute, according to published sources. Most of it goes into boiling and cooling processes. It is a method which in layman terms would be similar to making beer though more water intensive. Experts agree that U.S. ethanol plants have become more efficient over the last five years using nearly half as much water per gallon as they did a decade ago, but the stated figure is the benchmark for better or for worse.

Furthermore, the Brazil Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, found in a study that annual yield in litres* per hectare for corn manufactured ethanol was in region of 3100 to 4000 while sugarcane manufactured ethanol yielded double the volume in the circa of 6800 to 8000 litres per hectare.

In face of such overwhelming inefficiencies, the Iowa industry is kept alive largely by generous subsidies and high tariffs which keep out the cheaper and environmentally friendly Brazilian imports, according to FT’s World Trade Editor Alan Beattie. Even then, the Brazil Institute estimates that projected price of ethanol produced in Brazil currently is and remains lower than both the projected prices of unleaded gasoline and of U.S. produced ethanol. In fact, the price differential between Brazilian and U.S. produced ethanol was so great in 2006 that it was still cheaper to import Brazilian ethanol even after the 54 cents per gallon import tariff.

Furthermore, Iowa’s plants have become poster children of the Food Versus Fuel debate. According to a report by the Reuters news agency, while American funding for corn continues, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is rethinking its stance on funding biofuels in general. The UNEP has also conducted detailed research into the subject which makes for interesting reading. However, it curiously notes in its report that the work, “delivers no final word, but a concentration of current knowledge, aimed to support decision making and future scientific work towards a sustainable bio-economy.”

That the American lobbyists are not paying attention or are open to gentle persuasion is a different matter. Ethanol production rose from 440 million gallons in 2002 to 2 billion gallons by 2007 in Iowa alone. That’s not including production facilities in other U.S. states that were brave enough or should I say idiotic enough to allow corn-fed ethanol production facilities to burden their aquifers. In fact, water could be the undoing of ethanol according to IATP. I am not a scientist, but from where I stand even the economics of it is on a shaky footing. Mark Twain aptly observed: "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over."

Several ethanol projects within a 30 mile radius of Illinois' Mahomet Aquifer are embroiled in challenges (legal or otherwise) as residents fret over their impact on the region's water supply. Other examples could include cases from Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska and even Iowa. The recession has had an unwitting effect as well. Most industry observers now feel that despite Government subsidies, only the most efficient U.S. ethanol plants would survive the downturn as the industry has been overbuilt and over-hyped. In the interim, doubts persist whether ethanol, especially the corn-fed variety, is all that green at all. That’s on top of the unwanted side-effect of needless hot air generated by U.S. presidential hopefuls, sitting presidents, politicians and lobbyists of ‘corny’ persuasions.
(* 1 Gallon - U.S. = 3.785 Litres)

© Gaurav Sharma 2010. Photo Courtesy © Coxwebnews.com

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