Sunday, July 09, 2006

Another Reason Celluostic Ethanol is a False Hope

Part of being a nuclear advocate is debunking the endless stream of poorly-thought-out energy "solutions" that pop up. For example, the latest ethanol craze.

Here is a great article in the Washington Post debunking ethanol.

But celluostic ethanol has an even bigger problems that aren't mentioned:

Celluostic agricultural waste is ALREADY being used to generate electricity. It's being burned in waste-burning plants to generate electricity. Sawdust (which is often cited as a source) has been burned to power the sawmills and surrounding communities for decades.

If we converted existing sources of ag waste to ethanol production, we'd experience a decrease in energy efficiency. Burning this waste in a typical power plant is actually pretty efficient. Something on the order of 25% or 30% efficient. The creation of ethanol would be much less efficient -- there's no way that a giant ethanol "cooking" plant full of cellulose-consuming bacteria will be anything better than 10% efficient converting the calories to useful energy.

Even if we do grow millions of additional tons of switchgrass or other energy crops, they're unlikely to become ethanol. They'll simply get burned to generate electricity. This will happen because burning them is the cheapest, easiest, and most profitable way to use the resource. The american midwest is full of coal and waste-burning plants who are hungry for green energy sources. These plants already exist, they are already running, and they will quickly, cheaply, and efficiently use up all the available energy crops.

Think of it this're a switchgrass-growing farmer. You can sell your crop to the local coal burning plant (which pays a much higher price, and which generates carbon abatement and pollution abatement credits when it burns your crop in place of coal). Or you could sell your switchgrass crop to the ethanol factory and get paid 1/2 the price. Who do you think you'll sell to?

Burning switchgrass instead of coal -- easy, cheap, already happening.

What's the point? There is very little net energy to be had in current agricultural waste, and any future growth of ag waste or energy crops will be best used for electrical production, not ethanol. Yes there are waste streams that can't be burned (amimal waste, etc) but these are reletively small. Celluostic ethanol will require a lot of new research, new technolgy, investments in new plants, and a lot of other complexity. Will it be worth it? Probably not.

Why do I care? In this and other pro-nuclear blogs, we've observed for years that in western society, especially american society, we've seen a rash of "energy sources" which are hyped to the public, many of which are technically unsound, yet the general public grabs onto them. It's a major obstacle to the logical development of real "green" energy sources like nuclear power.


At 6:35 AM, Blogger Rod Adams said...


The back page of my most recent Time Magazine told me a lot about Chevron's participation in biomass energy and other fascinating research projects.

Are you telling me that Chevron might be wrong about the potential for these sources to replace their current product offerings?

(Smile - the above was written with tongue firmly in cheek.)

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

Well Rod, I'm sure Chevron never saw a research subsidy they didn't like!

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Rod Adams said...


I think you may have missed my point. Chevron is loudly (and expensively) proclaiming its green research by purchasing advertisements on the back cover of major magazines.

Methinks they have some motive for exaggerating the potential of alternative energy sources while they continue to sell tens of billions of dollars worth of oil, coal and gas.

It is a distraction, pure and simple.

At 11:04 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...

Chuckle. Rod, you cynical guy. That's what happens when you spend too much time "following the trail of the money"!

At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Doug said...

Very interesting point and not one I had heard before. Still even a net energy loss is acceptable if the energy is converted into a more usable form. The question ultimately is whether it will be more efficient to power transportation electrically or via biofuels, both of which incur losses. There are some proposals to create biofuels on non-arable land, which is a much more credible idea. Although no where near commercialization, it is possible with known technologies to farm algae grown in tanks or pools in (say) desert areas to get biodiesel, a useful and energy-rich fuel. It's hard to see powering aircraft or mobile heavy equipment off of the grid.

At 10:05 PM, Blogger Tom Benson said...


Good point about usable energy. From that perspective I think Ethanol for fuel is a very bad alternative to biomass-into-electricity.

Why do I say this? Because we are burning vast amounts of natural gas to create electricity. That natural gas would be a very efficient vehicle fuel (already is). If we were smart we'd burn the biomass for electricity, then re-direct the natural gas to power vehicles. Net energy usage in this case is much, much better than converting biomass to ethanol.

At 2:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tom, I am more than just pro nuke. I built a career in the nuclear field, spent 20 years doing more than a little hands on. I worked for Department of Energy as well Nuclear Power Plants. Some 25 years ago the US was on track for going nuclear. The evil politics caused nuclear to fail in the USA. I agree we need nuclear power. Also, I am recently becoming closley involved in the biomass energy field, switchgrass in particular. My advice to you is to stay up on the technology, avoid pitting the two against each other. While switchgrass if successful will max out at around 30% of all petroleum based energy to replace our gas hog cars which currently use 37% of all US energy supplies, the electric power we need can most certainly come from nuclear power. There is plenty room for both. Also, the technology has already been developed for improved processing, farther than expected but certainly hoped for to achieve. Granted we are a few years away because who is growing switchgrass? New genetically altered switchgrass is in trials as we speak at major universities for several years now. We need both so I suggest, allow in your thinking for both as I do not see cars running on nuclear power, even though it is possible. As one nuke to another, forget the past arguments and introduce new ones for pro-nuke programs and support other energy developments as well.


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