Alternatives to Alternative Energy?

Corn is covering more and more land in the U.S. these days.  But corn stockpiles are plummeting.

Only 7 percent of the U.S. corn crop went to make ethanol in 2001. That number rose to 39 percent in 2010 and will continue to rise for the next decade.  The U.S. will have only 675 million bushels of corn left over at the end of this year. This is only 5 percent of all corn that will be consumed in 2011; the lowest stockpiled surplus level in fifteen years.

To be a viable alternative, a biofuel should provide a net energy gain, decrease relative pollution, be able to compete economically, and not significantly reduce food supplies.  Cellulosic ethanol and biofuels from algae, yeast and bacteria have long been touted as a way to produce home-grown energy in the U.S. without taking from the national or world food supply.

David Weintraub, Director of External Communication at ADM, told me about some of his company’s projects on cellulosic ethanol, including a Department of Energy-funded project.

“We are also working with John Deere and Monsanto to convert corn stover (agricultural plant waste) to cellulosic ethanol and bio-crude,” Weintraub said.

Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell  tells me that there is not a single plant producing cellulosic ethanol in this country. “If there was, it would cost two dollars per liter just to make the stuff,” he said.

Iowa State economist David Swenson points to a couple of heavily federally funded plants in the works.  He called the first project, Range Fuels in Georgia, a “complete boondoggle.”  The other plant has yet to produce consistently.

What’s more, Pimentel adds that “180% more energy is required to produce a gallon of ethanol from cellulosic biomass than the energy contained in that gallon.”

In an influential 2005 study, Pimentel and Tad Patzek of the University of California-Berkeley analyzed possible sources of cellulosic ethanol.   Findings include that switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced and wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced

For biodiesel production, the same study found that: soybean plants require 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

Various species of the Clostridium bacteria naturally produce a chemical called butanol that has been proposed as a substitute for diesel oil and gasoline. Many scientists have genetically altered Clostridium to boost its ability to produce butanol; others have taken genes from the bacteria and inserted them into yeast to induce them into making the fuel.

The enzyme pathway by which glucose is turned into n-butanol is set against the silhouette of an E. coli bacterium. The pathway, taken from Clostridium bacteria and inserted into E. coli, consists of five enzymes that convert acetyl-CoA, a product of glucose metabolism, into n-butanol (C4H9OH).

But without heavy subsidization for years on end, there is little hope for these newer alternatives to even break even economically.

Energy companies can easily abandon their alternative energy ventures, as Shell abandoned algae biodiesel this year.  Instead, Shell is relying on a new $12 billion venture with Cosan Ltd. to produce and market traditional sugarcane ethanol in Brazil. To their credit, it seems like a smart move.

“There is no economic analysis that is remotely feasible when it comes to algae biofuels,” Swenson said.

Jason Hill, a bioengineer at the University of Minnesota, said that algae biofuels “are just not cost competitive, not even close.”

The alternative energy innovation of a few years ago is not being followed through on.  What infrastructure was built before the 2008 financial crisis is beginning to crumble.  In an age of budget cuts and fiscal realism, alternative energy has taken a back seat. That is, except for one exception: corn ethanol, which is the worst biofuel we have in terms of the vast implications of its widespread use.

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Sugar, Sugar

Should the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) be allowed to expire at the end of 2011, the scientific and economic consensus is that Brazilian sugarcane ethanol will be able to outcompete corn in the marketplace.

“Everything that is good about sugarcane ethanol is bad about corn ethanol,” Iowa State economist David Swenson said.

Dr. David Pimentel

Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell, a leader in the field of biofuels energy research, has a consistent track record of findings that claim most biofuels are “energy negative” in their production.  He credits this record to the fact that he doesn’t turn a profit or have any huge industrial grants, suggesting ulterior motives for those who do.

“Fourteen energy inputs typically are required for corn production,” Pimentel says. “Then nine more energy inputs are invested in fermentation and distillation operations… about one and a half times more energy is expended to produce a gallon of corn ethanol than is in the ethanol itself.”

Let us not forget than a gallon of ethanol has only two thirds the energy of a gallon of gasoline, Pimentel and Swenson urge.

Pimentel claims that some investigators omit several of the fossil fuel energy inputs required in corn production and processing, such as energy for farm labor, farm machinery, production cost of hybrid corn-seed, irrigation, and processing equipment.  Other studies may therefore suggest that a corn ethanol production system provides a positive energy return.

“Select states producing large quantities of corn cheaply are often the only areas accounted for (in some studies),” Pimentel added.

Under the Carter Administration, Pimentel chaired a study by the U.S. Department of Energy in 1980 finding that corn ethanol had this negative energy return.

“It only took two congressmen to call for a GAO (Gov’t. Accountability Office) to investigate our findings,” Pimentel said.  The study’s recommendations were essentially shelved after the years-long investigation.

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Alternative Energy Subsidization a Red Herring for Energy Industry, Global Turmoil Results


Alternative energy is a booming business in the United States. Mandates on blending of liquid biofuels into gasoline have spurred an explosive market. Most notably, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was initiated in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 under the Bush administration. The program was so politically popular, especially among politicians from the Corn Belt, that it was expanded by the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007. The RFS law now requires that the 9 billion gallons of renewable fuels blended into gasoline in the year 2008 be expanded to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
Almost single-handedly, the newest RFS has caused a global spike in prices of this staple food product.
U.S. corn prices last year hit their highest levels since mid-2008 — and will dip by at most 5 percent by the end of this year, according to a Reuters poll of 16 analysts. Corn futures posted the best gains (52%) among grains and oilseeds last year due to strong demand from the ethanol industry. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported February 9 that the industry’s projected orders this year rose 8.4 percent to 13 billion bushels after record production in December and January.
Prior to its extension in December 2010, a study by economists at Iowa State University claimed that ending VEETC protection for U.S. producers would reduce demand. Therefore, the study says, ethanol prices would fall by 12 cents per gallon in 2011 and 34 cents per gallon in 2014. Currently most gasoline sold in the United States contains 10 percent ethanol — and the U.S. EPA recently increased the legal limit in gasoline to 15 percent. The study also said that if the subsidies lapsed out of existence, U.S. corn and ethanol demand would not waver due to the increase in RFS standards, adding that U.S. corn ethanol production would continue to rise to about 14.5 billion gallons by 2014 without VEETC credits or tariffs.
Bruce Babcock, one of the authors of the study, weighed in on the future of VEETC, which again will be up for renewal in December 2011.
“I think it will be allowed to expire at the end of this year,” Babcock said. “I just don’t like subsidies… (we should) let biofuels compete in an open market.”
Corn ethanol producers criticize the study, claiming it was partially funded by UNICA, the Brazilian trade organization whose members produce half of the sugarcane ethanol in the Brazil.
“Our only request of Dr. Babcock was that he let the chips fall where they may. Too often, special interests write the research to fit their particular policy objectives,” said UNICA’s North America Representative, Leticia Phillips.
When asked about the future of VEETC, David Swenson, another Iowa State economist, says it looks “pretty darn dicey.”
“American ethanol is protected in three different ways (by VEETC)… That can’t last. Lowering or eliminating the 45-cent blender’s credit is likely in a compromise package (in Congress),” Swenson said.
In October 2009 the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report questioning the need for the tax credit subsidy. The reason? It’s not expected to boost ethanol production beyond currently mandated levels. So not only is the subsidy doomed, it may not even be achieving its purported goal of increasing corn ethanol production. Cui bono? The fossil fuel industry, of course.

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Tariff Set to Expire on Foreign Ethanol, Spelling End of Failed Domestic Product

Cane sugar is converted to ethanol much more cheaply

In a time of economic and environmental turmoil, the United States is pursuing a doomed alternative biofuels policy. The entrenched oil lobby has been leading the way down this path in Washington. Perhaps this has all begun to change in 2011.
A sea-change is occurring in how American scientists and economists view liquid biofuels, namely ethanol. The decades-old attempted shift from petroleum to corn ethanol has failed. Other liquid biofuels were flops, economically speaking. Now businesses are looking further south, much further.
Sugar is king in Brazil. Prices for cane ethanol are skyrocketing, but supplies are plummeting. The Brazilian Sugarcane Industry Association (UNICA) sent an urgent notice to its members this April to increase production.
“The future is bright for us,” says UNICA spokesperson Ana Carolina Lessa. “All the industry needs to do is keep up with the growing demand.”
This task may soon become much more difficult.
The U.S. passed Brazil as the leader in ethanol production in 2005. There are now over 200 ethanol plants in the country. This trend could soon be reversed in Brazil’s favor.
Amidst decades of criticism, U.S. subsidization of corn ethanol could soon take a major blow. The Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) received a yearlong extension in the Congress in December, but doubts about another extension in 2011 are growing.
VEETC, which originated in 2004, includes a 54-cent per gallon tariff on imported ethanol, thus protecting the domestic markets. A $1.01 per gallon credit goes to cellulosic ethanol producers. This ethanol comes from non-food sources such as grasses, wood, and agricultural waste.
The subsidy of a 45-cent per gallon (of ethanol) tax credit goes to gasoline blenders, those blenders usually being oil companies.
BP could receive $600 million this year out of the total $5 billion in VEETC subsidies for blending gasoline with corn-based ethanol, making the British oil and gas giant one of the largest beneficiaries of the subsidy.
On BP’s website, the company claims: “As one of the largest blenders and marketers of biofuels in the nation, we blended over 1 billion gallons of ethanol with gasoline in 2008 alone.”
Environmentalists cringe at the thought of oil companies leading the way toward responsible alternative energy solutions.
“If corn ethanol is so great, it wouldn’t be subsidized,” said David Pimentel of Cornell, who has been called an “über-biofuel-skeptic.” Many experts agree, but that doesn’t change the fact that corn ethanol is still considered a viable alternative energy source by Washington and the American public.

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Durban Climate Talks Strain for Legitimacy

Durban, home of the U.N. COP talks Nov. 29 through December 8, 2011

The 2011 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change began with guarded optimism last week in Durban, South Africa.  Elsewhere, with outright pessimism, largely due to what was widely viewed as a failure in Copenhagen two years ago to make any progress in preventing greenhouse gas emissions.

The European Union nations proposed a compromise deal on Sunday called the “Durban Roadmap.”

The first phase of the Kyoto Protocol , signed in 1997 and enforced since 2005, is set to expire in 2012.
Although the proposal has gained wide support, heavy criticism persists, with less developed nations calling the deal much worse than Kyoto. India stood alone in drawing a “red line”, leaving officials to believe the talks may have been put in reverse by the EU deal.

The question of whether the “roadmap” or the criticism of it is a cynical illustrates the demoralizing truth about greenhouse gas emission reduction.

The Kyoto Protocol was largely neutered when the U.S. withdrew in 2001.

It was apparently very simple:

Business Saves Us From Kyoto.

The only sure thing to come out of Durban has been no secret. The new conservative Canadian government will completely withdraw from Kyoto.

Canadian PM Stephen Haper, as depicted by a Durban protester on Monday.

China, the world’s largest emitter, showed a willingness to follow the Western powers into extending Kyoto beyond next year, but will not lead the way without them.

“We’re not looking for a mechanism in which we would have an obligation to reduce emissions of a legal form and the major emerging economies would have a voluntary program,” U.S. deputy climate change envoy Jonathan Pershing spouted in an effort to portray a lack of equity in the 1997 accord.

According to Dr. Mutlu Ozdogan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies, developing countries in Africa, low-lying and island nations (e.g. Bangladesh and Maldives) are seeing some of the worst effects of climate change.  “The U.S. and Canada are likely to see some loss of arable land in the Western plains, but nothing with the scale and speed of what we are seeing in the global South,” said Ozdogan.

Business interests have long held undue influence in Western politics, but an an honest effort in the late 20th century by the U.N. to halt global warming appears to have fallen short.  The third world has made symbolic gestures by following Kyoto, waiting for us to lead the way. However, without Canada and China, even this delicate dance may soon end.

Postscript: Republican spin doctor Frank Luntz promoted the switch from the term “global warming” to “climate change”,  another example of how this conversation has been framed in the new century.

“’Climate change’ is less frightening than ’global warming.’ … While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge”

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The Banana is a Tool.

What does a banana mean?


I have chosen to investigate the implication of my consumption of a banana last Friday and the possible effects of this consumption on people and the environment.  This banana was grown in Guatemala and is a product of the Dole Company.   Upon investigation of the impact of the banana industry on the environment and people of Central America, I have found a world of intrigue and crime which arguably outweigh the positive aspects of the production of this crop.

Juan Lopez Velasquez,a farmer murdered by Guatemalan police at 2005 anti-CAFTA protest.

The environmental impact of the banana industry on the nation of Guatemala has primarily involved deforestation.  The effects branching out from this primary cause are widespread.  Loss of the ecologically valuable and diverse rainforest for this industry is a well-documented problem in this region.  The loss of rainforest has global implications.  These include the loss of carbon storage in biomass and the associated removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as the huge amount of oxygen production by the plants.  The loss of biodiversity in the region has been immense, and the loss of species and subspecies to extinction has undoubtedly occurred.
As the banana industry has waxed and waned since the start of the 20th century, banana plantations are repeatedly abandoned and its workers left without jobs.  When these workers (who are o ten not from the plantation areas) are left without jobs, many move to subsistence farming in the only areas they will be allowed to cultivate, more rainforest.  If they do not move on to cut down more forest to farm for themselves, many move to ever-growing shantytowns in urban areas.  Environmental implications of the growth of these areas include additional deforestation and poor sanitation for the residents.  These problems have accelerated in the last 20 years as the banana industry has grown immensely.  By 2002, Guatemala produced nearly one million metric tons of bananas.
Additional environmental threats from banana cultivation include the use of pesticides such as dibromochloropropane (DBCP).  This is a fungicide that has been used by Dole (previously known as Standard Fruit) and has the known of sterilizing farm workers.  Runoff from the plantations enters groundwater and poisons sources of drinking water, causing further grievances of the people against the banana and petrochemical companies.

The use of the term “banana republic” refers to weak centralized governments in the region that have basically been installed there by American industries and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the purpose of “greasing the wheels” of the flow of resources out of these countries.  Primarily and initially, bananas were the resource that began this disturbing trend.  In Guatemala in the 1950s, President Jacobo Arbenz of Guatemala tried to force United Fruit to give back abandoned plantation land to the Guatemalan government so that it could be given to landless peasants.  With the help of the CIA, industry leaders had the president ousted in the name of a fervent anti-Communist sentiment that had taken hold in the U.S.  Across the region, union-busting “banana republic” leaders were installed, keeping workers’ rights and proper benefits virtually nonexistent.  These violations include the use of child labor, which has lasted into the current century.  Unions are still a dangerous undertaking as assassinations of union leaders still occur (2007).  These industries have taken the land in Central America without compensation to the people, and the flow of money and resources out of the country has been immense, with little benefit to Guatemalans outside of the privileged few.
Eating a banana never seemed so unappealing.  I knew that this sort of thing happened and that American anti-Communist activity led to vast killing in Central America for decades, but I didn’t really know that the banana was partially to blame.  The environmental degradation due to this industry is almost equally appalling.  I will try to buy more organic bananas from the United States if at all possible from now on, bost with a lower carbon footprint and without a boot to the neck of Latin America.

Additional source:

Vandermeer, J and Perfecto, I.  Breakfast of Biodiversity: The Truth about Rainforest Destruction. Oakland IFDP

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Bay Area aims to be nation’s EV capital

EVs can get a charge outside S.F. City Hall. Photo: Joseph Doolen

The Bay Area is charging up. Along with L.A. and New York, San Francisco is one of the largest U.S. markets for plug-in electric vehicles (EVs). The pledge by the mayors of San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose in 2008 to make the metropolis the nation’s EV capital is now bearing fruit.

With political will lacking in most other large cities (and indeed, nationwide), holding such a title will not be a major challenge. But with a projected 359,000 EVs on American roads by 2017, according to a report by Pike Research, city governments and the private sector are working to meet the anticipated demands.

San Francisco has a list of steps it’s taking to prepare for the influx of plug-in EVs. The 2011 San Francisco building code requires new buildings to be wired for EV chargers. But since new buildings are uncommon, the impact of this regulation will likely be minimal.

“San Francisco already has built up infrastructure. The real question is: ‘How do you complement the existing infrastructure?’” said Ron Miguel, Vice President of the San Francisco Planning Commission.

The answer appears to be a mix of public and private charging stations with incentives provided from local and federal government to jump-start the switch to EVs.

Already, a handful of charging stations are available to the public at City Hall, and with current Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) funding, the number of public plug-in chargers in the region will exceed 1,000 in 2012, up from the 71 available in 2010, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy. Four hundred of these will be in the city of San Francisco. Each 40 amp, 240 volt unit (called “Level 2”) provides a complete charge to a vehicle in four to six hours.

EV charging stations by San Francisco’s City Hall. Photo by Joseph Doolen.

About 50 additional “quick charge” stations are also slated to be installed under current grants. These provide an 80 percent charge in as little as 15-30 minutes, but are much more expensive.

To get a full charge on their EV, the average citizen will frequently have to use the more affordable Level 2 charger overnight at or near their home.

Robert Hayden of the San Francisco Department of Environment knows that charging stations must be available to the population for the city’s EV initiatives to work.

“Home garage chargers are priority one,” Hayden said.

San Francisco is working with companies that provide home chargers, while the BAAQMD is leading the public sector in this effort through next year with a $5 million EV infrastructure grant program to fund home and public charger installation.

PG&E is also joining the preparations. To avoid future overloading of the power grid, the utility company is making it cheaper to charge during off-peak hours.

For these efforts to work, San Francisco is in dire need of more public charging capacity. It’s a dense city of multi-family homes and more than 80 percent of inhabitants are renters. More immediately, downtown workers will have it easiest. Hayden said by the end of this year, 80 chargers will be available in more than 20 municipal garages, most located in the financial district.

Companies like Google  are also helping workers switch to EVs. Corporate headquarters in Mountain View has the largest private charging infrastructure in the U.S., and they are now adding 250 more chargers. If other companies do not follow suit, the EV market will remain small due to “range anxiety”, according to Hayden.

The Nissan Leaf, a five-passenger electric car with a range of 100 miles on a fully charged battery, provides a test for the new market. Forty percent of the nearly 1,000 Nissan Leaf orders in the state have come to the Bay Area.

“Indeed, we are the EV capital,” says Damian Breen, Grants Manager of the BAAQMD. “Our goal is to have zero tailpipe emissions in 30 to 40 years.”

Electric vehicle owners can expect to save up to $1,800 per year on fuel and $350 per year in maintenance costs, according to the Bay Area Climate Collaborative. Bay cities are hoping to capitalize on these savings directly by adding EVs to city government fleets and municipally-owned taxis.

While the Bay Area is leading the way in piloting EV infrastructure projects, the most environmentally friendly alternatives to driving are still public transportation and driving less. Bay Area drivers travel 170 million vehicle miles daily.

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