The Magazine

Synfuels II

The ethanol numbers don't add up.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By DAVE JUDAY
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THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is busily at work on a plan that would expand the use of ethanol and other so-called renewable fuels well beyond the 7.5 billion gallons by 2012 already mandated in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. President Bush himself is laying the ground work, touring ethanol plants, touting auto manufacturers who build "flex-fuel" cars, and leading energy policy pep rallies. A former Texas oilman, Bush has become an unlikely cheerleader for motor fuels distilled from Midwestern corn and other plants.

When President Bush highlighted ethanol in his 2006 State of the Union speech and described America as "addicted to oil," it was reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's call in the 1980 State of the Union for a "massive" investment in what were then called "synthetic fuels"--namely, some 500 million gallons of ethanol that would break the country's "excessive dependence on foreign oil." Bush, however, may be about to raise Carter's bid by two orders of magnitude, calling for the production of 50 billion gallons of ethanol, or 25 percent of the projected total motor fuel supply, by 2025.

That would be one heckuva corn crop. But according to administration sources, the president's forthcoming renewable fuel plan will not be based on expanding the corn supply. Rather it will be pinned on the hoped-for payback on federal investments made in producing ethanol from so-called cellulosic biomass. As congressional testimony from the Bush Department of Agriculture admits, since "the supply of corn is relatively small compared with U.S. gasoline demand, other domestic sources of renewable and alternative energy must be developed to replace petroleum-based fuels if the United States is to reduce its dependence on imported oil."

So while it is transparently clear that the supply of corn-based ethanol is limited by the ability to produce corn and the competing demand for corn as human food and livestock feed, ethanol advocates take refuge in the potential of producing fuel from cellulosic biomass and are ready to expand not only incentives, but also quotas and mandates to increase its use. This is a dangerous wager. Cellulose is a complex sugar, found in wood, grass, and straw. It is difficult to dissolve, and the sugars it yields are very difficult and costly to ferment. Scientists and researchers are still trying to identify or develop an enzyme that will more readily ferment cellulosic sugars, which, as it turns out, is a much taller order than the already commercialized process of fermenting corn and sugarcane into alcohol.

Nonetheless, ethanol made from other plants--particularly switchgrass, a native prairie grass--is fashionable among the opinion elite. In fact, Bush's advocacy of cellulosic ethanol has cast him with some unlikely allies. For example, though he remains the bête noire of the New York Times editorial page, the president and the Times are simpatico on cellulose.

Consider a New York Times editorial from May 1 of this year: "Until recently, the only ethanol anyone had heard about was corn-based ethanol, a regional curiosity that accounts for about three percent of the nation's fuel and suffers from its association with the agribusiness lobby and with presidential candidates hustling support in the Iowa primaries. What the experts are talking about now, however, is cellulosic ethanol, derived from a range of crops, native grasses like switchgrass and even the waste components of farming and forestry--in short, anything rich in cellulose."

If corn ethanol is, as the Times calls it, a "regional curiosity," then cellulosic ethanol remains but a laboratory novelty--indeed, it can be produced in the lab, just not in an economically viable way. According to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the cost of producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass averages $2.57 per gallon. The cost of producing ethanol from corn--depending on the price of corn and natural gas--fluctuates between $0.85 and $1.05 per gallon.

Moreover, in the country's more than 100 ethanol mills, one metric ton of corn produces on average about 110 gallons of ethanol. Meanwhile, Iogen Corporation, a Canadian firm that is the only company to produce cellulosic biomass on any scale, says their demonstration plant "is designed to process about 30 tonnes per day of feedstock, and to produce approximately 2.5 million litres of cellulose ethanol per year." That's a ratio of about 60 gallons of ethanol from one metric ton of cellulosic feedstock.

In other words, the best proven scenario so far is that cellulosic biomass yields about three-quarters as much fuel as does corn, at about two and one-half to three times the cost. But even that is not a fair comparison of the real gap between corn and cellulose. There is such a huge practical gap between the two in terms of commercial infrastructure that, even if the fermentation technology for cellulose were perfected tomorrow, the United States would be decades away from relying on cellulosic ethanol in the amounts now being proposed.

Consider: Corn has been traded since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Indians met them, ears of maize in hand. Seed research and technology have been intensively developed since at least 1862, when Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture to do just that--improve seeds. Planting and harvesting technology have steadily improved since 1837, when a blacksmith named John Deere built better plows. And so forth, and so on. In short, the modern agricultural economy provides a highly complex commercial infrastructure to bioengineer, plant, harvest, transport, process, and sell corn.

A bushel of corn can produce 2.8 gallons of ethanol, or it can produce edible oil, livestock feed, high fructose sweetener, and other marketable by-products. Whatever the fluctuations in demand for these end products, it remains a valuable commodity. Furthermore, the financial infrastructure surrounding corn is sophisticated enough that venture capitalists and pension funds invest in corn futures contracts. Same with crude oil. Biomass--or as the New York Times puts it, "native grasses" and "the waste components of farming and forestry"--is, to say the least, a long way from having the infrastructure capable of turning it into a reliable source of motor fuel sufficient to power the family automobile, round trip, one of every four times the ignition is turned.

Let's look at harvest figures. This year, more than 11 billion bushels--about 308 million tons--of corn will be picked in a matter of a few weeks from between 75-80 million acres. Compare that with forestry biomass. According to a detailed analysis by the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, forest land in the United States could produce 368 million tons of renewable biomass annually by 2030, albeit over a land mass about 10 times larger than the farmland planted in corn.

But the comparison gets worse when one starts to read the footnotes. The forestry industry is already using 142 million tons, and fireplaces and wood stoves and utilities consume another 35 million tons. Of the remainder, 36 million tons is assumed to come from such unlikely sources as discarded wooden furniture, urban tree trimmings, and leftover lumber from new construction--all mind-bogglingly inefficient to harvest in large quantities. Another 89 million tons is merely projected growth in forestry products.

So the actual amount of biomass feedstock might be 66 million tons--with no existing process to harvest, store, or transport it to ethanol plants in the Midwest, and no ethanol plants near most of the forest land. And that assumes away the political problems that have already led to a lawsuit against the president's 2003 Healthy Forests Initiative--an initiative designed to make it easier to harvest dead wood and forest underbrush. Does anyone believe environmentalists would be less opposed to such gleaning if it were being done to produce more auto fuel?

What about the crop resi due that is touted as a feedstock for eth anol? Well, first, one must come to grips with the logical disconnect of the proposition that the lower energy parts of a plant left over after the high energy parts are harvested would, in fact, be an efficient ethanol feedstock. One must also consider the important economic--and environmental--role that crop resi due plays in modern agriculture.

Thanks to biotechnology, precision application of pesticides, and modified planting techniques, crop residue can be left to rot in the fields, which increases the nutrient quality of the soil and no longer needs to be plowed under before the next planting. This reduces the costs of production; no plowing means eliminating one time the tractor has to be driven across the field, saving fuel and equipment wear and tear. Greater nutrient quality means lower fertilizer costs. Moreover, the development of conservation tillage has virtually stopped soil erosion, thereby helping protect and improve water quality. Removing crop residue for use as biomass would reverse all these conservation achievements.

That brings us to switchgrass, the most touted alternative to corn in the making of ethanol. Ironically, one of the most prominent arguments that folks in federally supported laboratories and at newspaper editorial pages use to promote switchgrass is that it is so much cheaper than corn. The implication is, since there is no market for switchgrass now, ethanol mills could get it for a song. The fact that switchgrass has no market, however, is exactly why farmers won't like it. Why would a farmer want to grow a crop that gives him a lower return than the corn he's already growing? In fact, corn enjoys a generous subsidy--about $10 billion in 2005--and yet, because of the cost of production and despite the new ethanol demand that came on line via federal mandate in 2006, farmers planted fewer acres of corn this year than last. Corn must compete with other crops and uses for farmland that may produce higher returns.

Making matters worse, switchgrass requires a long-term commitment for a farmer. Because of its root structure, switchgrass can't be harvested the year it is seeded; then it is best managed as a 10-year stand. That is a practical impediment for farmers looking to produce for a market that fluctuates from year to year. The only way ethanol distillers will get a steady supply of cellulosic feedstock is if the return is equal or better for the farmer than the return on other commodities. So much for the cheaper feedstock theory.

In short, cellulosic biomass presents what economists call significant "opportunity costs." Farmers aren't going to grow switchgrass if they have to forgo income opportunities from growing crops like corn, where they know there is a major commercial infrastructure--physical and financial--supporting the demand for its use. Likewise, lawsuits and environmental policy aside, no one is going to glean their way through forests, curbside tree and shrub trimmings, and used furniture stores to generate enough wood to replace significant amounts of the U.S. motor fuel supply. To believe otherwise shows a profound misunderstanding of commodity economics.

The view that biomass straw can be spun into gold without fundamental shifts in economic incentives, or can be mandated without dire consequences, is the modern-day version of Rumpelstiltskin.

Dave Juday is an agricultural commodity market analyst.