Against the Grain: What Were They Thinking II?

All that glitters is not gold. And all that grows is not green.

That is the belated realization about grain ethanol — in fact, about any ethanol whose feedstock is grown on cropland. Joe Romm has done a good job posting on this issue, including his report on the recent studies featured in Science magazine. I’d like to weigh in with a few additional points

The folly of grain ethanol moved this week from Science magazine to TIME in a cover article titled “The Clean Energy Scam“. TIME traces the carbon-rich life-cycle of fuel from grain. As food and fuel compete for corn, the price of the crop rises. As the price rises, farmers have more incentive to grow it. To grow it, they use energy-intensive fertilizers and fuels.

To create more corn, farmers are turning prairies into cropland, releasing carbon that was stored by grasses and undisturbed soils. That unfortunate trend is well underway. As USA Today reports, landowners throughout the Farm Belt are growing crops on land that has not been cultivated for decades and, in some cases, centuries. Last year, farmers pulled 2.5 million environmentally sensitive acres out of the federal Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Another 5 million acres now preserved under CRP are scheduled to become available for planting over the next two years, as farmers’ conservation contracts expire.

It’s likely that carbon sequestration was not among the CRP’s objectives when the program was created in 1985. Its purpose was to protect wetlands and wildlife habitat. Now, wildlife, ecosystems and the atmosphere all will miss the program’s benefits as America’s thirst for grain alcohol fuels the drive for more cropland.

The damage extends beyond the U.S.

The rapid push for grain ethanol creates a ripple effect that results in deforestation in Brazil, according to TIME. One-fifth of the U.S. corn crop is being diverted to ethanol. Chasing profits, farmers who grow soybeans have switched to corn, which has reduced world soybean supplies. To meet global demand for soybeans, farmers in Brazil are turning pastures into cropland. To replace their lost grazing land, ranchers are clearing rain forest in the Amazon and contributing to deforestation, which accounts for one-fifth of global carbon emissions.

And believe it or not, some of the nation’s ethanol plants burn coal.

So, is grain ethanol a clean fuel? You do the math. Congress certainly didn’t. Nor did the White House. It’s not that they’re incapable. It’s that ethanol appeared to be a way to please the environmental lobby, the farm lobby and industrial giants like Archer Daniels Midland all at the same time, while addressing energy independence and climate change. The carbon-intensive lifecycle of grain ethanol was utterly predictable, had it been given thought.

“The lesson behind the math,” concludes TIME, “is that on a warming planet, land is an incredibly precious commodity, and every acre used to generate fuel is an acre that can’t be used to generate the food needed to feed us or the carbon storage needed to save us.”

There is some good news in this story. The rapid increase in ethanol production has demonstrated how quickly the nation can mobilize to produce new energy resources. With the right policies –such as a stable production tax credit — we might mobilize the economy just as quickly to create and sustain a boom in wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, low-impact hydro, and bioenergy from feedstocks that have positive net carbon and energy benefits. Among them are cellulosic materials grown on degraded and untillable land, organic municipal and agricultural wastes and algae.

And despite the misadventure, ethanol has given rural America a taste of the prosperity it can achieve by becoming America’s renewable energy supplier. Now that the Rural Utilities Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has stopped making low-interest loans for new coal plants,it should turn its attention to investments in rural wind and solar farms, locally owned bio-refineries that use true-green feedstocks, waste-to-methane projects, and transmission extensions to stranded renewable resources. We should develop robust and lucrative markets for farmers to earn new income from climate-friendly land and forest management.

But back to the lesson. Given the urgency of climate change, the world cannot afford false starts, let alone policies that accelerate global warming and create potentially tragic trade-offs between hunger and environment.

We should apply the lesson of the unused calculator to all public energy subsidies. Consider our large investment in carbon capture and sequestration for “clean coal” combustion, another subsidy backed by the lobbying power of big industries. Does it make sense to invest so much hope and treasure in a technology that is not certain, that won’t be ready for a decade or more, if ever, and that may result in electricity prices that can’t compete with wind, geothermal and even solar electric generation? With continued research and economies of manufacturing scale as they come into wider use, renewable generation technologies will become less expensive over the next few years while the cost of electricity from “clean coal” goes up, as much as 90% by one estimate.

Sound analysis might show that we’re better off investing in other things such as new technologies to store wind and solar power — compressed air and plug-in hybrids, for example — to solve the intermittency problem.

To be fair, our false start on grain ethanol isn’t only Washington’s fault. A number of environmental and renewable energy groups have advocated ethanol without adequate distinctions between what is green and what is not.

Now the lesson should be clear for all of us: Before we institutionalize any new policy or public investment to solve our energy and climate problems, we need to do the math.

— Bill Becker

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8 Responses to Against the Grain: What Were They Thinking II?

  1. Andy says:

    I have two comments on this post. First, here is the Ecological Society of America’s position on biofuels which notes that restoration of native prairies would not only sequester large amounts of carbon (it is the conversion of forest and grassland to crop land which accounts for the first anthropogenic increases in atmospheric CO2); it would also provide a source of biofuels that in itself requires no inputs of fossil fuels (energy is needed to harvest, transport, process).

    Second, If, as many folks believe, we are not subject to Malthus’s prediction of food shortages, then why don’t we have enough arable land to grow both food and fuel? It is my though that the need for biofuels has only brought the oncoming Malthusian predictions to bear out a little sooner than would have occured under our continuously increasing global population.

    Let’s take advantage of this glimpse of the future and stop using our food for fuel, restore degraded semi-arable lands to native grassland (CRP lands) and forest; a workable source of biofuels.

  2. David B. Benson says:

    In yesterday’s TNYT (or the day before), an article pointed out that this year farmers are switching back to soybeans rather than so much corn. In part this has to do with field rotation schemes.

  3. Jeremy says:

    A lot of the same problems apply to other sectors as well. In my state of Tasmanian, Australia we are replacing prime agricultural land with tree plantations. While this can be seen as carbon positive (or at least carbon neutral over the long term), it means that the agricultural demands still need to be met elsewhere; but they tend to be moved to more marginal land that has lower yields and requires more energy; which is ok economically because the loss of land is pushing prices up. If tree plantations are effectively carbon neutral (since the trees are used for paper, which eventually decays) but the agricultural is becoming more energy intensive and clearing more land, the end result is an increase in carbon emissions, rather than a decrease.

  4. David Ahlport says:

    ==it would also provide a source of biofuels that in itself requires no inputs of fossil fuels (energy is needed to harvest, transport, process).==

    Says who?
    You take stuff out, take it elsewhere, and burn it.

    Unless what you take is ENTIRELY drawn from the air, by definition it will require inputs.

    And unless all this machinery used to harvest it, transport it, store it, process it, refine it, and distribute it requires 0 energy. That also requires INPUTS.

    You sir, are claiming that the laws of thermodynamics, and conservation of matter magically don’t apply to biofuels.

  5. jmd says:

    I think the point was that although native prairie biofuels would indeed require energy to harvest transport, and process, growing them wouldn’t require any fossil fuel inputs because theoretically a natural prairie ecosystem would be self-contained. In practice it wouldn’t be so simple, because as was pointed out, energy removed from they system in order to use it somewhere else would have to be replaced somehow. The idea is probably to use a greener source than fossil fuels.

  6. David B. Benson says:

    David Ahlport — All the energy sinks you name can in principle be provided by bioenergy. There is ample available, just undeveloped.

  7. Dan Seidel says:

    Not many folks who criticize ethanol realize that its only the starch that is used to make ethanol. The protein portion of the corn is still usable and is fed to livestock. But if you really want to describe the problem its consumption. This country needs to get off the gasoline binge. We as a nation are drunk on our gas hog vehicles.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Dan Seidel, I agree about gas hog vehicles, which is why I’m not a big fan of ethanol. Internal combustion engines are only 21% efficient or so, which helps make them gas hogs. (The bigger part of the “hog” is the sheer weight of the vehicles, which is unnecessary.) A good reason to turn to electricity is that it is as efficient as internal combustion is inefficient. The grid is 92% efficient at delivering electricity to our plugs, we can convert it to DC at >90% efficiency, store it and recover it in batteries at >90% efficiency, and use that electricity to turn motors at >90% efficiency. Moreover, we can convert sunlight to electricity at 30% efficiency, which is two orders of magnitude better than plants can convert sunlight into stored starch and cellulose.