August 1, 2007

Why "Rolling Stone" gathers no moss

"Because it generates heat, not light."

The current issue of Rolling Stone carries a feature article referenced on the cover as The Ethanol Scam and titled as "Ethanol Hurts the Environment And Is One of America's Biggest Political Boondoggles" written by Jeff Goodell.

Putting on my "Jeff Greenfield" hat temporarily, I believe such articles are extremely dangerous - not because the author's arguments aren't worth debating (which Vinod Khosla is ready and willing to do at the drop of a hat) but because it is printed in Rolling Stone magazine.

I can't comment online at the magazine without subscribing (which I am reluctant to do). However, Jeff referenced statements by noted and insightful Chem-E blogger Robert Rapier at R-Squared - with whom I occasionally converse - and he wrote about the Goodell article. So my response to the article are on Robert's site and reprinted here.


There is no bigger threat to developing realistic, technologically sound solutions than to have masses of under-informed trendsters see a political/industry conspiracy while innovations are being worked out. You (Richard Rapier) certainly have seen Big Oil on the receiving end of such conspiracy mongering - same for biomass-to-energy technologies. Doesn't that trouble you?

I have always been a skeptic about the promises offered by producers of cellulosic ethanol using both biochemical and thermochemical processes. Which is why I started writing my blogs on BIOconversion - to shed some light in the midst of all this media-driven heat.

I also hope to influence the direction of these developments by keeping the processes true to the California standards of environmental cleanliness - standards which have been studied and raised significantly during the last two years.

The more I research the subject and attend conferences (see my reviews), the more I see the complexity of the interlocking facets of the problem - which is why you see a Rubik's cube on each of my blog pages.

But I have never been more optimistic about the promise of these technologies to replace a huge percentage of the fossil fuel paradigm while simultaneously mitigating urban and rural air and land pollution and adding to the economic well-being of these depressed regional economies. Why people think a solution has to fix 100% of a problem seems absurd to me. Solutions and their benefits will be regionally determined.

Half of all gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol. It is an additive because it oxidizes gasoline combustion making it cleaner. The accelerated introduction of E85 pumps is also a gradual, scalable solution which can help transition away from our dependence on oil. There may be better alternatives in certain regions of the country.

I admit to having a vested interests in the outcome. Not just because I have a son that I don't want fighting a war in the Middle East in ten years. I am also weary from my asthmatic daughter's constant health battles for clean air and the implications for future generations.

I am working on the logistics part of the feedstock equation (see BIOstock Blog) for Price BIOstock Services. By doing so I am trying to help revive America's farms and forest industries and the sagging logistical infrastructure of our rivers, rails, pipelines, and electrical grids.

There are many solutions to be tried. And if electricity is your solution - great. But you better support biomass-to-energy development because most non-renewable electricity comes from fossil fuels. Regional solar and wind technologies are not going to fill the gap.

More important, I assume you are in favor of the light of reason over the heat of passion. Solving these problems requires research and experimentation. Stoking popular Luddite bias discourages investor interest and gets us nowhere against a corrosive status quo. It is one of the reasons the government subsidies on RD&D are necessary. But public outreach to overcome hot media-fed popular misinformation becomes perhaps the biggest hurdle innovators face.

As one who dabbles in both, I'll take technology over media opportunists any day. At least they are working toward solutions.

To Rolling Stone my fervent plea is... "No mas!"

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jim said...

Your comment -"Half of all gasoline sold in the U.S. contains ethanol. It is an additive because it oxidizes gasoline combustion making it cleaner." is interesting.
The only reason (beside the RFS) that ethanol is in gasoline is for it's octane value. Ethanol is not a gasoline additive, it is a gasoline blending agent.
I wonder if you have seen the latest EPA information on elevated ozone levels in conventional gasoline areas where ethanol blended gasoline enjoys a 1 psi vapor pressure waiver-essentially more somg.
Maybe you can tell your readers about the cost of RBOB for ethanol blending in RFG areas or tell the story of gasoline pool shrinkage from ethanol blending.
It would be nice if people got real about out transportation fuel situation.
Peace, Jim

C. Scott Miller said...

Besides being an oxidizing agent, ethanol is an extender of gasoline - the more we blend, the less dependent we are on fossil fuels. Furthermore, it is biodegradable without the toxic impacts of MTBE or other petroleum based anti-oxidants.

If you can identify a better renewable alternative than ethanol for these two functions I am willing to listen.

I realize there is hand-wringing over the ozone impact of the combustion of ethanol vs. gasoline. Most of these studies, like Stanford's Mark Jacobson's, ignore the equally important impacts of the production of the fuels - which are generally much more toxic for fossil fuels.

Car motor designs have been modified over the decades to maximize combustion efficiency and minimize deleterious effects. Should we be surprised that there are hurdles to a quick changeover to alternative fuels? I don't think so. And I am confident that automotive engineers can, and will be motivated, to solve the problems.

The basic challenge remains - how do we wean ourselves off fossil fuels? To me, and many more versed on this than I am, ethanol is the quickest way to provide new choices at the pump. Cellulosic ethanol would be an even better, cheaper, cleaner solution. Coupled with flex-fuel PHEVs we can foresee real changes to the current, crippling, vehicle fuel paradigm.

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