July 20, 2006

Ethanol Net Energy Balance - A Response to Dr. Pimental

Konrad Imielinski, author of G0G2G Blog, has provided a number of brief personal interview articles specifically focused on a series of controversial reports by Dr. David Pimentel and Dr. Tad Pazek of Cornell University (my alma mater) analyzing the net energy balance of ethanol. Entrepreneur Vinod Khosla has also issued a response.

Tad Patzek - 7/10/06
David Pimental - 7/13/06
Vinod Khosla - 7/14/06
David Pimental - 7/19/06

In his last posting, Dr. Pimental invited all to read his and Dr. Patzek's 2005 paper and forward comments. Below are mine.


Ethanol Net Energy Balance - A Response to Dr. Pimental
By C. Scott Miller, BioConversion Blog

I have several objections to the 2005 report authored by the Dr. David Pimentel and Dr. Tad W. Patzek entitled Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower. I defer to Michael Wang of the Argonne National Laboratory to argue the report's specific net energy findings. My own objections to the report are the following:

1 - The authors clearly state in the first sentence that "the United States desperately needs a liquid fuel replacement for oil in the future." The authors then document their analysis of CURRENT technology input and output energy balances of the globally acknowledged best replacement fuels available - ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, and biodiesel. If we are to assume that there are no other better alternatives than these three, then the findings of the report are of limited value unless their intent is to help identify areas requiring technological improvement. Obviously, the status quo is no alternative. I saw nothing in this report to suggest that the authors recommended R&D and deployment of new ethanol production methods.

2 - Ethanol is not only an alternative fuel, it is the primary oxygenate reducing automobile pollution and replacing toxic MTBE's in gasoline today. California alone has a demand for nearly 1 billion gallons of oxygenates per year - supplied primarily by the sugar fermentation of corn. Many states are adopting new, much higher, ethanol blending standards to reduce pollution and dependence on foreign oil. To meet current regulatory mandates, we need ethanol production regardless of the net energy findings - at least double America's current production.

3 - No allowance is made for what impact technological improvements to sugar fermentation could make on the the energy balance. Furthermore, other promising ethanol distillation technologies like Fischer-Tropsch, enzymatic hydrolysis, catalytic conversion, and synthesis gas fermentation are omitted. They could at least be mentioned as technologies warranting analysis in the future.

4 - In their report, feedstock is limited to corn, sugar cane, switchgrass, and wood. New distillation technologies open the range of feedstock to not only other sources of cellulosic material but also such diverse potential feedstock as sulfurous coal, auto-fluff, tires, municipal solid wastes, sewage, rice straw, etc. Many of these feedstocks require no cultivation and are, in fact, a bane on civilization requiring disposal. Diverting them to the production of ethanol, biodiesel, and electricity would represent a net societal gain regardless of the net energy balance of their disposal.

5 - While the net energy balance of current fuel production technology is subject to argument, the simultaneous need for production infrastructure, distribution systems, fueling stations, and flex-fuel vehicles manufacture is not. Alternative liquid fuels require broad technological support and business integration within society no matter what that fuel is. Many blends of ethanol and biodiesel are already being integrated successfully in many parts of the country.

6 - Included in their report are prejudicial references to "The Food vs. Fuel Issue", "major ethics and moral issues", global health from malnutrition, corporate profit-making, the U.S. balance of payments. These issues have no place in what is purported to be an objective analysis. Equally inflammatory for ethanol proponents would be arguments concerning the incalculable human cost in wars fought over petroleum, the impact on developing countries of skyrocketing energy prices, and global warming from fossil fuel combustion.

In short, what are the changes to the status quo necessary to lead us to a liquid fuel alternative to oil and gasoline? Based on importance of the Introduction's first sentence, this topic should be addressed in the report. It wasn't.

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Robert Rapier said...

Hi Scott,

New post up on Vinod Khosla that might interest you:

Vinod Khosla Debunked

Hope all is well with you.



C. Scott Miller said...

I liked reading your article - particularly your support of more research in cellulosic ethanol in spite of your peeve against one of its more visible evangelists. I don't doubt that there are many claims being made from all parties that don't carry water and it is good to question them (as you can see me questioning Pimental).

I want to see more money invested in cellulosic ethanol too, that's for sure. But I am leery about instituting a tax to do it. I was aghast when Californians passed the initiative for investing the horrendously arbitrary $3 Billion on stem cell research. Not that it isn't a worthy cause but I fear there is a terribly counter-productive effect created by the establishment of new bureaucracies to channel research. Fiefdoms get built and then, somehow, research never accomplishes its objective. Call it human nature.

I much prefer business investments - the profit incentive insures results, proper patents, and implementation. If the CA legislature wants to get involved, lighten regulations and insure business investments for promising energy projects.

Robert Rapier said...

By the way, congrats on getting Pimentel to respond to your post. What did you think about his comments?



C. Scott Miller said...

You call that a response? He didn't answer any of my objections or questions.

I sent my followup to Konrad. I am considering publishing it here - so stay tuned!