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Ethanol and the Food vs.Fuel Debate
Aug 22, 2006 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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First an overview, before we get to Lester Brown's recent views about food vs. fuel. You can comment on this at CalCars' blog,­blogs/­power/­food-vs-fuel.

Enthusiasm for flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) began to grow last year -- around the same time people started to get excited about plug-in hybrids. We and others had been making the case that powering local miles with electricity gets you 100+MPG (of gasoline, then electricity). And we were happy to agree that evolving the "range extension" fuel to E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline) could get us 500 MPG (of gasoline, plus electricity, plus ethanol) cars. Of course, we were looking ahead to cellulosic ethanol that would be a major environmental and efficiency win over today's ethanol.

However, car-makers picked up only on the "ethanol-now" idea. They hoped that "doing their part" by building more FFVs might let them off the fuel efficiency hook -- after all, it's not their fault there are only a few hundred fueling stations. And they hoped for kudos for investing in the booming ethanol business. As a bonus, they'd continue to get fleet efficiency credits for FFVs most people can't use. (Despite the loophole and the free pass, because cars stay on the roads a long time, we still think all cars built from now on should be flex-fuel-capable.)

Compare this to the case for plugging in: no new infrastructure needed, available technology, abundant nighttime electricity. It's also the only way to reduce the amount of ethanol needed to fuel the US passenger fleet from 140 billion gallons/year to 40 billion -- unless we envision everyone pledging to cut their yearly driving to 3,000 miles. (See our "120 V+ E85" handout,­calcars-globalwarming.pdf.)

The case for ethanol as a near-term solution is also flawed because today's US ethanol comes from corn. Agribusinesses like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill (and presidential candidates whose careers are made and broken in Iowa's cornfields) shape US agricultural policies. Now they are effectively partners with auto-makers on the ethanol bandwagon. Ethanol gets subsidies at the cornfield plus 51 cents/gallon at the pump. And it benefits from tariff walls against imported ethanol from sugar. (Sugar is far more efficient than corn in producing ethanol, but there is currently no significant sugar-to-ethanol industry in the US, though companies like Altra plan to do so in places like California's economically-underdeveloped Inland Empire.) See the reports of the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley­~erg and discussions at­2006/­01/­uc_berkeley_stu.html.

If you want to learn the whole extraordinary story of corn's role in the economy, I can't recommend highly enough the first 100 pages of Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," which traces the plant's evolution from rotating field crop to industrial product that lies at the heart of what is literally a sickening economy, where natural renewable systems are converted into unmanageable global pollution and health problems. This book joins Lester Brown's "Plan B," William McDonough's "Cradle to Cradle" and the new #1 paperback best-seller, Al Gore's "Inconvenient Truth" on my must-read list.

Most importantly, the original expectation we'd use a fuel from renewable sources -- cellulosic ethanol from waste products -- has been eclipsed in the rush to build up corn and sugar ethanol. For more about cellulosic ethanol, see the NRDC report, "Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can Help End America's Oil Dependence"­air/­energy/­biofuels/­contents.asp and the presentations at venture investor Vinod Khosla's website:­resources.html.

The visionary Lester Brown has been one of the most powerful voices making the case that we're on a perilous path if we build out the market for food-based ethanol. Below we reprint his forceful opinion piece from this week's Fortune Magazine, and excerpts from his enlightening talk on NPR Science Friday.­magazines/­fortune/­fortune_archive/­2006/­08/­21/­8383659/­index.htm

Ethanol could leave the world hungry One tankful of the latest craze in alternative energy could feed one person for a year, Lester Brown tells Fortune. FORTUNE Magazine From the August 21, 2006 issue Lester R. Brown is president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of "Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble."

The growing myth that corn is a cure-all for our energy woes is leading us toward a potentially dangerous global fight for food. While crop-based ethanol -the latest craze in alternative energy - promises a guilt-free way to keep our gas tanks full, the reality is that overuse of our agricultural resources could have consequences even more drastic than, say, being deprived of our SUVs. It could leave much of the world hungry.

We are facing an epic competition between the 800 million motorists who want to protect their mobility and the two billion poorest people in the world who simply want to survive. In effect, supermarkets and service stations are now competing for the same resources.

This year cars, not people, will claim most of the increase in world grain consumption. The problem is simple: It takes a whole lot of agricultural produce to create a modest amount of automotive fuel.

The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol, for instance, could feed one person for a year. If today's entire U.S. grain harvest were converted into fuel for cars, it would still satisfy less than one-sixth of U.S. demand.

CHART: Worldwide increase in grain consumption

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that world grain consumption will increase by 20 million tons this year, roughly 1%. Of that, 14 million tons will be used to fuel cars in the U.S., leaving only six million tons to cover the world's growing food needs.

Already commodity prices are rising. Sugar prices have doubled over the past 18 months (driven in part by Brazil's use of sugar cane for fuel), and world corn and wheat prices are up one-fourth so far this year.

For the world's poorest people, many of whom spend half or more of their income on food, rising grain prices can quickly become life threatening.

Once stimulated solely by government subsidies, biofuel production is now being driven largely by the runaway price of oil. Many food commodities, including corn, wheat, rice, soybeans, and sugar cane, can be converted into fuel; thus the food and energy economies are beginning to merge.

The market is setting the price for farm commodities at their oil-equivalent value. As the price of oil climbs, so will the price of food.

In some U.S. Cornbelt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, 25 ethanol plants are operating, four are under construction, and another 26 are planned.

Iowa State University economist Bob Wisner observes that if all those plants are built, distilleries would use the entire Iowa corn harvest. In South Dakota, ethanol distilleries are already claiming over half that state's crop.

The key to lessening demand for grain is to commercialize ethanol production from cellulosic materials such as switchgrass or poplar trees, a prospect that is at least five years away.

Malaysia, the leading exporter of palm oil, is emerging as the biofuel leader in Asia. But after approving 32 biodiesel refineries within the past 15 months, it recently suspended further licensing while it assesses the adequacy of its palm oil supplies. Fast-rising global demand for palm oil for both food and biodiesel purposes, coupled with rising domestic needs, has the government concerned that there will not be enough to go around.

Less costly alternatives

There are truly guilt-free alternatives to using food-based fuels. The equivalent of the 3% of U.S. automotive fuel supplies coming from ethanol could be achieved several times over - and at a fraction of the cost - by raising auto fuel-efficiency standards by 20%. (Unfortunately Detroit has resisted this, preferring to produce flex-fuel vehicles that will burn either gasoline or ethanol.)

Or what if we shifted to gas-electric hybrid plug-in cars over the next decade, powering short-distance driving, such as the daily commute or grocery shopping, with electricity?

By investing not in hundreds of wind farms, as we now are, but rather in thousands of them to feed cheap electricity into the grid, the U.S. could have cars running primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

Clearly, solutions exist. The world desperately needs a strategy to deal with the emerging food-fuel battle. As the world's leading grain producer and exporter, as well as its largest producer of ethanol, the U.S. is in the driver's seat.

Lester Brown on ethanol, fuel vs. food, and plug-in hybrids. National Public Radio Science Friday August 4, 2006 (17:52 running time }­pages/­2006/­Aug/­hour1_080406.html

{05:45, after initial discussion of ethanol's drawbacks} "But the other alternative that I think is most exciting in this country for example, is to move toward plug-in hybrids -- that is, if you take a car like a Toyata Prius, which is the most widely sold gas-electric hybrid and if you add a second storage battery AND a plug-in capacity, then we can do most of our short-distance driving -- commuting, grocery shopping, and so forth -- almost entirely with electricity. And the idea that we now have the technologies and an abundance of wind resources that would permit us to run our cars largely on wind energy is, I think, very exciting. Especially when you realize that the cost of the wind [generated] electricity equivalent of a gallon of gasoline is less than a dollar a gallon."

{9:15, after noting limits of ethanol due to acreage constraints} "So there are real limits on how far we can go in this direction, but almost no limits in how far we can go with the plug-in hybrids and wind-generated electricity."

{11:15, after talking about different types/sources of ethanol} "And wind is cheaper. There will be no source of ethanol -- even cellulosic ethanol -- that will be able to compete with a dollar a gallon wind energy."

{15:40, after host Ira Flatow brings up conservation} "There is an alternative, and that is to raise CAFE standards by about 20 percent. If we did that, we would save the equivalent of all the ethanol that we would produce if we used our entire grain harvest for that purpose... and do it at a fraction of the cost."

{17:10 Conclusion} "I think the first thing we need to do is for the administration to quickly do a tally of how many ethanol distilleries are in operation, under construction and in the planning stage, and see how much grain that's going to take. The big risk is that we'll be using so much grain for cars in this country that there won't be enough for the rest of the world -- and the world depends heavily on us. So this competition between food and fuel is becoming very real, and the world is simply not prepared for it."

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