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No corn for oil

vastleft's picture

I don't pretend expertise on the topic of alternative fuels, except that we fucking need some good ones pretty goddamned soon.

I'm under the impression, and somebody please set me straight if I am wrong, that ethanol is bad business, an environmentally insensitive boondoggle for Big Agri.

If ethanol is, indeed, a turkey, then it's less than great news to hear that we're on the cusp of replacing the petroleum presidency with a new era of corniness.

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Davidson's picture
Submitted by Davidson on

Krugman wrote a great piece about the impact of "demon ethanol" on the food crisis. Basically, "people are starving in Africa so that American politicians can court votes in farm states."

A recent study by Science concludes that ethanol would be worse than gasoline.

Submitted by hipparchia on

obama is from illinois, big big corn-growing state. of course he's going to be pro-whatever is good for big corn.

some rambling thoughts:

making ethanol from corn is inefficient, and isn't going to provide anywhere near all the liquid fuel we use. not that we have any really good alternatives for oil, but as a result of the recent popularity of ethanol and biodiesel, we're working on some others.

we have slightly fewer acres under cultivation [all crops] now than we did [i forget the exact dates] in the 1960s? 1970s? 1980s? not a lot fewer, only something like 5-10% fewer, and i haven't seen the 2008 numbers yet.

fertilizer use per acre is higher now than during that era, but we're also getting better in the past decade about how much fertilizer we use [that shit cost $$$$$!]. so probably overall, yes, there's more fertiizer runoff. bad for the environment, and making fertilizer uses crude oil, so bad there too.

big percentage of the corn and soybeans [can be made into biodiesel] are gmo, and monsnto has this market locked up. yeah, pesticides too. some downsides to gmo crops, from a cuple of genetic perspectives, and a big problem with one large company having this much control over our staple food sources.

ethanol has been used as an additive in gasoline for 10 years or so now as a replacement for mbte, because mtbe is bad for you when it leaches into the ground and into your water supply. probably for now, the best bet we can do with ethanol is increase the percentage in gasoline that we already use, as an extender for our gasoline supplies, and keep looking for better answers.

then there's always the radical step: use less gasoline. my personal favorite.

corn: we use about 60% of it for feeding to cows and chickens and pigs [eat less meat! don't get me started on cafos], we use tons of it in high-fructose corn syrup [y'all could all stop drinking cokes, y'know], we only export a small percentage of the corn we grow, and almost all of that goes to feeding cows in other wealthy countries.

as for the current food shortage, we used to grow and export lots of wheat, but then we helped other countries develop and grow their own, so wheat farmers here in the u.s. nearly went out of business. so then we developed corn that would grow in wheat country [formerly corn didn't like that kind of environment] so that these farmers wouldn't starve.

i could carry on on this subject for days on end, so i'll stop now. overall, it's a gloomy picture, but most of the easy-to-get [read: cheap] oil is in iran, iraq, and saudi arabia, so whacha gonna do?

Salmo's picture
Submitted by Salmo on

Last fall, I was amazed to find E85 fuels for sale in Western Nebraska for $2/gallon. It turns out that the stuff costs about what gas costs to make. The cost at the pump is the result of big subsidies. So, there are ethanol plants springing up all over the place in Minnesota, North Dakota, and probably Nebraska and the other big corn producing states. It should surprise no one that the farmers are quite happy about this. I think that hipparchia is right - there is less to this than meets the eye, but it's also the sort of "solution" that big oil corporations and their politicians would love.

gizzardboy's picture
Submitted by gizzardboy on

In fact, I'm sort of fond of ethanol. I used to farm, and I was even the county president of Farmers Union (I always wanted to march in a local parade with a big "F U" banner). I saw farmers going out of business because after all the input costs, there was not a high enough price to even break even, after all the work and worry. So we need to have a system in place where the food producers can hang in there. Otherwise, we have a feast and famine cycle as too much or too little is produced. But that is the way capitalism is supposed to self regulate. It was fine with most folks when farmers were going down the tubes, as long as the food was cheap. When the cycle swings the other way, there is much gnashing of teeth about the starving babies. Maybe a system of reserves and a safety net for farmers would be in everyone's interest, don't ya think?

But I digress. When the system is so fucked up that corn is cheaper than pellets for a pellet stove and when the cheapest thing about a box of cornflakes is the money the farmer got for the corn, it is not such a bad thing for the farmers who didn't get flooded out or lost their crop to drought, to make a little money. Over a several year period, corn will not be the feedstock of choice for the production of ethanol. When ethanol can be made from all sorts of cellulose, farmers will not be clearing the woodlot and the hillside to grow corn. In the meantime, and in the short run, the ethanol produced from corn and the infrastructure that is being built up (ethanol at the pumps, flex fuel vehicles,etc.,)will help ready things for the cellulosic ethanol to come. In the meantime it may be the mean time, but not much is going to fix it.

herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

These are going up all around farm country in the Midwest. I have worked on more than one so I know....

The reason they are spread out is not economical, it is political. If it were economic, they would be placed centrally where the demand is (current refineries, and/or near cities) rather than dispersed, as the current locations just add more expense (and CO2 production) to ship the processed ethanol.

On another note, we just worked on a pilot project where ethanol plants in northern Iowa are looking to install their own wind turbines to power their operations. Apparently the alternative fuels industry is finding a need to become more "green"....

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Submitted by hipparchia on

you can site the plants near the cities and ship the corn from the countryside to the ethanol plants and the leftovers back to the countryside for cattle feed, or you can site the plants near the corn and ship the ethanol to the cities.

also, depending on the process used to make the ethanol, you don't have to dry the corn first if you don't have to ship it. drying corn uses a lot of energy, most of it being fossil fuel right now, iirc.

but i adore math, so if you have actual numbers....

herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

I don't have the math on hand, the problem is that economies of scale come in when the production is centralized, the same personnel skills and infrastructure requirements (safety, piping, process control, on and on) come in which are already commonplace in modern refineries. Also, the "fuel" would then be easily entrained in the existing liquid fuel distribution network (pipelines, etc.). Those distribution systems don't exist extending into farm country so the product is shipped via liquid tank rail car. The leftover mash is also shipped either by rail or by truck (depending on where the nearest processing facility is located, I've seen it done both ways).

Rail shipping centers of distribution are also based in population hubs. If the economics of this model were true regarding distributed ethanol production, it would also be true with feed processing, and that isn't how feed processing is done. Primarily because modern feeds are a mixture of grains which are not all produced locally.

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Submitted by hipparchia on

well, economies of scale are sorta what got us into the mess to start with. cheap-to-extract oil, cheap-to-produce fuels....

water is a concern using existing oil/gas pipelines, so moving etoh production facilities closer to pipelines isn't going to help all that much. rail is a good possibility, being more fuel-efficient than tanker trucks, and yes, we would have to do some rebuilding.

i'm mostly in favor of keeping all things smaller and more local and paying a bit more money for them, so i'm also mostly in favor of the political solutions and tax incentives.

why shouldn't there be a greater number of small, local industries, scattered all across the country? i've worked at a huge refinery; the pay was good and the taco bells stay open 24 hours, but other than that, the quality of life in the vicinity of such behemoths basically sucks.

livestock feed. you can buy the grains separately and mix them yourself. it's been several years since i owned horses, but back in the day, this was actually cheaper than buying pre-mixed feed. could be different now, i suppose. very possibly it's also different if you're running a large cafo, maybe pre-mixed feed is easier and cheaper, but that's another industry that needs to die.

herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

You can't forget the tax incentives for building ethanol plants.

That is the main driver for building the new plants in rural America, there are HUGE tax incentives. That is what I meant by "political" rather than economic. But I suppose tax breaks are "economics" of a sort....

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Around these parts we call cucumber slices circle bites