Peachy Green’s Analysis of Ethanol Assumes Some Myths

Until recently I have generally thought that alcohol as a biofuel is a bad idea.  However, after reading David Blume‘s Alcohol Can Be A Gas I have become excited by the prospects this fuel has to offer.

I had accepted a number of positions on alcohol fuel because I had not heard some of the countervailing arguments.  Today I came across a blog posting from Peachy Green that attempts to explode some myths.  However, I found that while they were able to debunk some myths about alcohol, they contribute to other existing myths.

I will take on each of the five myths that Peachy Green discussed, with some counter-arguments obtained from Alcohol Can Be A Gas.

1.  Corn-based ethanol is a “green” alternative to foreign oil.  Peachy Green says, “False”.

David Blume makes the argument that using corn to produce ethanol is a poor choice because of the fairly low yield of sugar/starch produced per acre.  Using corn to produce ethanol can yield about 200 to 250 gallons of fuel per acre.  There are a number of other crops that can be grown that yield far more.  For instance, sugar beets can produce about 1000 gallons of fuel per acre.  Cattails can produce up to 7000 gallons of fuel per acre.  So, in that sense, David Blume would probably agree that corn-based ethanol is not a green alternative to foreign oil.

However, Peachy Green focused their arguments on resource inputs vs. energy outputs.  They are basically arguing the points of David Pimentel.  David Blume shows how Dr. Pimentel’s research is bogus.  You can read a short summary of his argument here.  Blume points out that fossil fuels have the negative return on energy.  The argument presented by Peachy Green assumes that fossil fuel energy will be used to produce alcohol as an alternative energy.  Blume argues that in a permaculture-based economy, where biofuel inputs are used to produce biofuel outputs, “the ratio of return could be positive by hundreds to one”.

2.  The new pressure to produce corn-based ethanol  is correlated to high food prices.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.  Here they are in agreement with Blume.  They identify a number of factors leading to high food prices.  They did fail to mention that the pressure to produce corn-based ethanol comes, in part, from surpluses of corn in North America, and a need to dispose of it profitably.

3.  Corn-based ethanol is cheaper than fuel from refined oil.  Peachy Green says this is “False”.

Peachy Green says, “In August 2008, ethanol sold for about $2.40 a gallon wholesale. Currently, gasoline is about the same cost, and may go lower.”  However, they fail to identify many of the hidden costs of oil.  Oil production is heavily subsidized by our government.  Many of these costs are passed on to you, but not necessarily at the pump.  For instance, the war in Iraq was basically to secure middle-east oil.  That has cost us trillions.  Then there are the environmental costs.  As well as the tax breaks that big-oil has enjoyed.

Blume argues in his book that alcohol comes out ahead of oil based on cost.  We can either subsidize alcohol production to the same degree that oil is subsidized, or we can remove the subsidies enjoyed by oil.  In either case, alcohol will come out ahead.

Peachy Green also says,

Notwithstanding the fluctuations in gasoline prices, ethanol yields about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly. That means that you will have to re-fuel more frequently. Over the long run, gasoline is less expensive than corn-based ethanol.

 Blume goes into great detail in his book on the merits of gasoline vs. alcohol.  (If you like chemistry and physics, his book is an awesome read.  If you don’t, he presents these topics in laymans terms so don’t be intimidated.)  There are many facets to a comparison of alcohol vs. gasoline.  Just one argument shows where Peachy Greens argument comes up short.

It is true that gasoline contains more energy per gallon than alcohol.  However, more of gasoline’s energy is converted to heat.  Alcohol fuel actually provides more motive force.  Less of its energy is lost as heat.  Under certain conditions alcohol will provide less mileage than gasoline.  But, it is a complicated topic and I would refer you to Blume’s book for a complete discussion of the facts.

I will also point out that all engines currently in use have been optimized to run on gasoline.  However, when you begin to consider the optimizations that can be made for alcohol fuel, the idea that alcohol provides less mileage falls flat on its face.

4.  You will have to convert your vehicle to run on ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is “mostly false”.  They are mostly right. 

Where they are wrong is in arguing that money should not be spent on a flex-fuel engine to run higher concentrations of alcohol so that the money could instead be put to the purchase of a hybrid.

Alcohol is a renewable form of energy.  Electricity can be generated renewably.  I am all for solar- and wind-generated electricity.  But, in all likelihood, your hybrid is burning coal or nuclear fuel as a trade off for lower gasoline inputs.  And, in the end, it’s still a gasoline-burning engine.  So, while hybrids are better than most non-hybrids, they are not better than a vehicle that burns a renewable alternative to gasoline.

5.  There will be less global warming as a result of fueling our cars with corn-based ethanol.  Peachy Green says this is false.

I disagree after reading Blume’s book.  First, Peachy Green’s argument is very narrowly focused on corn-based ethanol.  Second, they are presenting the arguments of Dr. Pimental, which Blume thoroughly debunks in his book. 

Peachy Green quotes an article stating that, “corn-based ethanol would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, compared to fossil fuels. This is due largely to the effects of cutting down trees which absorb CO2 emissions in order to grow crops.”

Blume shows how a permaculture-based economy, which he has demonstrated himself on his own farm, would actually sequester carbon-dioxide in the soil in the form of an increasing amount of organic matter.  If alcohol is a renewable fuel, it is difficult to imagine how greenhouse gases would double since we would be pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in order to produce alcohol, and then burning it, which puts it back into the atmosphere.

The reason Peachy Green is making this argument is that they are falling into the same trap that David Pimental finds himself in.  They are looking at alcohol fuel from the perspective of a fossil-fuel based economy.  In order to understand the promise that alcohol and other biofuels hold, we must begin to look at all of the ways that we have structured our economies and cultures in order to accomodate oil, coal, and nuclear.  Then, we can start to ask whether these accomodations would be necessary if we were running on renewables.

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One Response

  1. I think that the idea of using alcohol as a fuel source is great- finally- a good use of alcohol!

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