Wednesday, December 5, 2007

How Good is Ethanol for the Environment?

As originally published on at Thanksgiving, 2007.

Ethanol is all the rage in some circles now as an alternative fuel for our cars. Midwest America is especially enthusiastic about it because the agricultural economy can benefit from it. Brazil has successfully built a national industry based on sugarcane ethanol and biofuel cars. How good is ethanol really, for the environment?

The hope is that ethanol can potentially produce many more benefits compared to oil. Farmers, obviously, are eager for the ethanol economy because it expands the market for their crops. Midwest America hopes that ethanol will help restore many rural agricultural communities perhaps even making them profitable enough so we can do away with government subsidies one day. That's the dream.

Ethanol has the potential to help nations achieve energy independence, reducing dependency on foreign oil. For example, Brazil announced last year that it has weaned itself off of oil, after 10 years of intensive effort in encouraging the budding ethanol industry to mature. This is a hopeful development. Imagine if China and India and USA goes energy independent! This would definitely change the geopolitical picture of our world. Indeed many countries with agricultural economy create enough agricultural wastes to produce certain amount of domestic ethanol fuel sources. Brazil used its sugarcane stalks leftover from its sugarcane processing industry. Closer to home we have weed grass and corn stalks in abundance.

Ethanol proponents also claim that it creates no net addition to the world’s carbon emission. Plants are carbon sinks, meaning they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere to grow, so when we burn biofuel, we are simply releasing what it had absorbed. How true is this? A recent National Geographic article explored this quite effectively, in my opinion.

The gist of the article is that it is important that the right agricultural product is used for producing ethanol. The drawback of our national ethanol picture today, is that, it takes herbicide, machines, land, and lots of water to produce corn and soybean which generates most of our ethanol today. This creates competition with food supply (think cereal and feedstocks). Even if we turn all our soybean and corn supply into ethanol, we can only replace 12% of our gasoline and 6% of our diesel. The article also said that there is no net gain in fossil fuel replacement by moving to corn ethanol because it takes as much gasoline to produce the amount of corn needed. Additionally, to produce enough corn as ethanol feedstock, we will need to plow into increasingly marginal lands.

Biofuel According to Nathanael Greene, a senior researcher with the Natural Resources Defense Council, the key is to figure out how to make fuel from plant material other than food: cornstalks, prairie grasses, fast-growing trees, or even algae. Brazil did a great job in this area by converting the agricultural waste products from their massive sugarcane industry into fuel. These would have ended up as waste anyway, so finding another usage for them is a great example of whole-system thinking. As a result of their forward-thinking approach, 85% of Brazilian cars now run on alcohol, and although most have flex-fuel ethanol-gasoline engine, the price advantage of sugarcane ethanol in Brazil means that many haven’t visited the gas station for years. That's something I'd like to have for the sake of my ever diminishing wallet! Still although the ethanol picture in Brazil is rosier and definitely more sustainable than that of the United States, it is not without problems. Pressure for deforestation because of acreage expansion, burning of cane to prepare fields for harvesting, and worker exploitation remain issues to be solved.

Some groups are working on taking the food chain out of the picture entirely. This seems to be most promising path for the U.S. ethanol progression. Cellulosic ethanol, made from plants with high-level of chains of sugar molecules in the plants’ cell walls, is currently hailed as great replacements for soy and corn sources. These alternatives are none other than the deep-rooted perennial prairie grasses like switchgrass or buffalo grass, sawdust, and other non-food stalks and leaves (e.g. cornstalks). The trick is to make processing them cheap enough to be competitive with other fuel sources.

In sum, the ethanol picture is complex. It is an alternative for now, in competition with electric and hydrogen fuel cell to power our vehicles. The eco-footprint argument for ethanol is still murky and will probably remain contentious for the next few years. As voters and consumers, it is important that we continue to educate ourselves on the total impact of each fuel alternative, as billions and billions of dollars are being poured into each. Which one will help us reduce our greenhouse gas and carbon footprint the fastest? How long can we afford to wait before having a real solution to power our car more sustainably? The climate crisis is here, and we can’t afford to fool around for years until a solution is found. We need market solutions that will make a significant dent on the climate crisis, TODAY, so we better spend our precious R&D dollars and time wisely.

If you haven’t seen the news yet, IPCC, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has just given us the last warning on climate change in its final report as reported by NYTimes this past weekend. Even in its cautious and measured tone, IPCC has declared global warming as "unequivocal." That’s scary stuff.

1 comment:

Jenny Tan said...

Marn-Yee, is that you? This is Jenny Tan, your old old friend from St George's and Mr Khoo's BM tuition class.

Thought I'd look up an old friend. Do email me: