The Corn Ethanol Effect
Source: Mother Jones
Source: Mother Jones
by Eckhart Beatty
San Francisco on 11.23.06
Roger Duncan serves as the Campaign Coordinator for Plug-in Partners, a national campaign for plug-in electric vehicles (PHEVs) striving to demonstrate clearly the viability of this market by doing the following: garnering support in the form of online petitions and endorsements by city governments across the country; procuring "soft" fleet orders; and developing rebates and incentives. TreeHugger's Eckhart Beatty recently had the chance to chat with Mr. Duncan about plug-ins and the future of automotive transportation.
TreeHugger: Why was Plug-in Partners founded in Austin, Texas?
Roger Duncan: As one of the more progressive utilities in the nation, Austin Energy has long led the nation in energy conservation. I was asked to see what else we could be doing in the area of clean energy, and I told the City Council we should start a new initiative in the transportation sector since I saw an eventual convergence between the electric and transportation industries. In my capacity as a manager we might be able to take advantage of the abundance of wind and solar potential to power cars. Soon we began seeing a convergence between the electric and transportation industries.
So in August of 2005, we founded Plug-In Austin. We realized from the beginning what we really had to do was to link similar ongoing efforts taking place across the country. We started by targeting the 50 largest cities in the U.S. Now we have members from utilities, environmental groups, businesses, as well as many other federal, state, and local organizations.
I had originally heard of the efforts of Felix Kramer and CalCars, Electric Power Research Institute EPRI, and Andy Frank, a UC Davis professor at who invented the plug-in technology some 30 years ago.
TH: What's the most important thing you want the average individual to know about plug-ins?
RD: They are very energy efficient, cleaner, and cheaper to operate.
TH: What’s the most efficient way of getting the most people to understand their importance in the shortest possible time?
RD: Invite folks to visit the website Plug-In Partners and recommend they sign up for the newsletter. Consider working with the media, as well getting promotions for us.
TH: If Proposition 87 had passed in CA, what would it have meant for the future of PHEVs?
RD: I really don’t know much about it. I’m not a big fan of initiatives. This one could only stand to help, though. It could well stand to buttress the campaigns of lots of alternative energy technologies—as well as ours.
TH: What would you recommend that everyone who doesn't live in California do in this regard? For instance, would similar initiatives be feasible in other states like Texas, as well?
RD: It (an initiative like California’s 87 ballot measure) probably wouldn’t occur in TX. I’m less interested in (proposing) legislation than in demonstrating a market for PHEVs.
TH: Are all hybrid designs the same—or are some different?
RD: There are different varieties. There’s the serial, the parallel—and then the hydraulic (a protoype still). Although, principal variations in designs relate to battery design such as Nickel-Metal Hydride versus Lithium Ion, there are other differences in the size of the battery compared to the engine (with some new ones proposing smaller gas engines and larger electric motors).
Andy Frank: "Just as in the case of any emerging product or technology, there are many ways to implement PHEV technology, optimize for various factors and conditions. We’re looking forward to sorting this out when car-makers begin building PHEVs." [Mr. Frank is the inventor of the PHEV.]*
TH: What is the longevity of battery systems compared to 100% electric cars?
RD: They may be more powerful per unit mass than the batteries in non-hybrids, but less powerful than pure electric cars. Also, plug-ins require a deep discharge of their batteries, whereas fully electric cars don’t need to discharge the batteries as much.
AF: "While the price/performance ratio of pure electric cars may match or exceed that of PHEVs, it’s not likely. I'll bet on the PHEV staying as the ultimate end game for the remainder of the century," he said. "Lithium is coming up fast and will definitely take over the Metal Hydride in power, weight, life, size, and costs," he concluded.*
TH: By their nature, cars are somewhat "disposable," to be replaced by a new model on average every seven years—or less! Is “planned obsolescence” addressed better by plug-ins, in addition to their superior efficiency?
RD: Not really. Cars stay on the road an average of 16 years. It’s unlikely this figure will decline sharply any time soon.*
TH: Could factory-built plug-ins be made to be "upgradable" with respect to engine designs (for a few years going forward so they won’t become outdated like the first generation Prius did)?
AF: "Not really. As cars become more computer-oriented and more telemetric, possibilities for upgraded systems increase. Most products get better over time—no surprise there."
According to Dr. Frank, although "upgrading is always possible," with upgraded parts becoming interchangeable, "you may be flogging a dead horse for a long time." He concludes by predicting, "The technology of these systems will change very fast and may not stabilize for many years—if ever!"
TH: Bush has backed plug-ins. How helpful has all the political rhetoric been so far?
RD: He "gets it," and his support has been helpful. The Department of Energy is now conducting serious discussions, and a new initiative has been launched within its R&D arm.
TH: What are some ways the Partnership could be strengthened?
RD: It’s actually moving faster than we can keep up with.
TH: Does the association have growth plans?
RD: Yes. We’re starting to approach more corporations. Some notable examples of these and other large organizations are P.G.&E., Edison Electric Institute, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Consumer Federation of America (with over 100 million members)..
TH: What’s the minimum number of cars in a fleet needed for a "soft order"?
RD: We consider four to five as the minimum, but may consider fewer. It’s called a "soft" order to signify simply an intent to built, since they haven’t been mass-produced yet; it is not an actual purchase order--yet. Also, they can’t be built on speculation, due to the matter of expense.
TH: With all the good news that came regarding PHEVs this year, what are the biggest hurdles in our way to getting them mass-produced?
RD: Only certain kinds of cars manufactures would seriously consider it for particular models.
TH: What’s the latest word on the largest car manufacturers warming up to the idea of producing PHEVs?
RD: Ford and GM have both begun focusing on PHEV initiatives. Initially, they had expressed resistance and uncertainty. The bottom line is they are still researching them. Nissan will develop one—perhaps by 2010.
TH: What does Google really intend to do when it says it "wants to build a plug-in"? Would it support CalCars, Edrive Systems, Energy, CS etc. to do this—or exactly what?
RD: It’s true we’re engaged in discussions with Google, but I’m not at liberty to offer any details today.
TH: What are the largest companies and associations involved with the organization?
RD: P.G.&E., Edison Electric Institute, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National Consumer Federation of America (with over 100 million members).
TH: Who are some of the most noteworthy spokespersons of this idea?
RD: Hillary Clinton, Lester Brown, Orin Hatch, Jr., Barack Obama, George Pataki (Gov. NY), George Schulz, R. James Woolsey (former Director of CIA). Plug-in Partners maintains a list of partners.
TH: What can we do as consumers to get them to do so?
RD: They should visit the Plug-In Partners website: sign up, spread the word, and put in a fleet order if applicable to their business.
TH: What about the notion of the PHEV plugging into a grid concept? Where is that idea today?
RD: True, it’s an interesting idea, and I believe it will happen, but it will be years before it will have significant import, since millions of cars are needed to make an impact.
TH: If you lived in remote area, could you set up your PHEV to power your home during blackouts?
RD: Yes. Toyota recently built a prototype that would allow people to generate electricity at 13kW and 120 volts. This would be especially useful for those living off the grid.
TH: What is your impression of companies’ individual commitments to grappling with the issues of PHEVs?
RD: Yes, I think they will remain committed for the long haul.
TH: If everyone who reads this interview could do just one thing a week to help promote the future of plug-ins as a proven viable alternative to fossil fuels, what should it be?
RD: They should visit the website, sign up, and consider getting involved in our work.::
*Note: I am grateful to Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars and Dr. Andy Frank for help with some of these answers.::
Source: The New York Times
Published: September 19, 2007
Backed by the White House, corn-state governors and solid blocks on both sides of Congress’s partisan divide, the politics of biofuels could hardly look sunnier. The economics of the American drive to increase ethanol in the energy supply are more discouraging.
American corn-based ethanol is expensive. And while it can help cut oil imports and provide modest reductions in greenhouse gases compared to conventional gasoline, corn ethanol also carries considerable risks. Even now as Europe and China join the United States in ramping up production, world food prices are rising, threatening misery for the poorest countries.
The European Union has announced that it wants to replace 10 percent of its transport fuel with biofuels by 2020. China is aiming for a 15 percent share. The United States is already on track to exceed Congress’s 2005 goal of doubling the amount of ethanol used in motor fuels to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. In his State of the Union speech in January, President Bush set a new goal of 35 billion gallons of biofuels by 2017. In June, the Senate raised it to 36 billion gallons by 2022. Of that, Congress said that 15 billion gallons should come from corn and 21 billion from advanced biofuels that are nowhere near commercial production.
The distortions in agricultural production are startling. Corn prices are up about 50 percent from last year, while soybean prices are projected to rise up to 30 percent in the coming year, as farmers have replaced soy with corn in their fields. The increasing cost of animal feed is raising the prices of dairy and poultry products.
The news from the rest of the world is little better. Ethanol production in the United States and other countries, combined with bad weather and rising demand for animal feed in China, has helped push global grain prices to their highest levels in at least a decade. Earlier this year, rising prices of corn imports from the United States triggered mass protests in Mexico. The chief of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that rising food prices around the world have threatened social unrest in developing countries.
A recent report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an economic forum of rich nations, called on the United States and other industrialized nations to eliminate subsidies for the production of ethanol which, the report said, is driving up food costs, threatening natural habitats and imposing other environmental costs. “The overall environmental impacts of ethanol and biodiesel can very easily exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel,” it said.
The economics of corn ethanol have never made much sense. Rather than importing cheap Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane, the United States slaps a tariff of 54 cents a gallon on ethanol from Brazil. Then the government provides a tax break of 51 cents a gallon to American ethanol producers — on top of the generous subsidies that corn growers already receive under the farm program.
Corn-based ethanol also requires a lot of land. An O.E.C.D. report two years ago suggested that replacing 10 percent of America’s motor fuel with biofuels would require about a third of the total cropland devoted to cereals, oilseeds and sugar crops.
Meanwhile, the environmental benefits are modest. A study published last year by scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, estimated that after accounting for the energy used to grow the corn and turn it into ethanol, corn ethanol lowers emissions of greenhouse gases by only 13 percent.
The United States will not meet the dual challenges of reducing global warming and its dependence on foreign suppliers of energy until it manages to reduce energy consumption. That should be its main goal.
There is nothing wrong with developing alternative fuels, and there is high hope among environmentalists and even venture capitalists that more advanced biofuels — like cellulosic ethanol — can eventually play a constructive role in reducing oil dependency and greenhouse gases. What’s wrong is letting politics — the kind that leads to unnecessary subsidies, the invasion of natural landscapes best left alone and soaring food prices that hurt the poor — rather than sound science and sound economics drive America’s energy policy.
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) -- Millions of inventions pass quietly through the U.S. patent office each year. Patent No. 7,033,406 did, too, until energy insiders spotted six words in the filing that sounded like a death knell for the internal combustion engine.
An Austin-based startup called EEStor promised "technologies for replacement of electrochemical batteries," meaning a motorist could plug in a car for five minutes and drive 500 miles roundtrip between Dallas and Houston without gasoline.
By contrast, some plug-in hybrids on the horizon would require motorists to charge their cars in a wall outlet overnight and promise only 50 miles of gasoline-free commute. And the popular hybrids on the road today still depend heavily on fossil fuels.
"It's a paradigm shift," said Ian Clifford, chief executive of Toronto-based ZENN Motor Co., which has licensed EEStor's invention. "The Achilles' heel to the electric car industry has been energy storage. By all rights, this would make internal combustion engines unnecessary."
Clifford's company bought rights to EEStor's technology in August 2005 and expects EEStor to start shipping the battery replacement later this year for use in ZENN Motor's short-range, low-speed vehicles.
The technology also could help invigorate the renewable-energy sector by providing efficient, lightning-fast storage for solar power, or, on a small scale, a flash-charge for cell phones and laptops.
Skeptics, though, fear the claims stretch the bounds of existing technology to the point of alchemy.
"We've been trying to make this type of thing for 20 years and no one has been able to do it," said Robert Hebner, director of the University of Texas Center for Electromechanics. "Depending on who you believe, they're at or beyond the limit of what is possible."
EEStor's secret ingredient is a material sandwiched between thousands of wafer-thin metal sheets, like a series of foil-and-paper gum wrappers stacked on top of each other. Charged particles stick to the metal sheets and move quickly across EEStor's proprietary material.
The result is an ultracapacitor, a battery-like device that stores and releases energy quickly.
Batteries rely on chemical reactions to store energy but can take hours to charge and release energy. The simplest capacitors found in computers and radios hold less energy but can charge or discharge instantly. Ultracapacitors take the best of both, stacking capacitors to increase capacity while maintaining the speed of simple capacitors.
Hebner said vehicles require bursts of energy to accelerate, a task better suited for capacitors than batteries.
"The idea of getting rid of the batteries and putting in capacitors is to get more power back and get it back faster," Hebner said.
But he said nothing close to EEStor's claim exists today.
For years, EEStor has tried to fly beneath the radar in the competitive industry for alternative energy, content with a phone-book listing and a handful of cryptic press releases.
Yet the speculation and skepticism have continued, fueled by the company's original assertion of making batteries obsolete -- a claim that still resonates loudly for a company that rarely speaks, including declining an interview with The Associated Press.
The deal with ZENN Motor and a $3 million investment by the venture capital group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made big-payoff early bets on companies like Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., hint that EEStor may be on the edge of a breakthrough technology, a "game changer" as Clifford put it.
ZENN Motor's public reports show that it so far has invested $3.8 million in and has promised another $1.2 million if the ultracapacitor company meets a third-party testing standard and then delivers a product.
Clifford said his company consulted experts and did a "tremendous amount of due diligence" on EEStor's innovation.
EEStor's founders have a track record. Richard D. Weir and Carl Nelson worked on disk-storage technology at IBM Corp. in the 1990s before forming EEStor in 2001. The two have acquired dozens of patents over two decades.
Neil Dikeman of Jane Capital Partners, an investor in clean technologies, said the nearly $7 million investment in EEStor pales compared with other energy storage endeavors, where investment has averaged $50 million to $100 million.
Yet curiosity is unusually high, Dikeman said, thanks to the investment by a prominent venture capital group and EEStor's secretive nature.
"The EEStor claims are around a process that would be quite revolutionary if they can make it work," Dikeman said.
Previous attempts to improve ultracapacitors have focused on improving the metal sheets by increasing the surface area where charges can attach.
EEStor is instead creating better nonconductive material for use between the metal sheets, using a chemical compound called barium titanate. The question is whether the company can mass-produce it.
ZENN Motor pays EEStor for passing milestones in the production process, and chemical researchers say the strength and functionality of this material is the only thing standing between EEStor and the holy grail of energy-storage technology.
Joseph Perry and the other researchers he oversees at Georgia Tech have used the same material to double the amount of energy a capacitor can hold. Perry says EEstor seems to be claiming an improvement of more than 400-fold, yet increasing a capacitor's retention ability often results in decreased strength of the materials.
"They're not saying a lot about how they're making these things," Perry said. "With these materials (described in the patent), that is a challenging process to carry out in a defect-free fashion."
Perry is not alone in his doubts. An ultracapacitor industry leader, Maxwell Technologies Inc., has kept a wary eye on EEStor's claims and offers a laundry list of things that could go wrong.
Among other things, the ultracapacitors described in EEStor's patent operate at extremely high voltage, 10 times greater than those Maxwell manufactures, and won't work with regular wall outlets, said Maxwell spokesman Mike Sund. He said capacitors could crack while bouncing down the road, or slowly discharge after a dayslong stint in the airport parking lot, leaving the driver stranded.
Until EEStor produces a final product, Perry said he joins energy professionals and enthusiasts alike in waiting to see if the company can own up to its six-word promise and banish the battery to recycling bins around the world.
"I am skeptical but I'd be very happy to be proved wrong," Perry said.
Source: The New York Times
By JAMES E. McWILLIAMS
Published: August 6, 2007
THE term “food miles” — how far food has traveled before you buy it — has entered the enlightened lexicon. Environmental groups, especially in Europe, are pushing for labels that show how far food has traveled to get to the market, and books like Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life” contemplate the damage wrought by trucking, shipping and flying food from distant parts of the globe.
There are many good reasons for eating local — freshness, purity, taste, community cohesion and preserving open space — but none of these benefits compares to the much-touted claim that eating local reduces fossil fuel consumption. In this respect eating local joins recycling, biking to work and driving a hybrid as a realistic way that we can, as individuals, shrink our carbon footprint and be good stewards of the environment.
On its face, the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is a no-brainer. In Iowa, the typical carrot has traveled 1,600 miles from California, a potato 1,200 miles from Idaho and a chuck roast 600 miles from Colorado. Seventy-five percent of the apples sold in New York City come from the West Coast or overseas, the writer Bill McKibben says, even though the state produces far more apples than city residents consume. These examples just scratch the surface of the problem. In light of this market redundancy, the only reasonable reaction, it seems, is to count food miles the way a dieter counts calories.
But is reducing food miles necessarily good for the environment? Researchers at Lincoln University in New Zealand, no doubt responding to Europe’s push for “food miles labeling,” recently published a study challenging the premise that more food miles automatically mean greater fossil fuel consumption. Other scientific studies have undertaken similar investigations. According to this peer-reviewed research, compelling evidence suggests that there is more — or less — to food miles than meets the eye.
It all depends on how you wield the carbon calculator. Instead of measuring a product’s carbon footprint through food miles alone, the Lincoln University scientists expanded their equations to include other energy-consuming aspects of production — what economists call “factor inputs and externalities” — like water use, harvesting techniques, fertilizer outlays, renewable energy applications, means of transportation (and the kind of fuel used), the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed during photosynthesis, disposal of packaging, storage procedures and dozens of other cultivation inputs.
Incorporating these measurements into their assessments, scientists reached surprising conclusions. Most notably, they found that lamb raised on New Zealand’s clover-choked pastures and shipped 11,000 miles by boat to Britain produced 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton while British lamb produced 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton, in part because poorer British pastures force farmers to use feed. In other words, it is four times more energy-efficient for Londoners to buy lamb imported from the other side of the world than to buy it from a producer in their backyard. Similar figures were found for dairy products and fruit.
These life-cycle measurements are causing environmentalists worldwide to rethink the logic of food miles. New Zealand’s most prominent environmental research organization, Landcare Research-Manaaki Whenua, explains that localism “is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle than during transport.” The British government’s 2006 Food Industry Sustainability Strategy similarly seeks to consider the environmental costs “across the life cycle of the produce,” not just in transportation.
“Eat local” advocates — a passionate cohort of which I am one — are bound to interpret these findings as a threat. We shouldn’t. Not only do life cycle analyses offer genuine opportunities for environmentally efficient food production, but they also address several problems inherent in the eat-local philosophy.
Consider the most conspicuous ones: it is impossible for most of the world to feed itself a diverse and healthy diet through exclusively local food production — food will always have to travel; asking people to move to more fertile regions is sensible but alienating and unrealistic; consumers living in developed nations will, for better or worse, always demand choices beyond what the season has to offer.
Given these problems, wouldn’t it make more sense to stop obsessing over food miles and work to strengthen comparative geographical advantages? And what if we did this while streamlining transportation services according to fuel-efficient standards? Shouldn’t we create development incentives for regional nodes of food production that can provide sustainable produce for the less sustainable parts of the nation and the world as a whole? Might it be more logical to conceptualize a hub-and-spoke system of food production and distribution, with the hubs in a food system’s naturally fertile hot spots and the spokes, which travel through the arid zones, connecting them while using hybrid engines and alternative sources of energy?
As concerned consumers and environmentalists, we must be prepared to seriously entertain these questions. We must also be prepared to accept that buying local is not necessarily beneficial for the environment. As much as this claim violates one of our most sacred assumptions, life cycle assessments offer far more valuable measurements to gauge the environmental impact of eating. While there will always be good reasons to encourage the growth of sustainable local food systems, we must also allow them to develop in tandem with what could be their equally sustainable global counterparts. We must accept the fact, in short, that distance is not the enemy of awareness.
James E. McWilliams is the author of “A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America” and a contributing writer for The Texas Observer.