January 24, 2007

A STATE-OF-THE-UNION ENERGY CONSERVATION REALITY CHECK:

Twenty percent less gas in 10 years? Sounds nice, but what will it really take to make it happen? I didn’t hear any answers to that question, beyond the standard ethanol speech, which is all well and good, but there’s still little discussion of the Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). People who claim that a gallon of ethanol replaces a gallon of gas are forgetting a few truths: To grow the corn (our current feed stock for ethanol), you need nitrogen-based fertilizers that demand copious natural gas inputs, and you need lots and lots of diesel to run the tractors, combines and trucks it takes to get the corn to market. And then you have to refine it. Fact is, corn-based ethanol has a fairly poor EROEI (some studies suggest that we’re burning nearly a gallon of fossil fuels to make a gallon of ethanol).

Other feedstocks show more promise: switch grass, biomass, wood chips and (so I hear) chicken fat. But we’re not there yet, and it’s hard to believe that we’ll be able to cut our gas use by 20% in 10 years on ethanol alone.

Ethanol, at the moment, is pretty much liquid pork. That could change, but I remain unimpressed.

UPDATE: A downside to ethanol?

Soaring international demand for corn has caused a spike in prices for Mexico’s humble tortilla, hitting the poor and forcing President Felipe Calderon’s business-friendly government into an uncomfortable confrontation with powerful monopolies.

Tortilla prices have jumped nearly 14 percent over the past year, a move the head of Mexico’s central bank called “unjustifiable” in a country where inflation ran about 4 percent.

Economists blame increased U.S. production of ethanol from corn as an alternative to oil. The battle over the tortilla, the most basic staple of the Mexican diet, especially among the poor, demonstrates how increasing economic integration is felt on the street level.

Feeding people is more important than feeding cars. If we’re going to emphasize ethanol, it should come from waste biomass, not corn, Charles Grassley’s lobbying notwithstanding. (Via ThreeSources).

ANOTHER UPDATE: Complicating the story, at Cafe Hayek.

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