I was reading this opinion piece by the Rolling Stones keyboardist and forestry nut, and it didn’t take long for an age-old rant topic to emerge. This one is about misguided allocation of resources, particularly for alternative fuels, to achieve desired ends. If an alien (say, ET, although I’ve never watched the movie) landed in the US and evaluated our alternative fuel feed stocks and end use fuels (e.g. ethanol), it would say, “What are you doing man? This is insane!”
But first, let me begin with how the pursuit of wealth, which happens to be the force behind a growing economy (period), is generated, in very simple terms. In the generation of goods such as fuels, there is ingenuity and imagination, engineering, marketing, and product development; there are feed stocks, which at some point go back to stuff extracted from or grown on the planet, and a bunch of labor to build, operate, and transport stuff. The end result is something of higher value that people want or need.
If an educated person, or ET, observes the production of ethanol from food (corn), that person, if completely logical and objective (or ET), would think it’s a scam to get rid of a bunch of corn and increase demand for it. In a chain reaction, all other crops and foodstuffs would follow, and therefore, raise prices. I.e., when alternatives exist, high demand and price will draw more production, reducing supply and increasing demand, and prices on all other stuff increases as well.
Back to the Rolling Stoner and herbaceous residue of any sort, I was left thinking, here in the states the politicians are pushing for food and cellulosic derived ethanol. Doesn’t it sound sexy? Meanwhile, in Europe, they are simply bypassing this expensive, complicated process altogether, and rather than producing ethanol, they simply burn the feedstock (wood pellets) directly. The second law of thermodynamics, as you may recall from last week, postulates that you cannot derive more energy from a feedstock by converting it into something else, net, accounting for all other inputs. This is demonstrated in Figure 1 below as ethanol has a far higher cost per unit of energy compared to these other fuels.
Fuel value sources (see Figure 2).
Obviously, natural gas cannot be beat, except for “free” biofuel that people like me have available in the form of dead/fallen trees. That requires roughly four gallons of gasoline per year to process and transport, and about $50 electricity (fans and dehumidifier) to dry a heating season worth of heating fuel.
Next, I looked at a couple other metrics for three biofuels: corn-derived ethanol, firewood, and directly burning corn for heat. I calculated the ratio of values of fuel outputs to values of fuel inputs, and the ratio of energy outputs to energy inputs, considering energy inputs to include source Btus at the electrical power plant. This is shown in Figure 3. Ethanol is a poor value-added fuel.
The ratios above (Figures 4 and 5) for ethanol include energy input of corn (with the energy to produce corn embedded), electricity, and natural gas to produce ethanol. The wood and corn direct include energy to produce and process (transport, dry, etc.) the fuel. The energy inputs for corn include fertilizer and production fuel costs. The data come from this recent report on ethanol.
Obviously, there is a convenience factor but like many greenie and personal choices, other things drive decisions. For example, just ignore for a moment the cost and environmental implications, and consider if you would rather listen to your furnace growling at startup and listen to air and fan noise all the time, or if you would rather have a hot, radiant, and silent wood/corn/pellet stove to keep your feet toasty while sipping Old Rasputin and catching up on a few ACEEE reports? It’s like gardening but with louder more powerful tools.
One other misguided use of a resource: Raise your hand if you think flaring methane from landfills is better than burning it to generate electricity. Ok. Why do we even get to that point? Why do we not just burn the garbage as we do in La Crosse, Europe and other places? Even when consumers put everything the local recycling authority will take on the curb, there is still huge energy in the crap going to the landfill. To wit, recyclers do not take plastic food wrap and the plethora of weird containers food comes in, even from the local food co-op. Look at your garbage. It’s a bag full of fuel.
Is garbage burning for power generation dirty? No. Its exhaust compared to your car’s exhaust might be like comparing air at the summit of Mt. Rainier to that of Beijing.
 Burning corn is a direct alternative to burning wood pellets, and the technology to do so is well developed.