David Pimentel's Lies about Cellulosic Ethanol's Energy Return on Energy Input

Publication Year: 
2007

Image retrieved from www.kablitz.com on January 21st, 2014.
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Image retrieved from www.bio.brandeis.edu on January 24th, 2014.

Does biofuel have a negative energy return?


Most research done on ethanol over the past 25 years has been on the topic of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI), or energy balance. In Appendix A, we detail how public discussion of this issue has been dominated by the American Petroleum Institute's aggressive distribution of the work of Cornell professor David Pimentel and his numerous studies. We cite his distortion of key calculations, his unfamiliarity with farming in general, his ignoring of studies from Brazil that disagree with him, and his poor understanding of the value of co-products and their contribution to an accurate portrayal of energy accounting in the ethanol manufacturing process. In fact, he stands virtually alone in portraying alcohol as having an EROEI that is negative—producing less energy than is used in its production (see Appendix A, Figure A-2).
In fact, it's oil that has a negative EROEI. Because oil is both the raw material and the energy source for production of gasoline, it comes out to about 20% negative. That's just common sense: some of the oil is itself used up in the process of refining and delivering it (from the Persian Gulf, a distance of 11,000 miles in tanker travel).
As Dr. Barry Commoner of the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems once said, “It's always possible to do a good thing stupidly," and some existing scenarios for making alcohol on a grand scale prove just that. However, the most exhaustive (and least-cited) study on the energy balance, by Isaias de Carvalho Macedo of Brazil, shows an alcohol energy return of more that eight units of output for every unit of input—and this study accounts for everything right down to smelting the ore to make the steel for tractors.
But perhaps there's a more important measurement to consider than EROEI. What is the energy return for fossil fuel energy input? Using this criterion, the energy returned from alcohol fuel per fossil energy input is much higher. Since the Brazilian system supplies almost all of its energy from biomass, the ratio of return could be positive by hundreds to one.
Even with massive subsidies, the price of natural gas has now risen high enough that U.S. Alcohol plants will be fiscally irresponsible to their shareholders if they don't start taking some of the spent liquid mash to self-produce all their own natural gas (methane). I predict that this system will sweep alcohol plants in this country, and that by 2012 every alcohol plant will be providing its own energy this way. New U.S. Plants are already being built that feed the alcohol byproduct grain to animals on-site, and then turn their manure into methane to run the alcohol plant.
This book provides you with the means to make alcohol fuel using no nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides, or herbicides; using machinery powered only by clean-burning fuels; and using almost no nonrenewable energy sources to power the fuel plant. It's going on right now: India runs its plants using self-produced methane boilers/generators, while Brazilian alcohol plants actually generate large surpluses of electricity from their biomass-fueled boilers. That's the bar we need to set for ourselves in producing fuel.
And since permaculture should be an integral part of the alcohol fuel revolution, no easy-to-dismiss studies of annual monocultural crops such as corn are acceptable here. Those arguments belong to another era, and we will be showing farmers how to make monoculture obsolete by switching to permaculturally based organic farming.
The bottom line is that it's oil that is energy negative, nonrenewable, and running out. Alcohol in America is already energy-positive, even when using coal or natural gas for process heat, and will become dramatically positive in the immediate future, running on its own renewable process energy...

Is there enough land to grow fuel and food?


Hemp Harvester

...According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the United States has 434,164,946 acres of "cropland." This is a very conservative number, describing land that is able to be worked in an industrial fashion (monoculture), Primarily for annual crops. This cropland is the prime, level, and generally deep agricultural soil.
Of this nearly half a billion acres of prime cropland, the U.S. uses only 72.1 million acres for corn in an average year. The land used for corn takes up only 16.6% of our prime cropland! And corn takes up only 7.44% of our total agricultural land. When statements are made saying that the U.S. can replace only 10-15% of its gasoline by using agriculture, only the corn starch portion of the grain, produced on this small fraction of prime cropland, is used in the calculation!
Even if, for alcohol production, we used only what the USDA considers prime flat cropland, we would have to produce only 368.5 gallons of alcohol per acre to meet 100% of the demand for transportation fuel at todays levels. Although I am not proposing it, corn starch alone, at the modern average of 140 bushels of grain per acre, and not even counting use of corn's cellulosic stalks, could technically meet all of this goal, while actually increasing the meat supply (see Myth #4 below)--and corn isn't a particularly stellar energy crop. A wide variety of standard crops yield up to triple this level (see chapter 8). Dr Barry Commoner did substantial research in the 1980s that showed that a simple shift away from starch crops to sugar crops, such as beets, would dramatically increase yields of both alcohol and animal feed per acre compared to corn.
In addition to cropland, the U.S. has 939,279,056 acres of "farmland." This land is also good for agriculture, but it's not as level and the soil not as deep as "cropland." Much of this farmland could support perennial crops that don't require the soil to be plowed every year, or that allow annual crops to be cultivated as long as the soil is plowed on contour (where the rows follow the land's contours, like the lines on a topographic map, to minimize soil erosion).
Many people argue that a substantial portion of this land is arid. As we'll discuss in Chapter 8, there are already 70 million acres of producing mesquite trees, essentially the same amount of acreage as cropland planted to corn. Considered a weed by farmers, mesquite grows partially on farmland but mostly on land that is to arid to even be considered farmland. Mesquite's harvested seed pods would generate 33 billion gallons of alcohol, with out irrigation, fertilizer, or annual planting. That's another 21% of our annual gasoline needs from only 7.45% of our "farmland" (if we generously credit the land where the mesquite grows as farmland).
There is a vast amount of additional land that the USA doesn't count as either cropland or farmland, but which is still suitable for growing specialized energy crops. This includes places like the Texas Panhandle and arid Western areas that currently require over 100 acres of low quality grazing land to raise one beef steer. The same land can be used far more profitably to grow crops adapted to arid climates (such as pimelon, buffalo gourd, and prickly pear) to produce alcohol, biodiesel, and animal feed.
Some of the land that the USDA doesn't classify as cropland or farmland has plenty of water but is more highly sloped. Tree and bush crops, such as hybrid chestnut and hazelnut, would make food use of sloped land; they halt soil erosion, and they can produce a substantial amount of alcohol and biodiesel (rivaling energy production from corn on prime cropland--but with essentially no inputs).

Typha

Lowlands that are considered swamps or wetlands (not counted as farmland or cropland) could be restored to allow cultivation of high energy crops like cattails (see Chapter 8), while dramatically enhancing wildlife habitat value. And these crops can also be grown in artificial marshes that are economical to build.
For example, cattails are now used in constructed marshes to inexpensively treat sewage. Yields of starch and cellulose from cattails easily tops 10,000 gallons per acre in such a nutrient-rich environment. If all the sewage in the U.S. were sent to such constructed marshes, the 3141 U.S. counties would need only 6360 acres each to fulfill all of our foreseeable transportation fuel needs, both gasoline and diesel, at 200 billion gallons per year. That equals 1.46% of our agricultural land. And we'd be doing it with no chemical fertilizer or irrigation water, since an average county would generate 15 million pounds of liquefied "humanure" per year.
And crops aren't limited to land, either. When we look at the huge potential of kelp (marine algae) grown in coastal river mouths rich in nitrates and sewage (oops, I mean "surplus nutrients"!), there is no doubt that we can reap bumper crops of alcohol, replacing all petroleum fuel without ever planting a single seed on land (see Chapter 8).
And, as we'll see in Chapter 8, the potential alcohol production from cellulose could dwarf all other crops. When it comes to corn, the cellulose in the stalks, cobs, and grain itself is two to nearly three times the weight of the corn starch from the grain.
Production from cellulose requires us to think quite differently about yield. For instance, the United States has nearly 30 million acres of lawns. That's 41% of the total acreage we use for corn, and it isn't counted as either farmland or cropland! Grass clippings are the number one irrigated crop in the U.S., and would generate over 11 billion gallons of fuel per year. In addition to grass clippings, there is a huge amount of green waste from landscapes, adding to the cellulose total in every county.
Cellulose makes energy crops out of unlikely plants. For instance, turnips and rutabagas are mostly cellulose and would generate tremendous yields in comparison to corn starch. Fast-growing trees are usually about 75% cellulose and can yield several thousand gallons per acre on a sustained basis through planned pruning (coppicing). Polycultures of mixed cellulose/starch/sugar crops can yield more that 10,000 gallons per acre, compared to the hundreds of gallons per acre yielded by most starch and sugar crops grown singly.
So can we produce enough alcohol for both food and fuel? As you'll see, the question should be After we replace all the gasoline, diesel and heating oil, do we sell our surplus alcohol to the rest of the world--or do we use it to replace all the electricity coming from nuclear and coal plants? Let's do both...


...Monsanto is the industry leader in genetically modified seed and is the supplier of Roundup. It is in the vanguard of companies that wish to shackle farmers to patented herbicide-resistant seed--which allows farmers to use lots of Roundup herbicide to kill the weeds growing between the GMO crop. Monsanto prohibits farmers from saving the seed and forces them to buy new seed each year. I have a remedy for this strong-arm tactic.
In permaculture, we always think back to what happens in Nature for an explanation. So, let's observe corn in Nature to figure out how best to grow it without chemicals. When a cornstalk falls over at the end of its life, the husk-wrapped starchy ears of corn plop onto the ground. Over the winter, a little decomposition happens to the husk. Birds might get to the kernels on the top half of the cob, pecking some open, scattering bits of corn, but leaving some of the grain on the cob, where rain washes it onto the ground. come spring, three, four, maybe a dozen intact seeds sprout and come rocketing out of the ground. Very few or no weeds seem to be near the corn when it sprouts. So, in Nature, the corn seems to have an herbicidal effect that gives the clump of corn a big head start. To this day, indigenous people plant corn in clumps imitating Nature.
An experiment I performed shows how easy it is to take herbicides out of the picture. For a long time, organic farmers had known that corn gluten meal (CGM) was a very good pre-emergent herbicide. This means that it kills plants when they are just sprouting, as opposed to post-emergent herbicides, which kill plants beyond the seedling stage. (The high price of CGM has limited its use to organic gardeners; it is to expensive for most organic farming.) No one knew how CGM worked, however. USDA scientists said that the prevailing theory was that weeds were nitrogen-poisoned by the high-protein gluten. It seemed a ridiculous theory, as most weeds i know suck up nitrogen better that most crops.
Based on my observation of corn in Nature, I conducted an experiment to see if the distiller's dried grains with solubles (DDGS), the byproduct of dry-milling corn, would have an herbicidal quality similar to CGM's. Remember, everything that came from the soil is in the DDGS. The only thing taken out of a crop to make alcohol is the solar energy. The plant carbohydrates contain only carbon dioxide, water, and sunlight. Nothing from the soil is used up in burning alcohol in cars. All the protein, fat, and soil minerals are still in the spent byproduct of the alcohol process.
I set up four flats with potting mix, and i put ten rows of weed seeds in each one. The seeds were for the ten worst weeds reported in cornfields. I reasoned that if anything would be resistant to the herbicidal effect of corn. it would be weeds growing in cornfields. I added nothing to the control flat, sprinkled whole organic corn meal (OCM) over the second flat, sprinkled CGM over the third, and sprinkled DDGS over the fourth. (I included OCM in the experiment to make sure that any herbicidal effect was not from the residue of the chemical herbicides; organic corn is never treated with chemicals. Later testing of the DDGS showed that it, too, contained zero residual biocides.)
So did DDGS act like an herbicide? Yes, it did. In fact, all three materials had significant herbicidal effects, but the DDGS results were the most pronounced. About half the weeds were killed, and the rest were stunted. Stunting was enough, though, since the corn grew right up and buried the puny weeds in darkness, where they withered up.
I did another trial at the same time to see if herbicidal qualities would inhibit the germination of corn. I seeded four flats with corn instead of weeds, and then treated them with nothing, OCM, CGM, and DDGS. The various additives delayed germination one day.
The granules of OCM, CGM, or DDGS were attacked by bacterial and fibrous fungal mycelia right away, which grew into the grains from the soil. The bacterial frequently formed water-holding gels, which adhered to both the grains and the soil particles. The filamentous fungi knitted the grains to soil particles in mats of webbing. This prevented soil erosion and seed washout by falling drops of water. It also created a breathable "seal" on the surface of the soil, limiting evaporation.
Next, there was an explosion of soil microlife eating the pioneering fungi, bacterial gels, and the DDGS. Within weeks, the mycelia, the bacterial gels, and the granules of DDGS disappeared. The fermented, ground seed in the form of DDGS had allowed things that like to eat germinating or broken seed coats to go through a powerful population explosion in the soil. These microbes really savaged the roots of sprouting weed seeds. Once this fungus and microbe explosion happens, it takes many weeks before any other seed trying to germinate in the bed has a chance to grow. Corn, however, was immune to the effect. The herbicidal control effect was biological, not chemical.
So how does this translate into a revolution in farming and an end to Monsanto's formula of selling patented seed and herbicides to match, and still dramatically cut production costs?
According to USDA records, the median corn yield in the very average state of Nebraska was almost 160 bushels per acre. I had the DDGS in my experiment analyzed for its composition of soil nutrients, and then calculated how much DDGS would come from 160 bushels, and what would be the soil nutrient value of that amount of DDGS. It was then a simple matter of comparing these figures to what the USDA says it takes to grow the 160 bushels of corn in that average field.
I found that there was enough fertilizer value in the DDGS "left over" from growing 160 bushels of corn to raise more than the next 160 bushels, since there was actually 10% more nitrogen and an even greater surplus of other critical nutrients, such as phosphorus, potassium, iron, and sulfur, than was required to grow the next corn crop. Everything that came out of the soil to make that corn was still there in the DDGS. So, from the soil's point of view, it was like returning last year's crop nutrients for use by this year's crop.
I found that this ratio of increased percentages of certain nutrients with repeated DDGS applications to corn held true even at yields of more than 200 bushels per acre. So, over a period of years, 160-bushel land would be producing 200 bushels. Plus, the soil organic matter would rise year after year after year. Combined with the soil-protecting effects of DDGS, the higher organic matter would mean more retained nutreints, increasing humus levels.
It would also mean relative drought-proofing of the crop, due to the mycelial sealing-in of moisture in the early phases of crop growth, and the sponge like water-retention effect of organic matter.
What I had literally discovered in the experiment with DDGS was organic, drought-proofing, "weed and feed."
Now, how would this affect a farmer's bottom line and even free him from corporate dependence? Using very general numbers, you'll find that a corn farmer historically grosses something like $250 per acre on his crop. For that acre, he spends more than $50 on toxic Roundup herbicide and Roundup Ready genetically modified herbicide-resistant seed. He spends about $80-$100 on fertilizer per acre and a smaller amount on insecticides. With all his expenses totaled, a farmer will generally net, in a decent year, about $50 on an acre of corn.
But if the farmer produces alcohol instead of selling his grain to agribusiness--and takes the DDGS that results from his grain-growing, and applies it to his field during soil prep and planting--his costs to produce that acre of corn will drop from 150 to about $50, tripling the net profit.
And remember, the farmer is now making alcohol from his grain, instead of selling it cheap for animal feed. If the farmer sells his alcohol to a community-supported energy alcohol distribution station, he can bring in, after deducting the cost of making the alcohol, $1.50 per gallon, or $588 per acre, instead of getting $250 selling corn for animal feed
The net profit from his crop would be over $500 instead of $50. He wouldn't have to borrow money for fertilizer or GMO seed (since he could now save his own), and he would have, of course no herbicide costs. This could be big news in Farm Country. Instead of corn being a soil-draining crop in rotation, it could be soil-building. Never again would a single year's crop failure bankrupt a farm.
Once a farmer starts to farm with DDGS, even if he only does it every other year or one in every three years while rotating through other energy crops, he is within an inch of being organic--which is better for the environment, his family's health, and his bottom line. The Oilygarchy--which sells more than one billion pounds of insecticides per year, as much as four billion pounds of herbicides per year, and an ungodly amount of highly energy-intensive nitrogen fertilizer, made from natural gas--would be deprived of a high-value market for its products. Monsanto would have no one to sell its proprietary GMO seed or chemicals to. Now, this would really be a farmer's revolution.
So here is my contribution to the revolution. I was granted a patent in 2007 on the process to use DDGS as a combination fertilizer and herbicide. Now an agribusiness corporation cannot patent it and then prevent others from using it. I am going to handle use of my patent in a completely different manner than a large agribusiness corporation would. A program will be set up to let individual farmers and small collectives with small capacity license this patent for a nominal fee, perhaps only requiring registration (details are still being worked out as of the publication date of this book.)
I ask the following three things of these small volume users of my patent: 1)that they not use chemical herbicides and not use genetically modified seeds; 2) that they learn how to breed and save their seed from season to season; over time, you will end up with a variety tailored to your climate and soil (write me if you need help with this); and 3) in lieu of the patent royalty, donate what you think is fair to the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture so that I can keep doing this kind of work. Make sure that you take care of your family and workers first. I trust my fellow small farmers to do right by me if their profit increases. So take that, Monsanto
Alcohol fuel production can result in more concentrated corporate farming of monocrops processed in giant plants, or it can save the family farm and provide farmers with markets for a wide variety of crops. The preferable route to a sustainable agriculture system looks to me like farmers cooperatively producing fuel and multiple co-products in small plants, using a wide range of feedstocks, from roots to grains to cellulose.
That sort of mosaic would go a long way toward eliminating the pest and soil problems that monoculture has created, as well as eliminating the use of toxic chemicals and fertilizers in an attempt to mitigate those problems. Such diversity would make for a more resilient farm economy with less chance of failure that the high-risk gambling involved in growing only corn and soybeans. Ideally, a sustainable agricultural system would be three-dimensional, harvesting three times as much sunlight as biomass. It would have mixed canopies of trees, and ground crops whose environmental needs closely match the local climate and solar income.
As you will see in Chapter 11, farms can become producers of many value-added human foods and products, rather than just the suppliers of low cost raw materials to corporations. alcohol fuel production sets us on the road to a permanently productive and fossil-fuel-free agriculture.

pp. 25-29, 46-50 Alcohol can be a Gas! by David Blume (2007)

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