Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Scare In Your Tank

CNNMoney attempts to write about the hidden cost of putting ethanol in one’s gas tank in this article.

Almost seems Malthusian, food or fuel, doesn’t it?

Lets look at one statement that seems shocking when first read.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that world grain consumption will increase by 20 million tons this year, roughly one percent. Of that, 14 million tons will be used to fuel cars in the U.S., leaving only six million tons to cover the world's growing food needs.

Pretty scary sounding it seems. 14 million out of 20 million tons going to ethanol. The horror! 20 million tons is 787,365,000 bushels of corn. Source for calculations. In 2004, Iowa alone produced 1.2 billion bushels for ethanol and another 1 billion bushels for startches, sweetners, and dry milling. http://www.iowacorn.org/forms/cornuse04.pdf So there is a lot left out of the above paragraph to mislead the reader.

There must be a boom in ethanol plant construction in Iowa since the author writes:

In some U.S. Cornbelt states, ethanol distilleries are taking over the corn supply. In Iowa, 25 ethanol plants are operating, four are under construction, and another 26 are planned.

I would like to know his sources since there are only 17 plants in operation and a further 20 under construction or planned according to this source.

Suddenly I am less and less enthused by this writer’s premise. But lets look further into the article shall we?

The equivalent of the three percent of U.S. automotive fuel supplies coming from ethanol could be achieved several times over -- and at a fraction of the cost -- by raising auto fuel-efficiency standards by 20 percent.

Did not find in three pages of Google seraching any exacts hits for ‘cost of raising fuel efficiency by 20%’ except over 15 years it would add about $1000 to the cost of a vehicle and probably reduce overall safety of the vehicle. But I did find these lecture notes from Ohio State on automobiles, pollution, safety, and cost to operate. Lecture notes. Now we are facing gasoline costs per gallon about double what is shown in the lecture, but what I find interesting is how large a chunk taxes are in Europe for every gallon. Then skip a little further down and we see in Kagan’s lecture notes it would cost $1billion in retooling costs for every mile/gallon increase in fuel efficiency. Huh.

Now we get to electric cars will solve the problem meme.

By investing not in hundreds of wind farms, as we now are, but rather in thousands of them to feed cheap electricity into the grid, the U.S. could have cars running primarily on wind energy, and at the gasoline equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

That is rude if true, plugging the electric car with lead-acid batteries into the house current could increase the monthly electric bill by 55%, wonder if that is in the tight California market? This is also an older document but gives somewhere to start from. Then there is David Friedman’s blogging about the cost effectiveness of electric vehicles to chew on.

Now lets look at the other part of this paragraph, windmills. Here is a good one stop source on modern windmills; that is reassuring, the cost of wind power can be seven to nine cents a Kilowatt hour. But usually the biggest problem with windmill emplacement is the location. Shoreline is prefferred because of the constant shore breeze. But this raises conflict with humans who do not want their beach views destroyed by all these efficient windmills. A case in point is Sen. Ted Kennedy trying to block such a project on Nantuckett Sound. This is called the Not In My Backyard[NIMB] mentality. And it is a shame Sen. Kennedy puts more value on a pretty view than reducing national dependence on foreign oil.

So overall I think the author has been creative in his writing and not completely convincing in his arguments. But expect the mantra of the 14 million tons being sucked up by SUVs instead of feeding the poor to scoot around the media spin cycle.


Tom Gray said...

[T]hat is reassuring, the cost of wind power can be seven to nine cents a Kilowatt hour.

We quote a range of 5.5-9.5 cents/kWh (without including the federal production tax credit). (The credit gives companies a tax break of 1.9 cents per kilowatt-hour for the electricity a wind project generates during the first 10 years of its operation.)

But usually the biggest problem with windmill emplacement is the location. Shoreline is prefferred because of the constant shore breeze. But this raises conflict with humans who do not want their beach views destroyed by all these efficient windmills.

Actually, the preferred location is onshore, somewhere in the "windy triangle" that extends from Minnesota to north Texas to Colorado and Wyoming. It contains roughly 1 million square miles (about 1/3 of the total U.S.). Many wind farms are being built there. The problem is building transmission lines to ship the electricity to where it can be sold, in large coastal cities. That is why wind companies are looking at sites in the mountains of the eastern U.S. or, in a few cases, offshore.

The U.S. wind resource is very large--enough to equal the country's entire electricity use several times over. If the tax credit--which expires at the end of 2007--is extended for several years, we will see much greater use of this clean energy resource.

Thomas O. Gray
American Wind Energy Association

imdougandirule said...

Everybody wants it their way, don't they? NIMB is a very common attitude all over the country (probably the whole world as well). Out here in California, modern wind mills are out in the desert, especially around Palm Springs, and up in the mountains, such as those east of San Francisco. These are actually very windy areas year round, and the electricity generated from the wind mills powers a fair portion of Los Angeles and San Francisco.
We have a Coastal Commission (I assume exists in most states adjacent to an ocean), that prohibits building anything over 30'-0" above grade within so many feet of the ocean - usually a mile or less.

Being from Massachusetts originally, I know that Nantucket is a very wealthy and conservative part of the state (Believe it or not, there are conservatives in the Commonwealth of Mass), and also quite beautiful. Even if Ted Kennedy was for placing the wind mills there, the people who live in Nantucket are undoubtedly against it, and they have the money and political clout to stop it.

As an architect, I actually find these electricity producing systems to be quite beautiful. Great post, Anna. I appreciate the posting of sources to effectively back up your argument.

p.s. congrats on your first bloggiversary!

B0Z said...

nice post enjoyed the logic...

Anna said...

Tom, thanks for the corrections. Something I enjoy is learning new stuff.

And Boz you are welcome. :)

Tom Gray said...

My pleasure. I enjoyed your scrutiny of the ethanol issue too.

I mentioned the production tax credit for wind. Readers can help support this and other pro-wind laws here.