January 25, 2007
Stanford Expert Sees Rush To Ethanol As Premature

George W. Bush wants to scale up ethanol production in order to reduce gasoline use by 20% in a decade. I continue to think this is a bad idea. David Victor at Stanford University tells MIT's Technology Review that a big scaling up of ethanol production is premature without cellulosic technology.

TR: One of the technologies the president emphasized is converting wood chips and grasses, known as cellulosic feedstocks, into ethanol. Could that make his goals achievable?

DV: You have to be careful because a very large part of our biofuels policy is not about energy at all. It's really about the heartland and farm politics because the current corn-based biofuels don't really save us that much energy. Cellulosic biomass [which is potentially much more efficient] is still really some distance off in the future. If we try to meet these aggressive targets very quickly, what we're going to end up with is a much, much larger version of the current, already inefficient, corn-based ethanol program.

TR: Documents released by the White House said that the vast majority of the 20 percent reduction in gasoline use in the next decade should come from using more biofuels such as ethanol. Is this a good strategy?

DV: In my view, this is a dangerous goal because the other technologies [such as cellulosic ethanol] are not available, [and] it really demands that we dramatically scale up our corn-based ethanol program. And I think that has serious ecological problems because of the large amount of land that they're going to have to put under cultivation. [There are] big economic problems because [making ethanol from corn] certainly isn't competitive with other ways of making biofuels, such as from sugar.

Note when he says that biofuels made from sugar are more competitive he's almost certainly referring to cane sugar from Brazil, not beet sugar from US farm fields. Currently the United States has restrictions in cane sugar imports in order to protect the domestic farmers who produce cane or beets for sugar. The Brazilians can grow cane sugar at lower cost and can therefore make ethanol for a lower cost.

The US government also effectively blocks Brazilian ethanol import. So neither Brazilian cane sugar or ethanol made from sugar cane can be imported at a competitive price. But there's an ecological advantage in blocking US import of Brazilian ethanol: This reduces agricultural demand for Brazilian rain forests.

I'd like to repeat what is surely a familiar refrain for long time FuturePundit readers: We'd be better off accelerating battery, nuclear, and photovoltaics technologies. They'll eventually provide cheaper energy than ethanol. Plus, they'll use a much smaller land footprint and produce less pollution than ethanol produced from agriculture.

My fear about cellulosic technology: It will make biomass ethanol so cheap that humanity will put large swathes of the world under cultivation to make ethanol. Continued world economic growth is going to increase demand for transportation fuel by double, triple, and even more eventually. If we make biomass energy cheap then say good bye to the natural state of ever larger chunks of land.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2007 January 25 11:16 PM  Energy Policy

Charlie Bess said at January 26, 2007 8:11 AM:

I understand your concern about land use, but what I didn't find clear in this perspective was the viable alternative?
It is easy to poke at something that hurts, but difficult to cure it.
The biomass approach needs to be combined with wind, water, nuclear... as well as programs that clean up existing large energy production techniques (e.g., coal). Of course conservation techniques can not be underestimated either. Some of these techniques will be basic research funding, while others will require tax incentives for individual as well as corporate investment.
Diversity of investment (as well as perspective) will have as much to do with our success as any specific program. It may seem to dilute the funds, but if we knew the one right way we'd just do it.

Gregory said at January 26, 2007 8:14 AM:

There's a way to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% much faster and much cheaper than Bush proposes. Just tax gasoline at a rate that would make a person think twice before buying a large car or truck, and also make them think about shortening their commute. And stop the diesel prohibition. And use the gasoline tax proceeds for energy research (and, maybe, subsidies).
It will cost the society actually LESS than all those biofuels programs. In the long run, it may even be profitable for the US, because fewer cars on the road (due to less commuters) mean less money for road maintenance, smaller cars are usually cheaper to buy and maintain, and reducing the oil consumption would cause the oil prices to drop, thus compensating the consumer for the tax they have to pay.

hamerhokie said at January 26, 2007 10:45 AM:

The way out of this is to phase out the inefficient ICE and go electric. With all the new battery technology, in short order we'll be able to field practical plug in hybrids that allow all local driving to be accomplished without gas. Plus there will be a new crop of practical all electric commuter vehicles.

Sumyung Guy said at January 26, 2007 12:00 PM:

"George W. Bush wants to scale up ethanol production in order to reduce gasoline use by 20% in a decade."
Of course he does, it should make Iowa corn farmers quite happy and they tend to vote Republican.

"I continue to think this is a bad idea."
You, Engineer-Poet, and anybody else who knows anything about it: which means NOT the current Administration.

"David Victor at Stanford University tells MIT's Technology Review that a big scaling up of ethanol production is premature without cellulosic technology."
Again, a no-brainer. We can't grow enough corn to make all this stuff, we use more oil growing the dang corn than we'll get out in mpg anyway, never mind the ecological problems you pointed out.

Now, if George Bush REALLY wanted to reduce gasoline use by 20% in a decade, it's not that hard. Conservation is the fastest way to do it, and once rising gas prices again bite the folks (and I personally know several)who are driving trucks and SUV's that average 18 MPG city, the conservation will start to happen. Heck, if the quarterly results of Ford vs. Toyota are any indication, it's happening NOW.

Of course, it would be nice if we'd invest heavily in the national electrical grid, battery research, and PHEV's and EV's. I'd much prefer that we be able to give the big middle finger to Mid-East oil completely.

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2007 5:41 PM:

Charles Bess,

I do not repeat the details of my energy policy recommendations in every single post I do on energy. I've previously argued many times that:

1) We should increase photovoltaics research by an order of magnitude or more.

2) We should increase battery research by an order of magnitude or more.

3) We should accelerate research into next gen nuclear reactors.

4) Wind energy has a lower ecological footprint than biomass.

5) Geothermal holds great promise according to a new MIT report.


I'd like to see modest fossil fuels energy taxes used to fund energy research.

morpheus said at January 26, 2007 7:23 PM:

ethannol is some dead end roud

all we need is nuke plants, and acclerate fusion research,

and electric cars

Hank said at January 26, 2007 8:01 PM:

I think that mandating ethanol use AND subsidizing corn prices AND subsidizing ethanol is not going to lead to competitive advancements in the viability of the stuff - it will just make it too expensive for Mexican people to eat tacos. I am not even kidding. If we took the $8-11 billion that this stuff is costing us and dumped it into real technology we would be a lot better off.

P.S. I think this is a terrific column. We have a community science site at www.scientificblogging.com and you can create an account there and copy and paste some of your articles into it and expand your audience there as well.

Peter said at January 26, 2007 8:50 PM:

Higher taxes on gas are the way to go. Keep all those people on the bus and living in the city. Constrain all human activity with an ever growing complex web of rules. Tax and Tax again, until that wasteful disposable income is no more. People are such a pain, got to keep them down.

I get so tired of hearing about how people need to be controlled and hearded. The automobile is a great enhancer of personal freedom. Why not find a way to get off fossil fuels and keep our personal autos? I detect a hint of old time puritanism in many of the comments encouraging higher taxes and more restrictions on how we live. Don't we have enough rules and taxes already?

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2007 9:11 PM:


My main beef with the global warming doomsters is that they want to try to end our dependence on fossil fuels in the most painful way possible: very high taxes.

I way we can develop clean energy technologies without hundreds of billions of dollars per year in carbon taxes. Why not go the path of huge research efforts? We could do wonders with $10 billion a year in research funding spread out across several energy technologies.

The research path will clean up the environment and lower costs. We can develop more efficient energy usage technologies and cheaper ways to produce energy. So we will be able to pay less for energy and need less energy too. That means much higher living standards. We should go for it.

K said at January 26, 2007 10:35 PM:

Randall: I agree with much you advocate. But I don't think impeding ethanol imports will affect the Brazilian rain forest clearings. As long as investors can profit from the clearings they will continue. And there is no sign the profits won't continue. Japanese companies are now heavily investing in ethanol production in both Brazil and SE Asia.

Only government can decide how to handle the clearings/ecology matters.

What restricting our ethanol imports does is subsidize a bad domestic program which produces ethanol less efficiently. And it keeps ethanol less expensive overseas which reduces the ability of US industries to compete.

Batteries seem to be doing fine at the current rate of research. If you really want to boost electric cars development then exempt owners from license, sales, and personal property taxes for the first decade - states can do that in a minute.

I certainly wish there was more emphasis and subsidy for solar. And nuclear just needs sensible regulation (lordy, what doesn't) and gutsy advocates to answer the voodoo-hoodoos that stop it.

Peter said at January 27, 2007 11:39 AM:

I don't have any problem with your approch. It is based on a positive, non punitive vision of where we can improve things, without moralizing about the evils of Amercian (and increasingly global) middle class lifestyles. Anyone with an understanding of human history knows that the vast majority of people have lived miserable, short lives up until very recently. Free enterprise combined with scientific advancement have at long last lifted a great number of people out of a life of sqalor. I think many of th Global warming missionaries don't appreciate what a great achievment this is, and how fragile. Lets focus on the positive and move forward.

Doug said at January 27, 2007 4:46 PM:

I'd like to take issue mildly with our framing the issue as "expert versus Bush" and mention that it can also be framed as "specialist versus generalist" or as "technician versus architect." If critics are experts, then it seems critics will always be right, whereas it seems really to be the case that advantageous courses of action tend to emerge from cooperation among specialists and generalists.

There's also the consideration that when intelligent people make what seem to be obvious mistakes, one should look for unstated reasons. If one finds one's country dependent on oligopolists and religious zealots for a vital resource, it seems advantageous to think of a way to make those oligopolists and zealots more dependent on your own oligopoly. If one's country is faced with a growing demographic disparity between itself and its allies, on the one hand, and their joint opponents, on the other, then it seems advantageous to think of politic ways to redress the demographic disparity. If this is the sort of broad thinking in which "expertd" do not engage, then so much the worse for "expertise."

TTT said at January 27, 2007 7:17 PM:

I think Bush's ethanol plan is a good one. Note that he has talked about Switchgrass in the SOTU speech last year, so he has taken that into account in setting his 2017 goal (which includes a cellulostic assumption).

Battery cars will not happen before 2020. Between 2010 and 2020, Ethanol is the interim solution.

Randall Parker said at January 27, 2007 8:10 PM:


I oppose ethanol whether it is from the US or Brazil. But if we import from Brazil we'll cause the destruction of more rain forests. Our demand will be on top of Japanese and European demand. They'll scale up production even faster we we buy too.

But to import or not to import is less important than whether we go the biomass route at all.

Why do you think the current rate of battery research is fine? As long as we do not have batteries that can displace a substantial portion of all gasoline usage we need more battery research.


Why not accelerate the development of battery technology so that we can shift to battery technology sooner?

I think the US government should offer large cash prizes for achieving various milestones toward the development of better batteries, fuel cells, hydrogen storage mechanisms, higher efficiency photovoltaics, and other future useful energy technologies.

TTT said at January 27, 2007 9:20 PM:

"Why not accelerate the development of battery technology so that we can shift to battery technology sooner?"

The assumption here is that it could, in fact, be accelerated.

"I think the US government should offer large cash prizes for achieving various milestones toward the development of better batteries, fuel cells, hydrogen storage mechanisms, higher efficiency photovoltaics, and other future useful energy technologies."

I think there already is an Electric Vehicle X-Prize.

The closest thing there is today, with the most promising future, is the Tesla Roadster with Lithium-Ion batteries.

K said at January 28, 2007 11:34 AM:

Randall (and TTT): My position was just stated by TTT. I don't think throwing more money at batteries will now speed basic research much. I grant that as a non-specialist I have to just read. But the reading says there are hundreds of concerted efforts to develop better batteries in the US alone. And a lot of that is done at our national laboratories and at top universities. Improvements are constant and costs keep falling.

Overseas the picture is somewhat the same. Japan is perhaps the top research nation other than the US. Their research seems to be more at the industrial level but their industry gets things done - bought a TV or automobile lately? Korea, Samsung in particular, is not standing still. Added to this are steady improvements in lighter vehicle materials and electric drives trains. More recapture of power from braking is near; into super capacitors and batteries that recharge faster.

I see it this way. Batteries are good enough. They are not cheap enough. And the today's use of Lithium is probably not scalable for over a decade; it won't be used in ten or twenty years as it is now. So I am for market pull to get these cars on the road. Also consider what hybrids have done so far w/o lithium batteries.

As for other alternatives to current fossil. I don't think much of H2 or ethanol because the distribution and storage problems seem formidable - economically and technically. Neither biofuel, coal to liquid, or the various natural gas schemes do all that much about greenhouse gases and some are ruinous to the environment. That leaves wind and water - classic hydro is out of big sites but wind generation grows at what, 20%. Nuclear is imperative. And we might try conservation and personal discipline too.

Solar generation peaks in the afternoon and so does electrical demand - established and relatively simple technology - I fail to see why we don't subsidize it more even while it improves.

Randall Parker said at January 28, 2007 12:30 PM:


As I've already reported, the federal government funds little battery research. I reported a number from the NY Times of $25 million per year. That's chump change for research funding. The US government spends about $125 billion per year in R&D when military R&D is included.

Batteries are not good enough. They weigh too much. Yes, they cost too much too.

Hybrids haven't done much so far. They represent just 1% of new cars sold in the United States and are sold mostly because their sale has been subsidized by tax credits.

Better batteries will enable solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, and other electric energy sources to all compete with oil to power vehicles.

Engineer-Poet said at January 28, 2007 8:38 PM:

I'm going to disagree with Randall here:  the time for heavy public battery research was 1975-2005.  Because of the vacuum in public research, the private sector eventually came up with NiMH and a bunch of Li-ion chemistries (the original was from a national lab, IIRC), a couple carbon-backed lead-acid variants and even an ultracap based on barium titanate.  The essential technologies we have now are almost certainly enough to supply the vehicle industry.

What we need now is production.  Because it's not quite economical right now, this is going to involve Randall's most hated governmental intervention, subsidies.  But a modest level of subsidy will get a major battery market to leap from laptops and cellphones to vehicular traction.  The amounts of money at stake are potentially enormous, on the order of total US spending on gasoline.  We need to get that money flow shifting from oil companies (and oil producers) to battery companies, electric utilities and the makers of wind and PV generators.

Once the EV/high-performance PHEV market is going at the rate of hundreds of thousands of vehicles per year (about where hybrids are now, but they're all using the dead-end NiMH tech) the money available to manufacturers to improve their own products will guarantee it will happen.  This sort of thing requires dollar volume, or else the manufacturers can't justify the expense.  It's exactly the reason we have the wind power production tax credit; it costs the taxpayer a bit, but it creates enough market volume that the experience curve (20% cost reduction for every cumulative doubling of production) can start doing its magic.

Twenty years ago, wind turbines were on the order of 50 kW and wind power cost about 30¢/kWh.  Today, wind turbines are leaving the 1.5 MW size heading upward, and wind power costs around 5-7¢/kWh.  Because wind is now much cheaper than natural gas-fired plants, utilities are installing wind as fast as they can.  At the 10 MW size which may be the optimum, wind will be competitive with many other energy source, perhaps including base-load coal without carbon taxes.  I am extremely glad that the PTC is making this happen now, rather than 10-20 years from now.

And for the record, I'm in favor of heavy carbon taxes.  Not because they'd be a drain on the economy; any tax is a drain on the economy, and we are going to have taxes regardless.  I'm in favor of heavy carbon taxes because they are a neat and economically efficient way of getting the economy to pluck every bit of low-hanging fruit that we've been ignoring since the oil price shocks of the 1970's, and they would also drive some of our nascent technologies (e.g. direct-carbon fuel cells) out of the science labs and into our economy just as fast as the dollar signs can flash in the eyes of someone like Stanford Ovshinsky.

Randall Parker said at January 28, 2007 8:55 PM:


But we already have subsidies for battery production for vehicles. There are tax credits on hybrids. Or least there have been for several years running. Not sure if they were renewed this year. And, yes, we have production,

Since we have demand for higher energy density in laptop batteries we also have demand for better batteries due to a large non-vehicle industry. I do not see the opportunity to subsidize a leap in production that you speak of. The computer industry is already high volume and already wants lower prices.

Mybrids and lithium: Johnson Controls and other companies are already investing to make that happen. I am coming across predictions of lithium batteries in hybrid cars in 2, 3, 4 years.

We are going to get better batteries even without subsidies for production or for research. But I'm thinking a bigger step beyond lithium ion batteries to whatever can be done with nanotubes, thin films, and other approaches.

Engineer-Poet said at January 29, 2007 6:57 AM:

Hybrid tax credits don't give any extras for larger PHEV packs.  Nor is there (yet) a mechanism for PHEV and EV owners to get paid for providing regulation, reactive power and other services to the grid.  Those would offset the cost with actual services of value.

The volume question is huge.  A hundred million laptops a year with 75 watt-hours of battery capacity each is 7.5 GWh of battery sales.  Five million PHEV's (less than 1/3 of US light vehicle sales) with 16 kWh of batteries each is 80 GWh of battery sales.  The traction-battery market can easily be ten times the size of the electronic devices battery market, and that's (a) with only a partial switchover to PHEV's, and (b) few or no pure EV's.  But the traction market has its own requirements, such as much larger cell and pack size and thermal management.  This is the sort of thing which requires production experience to shake out.

Nanotubes and such may lead to great batteries, but I think that establishing the market at the big end is more important.  Profit-driven research is much more likely to spend a billion dollars on a new cellphone battery if it can grow into a 200 GWh/year seller rather than a 10 GWh/year seller.

dave tweed said at January 29, 2007 7:23 PM:

Just a comment about "environmental missionaries" who you seem to think have a problem with people having fun. I know a lot of people who are way too extreme about what to do about climate issues. However, there are a lot of environmental people who think discouraging throwaway behaviour (eg, stag-party trips of x thousand miles for 2 days, designing cities so you get into your car to get the paper in the morning, etc) by constructing tax schemes discouraging it who think this is an important strategy because it's the only thing we definitely know will work. In contrast, whilst I have enormous faith in human ingenuity to produce "something which is amazing", I'm less certain that we can be guaranteed to crack specific problems. For examples of areas where we've put in lots of work and having cracked the problems: we don't have a quantum theory of gravity, we don't have any off-world settlements, we don't have general purpose machine intelligence, we don't have geopolitico/economic solution to third world hunger/aids/etc, etc, etc. What I'm saying is that whilst large numbers of really clever people who've worked on these problems have produced amazing things, they haven't solved the "headline" problem that everyone agrees is well worth solving. Consequently, I wouldn't want to have my bet being that the _only_ thing we need to do is work hard on new technologies and we can easily keep the same energy consumption. (I'm sure wind/battery/etc research would produce something interesting, just that I don't think it's guaranteed they'd produce technologies that would match today's energy requirements.)

FWIW, I do buy things I want and travel - I'm not guilty about having pleasure. But I ask myself if I'm _really_ going to use something or whether it's a 9 minute wonder that'll languish in the attic unused, and whether a car trip is really necessary or whether I could avoid it with better planning. The problem is without reasonably strong economic incentives most people seem to buy/travel/etc on the slightest of impulses without thinking about it, and don't actually experience much pleasure from doing so beyond the act of purchasing things/trips/etc.

Those are my traitorous european views anyway :-)

K said at January 30, 2007 10:29 AM:

Dave: Nothing wrong with not falling for the well honed techniques of marketing. Many, many in the US ignore them - or try to, for the techniques of persuasion are very strong. What do we see? We see an endless parade of similar movies and movies with the same self-adoring people, the mandate that all clothing styles must change within weeks, that fifty percent of local and network news concerns what happens on TV shows or to the people who act in them, and that a remodeled kitchen or bath is success in life.

On the other hand I bought a 22" LCD monitor yesterday and would have bought the 24" if my desk/den arrangement was slightly different. And the fact that I didn't send that money to a charity doesn't bother me at all (more on that later).

Two fundamental errors impede progress with some of man's ills. The first is that if the rich were poorer others would be richer. And I speak of rich as health, wealth, and general happiness. Yet every objective measure shows mankind is better off now than at any time in recorded history. And that is despite the huge growth in population during recorded history. So our problems have not been caused by limited resources and will not be soon.

The second error is believing we cause our own problems willfully and the solution is in proper social organization - which today usually means some variation of socialism because it is the only 'ism' promising total equality and fairness in every instance. (Constitutional government such as we have in the US only promises equality in law.)

This belief in the proper social organization stands or falls on the nature of man as an animal. And we don't understand our nature - psychology and medicine keep probing but perhaps men are not designed to cooperate enough unless disenters are drugged or subdued by newer techniques such as gene therapy.

Religion is perhaps the earliest way to solve our problems through social organization. And for many, and in many lands, it is still the dominant 'ism'.

So when I don't send that LCD money to charity and don't care I can't say exactly why. At other times I do send various amounts and perform acts that some would deem more decent, yet by someone's standard nothing could be enough.

Don't be concerned that man hasn't figured out quantum gravity either. Even when we have a theory that seems to explain it perfectly we still won't know if it does or only seems to.

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