January 21, 2013
Biofuels Seen As Inferior To Solar Panels For Car Power

After taking a few year break from bashing biofuels as mostly bad ideas (at least barring a genetically engineered breakthrough) it is time to bash them some more. We do not have enough land to grow corn for corn ethanol and doing this with government mandates and subsidies raises the cost of food.

In 2005, President George W. Bush and American corn farmers saw corn ethanol as a promising fossil fuel substitute that would reduce both American dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gas emissions. Accordingly, the 2005 energy bill mandated that 4 billion gallons of renewable fuel be added to the gasoline supply in 2006. That rose to 4.7 billion gallons in 2007 and 7.5 billion in 2012.

Since then, life cycle assessments (LCAs) have shown that corn ethanol has modest if any effect on reducing CO2 emissions and may actually increase them, while posing a threat to natural habitats and food supplies, as food stocks are turned to fuel and marginal lands are put under the plough to keep up with demand. In 2010, fuel ethanol consumed 40 percent of U.S. corn production, and 2012 prices are at record highs. Since the U.S. also accounts for 40 percent of the world's corn, U.S. ethanol production has affected corn prices around the planet.

It is bad enough that the planet is overpopulated, we are overfishing the oceans, depleting natural resources, depleting aquifers, causing soil depleting and destroying habitats at a fast rate. Lots of species are going to go extinct as the human population's further growth pushes it into most of the remaining wild areas. This all strikes me as bad. But on top of that biofuels accelerate the shift of even more marginal lands into agricultural production for meager benefits.

Solar panels to charge battery electric vehicles are a far more efficient use of land area for transportation.

The results, which appear in a paper titled "Spatially Explicit Life Cycle Assessment of Sun-to-Wheels Transportation Pathways in the U.S." and published in the Dec. 26 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, showed photovoltaics (PV) to be much more efficient than biomass at turning sunlight into energy to fuel a car.

"PV is orders of magnitude more efficient than biofuels pathways in terms of land use – 30, 50, even 200 times more efficient – depending on the specific crop and local conditions," says Geyer. "You get the same amount of energy using much less land, and PV doesn't require farm land."

Of course we need better batteries that cost less and ditto lower cost PV. Both those will come in time. They'll come faster if biofuel tax-paid subsidies are ended.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2013 January 21 09:09 PM 


Comments
Wolf-Dog said at January 21, 2013 10:40 PM:


Electricity is always superior to even real gasoline, but the problem is that when the cost of batteries is taken into account by adding cost of the battery divided by the number of years the battery is expected to last, to the annual cost of electricity, then suddenly the cost of operating an electric car goes up significantly.

Right now many universities are working around the clock to improve the batteries and make them cheaper, but at the rate at which money is allocated to this research, probably another decade will be needed until batteries are competitive with oil.

Regardless of how cheap electricity is, the barrier is the cost of batteries.


Again, this website lists the latest news about battery research:

http://www.greencarcongress.com/batteries/index.html

In retrospect, since 2001, if the government had invested in purely academic battery research, ONLY 10 % of the cost of the wars in the Middle East, I am sure batteries would have already become competitive, but probably the oil interests did not like this idea.

David Yerle said at January 22, 2013 4:14 AM:

There has been so much negative press about biofuels it seems hard to believe anyone's still making them. What are we waiting for?

Engineer-Poet said at January 22, 2013 9:48 AM:

We're still making them because governments are paying for it.  What gets rewarded gets done.

Battery tax credits offset that, but cutting the user's cost still leaves all the options priced at less than their real cost, leading to over-consumption.  We should be shifting taxes from income to petroleum and get rid of the subsidies.

The problem with costly batteries and inefficient photosynthesis is the general problem of energy storage.  There's been some work lately on artificial photosynthesis producing fructose (I think), which is in principle convertible to DMF.  DMF is storable, though I have heard of people with furan allergies so it might not be a good thing to have around.

Peter said at January 22, 2013 9:51 AM:

A Government battery would be efficient and low cost? No. The best way to get low cost batteries is to have real companies actually build them. Look at large screen televisions. I just purchased a samsung 65 inch for 800 bucks. 10 years ago this would have been 8000 at least. It was a series of small manufacturing gains from real world experience that created this, not a "research breakthrough".

philw1776 said at January 22, 2013 5:44 PM:

Why do posters assume that investing in battery tech will make them competitive? We do not know if the laws of physics allow cheap electrical storage via electrochemical means embodied in real world devices? VC firms have invested billions chasing these ideas, q.v. A123 et. al.

Engineer-Poet said at January 22, 2013 6:08 PM:

We know that the current cost of a cell is many multiples of the cost of its materials, and the trend is for that multiplier to decrease with time as experience leads to improved methods.

dscott said at January 23, 2013 10:37 AM:

Given that the EPA has decided on it's own merits that ethanol is the way to go, any idea of stopping them from mandating the 15% level is probably going to be futile. The point of ethanol from the very beginning was a political decision not environmental. This is why the EPA will always find a rationale for keeping and increasing ethanol no matter how damaging the decision is to the environment, to the poor of the world or the budget. The EPA does what its head wants and Obama appoints his mouth piece. There are too many people with financial interests who would lose money if the EPA didn't mandate ethanol, leaving the long suffering taxpayer to continue holding the bag. Read Federalist Paper 62 by James Madison if you think this is just a recent phenom.

One can only hope a more cost effective, sustainable and therefore viable method of propelling transportation will be invented. Up until and still now, that's the internal combustion engine, despite the theory, electric driven vehicles are NOT sustainable since electricity has to be made using conventional energy sources. To add insult to injury, batteries to store that energy are grossly inefficient wasting a significant portion of the energy stored IF not used quickly. Take any battery, charge it, let it sit for a month then measure what's left. So let's be honest about electrics. IF the conversion rate from conventional energy to electricity is 85%, the transmission and distribution losses are 50% (according to EIA) and then a miraculous 98% driving an electric motor, you still end up with .85 x .5 x .98 = .416 or 41.6% system wide efficiency on any plug-in hybrid or full electric like the Tesla.

Let us also be honest about alternative means of creating electricity, their costs are higher and until the day they are cost effective they will not be viable. Context of the problem here is that as inefficient as it is to transport electricity, the cost of doing so even with their huge losses is still way cheaper than locally producing solar or wind, never you mind storing that energy for use later. Just because something is powered by electricity doesn't make it automatically more efficient, on the contrary electricity is highly inefficient. It is an energy carrier medium NOT an energy source like natural gas or oil or light.

Meanwhile there are other alternatives that deserve a serious look like hydraulic hybrids and pneumatic hybrids. As always, one should focus on what is practically obtainable and not waste time and energy on the ethereal where the hucksters and charlatans wait to fleece the naive with cleverly spun dreams.

philw1776 said at January 23, 2013 1:03 PM:

"We know that the current cost of a cell is many multiples of the cost of its materials, and the trend is for that multiplier to decrease with time as experience leads to improved methods."

Possibly. I call this statement The Engineer Fallacy.
Often cited in rocket design to LEO where the proponent correctly cites that the fuel cost to LEO is a tiny fraction of the launch cost so that low cost under $100/LB is just a matter of engineering. It does not necessarily follow.

Parker Bohn said at January 23, 2013 3:24 PM:

I've not studied this in detail, but it seems to me that there are several positive aspects to US biofuels that are seldom mentioned.

1) They are a renewable resource. This has significant economic value, which is why wind and solar are used at all, despite the cost.
2) Some of the cost of biofuels goes into developing infrastructure in the US.
3) Some of the cost of biofuels goes into supporting American workers.

Engineer-Poet said at January 23, 2013 7:43 PM:
The point of ethanol from the very beginning was a political decision not environmental.
To be fair, EPA takes its marching orders from Congress.  Congress has set a "renewable" fuels mandate of X many billion gallons per year, and has not seen fit to cap this at 10% of gasoline consumption.  The EPA administrators have to know that the mandate is actually a farm-price support program, but have to go along with the charade.
IF the conversion rate from conventional energy to electricity is 85%, the transmission and distribution losses are 50% (according to EIA) and then a miraculous 98% driving an electric motor, you still end up with .85 x .5 x .98 = .416 or 41.6% system wide efficiency on any plug-in hybrid or full electric like the Tesla.
Transmission and distribution losses in the USA are about 7%; claims of 50% are probably from third-world countries and don't include electricity delivered to loads but not paid for (stolen).

A realistic appraisal of electric vehicle efficiency in a particular case would be 60% gas-to-power (CCGT), 93% transmission, 95% charger, 90% battery, 95% controller, 95% motor for 43% overall.  A pure ICE would be hard-put to average 30% tank-to-wheels, and there are considerable losses in refining and such.

The virtue of the Otto/Diesel engine is that it's relatively small, reasonably cheap and uses an extremely dense energy supply.  You can fix issues such as emissions with enough add-ons, but the unfixable liability is that the energy supply comes from relatively few sources which are expensive and politically troublesome.  The virtue of electricity is that it is practically a universal currency of energy; everything from natural gas to solar to fission can be converted to electricity, and from there it doesn't matter where it came from.

Engineer-Poet said at January 23, 2013 7:55 PM:
Often cited in rocket design to LEO where the proponent correctly cites that the fuel cost to LEO is a tiny fraction of the launch cost so that low cost under $100/LB is just a matter of engineering.
If you mis-quote the engineer by leaving off the qualifying phrase "if the rest of the rocket can be re-used...", you're as bad as the clowns who quote the phrase "too cheap to meter" as if it was a promise.

The engineer will tell you that throwing away an expensive rocket along with the cheap fuel will remain expensive.  Re-using rockets and making rockets cheap enough to throw away are two options, neither of them acknowledged by the sort of people who throw around phrases like "the fuel cost to LEO is a tiny fraction of the launch cost" without qualifiers.

Getting back to batteries, there are enormous profits to be made from breakthroughs in electrodes and new chemistries and opening mass-markets in the tens and hundreds of kWh per consumer versus the handful of Wh in personal electronics.  We're going there, no doubt about it.

Randall Parker said at January 23, 2013 8:27 PM:

philw1776,

Enough scientists and companies seem convinced that battery costs can go down substantially that I figure it is reasonable to expect this is possible. I'm uncertain. I really want the battery costs to drop because there is so much at stake as oil production costs rise with depleting fields. We need an alternative.

dscott said at January 24, 2013 6:55 AM:

Transmission and distribution losses in the USA are about 7%; claims of 50% are probably from third-world countries and don't include electricity delivered to loads but not paid for (stolen). False

EIA states 50% losses via their chart of ALL US electric production. page 39 of the EIA's Annual Energy Review as of 2011 http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/annual/pdf/aer.pdf Electricity is thee worst carrier medium of energy. Electricity is a convenience so let us not confuse that with efficiency.

There is no being fair with the EPA, they have the discretion to change the ethanol percentage on their own via a finding. Furthermore, IF they had the ethics of science they would report to Congress of the scientific findings and advise them this is a dead end. In todays budget crisis there is no excuse for wasting billions a year of tax dollars on a dead end gimmick via a dubious farm support program. The politics of this is a feel good measure to show someone spun their wheels to show they did something but really doesn't do what was promised. At some point people have to become cynical enough, i.e. not childish naves, to realize actions must have desired results not pretense.

Let's just nip this in the bud: Bjorn Lomborg: Climate-Change Misdirection
Fear-mongering exaggeration about effects of global warming distracts us from finding affordable and effective energy alternatives.
http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323485704578258172660564886.html?mod=rss_opinion_main

...As long as green energy is more expensive than fossil fuels, growing consumer markets like those in China and India will continue to use them, despite what well-meaning but broke Westerners try to do.

Instead of pouring money into subsidies and direct production support of existing, inefficient green energy, President Obama should focus on dramatically ramping up investments into the research and development of green energy. Put another way, it is the difference between supporting an inexpensive researcher who will discover more efficient, future solar panels—and supporting a Solyndra at great expense to produce lots of inefficient, present-technology solar panels.

When innovation eventually makes green energy cheaper, everyone will implement it, including the Chinese. Such a policy would likely do 500 times more good per dollar invested than current subsidy schemes. But first let's drop the fear-mongering exaggeration—and then focus on innovation.

And that's from a person who believes in Global Warming...

btw- citing oil and gas will eventually running out as a reason to switch now to green tech is a false reason because before that happens the price of oil and gas will go so high as to make even the present inefficient green tech cost effective. We use certain things because they are cost effective for their time until something else replaces it, that is the organic method of change versus the false and ill considered change of legal mandates.

Engineer-Poet said at January 24, 2013 8:44 AM:
EIA states 50% losses via their chart of ALL US electric production.
You need to read your own reference; page 39 is a table of cooling degree-days by month.  Page 239 has the net energy flow for the electric sector.  Of the generation not consumed on site (14.01 quads) after 0.19 quads of other stuff is removed, 12.99 quads makes it to end users.  This is 92.7% efficiency.
In todays budget crisis there is no excuse for wasting billions a year of tax dollars on a dead end gimmick via a dubious farm support program.
There's no direct budget impact because there is no longer a subsidy; the money goes straight from drivers to the blenders and on to the distillers and growers.  Consumers pay again at the grocery store, of course.
citing oil and gas will eventually running out as a reason to switch now to green tech is a false reason because before that happens the price of oil and gas will go so high as to make even the present inefficient green tech cost effective.
People starving because they can't afford nitrogen fertilizer is a "market-based" response to high energy prices.
philw1776 said at January 24, 2013 9:54 AM:

I would love to see a sticky here where the faith based engineering soon to be realized impressive increased battery capacities and costs could be posted for review circa 2020

dscott said at January 24, 2013 9:59 AM:

You need to read your own reference; page 39 is a table of cooling degree-days by month. tisk, tisk, you need to look at page 39 of the document, i.e. not the PDF page numbering but the document itself, you know the lower right hand corner of the page...

People starving because they can't afford nitrogen fertilizer is a "market-based" response to high energy prices.

$20 trillion shale oil find surrounding Coober Pedy 'can fuel Australia'
Chief Business Reporter Cameron England The Advertiser January 24, 2013 12:30AM
http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/trillion-shale-oil-find-surrounding-coober-pedy-can-fuel-australia/story-e6freuy9-1226560401043

Do you ever get tired of being wrong? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-U_IRXhodds

Engineer-Poet said at January 24, 2013 1:59 PM:
tisk, tisk, you need to look at page 39 of the document, i.e. not the PDF page numbering but the document itself, you know the lower right hand corner of the page...
That would be page 59 of the PDF, which is 4 graphs of energy consumption estimates by end-use sector through 2011.  The electrical energy flow graphic (Figure 8.0) is on PDF page 239, document page 219.

It's very amusing that you have twice failed to read your own reference document correctly... or attempted to lie about what it says.

$20 trillion shale oil find surrounding Coober Pedy 'can fuel Australia'
Isn't that nice.  What do the impovershed masses of Africa and Bangladesh do?  Even Egypt, once the breadbasket of the Mediterranian, has been unable to feed itself for decades.
Do you ever get tired of being wrong?
Do you ever get tired of projecting your faults onto others?  You remind me of a poster on another site, who does exactly the same thing.

Da55id said at January 25, 2013 1:17 PM:

Randall - Have you seen this? Seems quite compelling to me.

www.v3solar.com

http://v3solar.com/technology/technical-review-by-bill-rever/

Phillep Harding said at January 25, 2013 1:54 PM:

Batteries? Ever play poker? Right now we have a pair of deuces. How much do you want to raise before the draw?

Originally, biofuel was pushed as a way to get energy out of veg waste. People who said the farmers were going to switch from food to biofuel crops were wrong, never happen, no way, etc.

Well... Guess what?

Engineer-Poet said at January 26, 2013 7:00 PM:

One of the big virtues of PV panels is they have no moving parts.  Rotating cones of PV cells, especially under heavy concentration?  I see trouble.

Randall Parker said at January 26, 2013 11:28 PM:

Da55id,

This sentence fragment jumped out at me:

V3 Solar is currently at the stage of trying to reduce the concept to a working prototype...

No prototype yet. They might make something useful. Then again, maybe not.

Ron Solarevolution Swenson said at February 4, 2013 11:14 AM:

Batteries are necessary to overcome the egregious engineering mismatch between electric vehicles and their sources of supply, whether coal at night or solar during the day (while the cars would supposedly be in use). What a waste!

Eliminating batteries is possible with Automated Transportation Networks, whereby electricity is obtained from direct solar energy during the day and then transferred immediately to vehicles running on a fixed guideway. Not surprisingly most traffic occurs during daylight, so this engineering matches "supply and demand" much more efficiently than possible with EVs.

In Sweden (at 60 degrees north latitude no less) there is such a solar powered transportation system under development. Similar projects are being developed in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. A prize for universities to develop Solar Skyways has been offered by the non-profit International Institute of Sustainable Transportation.

Nick G said at February 26, 2013 9:58 AM:

As best I can tell, the vehicle with the cheapest lifecycle cost is the Prius C, which is a partial electric vehicle.

Is anyone aware of a mainstream vehicle with a lower lifecycle cost?

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