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Biofuel Update: They Still Suck

I feel like I have said what needs to be said on biofuels.  Subsidizing and mandating biofuels with current technologies is terrible fiscal policy, bad environmental policy, ridiculous energy policy, and, perhaps most important, disastrous for the world's poor.

In case you missed all these arguments, Q&O has a pretty comprehensive post here.

Posted on April 4, 2008 at 07:39 AM | Permalink


All I ever hear people criticize it using food crops as bio-fuel inputs. What about algae to bio-diesel or switchgrass or other bio-waste to ethanol?

Posted by: Steve | Apr 4, 2008 8:53:30 AM

Using switchgrass insead of corn for ethanol would have the same effect as the corn would have.

The arguement against corn ethnol is that less land would be used for food production--that is farmers would use farmland to produce ethanol corn. It would be the same if switchgrass--farmers would divert food producing land to switchgrass.

Posted by: dave smith | Apr 4, 2008 8:58:23 AM

All arguments about rising food prices, the very limited potential etc are quite good!

One very good argument, I think mentioned as a key argument by Michael Grunwald in the Time Magazine article "The Clean Energy Scam", is that alternative use and energy plants on the soil now used to grow ethanol plants is much more efficient for CO2 reduction. This is an argument which possibly no global warming alarmist can refuse.

In Sweden politicians refuse to listen to arguments and thinks that biofuel is one solution. We have a company, SEKAB, which profit from subsidized ethanol and now is going to build several ethanol plants in starving and drought strucken Tanzania as well as in Momcambique. Year 2011 the first plants will be ready. The CEO at SEKAB say these African countries will be totally fossile free tahnks to their ethanol and also export billions of gallons of ethanol. That's impossible and the project is so cynical! Btw the CEO I think also is a (leftist) environmentalist.

I wrote a Swedish post, including "the SEKAB swindle", yesterday:


Posted by: Magnus Andersson | Apr 4, 2008 11:23:55 AM


For reasons probably too complex to go into here, if biofuels actually resulted in a net reduced demand for petro-fuels (itself a dubious proposition), it would result in a net increase in the cost of -- among other things -- transportation, having the same kind impact on food prices. All that would vary would be value of the delta. The only way to improve the fuel situation without imposing crippling costs on the economy would be to replace ALL uses of petro fuels with a cheaper alternative. Which. Does. Not. Exist.

AND... the reasons for wanting the switch are mostly specious anyway.


Posted by: Mark Alger | Apr 4, 2008 11:24:36 AM

So here's an observation and a question. I noticed many gas stations (my local Walmart, for example) now have stickers on their pumps that say, "Contains up to 10% alcohol." My question is, does using this mix, which used to be called gasohol when I was a younger man, result in lower gas mileage? Doesn't it take about a gallon and a half of alcohol to equal the energy in a gallon of gas? If so, I need to find gas stations that DON'T mix alcohol in, or I'm actually spending MORE for LESS, aren't I?

Posted by: Jim | Apr 4, 2008 1:24:01 PM


Oh, it gets worse.

Not all of the mixes are a straight ethanol-gasoline mix.

In an engine with a catalytic converter, any of the various "pollution-reducing" mixes mandated by the laughably named environmental protection agencies (read: rackets) of the states and federal government cause the release of more pollutants (CO2, unburned hydrocarbons, etc) into the air. They also cause more damage to aquifers when spilled, diminish fuel efficiency, cost more to produce, cost more to use (even WITH subsidies), and divert resources from food production to fuel production.

At one time these regulations were challenged in court and a judge made something like the above summation and posed it as a question to a regulator from some EPA or other and got a sheepish answer in the affirmative. Why the whole regime wasn't tossed out at that point beggars belief.


Posted by: Mark Alger | Apr 4, 2008 1:41:39 PM

The result of a 90%/10% mixture of gasoline/ethanol is supposed to help control emissions and is required in certain areas of the United States. The result of a 10% ethanol blend is negligible on gas mileage, but this increases as more ethanol is introduced. Use of E85 for instance will result in approximately 30 - 35% less mileage than gasoline. However ethanol is very high octane (100+) and would require higher compression engines to make use of it more efficiently. I hate to use wikipedia as a source, but the write up there is pretty good:


Posted by: Mike | Apr 4, 2008 1:51:22 PM

Ethanol has substantially less energy per gallon. I think adding 10% ethanol allows the gasoline blenders to reduce the amount of other octane-improving additives, so the net effect on energy content and mileage is negligible, and in most engines the ethanol will burn cleaner than the additives it replaces. That may depend on how well the engine computer recognizes the type of fuel and fine tunes the engine for it.

Two other issues with 10% ethanol: Ethanol-gasoline mixes are a very aggressive solvent. Automakers had to reformulate the materials used in the fuel and intake systems, so the mix didn't just eat through seals, fuel filters, and maybe even the tubing, but that's now a problem only with very old cars. Secondly, ethanol dissolves in water as well as in gasoline; a 10% mix will do a very good job of clearing any condensation out of your tank and fuel lines (which is good), but sometimes the ethanol+water will separate from the gasoline, leaving the gas deficient in octane...

E85 is a whole different story. That's running your car on ethanol, with just a little gasoline added so you get enough vaporization that your car might start cold. The lower energy content means lower mileage. An engine built specifically for E85 (using higher compression to take advantage of ethanol's natural high octane rating) would be more efficient, so the mileage loss wouldn't be as great, but it would still be lower mileage. And higher compression engines cost more.

Posted by: markm | Apr 5, 2008 3:21:03 AM

Biofuels can make sense when they are using waste material: diesel from used frying oil, or cellulose to ethanol processes starting with wood waste, yard clippings, etc. - but only when the conversion processes are clean and economical. I don't think cellulose to ethanol is yet worked out to the point that it produces price-competitive fuel even when the cost of feedstock is slightly negative (i.e., they'll pay you to haul it away).

Biodiesel is clearly price-competitive with free feedstock, but the amount of used frying oil, etc., available is very limited compared to the amount of petroleum used as motor fuel. Natural fats and oils will crystallize and clog up injectors even near room temperature, so they have to be cracked into smaller molecules. That process requires caustic chemicals and precise measurements, with the possibility of errors producing fuel that eats the engine. It also requires methanol or ethanol as an input (in amounts of about 20% or 30% of the oil), and produces glycerine as a byproduct. There are several uses for glycerine (soap, hand lotion, etc.) but nothing matching what will be produced if we process all the waste vegetable oil. I suppose it's possible to burn glycerine for heat if the burner is redesigned?

Posted by: markm | Apr 5, 2008 3:36:32 AM

mike and markm: You miss the whole picture.

I assume you pretend to reduce CO2 emissions (I don't think there is any good reasnon to do so, but that's me...).

Then, why don't you look at the whole picture? You technicakl details about the engine is completely irrelevant compared with a study on the net effect on CO2 emissions.

If one skip the ethanol production and instead use the land to grow energy crop burned in combined heat and power plants, then one may reduce CO2 a lot more then the best reduction from ethanol. This is a calculation anyone can do.

In reality growing from ethanol is what have caused the increased reduction of the rain forests in Brazil and elsewhere. I'm sick of stupid environmentalists (a majority of the population?) denying this extremely clear thing which anyone who check price changes on land and has the slightest knowledge on how incentive works can confirm. But you don't even has to check that. Anyone should have known before the ethanol subsidies was introduced that this would happen. But even the president and European political leaders ar completely stupid.

The only sane advice now is to abolish all biofuel subsidies. To do so will be the best thing any environmentalist can do to reduce CO2 emissions, and my advice to any "CO2-little-chicken" is to buy a cra with a diesel engine. These diesel engines are today at least as clean as cars with gasoline engines ("dirty diesel" is also a common myth, especially among ...environmentalists). Diesel reduces oil consumption (and CO2) with 20 percent. (Remember ethanol probably increase CO2 emissions.)

Posted by: Magnus Andersson | Apr 5, 2008 4:08:46 AM

mike and markm. I forgot one last argument (maybe not necessary, but I think important):

Due to research we can't expect biofuel -- the biofuel which very well may increase the CO2 emission -- to exceed more than about 5 percent of the total energy consumption in transportation. (5 percent biofuel in the transportation system will use 20 percent of the fields.) This energy consumption is about 1/5 of the total fossile energy. Thus only 1 or 2 percent of the total fossile energy is "replaced" (or mayby not replaced!).

The research of the maximum amount of biofuel is a study published in Nature. See this article:


Posted by: Magnus Andersson | Apr 5, 2008 4:25:01 AM


I wasn't debating the myth about biofuels. I agree with pretty much everything you have to say. I was simply pointing out to Jim in his post above about some of the "reasons" why ethanol was introduced into the fuel supply. Markm was correct however in what he said about ethanol's effect on older automobile fuel systems. In fact, my father wouldn't buy ethanol gasoline for years because of it. I was merely stating that it would take vehicles with a helluva lot higher compression ratios to make "better" use of any E85 fuel. You are most definitely correct in your statement about diesel engines. They are definitely "greener" (hate that word, actually) then even hybrid vehicles. In fact, I believe it was Extremetech.com that had an article a couple of weeks ago about diesel vs. hybrid. Quite interesting...

Being from Nebraska, I am right in the middle (bad puns aside) of the ethanol/biofuel debate. There are several plants being planned for construction here in-state. In fact there was an article in the Omaha World-Herald today about an economics professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln stating that "Ethanol is getting a bad rap." He stated according to his research, that ethanol accounts for maybe a 2 - 3% increase in food prices, but shouldn't be blamed overall for the rising costs of food.

And I appreciate your replies Magnus. It was individuals like yourself that attracted me to this site and the others associated with it in the first place.

Posted by: Mike | Apr 5, 2008 4:15:27 PM

I thought you might apreciate this link, not so much for what it is in fact SAYING about global warming, but where it is being said.


hmm... in preview, it doesnt make it a link.... cut and paste?

Posted by: John III | Apr 6, 2008 2:44:31 PM

Begin the Begin. Lets get started! Consumer Power can be organized and directed at specific products for the benefit of the group. Same as Organized Union power is directed at employers to achieve their desires. The first two fuel suppliers for our “do not purchase from” list will be EXXON and BP. Exxon includes Mobil, Esso and Exxon/Mobil. BP includes Amoco, AMPM, Arco and Castrol. The start date is a day we feel the pain most, April 15th. Remember, once on the “no purchase” list we agree not to purchase any fuel from these stations until they reduce the price to $1.50 per gallon. First, the email. Even if you do not currently purchase any of these products, you need to send an email. No Director of any corporation is going to ignore a couple hundred thousand emails saying “good bye”! If they do, they will become a believer on April 15th. First Exxon, go to www.exxonmobil.com. Click on “Contact Us” in the Heading and follow the directions given. Title your email “Fair Fuel Price”. Then BP. Go to www.bpconsum@bp.com. Click on “Reach BP in your country” and select the United States. Select “contact us in the United States” and then select “General Questions and Comments. My email is as follows: “Gentlemen, I believe your current fuel prices to the American Consumer are beyond fair and hurt the economic well being of our Country. Beginning April 15th, unless you immediately reduce the fuel pump price to $1.50 per gallon and agree to hold that price for one year, I will not support any of your outlets.” O.K.! Lets get started. Even if you currently don’t use either of these products we need you to send an email. If some of these stations are friends of yours, go ahead, fill up on April 14th and give them a copy of your email. That will help get some attention. On April 15th start using Costco, Flying J, Maverick, whatever, just not any of the above. If we continue to be ignored, then on April 22nd we will select two more companies and send more emails. These executives are not stupid. They will respond, maybe not immediately to the base we are demanding, but they will respond. And we will continue our demand! While I believe it will be all over within six weeks, you must prepare and discipline yourself to honor the commitment. Those lower immediate prices will be very tempting, but remember our goal! Now send this out to everyone in your address file. Please do it even if you are not sure about joining, some of your friends might feel otherwise. On the 10th I will be sending out all three communications once again just as a reminder for action. As my friend in the cold country would say, “just get er done”. PLEASE SENT THIS TO ALL IN YOUR ADDRESS BOOK

Posted by: Michael Shaw | Apr 12, 2008 9:06:02 PM

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