free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 286. COAL AND THE EROEI OF CORN ETHANOL

Saturday, April 15, 2006


The EROEI of corn (maize) ethanol is one of the "hot button" issues of peak oil, and a source of endless debate. On one side, you've got the partisans of David Pimental who say corn ethanol has an EROEI less than 1, and thus takes more energy to make than it actually contains. On the other side, you've got folks citing a variety studies showing Pimental to be in error.

This debate crops up again and again, and in fact, we had a little outbreak in the comments of this blog the other day.

The topic is boring in the extreme, and guaranteed to give you a migraine headache, so let's save ourselves a lot of time and misery by short-circuiting the entire fruitless argument.

My thesis: The poor EROEI of corn ethanol doesn't matter if you use a cheap, non-liquid form of energy (like coal) to do the distilling and synthesize the fertilizer etc. If you proceed that way, then ethanol can be regarded as a form of "coal liquefaction", and the low EROEI doesn't matter. The question is whether coal liquefaction via ethanol is more cost effective than coal liquefaction via other routes.

It turns out that this is exactly where the future of corn ethanol is going -- a fact I learned from Robert Rapier. Robert is a chemical engineer working in the oil industry, and has an outstanding new blog (R-SQUARED) which I will be adding to the POD sidebar. He is definitely the source to turn to for the best information on biofuels. In a great post on the future of grain ethanol, he describes a number of work-arounds for low EROEI and covers the coal strategy:
The final option is one that most environmentalists probably will not embrace. However, it is the one most likely to take place in the short-term. The natural gas input into ethanol production is a serious long-term threat to economic viability. Since natural gas is a fossil fuel, and supplies are diminishing, it will put upward pressure on the price of ethanol over time. However, if the energy inputs could be produced from coal, ethanol prices would be insulated from escalating natural gas prices. This might also end the EROI debate. I have heard the argument go something like this. "If I have 1 BTU of coal, who cares if I only get back 0.8 BTUs of ethanol? I converted the BTUs into a readily usable liquid form." This argument may be valid from both an economic and EROI point of view, but it ignores the fact that coal is still an inherently dirty energy source. If coal remains abundant and cheap, coal economics will beat natural gas economics, but coal will increase the rate at which we put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we come up with a viable method of sequestering the carbon dioxide produced at the power plant, then we might finally have a viable economic solution (although we are still using up a non-sustainable fuel in the process).Source
Robert also happened to find this article from the Christian Science Monitor which describes how coal-based ethanol is catching on in Iowa. From the article:
Late last year in Goldfield, Iowa, a refinery began pumping out a stream of ethanol, which supporters call the clean, renewable fuel of the future.

There's just one twist: The plant is burning 300 tons of coal a day to turn corn into ethanol - the first US plant of its kind to use coal instead of cleaner natural gas.

An hour south of Goldfield, another coal-fired ethanol plant is under construction in Nevada, Iowa. At least three other such refineries are being built in Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.Source
Cleaner options in the same vein include using nuclear or solar process heat.
-- by JD


At Saturday, April 15, 2006 at 11:54:00 AM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

How do you produce industrial scale harvests?

1. Machines using petroluem.
2. Using fertilizer produced from natural gas.
3. Distributed using trucks run on petroleum.

All the coal in the world won't make a shred of difference. With a low EROEI, all bets of are off from ethanol.

This is not a deus ex machina. Sorry.

Buena suerte,

PS. It's funny to note that the long "feedback" my posts received ended with a sound victory for "reality."

I was asked, what DO I advocate? Well, for starters:

1. Making food systems sustainable using permaculture. (DOABLE)

2. Localizing food systems, so we don't get most of our food from CA, Mexico, and South America. (DOABLE)

3. Rebuilding our heavy and light rail systems (DOABLE).

4. NOT engaging in resource wars in the Middle East and elsewhere.
(Mmmmmm.... not doable right now)

5. Constructing communities in which essential services are within walking and bicycle distance, and if not by public transport.

All of these solutions, combined with a focus on renewable energy sources represent a great start.

By the way, ethanol is not really that sustainable precisely because of its strong dependence on mechanized argriculture, fertilizer, and the resultant soil depletion.

At Saturday, April 15, 2006 at 12:04:00 PM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

PPS: Not caring that EROEI is below 1 is insane. It's like saying: Well, I'm going to invest $1000, because I'm going to earm $800! Sweet deal, right? Hardly, but that's just what government subsidized argribusiness in the Midwest want to to believe.

Buena suerte,

At Saturday, April 15, 2006 at 3:37:00 PM PDT, Blogger JD said...

You're more than welcome to express your opinions here. You are not welcome to spam the comments with your link.

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 7:52:00 AM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

It is clear that many (not all)people get very angry when faced with FACTS and EVIDENCE that shatter their basic beliefs. The same happened to me when I caught my parents putting presents under the tree.

Well, here are some responses.

1. Freak, you and I basically are in complete agreement about the need to explore alternative fuels and sustainable lifestyles. However, there IS a good chance that without fossil fuels, food production will not be able to sustain 6.5 billion people. When Cuba lost its Soviet petroleum subsidy in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuban agriculture fell into rapid disarray. Caloric intake plummeted and malnutrition was common. The only thing that saved the Cuban people was organic permaculture and other sustainability measures.
Dieoff IS a possibility, but I agree with you that amid much suffering and chaos, there can emerge a solution-- albeit one that involves a drastic change in our own lifestyle. Nor will it be easy.

2. Hi Roland. I don't own a car. Calling me an idiot just shows how limited your thinking is.

3. Does the existance of another blog threaten people? Apparently so. So much for diversity of ideas, right? Okay, JD, I won't post it. Roland, mabye you find the black color of my blog scary is because you yourself are scared that I might be right. Finally as to why I created my own blog, I'll answer in a way that an inmature mind can understand: "'cause I wanted to."

4. Roland said:

Two things:
1. That's irrelevant if the ethanol still has a postivie EROEI because the processing energy comes from coal.
2. That's irrelevant if you can power the machinery on ethanol. Once you have started the process it can be self-sustaining.

#1 has no logic at all because why would you invest $2 so you can make $1? Why would you use energy to drive 20 miles to create energy to drive 10 miles?

#2 Ethanol is not self sustaining because, you can't create fertilizer from ethanol, but from natural gas. And any crop on that large a scale needs heeps of fertilizer. Sorry.

5. Allen, I admit that I'm being judgemental. Please don't confuse that with arrogance. Again, sorry to be so judgemental, but investing 2 units of energy to get 1 unit back is absolutely CRAZY. As for being an amateur psyciatrist, those are your words, not mine! Here are some other responses to your comments!

A. I never said that switching to permaculture would be easy. You're putting words in my mouth out of frustration with the validity of my arguments. On the contrary, switching to permaculture in today's economy, today's society, and today's environomental values WILL BE HARD. By the way, as we have seen with Cuba in the 1990s, switching to permaculture won't be a choice, it will be a necessity.

2. Oranges in December? I don't know. Mabye, but that requires a lot of energy to move it. Will we have that much energy? I don't know. Was that a contructive comment, or just one meant to insult? Mmmm-- the latter!

3. Again, rebuilding heavy and light rail will be HARD, not EASY. When the F did I every say the coming years will be easy??????

4. You said "Wonderful advice but in case you missed it, no nation except Japan has been interested in acquiring resources by war since World War One."
Uhhhh, so if we're in Iraq for humanitarian reasons, why aren't be in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, the Congo, and Burma? Don't tell me: we're there because the terrorists hate our freedom?
PLEASE!!! It's about the oil. Not stealing it, but to keep our access to it. Are we really debating this THREE years after the invasion?

5. You said: "Harry Potter's wand is getting quite a workout and, I notice that there doesn't seem to be much time to consult with the people who are supposed to live in your Patrick Davidvilles. By the way, how are emergencies supposed to be handled? I just don't see the fire department waiting for a trolley no matter how energy efficient and cute it is."

I believe I've already answered all of these comments. See above!!

Wow! Thanks for all the comments!
I think we've ALL learned a little something today!

Buena suerte,

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 8:30:00 AM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

Hey DC, you said

"In short, get your head out of your ass Patrick and do some real research before you throw around your unearned sense of superior knowledge and privelege."

Hey, thanks for the intelligent words: Here's a little rebuttal:

1. Do you think land reserved for soil conservation is reserved for a REASON??? Or do you advocate using every free acre of arable land for food and ethanol production. That is today unsustainable. We are ALREADY detroying massive amounts of soil each year.

2. You're link does not function. This one does:

Petroleum provides many, many, many times the amount of energy that is required to produce it, almost by two orders of magnitude.

3. Of course ethanol will not replace all our energy needs. Still, it won't even make a dent.

4. You're immature comments are honestly very sad, because 1. you are misinformed and 2. because you show little tolorance for diverging points of view.

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 9:18:00 AM PDT, Blogger Joe said...

sorry PD wrong again - you said
"#2 Ethanol is not self sustaining because, you can't create fertilizer from ethanol, but from natural gas. And any crop on that large a scale needs heeps of fertilizer. Sorry."

As with most of your other "FACTS" this is wrong as well. You might want to do a little more research. For instance the International Fertilizer Industry Association has this:

"The entire fertilizer industry uses less than 2% of world energy consumption, and this is overwhelmingly concentrated in the production of ammonia. The ammonia industry used about 5% of natural gas consumption in the mid-1990s.

About 97% of nitrogen fertilizers are derived from synthetically produced ammonia, the remainder being by-product ammonium sulphate from the caprolactam process and small quantities of natural nitrates, especially from Chile. The production of anhydrous ammonia is based on reacting nitrogen with hydrogen under high temperatures and pressures. The source of nitrogen is the air, the hydrogen being derived from a variety of raw materials, including water, crude oil, coal and natural gas hydrocarbons. The hydrocarbons provide the energy for the energy-intensive process. The high-temperature catalytic synthesis of ammonia from air is by far the main consumer of energy in the fertilizer industry. Nitrogen and hydrogen are universally available and the issue is the availability of energy.

For economic and environmental reasons, today natural gas is the feedstock of choice. The use of natural gas is accelerating rapidly, because of economic factors but also and increasingly due to environmental pressures, which work against other fossil fuels. Natural gas is expected to account for about one third of global energy use in 2020, compared with only one fifth in the mid-1990s. However, processes for ammonia production can use a wide range of energy sources. Thus, even when oil and gas supplies eventually dwindle, very large reserves of coal are likely to remain. Coal reserves are sufficient for well over 200 years at current production levels, and their location is geographically diverse. 60% of China's nitrogen fertilizer production is currently based on coal."

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 9:27:00 AM PDT, Blogger GermanDom said...

Hi P.D.,
have you ever heard of a bull in a china shop?

If you like being the object of ineffective argumentation, keep up the good work!

BTW, would most of us agree that peak oil is *primarily* a liquid fuels crisis (challenge) and only secondarily an energy crisis? Although peak natural gas will certainly compound the energy crisis part of it...

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 3:11:00 PM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

Okay, well here we go:

1. Joe: your link doesn't work.
Also, you said: "The hydrocarbons provide the energy for the energy-intensive process." So you admit that hydrocarbons are necessary. My case in point.
Also: "hydrogen is universally available and the issue is the availability of energy. "
Where? Where is isolated hydrogren universally available on Earth? Planning a trip to the sun?

Also: Coal? How is coal mined? Shovels? Donkeys? Not only is coal's quality rapidly declining, but it's use it totally dependant on fossil fuels for mining. Why are so many precious metals stocks stagnating, even when gold is $600/oz? Hegding is one reason, but HIGH PRODUCTION COSTS is another.

Dom: you said:
"have you ever heard of a bull in a china shop? If you like being the object of ineffective argumentation, keep up the good work!"
Thanks for you support in my efforts to help intelligent people see the errors in their arguments!


I think a wonderful source of evidence is a website run by a group of concerned petroleum geologists:

Also, this is my last attempt at making you see logic:

You have 1 liter of oxygen left in space and I say: "Hey, I have a process that will let you produce more oxygen. It only takes 1 liter to make 1/2 a liter." Of course this is crazy, insane, and ridiculous. You can insult me all you like (which is what you've been doing), but that FACT remains that EROEI MATTERS!

You said: "But hard work requires a pretty damned good reason and so far all you've done is deal with those reasons as if they're so obviously correct that they don't require debate or examination. They do."

Uh, Allen, I've been referencing my comments all along. But if you insist:

Yes, the Cuba experience is a great reason why we should BEGIN the LONG process of converting to permaculture. No economy, capitalist or communist would be able to withstand the shock of fossil fuel shortages. Can you set aside your tirades against Castro for a few seconds? Cuba DID lose a large percentage of its fossil fuel imports in the early 1990s. Cuba DID switch to organic food production successfully.

You seem to like to portray me as an angry person with a dictatorial personality. This is YOUR portrayal. Again, this is not going to be a CHOICE, its going to be a matter of survival. Ug!

Also you said "If you've got some reason to place your desire to impose energy poverty on the human race, please, let's hear it."

I'm impressed that you assign me so much power over humanity. Rather, I am an observer. And what I OBSERVE is production beginning to exceed supply and major changes will soon be FORCED on us . Yes US, because sadly I share this land with people like you-- this means that while I'm concentrating on real solutions, you'll still be touting the tech-fix that doesn't exist. It's really so sad, because I really in fact hope that YOU'RE right. But I don't think that will be the case.

Also Allen, if you want to name the catastophe, you can call it:
"I Should Have Listened" or "Why Didn't I Take Some Steps to Improve my Personal Energy Situation"?

You said "So, will the fire department have to wait for a trolley or not? If not, how will they get to the fire? Bicycle?"

I don't know. Why don't you google it? Thanks for bringing up firefighting because that truly represents the KEY to this entire THREAD!!

Hey DC:

You said "Stover" refers to the plant parts remaining in the field after harvesting corn. The corn stover ethanol byproduct has three times the concentration of nitrogen as the original cornstalks. ...Applying this byproduct to the land may partially offset the risks associated with harvesting crop biomass for conversion to biofuel. "

The key word is partially. This isn't a doom fetish. Just a reality fetish.
Also considering how wrong the USGS and Dept. of Ag. has been on peak oil and biomass so far, excuse me that I don't quite give their numbers much weight.

Your quote hardly confirms that my concerns about soil erosion are moot. You've made SOME points, but hardly ones that relieve all my concerns.

Beside, when did I EVER say that ethanol will NEVER contribute to a solution? I'm just saying that it will be a drop in the bucket and if it IS more than a drop in the bucket, the fact that it is a net energy LOSER makes it little more than a bandaid.

Finally DC, I've been reading and researching peak oil for years, including Pimentel's paper and the rebuttals. If you're going to rely in the US government for statistics, then may God protect you and yours after 2010.

PS. You're link STILL doesn't work.

I am SO, SO glad that this debate is occurring. I am so, so glad that people are hearing the reality and not just hoping for some sort of Star Trek tech-utopia. Scotty would definitely be a peak oil realist.

Buena suerte

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 5:50:00 PM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

1. Roland: YOU believe that black signifies doom. I honestly think white letters on black look cool. Talk about projecting your own feelings onto me!! I'm NOT all gloom and doom-- Jesus Christ!

2. Roland: YOU are the one calling me a prophet! Sheessh! When did I ever say that I am the only one observing here?

3. Roland: massive coal mining machines are run on gasoline, not coal.

4. Roland: I am PARTICIPATING in this discussion forum. I am NOT antagonizing. I AM, however, stating my points, backing them up, and conversing with others who agree and disagree with me. Perhaps you are threatened by my points of view? Perhaps you are questing your own ideas? Is that the source of your anger and frustration? Also, my comments seem to have sparked meaningful conversation. Isn't that what a blog is about? Gee whiz!!

5. Roland: of course ethanol's negative / poor EROEI matters! The entire point of my posts has been that ethanol will NOT allow us to "keep on truckin'" just like we are now. Nor is coal a viable long term alternative. Using coal to power ethanol production works but generates a poor return on the energy invested and is an environmental disaster! Americans might use more and more ethanol in the future, but its not a long term fix. The REAL fix is to create communities and economic networks the de-emphasize trucks and automobiles. (And, yes, this is vastly easier said than done.)

6. Roland, yes okay, you can make fertilizer using a variety of energy sources, but NONE are even close to as efficient as natural gas.

7. Byofuels: This indeed has been a moronic thread! It's moronic to have to repeat over and over that the Earth is round!!

Buena suerte a todos!

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 7:01:00 PM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

Hi Roland:

1. Please provide proof that gasoline is a net energy loser.

2. I'd be very interested in seeing a list of the "dozens" of blogs that use black on white. I like the scheme. Sorry you don't.

3. Using coal to power ethanol production would make it even more of an net energy loser that using petroleum. I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

4. If you read my blog, you'd realize that I very much DO NOT belong to the doom and gloom school. I believe that there are many courses of action that can mitigate peak oil. I DO believe that we're in for a very rough ride in the next 15 years. That does not make me a "doomer". Indeed, as my blog states, Heinberg's book DID change my life, because he pointed me toward the many SOLUTIONS that are out there. As a professor in sustainable studies in California, Heinbergy is quite proactive. Believing that peak oil will cause major problems does not mean I'm going to move to the hills of West Virginia, buy a shotgun, and await the apocolypse. If that were the case, I'd call my blog, Peak Oil Megadeath.

Peak Oil WILL be revolutionary, because it will totally change how we live our lives and go about our business. Mabye that's where we disagree. I'm sorry that we don't agree. I guess we'll have to see whether peak oil will be revolutionary and just an economic shift. I believe it will be the former.

PS: I won first prize at a university essay contest with the first entry in my blog. I'm doing my second master's degree and YES, Roland, I AM a school teacher: History and Spanish!! It's really true!

PPS: JD, hey: I'm not trying to tout my blog, dude. It came up this time without me starting it!

Peace and buena suerte,

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 7:42:00 PM PDT, Blogger JD said...

It's moronic to have to repeat over and over that the Earth is round!!

I'll say. That's especially true since nobody here is claiming that the earth is flat. What exactly are you trying to say by repeating "The Earth is round!!"?

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 7:51:00 PM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

Hi JD,

What I'm refering to is that corn ethanol has poor / negative EROEI. You and I seem to disagree on this AND THAT's OKAY. My agrument has failed a convince some and I'm sure I'm right. That's what I mean by repeating that "the earth is round" is that there is a lot of evidence backing up my point of view and some people choose not to listen. AND THAT'S OKAY. Unlike others here I have a high tolorance for differing points of view. I can only try to convince!

Buena suerte,

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 10:51:00 PM PDT, Blogger popmonkey said...

we could really use slash style comment moderation

e.g. Patrick D. (Troll -1)

that's all we have here folks; why bother wasting energy (heh) arguing with guys like that. he's just pimping his blog and is an attention whore.

allen, i loved the gulag bit. brilliant :D

At Sunday, April 16, 2006 at 11:15:00 PM PDT, Blogger Fat Man said...

Randal Parker Says

"Corn is not the solution or even on a top 10 list of solutions."


Burning coal sounds like a good idea until you start to think about the details. Problem is coal is nasty stuff to burn. It releases tons of polutants such as sulfur and mercury and creates lots of particulates. The utility industry has been fighting these problems for years, but they have run out of grace and time. The next generation of coal fired electric plants will "gassify" coal, which is expensive and resource intensive. Having to jump through that hoop destroys the case for using coal to boil corn liquor.

If you gassify the coal, you can just use some of the syngas to create methanol or other fuels. No need to plow uphalf the country.

Ethanol can work in Brazil
, because they get an EROEI of 8, but it is a nonstarter for the US, unless practical, non-food crop processes can be identified.

At Monday, April 17, 2006 at 4:32:00 AM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

I have ALREADY linked many, many sources, so if you can't find them, read again. Also, I won't be scared away by insults. I'm going to keep right on defending my point of view.

We'll let time tell whose right. In the meantime, try to be a little less angry when someone disagrees with your views. Frustrated people tend to age faster.

At Monday, April 17, 2006 at 9:06:00 AM PDT, Blogger Patrick David said...

Honestly, who ever said NO ONE will drive? Allen, you desperately extrapolate my legitimate views into something that I did not say. YES we need light rail and NO it will not arrive to everyone's doorstep. That is precisely why the burbs with their 4000 sq foot homes and car dependence will be in so much trouble. Also, communities will have to arranged differently than they are now. MOST essential services might need to be provided without cars. Who ever said NO ONE will have a car? Settle down and try not to exaggerate. Drink a cup of tea.

Buenta suerte,

At Monday, April 17, 2006 at 5:05:00 PM PDT, Blogger JD said...

allen, obviously the issue lies between the two extremes: total car dependence vs. 100% mass transit with no cars/trucks. You're correct that a world with no cars/trucks is ridiculous, but I agree with dub that that is a straw man. Even the most extreme anti-car people (like myself and dub) admit the need for work vehicles.

What we don't know here is your position on mass transit. Are you opposed to it in principle? Do you advocate 100% car dependence in all human activities? Do you believe that mass transit should be vigorously opposed? If not, to what degree do you think mass transit should be deployed? Give us an idea where you stand.

At Tuesday, April 18, 2006 at 12:15:00 AM PDT, Blogger JD said...

If, on the other hand, you, JD, or patrick david or dub_scratch manage to accumulate enough political power that you can implement your obvious dislike of privately-owned cars into law, then we can't be friends and I'll probably shoot your dog.

Well in that case, you probably better go buy some bullets, hombre, cause that's exactly the plan. The American motorist is the very root of the peak oil problem, and we're going to come after your car like the French peasants came after Marie Antoinette.

You see, allen, we don't have to convince you and your friends in order to get you on the bus. We just have to convince the 3rd world peoples whose oil you depend on, and the numerous disgruntled nations/individuals who are being priced out of the gasoline market, what an oblivious, spoiled rotten asshole you are. The people whose oil you are wasting will not give a flying fuck whether you are opposed to coercion.

At Tuesday, April 18, 2006 at 6:58:00 PM PDT, Blogger JD said...

And who's "we"?
That would be the roughly 6 billion people on the earth who don't have a car, plus the greenies, and the global warming worriers, the Kyoto Treaty advocates, the gas tax promoters, the defense-oriented "oil addiction worriers", the geo-greens, and of course the vanguard intellectuals of car hatred like myself. Lots of room for pandering there.

Have we established that the peak oil scenario is reasonably certain?
The geological peak isn't a threat, but the political peak is. So it's good to know that you're so willing to fork over your cash for oil. Why pump quick and sell oil cheap when you can pump slow and sell oil expensive? It's a whole new ballgame called "Rape the consumer at the pump". Chavez and Putin are doing a great job. Nationalize the oil, put a bloated bureacracy in charge, kick out the free marketeers, drag your feet, hoard, go on strike, blame it on "peak oil". Ka-ching$$$!

Yup, after arrogantly lording it over the rest of the world for 50 years, the U.S. has burned a lot of bridges and pissed a lot of people off. And now they've got you right where they want. Out of gas. So please keep bragging about the delicious fat-encrusted steaks you are eating, and all the gasoline you are wasting. You can be the poster boy for why we love to hate America, and need to take you down a notch.

At Tuesday, September 25, 2007 at 1:29:00 PM PDT, Blogger Unknown said...


Nice to see a reasonable voice from the Right. Thanks for fighting the good fight. I'd help, but you seem to be doing fine on your own.


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