Feeding cars instead of people

posted at 6:50 am on April 25, 2008 by Ed Morrissey

In a way, the entire concept of biofuels as currently applied makes no sense at all. Instead of using food to actually feed people or even animals, we use it to feed our cars. Ethanol has suddenly lost its luster as an alternative energy source as food prices have skyrocketed, including in global-warming-sympathizing Europe:

Alarmed by rising global food prices, some European leaders are rethinking their commitment to use ethanol fuel and are considering other policy changes to lower the costs of basic staples.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown became the latest official to say that the European Union may have to back off its goal of having ethanol account for 20% of the motor vehicle fuel burned on Europe’s roads by 2020.

The use of corn and sugar to make ethanol is a main driver of rampant inflation in worldwide food costs during the past year. Grocery bills are up across Europe, and the United Nations World Food Program says that rising food prices have pushed 100 million people into hunger worldwide.

Rising food demand from developing economies such as China and India, plus stagnant crop yields in food-producing nations, also are behind the recent jump in costs.

Perhaps turning food into transportation fuel would make sense if massive amounts of grain spoiled every year from a lack of demand, but that certainly isn’t the case. Farmers love the higher prices that come from the new demand to fill gas tanks, but higher prices have consequences for poorer nations that have just begun to be felt. Morally speaking, shouldn’t we feed people before we feed cars?

What makes this even more absurd is ethanol itself. It burns cleaner, but has significant problems as a transportation fuel. It has only two-thirds the potential energy of gasoline, which means more of it has to be used to get the same mileage. Ethanol has to be shipped by truck as it cannot be pumped through a pipeline, so much more energy has to get expended just to bring it to market. In order to use more than just a small amount in a mixture, car engines have to be designed differently to use it, which means more energy and resources have to go into producing the vehicles.

Every fill of the tank with ethanol uses the same amount of corn a child would eat in a year, and let’s not even talk about the amount of potable water used to grow the corn in the first place. Given the above, which is the better use of the corn?

If we produce ethanol from waste — such as with switchgrass, which shows promise — then no ethical problem would exist, although certainly the efficiency issues would remain. Until then, we should end the push to turn food into fuel, driven by the global-climate-change hysteria and pandering to the agricultural sector. Feed people ahead of cars. Is that really such a difficult concept?


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I actually do know what I am talking about there oh bright one. Give me something else there lightening rod!

upinak on April 25, 2008 at 5:05

Yeap you still think Saudi, Kuwait and Iraq are not in the middle east. Look at a map. You state we don’t get oil from the middle east (Why does everyone think we are getting our oil from the middle east. LMFAO Good LORD… people do some RESEARCH!upinak on April 25, 2008 at 12:10 PM)

I show you no your wrong we do get oil from the middle east and you come back like well yeah but we are only getting half of what you say we are getting. Face facts your were wrong. Be a man own up to it and move on.

unseen on April 25, 2008 at 5:22 PM

And I will tell you something else. People are mowing their lawns and going on vacation and living in huge houses and in general using energy like it is going out of style. If the price of oil fell to $50 a barrel the demand for alternative fuels would fall to. And so then we would not be mowing our lawns instead of feeding people.

Terrye on April 25, 2008 at 5:28 PM

NO FAMINE FOR FOOD

Maquis on April 25, 2008 at 5:43 PM

Frak! I meant:

NO FAMINE FOR FUEL

Maquis on April 25, 2008 at 5:45 PM

Very interesting and informative post CC. Thank you. Although I do have a few disagreements with you. For example; I still don’t think that the overall Bio-fuel economies scale well, particularly in comparison to fossil fuels. Of course, American Ingenuity may just solve this issue, and I hope it does. The promise of infinitely renewable bio-fuels is certainly interesting. As it stands right now though, I don’t think we are there, and the whole thing stinks of eco-scam.

As far as ending the subsidies, I am absolutely right there with you. IF bio-fuels are to be successful, they MUST do it on their own, in the free market. HOWEVER, I think you weaken your argument by adding in a mandate for flex-fuel vehicles. Mandates are never the answer. The success of Ethanol and the success of Flex-Fuel vehicles are something that, again, must be decided by the market.

Ultimately, I think that’s the big gotcha here for most conservatives. We see an unproven commodity being artificially propped-up with subsidies, and unfunded mandates being sent down from on-high. At the same time, within MONTHS of the great Ethanol mandates, corn and other food shortages start happening all over the world. Is it any wonder that people are concerned?

The Government (not just the US govt, ALL of them) needs to get OUT of the fuel business. Drop any and all fuel-related subsidies and mandates, eliminate any restrictions on oil drilling and refining in the US, and remove all legal restrictions on home-brew fuels. (No more wasting FBI time and manpower chasing moonshiners) Then sit back and watch the market take care of it.

wearyman on April 25, 2008 at 4:03 PM

The problems with scalable infrastructure and ethanol are related to the amortized costs of implementing them. It takes a lot of cash to build pipelines, plants, blending facilities, and retail outlets. The ethanol industry currently has one hand tied behind its back by being forced to sell its product through a gasoline retailers, and even then only up to 10% blend. Since the first flex fuel cars were made widely available in 2003 they have crept up to the neighborhood of 13% of all new cars sold. Studies have shown that the main reason people cited for refusing the option in their new car is because they do not know anyplace they could purchase E85. A chicken and egg problem. It’s not surprising that the state with the most E85 capable cars, MN, also has the most E85 pumps. A flex fuel mandate costs virtually nothing to apply to new cars–GM is doing it on most of their models already without affecting the bottom line cost–but it would represent a concrete market potential that would enable financing of infrastructure that would need to be put in place.

The reason we currently use mandated ethanol blends is because, prior to 2003 or so, a 10% blend was all that was thought car engines/fuel systems could be realistically expected to handle. With the advent of computer controlled injection teamed with remote fuel oxygenate sensing, this is no longer a concern. Today’s problem is more about making sure cars are equipped with metal fuel lines and the proper injection software to handle a wide range of fuels. If this were the industry standard for new cars, the flex fuel infrastructure would quickly follow the market potential. Without it, the process probably takes longer, but would occur anyway in an era of high fuel prices–as I said, GM already is pushing the issue with success in their models.

Time and the market will tell.

Caustic Conservative on April 25, 2008 at 5:45 PM

unseen on April 25, 2008 at 5:22 PM

Don’t assume you are talking to a man first off. Second have you actually BEEN to Saudi? Thrid I knew wouldn’t wouldn’t have a clue about what I was talking about 2-1 comparison concerning BBL (BTW BBL is blue barrel) in conjustion with the US getting ripped off. I.E> the Saudi’s are lying about it. Good lord READ it before you jump to conclussion. Read that ticker tape.. might wanna learn how to read a full sentence.

upinak on April 25, 2008 at 5:57 PM

Caustic Conservative on April 25, 2008 at 5:45 PM

Time and market will also show not many people are wanting to buy the enviromentally friendly vehicles. The cold weather doesn’t help the ethanol either, trust me I know all about it.

upinak on April 25, 2008 at 5:59 PM

People do not realize that when the price of corn is this high, there is no subsidy. In fact, not so long ago people who liked to complain about subsidies said that if prices were allowed to rise then poor countries could afford to produce commodities to help create wealth.

This means that people bitch when prices are low and supplies are high and they bitch when prices are high and supplies are low.

BTW, if you pull the rug out from under biodiesel all kinds of working people in small towns will lose their jobs and most of those people do not have that may options. Rural America is not growing in population like urban America.

Terrye on April 25, 2008 at 6:01 PM

In a way, the entire concept of biofuels as currently applied makes no sense at all.

Ed, In every way the concept of biofuels makes no sense at all. If it takes more energy to get it into the tank than what you get out once it’s there it ain’t reneweable. Coal and oil are biofuels. Millions of years worth of stored biofuels that we’re burning through like a lard through a goose. If it took millions of years to build up coal and oil reserves do you really think we can take what’s available during one growing cycle and break even? If you took every grain of corn in the world and turned it into ethanol you could not replace even 25% of the gasoline alone that the US uses. Oil is used for everything from Automobiles to zambonis not just gasoline. Biofuels are another of those pie in the sky ideas that that appeal to the masses but just won’t work.

Oldnuke on April 25, 2008 at 7:16 PM

Fueling growth

Yield of vegetable oil in gallons per acre per year:

Algae: 100,000

Palm: 700

Rapeseed: 130

Sunflower: 110

Soybeans: 50

Corn: 29 !!

http://www.valcent.net/i/pdf/HoustonChronicle100807.pdf

Kokonut on April 25, 2008 at 7:43 PM

Let’s ask a question. If consumers could get e85 at every gas station and that e85 was .50 cheaper per gallon which do you think they would choose.

It would largely depend on how bad they were at math. If you’re paying 85% of the gasoline price ($3.50 versus $3.00) per gallon, but getting only about two thirds of the energy capacity (and thus a shorter range on each tankful), you’re losing money every time you fill up with ethanol… subsidy or no subsidy.

Sorry, you lose. Same player shoot again?

VekTor on April 25, 2008 at 9:13 PM

Second have you actually BEEN to Saudi?
upinak on April 25, 2008 at 5:57 PM

what does that have to do with anything?

trying to change the subject is not going to make you any more right. we get oil from the middle east. spin it any way you want. you stated those that were talking about middle east oil needed to do more research. I could give a fig if you are a male/female or a shemale. You were wrong. you can talk about blue barrels, red barrels whatever you want it doesn’t change the fact that the middle east supplies some of our oil. I have to say out of all the posters that I have discussed things with over the years on hotair you by far are one of the most disorganized have you been drinking heavily recently? try to stay on topic.

unseen on April 25, 2008 at 11:10 PM

but getting only about two thirds of the energy capacity VekTor on April 25, 2008 at 9:13 PM

good point but you forget to mention that is at normal atmospheric pressure. when you place ethanol under pressure the better it burns. gas milage suffers less. some reports suggest a 5-15% reduction in gas milage. some suggest as high as 20% reduction. that’s the problem with math the results depends what inputs you place into the equation. the higher the compression the better the fuel milage.

speaking of math and adding and subtracting check out this research report:

Research findings released today show that mid-range ethanol blends – fuel mixtures with more ethanol than E10 but less than E85 – can in some cases provide better fuel economy than regular unleaded gasoline, even in standard, non-flex-fuel vehicles.

http://www.ethanol.org/pdf/contentmgmt/Press_Release_12507-1.pdf

unseen on April 25, 2008 at 11:44 PM

If the Americans have an opportunity to address their energy needs and their relative demographic decline by the same means, what’s not to like?

Kralizec on April 26, 2008 at 12:18 AM

I dunno, I’m starting to get used to paying $13.50 for a 1 oz can of generic cream corn.

/sarcasm

MannyT-vA on April 26, 2008 at 6:10 AM

Twenty years of oversupply nearly ruined farm communities and eliminated an entire generation of farmers who decided to look for a better life elsewhere. Despite government’s meddling at the edges, commodity markets are as freely traded as any good America produces. It is pretty annoying after twenty years of taking it on the chin in a global market and having to hang on by the fingernails to have to put up with people demanding action after a relatively short period of oil based food inflation.

A lot of people seem to favor free markets, but only when they ebb and flow in ther direction. But over time, everybody has to make a buck or it all breaks down.

Caustic Conservative on April 26, 2008 at 8:14 AM

I have always suspected that the eco-warriors are anti-humanists and would secretly like to curb population numbers to save Gaia from us.

What better way than this?

Ares on April 26, 2008 at 10:47 AM

Ed…you’re so wrong on this. So wrong that it’s hard to know where to start.

US corn production has increased by more than the total volume used by all ethanol plants in the world. In other words, our supply of food is larger now, per capita, than it was prior to the nception of bio-fuels.

Food prices are increaseing as a reult of energy cost. This type of misinformation is funded by oil concerns.

Wise Golden on April 26, 2008 at 11:59 AM

Ed…you’re so wrong on this. So wrong that it’s hard to know where to start.

US corn production has increased by more than the total volume used by all ethanol plants in the world. In other words, our supply of food is larger now, per capita, than it was prior to the nception of bio-fuels.

Food prices are increaseing as a reult of energy cost. This type of misinformation is funded by oil concerns.

Wise Golden on April 26, 2008 at 11:59 AM

A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets its shoes on. It’s a means to an end. For some conservatives, any charge they can saddle biofuels with is worth it, true or not. Unfortunately for them, this position is quite shortsighted when looking at the big picture. America runs on energy, and any oil we drill of our own costs us exactly the same as the stuff pumped from the Mideast cartel, who sets the price due to their capacity for pumping it and the size of their reserves. We need more energy, not less. A practical energy policy would focus on a diverse set of fuels that work to America’s strengths and resources. Biofuels can do that, in part.

If you are content with paying through the rear for oil pushing $120 dollars per 42 gallon barrel and are uninterested in the development of alternatives–a process that takes a long time and lots of investment–you are allowing yourselves to be had.

One would think that there would be more conservatives who would push for as much competition to high prices for oil as possible, but they seem pretty content to accept the steep demand curve and pay whatever it takes to get it–right out of other areas of our US economy.

Biofuels are not perfect by any means, by they leave our fate in our own hands to the extent that we employ them.

Caustic Conservative on April 26, 2008 at 3:50 PM

Caustic Conservative on April 26, 2008 at 3:50 PM

good post. Also no one mentions the fact that in the 90′s the refiners consolidated their industry. This took supply off the market and is in part due to the increase at the pump. What would happen if farmers decided to not plant as much corn when demend is increasing so that the price of corn they get goes up. That is what the refiners have been doing for a decade same for the steel companies, the oil companies, now the airlines want to do the same thing. It is great for business profits but not so much for consumers pockets. We as consumers need more choices not less to keep costs down. So the companies will only make millions instead of billions. I’m crying for them.

unseen on April 26, 2008 at 5:52 PM

Fueling growth

Yield of vegetable oil in gallons per acre per year:

Algae: 100,000

Palm: 700

Rapeseed: 130

Sunflower: 110

Soybeans: 50

Corn: 29 !!

http://www.valcent.net/i/pdf/HoustonChronicle100807.pdf

Kokonut on April 25, 2008 at 7:43 PM

Ethanol is not made from corn oil. It is made from the starchy parts of the seed. This is able to produce 2.8 gallons of ethanol (as well as other useful by-products, such as the oil you mentioned) per bushel of corn, or more than 400 gallons of ethyl alcohol per acre.

Caustic Conservative on April 26, 2008 at 10:52 PM

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