Energy, Economy, Environment at Issue in Debate over Ethanol Production

posted in: December 2006 | 0

Why ethanol?

In pushing the law requiring gasoline in Hawai`i to contain 10 percent ethanol as of last April, legislators argued this was a step in the direction of energy self-sufficiency. If home-grown crops could be transformed into fuel for transportation, that would mean Hawai`i’s dependence on oil imports would be reduced.

That’s the theory, at least.

In practice, it’s not quite working out that way.

When the ethanol mandate was enacted in 2004, prospective producers said they would have no trouble meeting the April 2006 deadline. With no ethanol plant on Hawai`i soil yet, the ethanol mandate has had to be met with imported stocks.

Yet even when the first ethanol plant begins operating adjacent to the Gay & Robinson sugar mill in Kaumakani, Kaua`i, sometime next year, it will represent not so much a substitution of home-grown fuel for imported fuel so much as it will a substitution of one form of imported fuel (petroleum) for another (coal). For every one of the 12 million gallons of ethanol it intends to produce each year, the distillery will burn more than 4 pounds of Australian coal.

In addition, while it will convert 15,000 tons of Kaua`i-grown molasses a year into ethanol, that is just 12 percent of the total molasses demand for the plant. For at least the first couple of years of operation, the remainder will be shipped in from HC&S on Maui, a process that involves still more use of imported fuel.

Then there is the fact that denaturing the ethanol (making it unfit for human consumption) involves adding gasoline to the mix in a 95:5 ethanol/gasoline ratio by volume. In other words, of the 12 million gallons of denatured ethanol to be produced, 600,000 gallons of that will be gasoline.

As Henry Curtis of the energy-watchdog group Life of the Land commented, additional imported fuels are required to grow the crop and process the molasses. Inputs in this part of the cycle include fuel for equipment used in planting and harvesting, the energy used in manufacturing, shipping, and spreading fertilizer, and the energy costs spent at the mill in separating sugar from its various byproducts, including molasses.

In the conversion of molasses to ethanol, Curtis said, “the energy in the coal accounts for about three-fifths of the energy in ethanol. Yet all of the ethanol is considered green!”

Balancing Act

What is needed to figure out the extent to which ethanol reduces Hawai`i’s dependence on foreign fuel imports is an energy balance equation, weighing energy inputs (coal, petroleum, or other form of energy) against output (the energy value of the ethanol produced).

William Maloney, manager of Kaua`i Ethanol, says it is his intention to make the ethanol plant at Kaumakani, Kaua`i, as “self-sufficient as possible, thereby eliminating the requirement for supplemental imported feedstock.”

But how much foreign fuel goes into growing that feedstock?

Nitrogen fertilizers, used liberally on cane fields, are produced using prodigious quantities of natural gas. Fossil fuels are often used in irrigation pumps.

Heavy equipment to prepare, plant, fertilizer, and harvest fields uses diesel. Alan Kennett of Gay & Robinson said he is “looking at putting in a biodiesel refinery,” so much of the heavy equipment could, eventually, be run on fuels derived from plants. “We’d probably bring in African palm oil for a biodiesel refinery,” he said. “We’re not looking at growing biofuel crops. I don’t know that you can economically grow a biofuel crop in Hawai`i… Given the high land costs, high labor costs, high benefit costs, I doubt you can compete in Hawai`i with biofuels available on the world market.” Even if all the plantation’s machinery ran on biodiesel, then, its fuel would still be imported – from palm plantations in Malaysia or Africa. Not to be overlooked are the fuels spent in the process of extracting (or growing) the imported plant-based fuels and bringing them to Hawai`i.

Analyzing the energy balance in any biofuel production process turns out to be more art than science, given the range of variables and weights that can be attached to them. This has prompted Tad Patzek of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the most prominent analysts of the pros and cons of biofuels, to call for abandoning the project altogether:

“The net-energy models currently used to evaluate industrial biofuel cycles pick only those terms in the fundamental energy balances that justify a posteriori business and/or political outcomes. These models … lead to never-ending discussions of the sort: ‘My net-energy balance … is better than yours because you did/did not include this or that term.’ The only hope to achieve progress in the comparison of relative merits of biofuel cycles is to use their complete energy balances, and define the overall energy efficiencies that account for the horrendous, widespread damage of the environment caused by these cycles. It is time to move away from the ongoing and tedious fossil fuel net energy balance debate and on to the ecological problems that are poorly understood.”

Far better than endless debates over the net energy balances of biofuels, Patzek says, is to focus on ways of reducing energy consumption. “The United States has already spent enough time, money, and natural and human resources on pursuing the mirage of replacing fossil fuels in aggregate (petroleum + natural gas + coal) with biomass. Better solutions lie on the demand side: limiting consumption, improving efficiency, consuming more locally, fostering local biofuel production, etc. These solutions are feasible, readily available, and usually ignored.”


Another consideration in switching to biofuel products and away from fossil fuels is the desire to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, produced in the combustion of gasoline and other petroleum products.

Generally, plant-based fuels are regarded as carbon-neutral – that is, because the carbon they emit when burned comes from a plant source, it can be fully recaptured from the atmosphere when the next crop is planted. Still, given the energy inputs into the process of manufacturing ethanol, the bottom line isn’t always as green as one might like. In October, Consumer Reports considered the pros and cons of ethanol in an article “Hot topics in the ethanol debate.”

“Considering the entire ‘well to wheel’ process, including growing and harvesting the corn, and producing, shipping, and burning the ethanol, David Friedman, the clean vehicles research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that E85 (a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) made from corn provides an 8 to 15 percent reduction per mile today,” the article states. But, the article continues, Tad Patzek disputes the statement. “He says the ‘equivalent CO2 emissions from corn ethanol are 50 percent higher than those from gasoline’.”

Here, again, the question of whether ethanol or any other biofuel is “carbon-neutral” can be answered only if all the emissions produced in the cradle-to-grave cycle of fuel production are considered. These would have to include the (substantial) methane emissions generated in the very process of mining coal or extracting other fossil fuels used in converting feedstocks to ethanol, transporting the process fuel to the distillery, manufacturing the fertilizers and applying them to the fields, planting and harvesting the feedstocks, and extracting and refining the gasoline used as denaturant.

Bottom Lines

The producers of ethanol, the legislators and agency officials who have lined up behind its production, and the investors who back it up with capital may be true believers in its potential as an environmental boon. But ethanol is green in other ways.

Kennett of Gay & Robinson pointed out several of the governmental incentives available to ethanol producers at the Hawai`i Biofuels Workshop in October. At the federal level, there’s a 10-cent-per-gallon small producer tax credit as well as as-yet unspecified grants and loan guarantees for businesses developing cane-ethanol facilities. At the state level, there is a tax credit for construction of ethanol facilities, allowing developers to write off a dollar for every dollar they spend up to the “nameplate” capacity of the plant or the actual investment, whichever is lower. Last August, addressing the International Sweetener Symposium held in August, Kennett summed up the incentives, saying, “in effect, the state is building the plants for us.”

The subsidies come at a cost. There’s the obvious direct cost to taxpayers, who have to make up in taxes what is lost in tax credits. Also, the cost of ethanol feeds into the cost of gasoline. Not only do drivers pay more at the pump for a gallon of 10-percent ethanol gasoline, the ethanol blended gasoline doesn’t take them as far as a gallon of straight gas used to, so now they have to buy more of it.

State policies to encourage ethanol production could also end up causing farmers to switch from food crops to fuel crops. It is already happening on the U.S. mainland. Last month, Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat processor, put consumers on notice that because corn was being diverted from animal feed to ethanol, it would be raising its prices for beef, chicken, and pork next year.

In 1994, Tim Crews, now professor of environmental studies at Prescott (Arizona) College, authored an op-ed piece in which he proposed using former cane lands for “growing diversified crops to feed Hawaiians, not feed their cars. Much of our current grocery bill pays for the energy used to grow, pack, and ship our food. We import about the same percentage of our food as we do our fossil fuels. If we are interested in security, living here on the most remote chain of islands on the planet, doesn’t it make more sense to use land for increasing food rather than car self-sufficiency?”

In his article, published in the Hawai`i Tribune-Herald, Crews wrote, “If we are serious about reducing our reliance on imported energy sources, I think we will be most successful if we address our energy demand first, then the supply.”

Curtis could not agree more: “If we only focus on finding alternative fuels and do nothing to curb our wasteful energy habits, we’ll never make a dent in curbing our reliance on imported fuels or reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

— Patricia Tummons

Volume 17, Number 6 December 2006