Monday, May 19, 2008

Ethanol fantasy

Be still now! For you are drunk, and we are at the edge of the roof! - Rumi, Sufi Philosopher

The US is living an ethanol fantasy. The leadership is drunk. The lobbyists brought the kool-aid to the party. Watch out! They might knock us off the roof.

I guess somebody wiser than I will have to explain how such a ridiculous situation has evolved. I can only shake my head and wonder.

Politics is closely associated with the concept of awareness. Usually in an inverse way. Success in politics seems to be inversely proportional to public awareness of facts and issues.  Obfuscation is an effective political tool. "Spin" is the mark of the master politician. Awareness is not the objective of politics. Perhaps that explains the descent into darkness.

I believe most people will do the right thing once they become aware of a particular problem. That was the whole idea in writing a blog about awareness.

The ethanol fantasy might be summarized by explaining that somehow over the 27 years since oil production peaked in the United States the politicians that control the government have failed to come up with a plan to replace cheap energy from oil. 27 years! Instead they have now decided that ethanol will be the leading replacement. This is not a well thought out plan.

A May 16, 2008 article in explored the ethanol fantasy issue.

Shhh! Keep your voice down. The Chinese might be listening. Or maybe foreign investors concerned with the viability of the US economy and security of their investments in the US.

The ethanol fantasy presents a whole bunch of interesting impossibilities.

My favorite is the EROEI analysis. Energy Returned on Energy Invested. Yep. You're right. It works very similar to mutual funds that promise fantastic returns but conveniently forget to mention that they don't have any responsibility to report their actual expenses that decrease your returns. EROEI is a hot topic these days. Many scientists have now questioned whether the energy you get out of a "technology" like ethanol (meaning corn ethanol, ethanol produced from corn, corn subsidized by the US government) is more than the energy you put into it! Probably not.

Hmmm. Maybe it would have been a good idea to figure that out BEFORE the commitment to ethanol?

EROEI is one thing. Of course there is the opportunity cost also. Every dollar and every hour spent going down the road of a false technology is an opportunity lost to go down the right road. Whatever that may be.

But the one ethanol issue that just amazes me is the simplest.

ETHANOL CAN'T BE DISTRIBUTED BY PIPELINE! It is too chemically corrosive.

Now, if you ask me, I would say that understanding the chemistry of ethanol and therefore the challenge of building an effective distribution network is pretty important. It is just painfully obvious. For me, this is just another great example how having a working knowledge in chemistry can help a person grasp the reality of an important issue.

ETHANOL WON'T WORK! Why? It will not be possible to build a distribution network that is scaled up big enough to meet the need for replacement of the current huge volumes of oil and gas that are distributed by pipelines. No way.

In case you didn't catch it, a large part of the rail system in the US is already plugged up with coal for electricity production to keep the lights on and freight to keep the consumer economy chugging along. I urge you to take notice of the interesting point in the Forbes article that explains how rail-tankers to carry ethanol aren't being manufactured fast enough.

That leaves shipping by barges and trucks. Barges sound good. They hold a lot and move it relatively cheaply. But the ethanol needs to get from the midwest where they grow it to the coasts where the bulk of the population resides. Barges aren't going to work for that. So much for barges.

That leaves trucks. Truckers. The unsung heroes of the US economy. The people who get all those products to market to support the consumer economy. Well, guess what? Those truckers aren't making it. They can't make a living. I will come back to the plight of truckers in a later blog but for now, trust me, trucking the ethanol will not work for a whole bunch of reasons. For example. Ethanol being transported in a truck is a hazardous material. It is really, really dangerous. So you have to hire drivers that are sort of "above average" meaning they went through the extra expense for the HAZMAT training and they have a near perfect driving record to be insurable driving such a dangerous load. Not to mention the fact that the new TSA rules can delay a driver's HAZMAT certification for 6 months or more.

There just aren't enough drivers that good. Many companies have a turnover rate over 100%! Every day drivers get in backing accidents and other silly things they should have avoided. You don't want drivers with poor skills or a poor attitude driving a bomb filled with ethanol around the country. Since 9/11 most large cities have now designated special HAZMAT routes to prevent the boogieman terrorists from driving ethanol bombs through tunnels and over bridges and through downtowns. The level of responsibility when driving a HAZMAT cargo is more like the responsibility of an airline captain. I know because I have done both. But the money doesn't exist to pay people who have the skill and competency of a professional pilot to drive a truck. That's a problem with the ethanol business model.

One issue is whether we really want our soccer-moms in mini vans driving along next to thousands and thousands of new ethanol-delivering truck-bombs. Another issue is the fact that we now know that all that corn being diverted to make ethanol is causing huge impacts on food for people who don't have any other options. This is unethical. People in the US have not adjusted their use of oil to align with the reality that oil is peaking and we are now facing a mid-term crisis until we rearrange our energy production. Part of the lack of awareness comes from the fact that Wall Street is focused on the short term. Quarterly reports. Annual statements. Even if modern day CEO's have real time computerized dashboard widgets to give them an instrument panel on the the daily operations. Everything is just too short-term focused. Ethanol as a policy to replace cheap transportation energy is just a flawed concept.

We are just getting warmed up today. More to come on the ethanol in the near future.

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