Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Ethanol from Wood Chips and Switch Grass...God Help Us

I see the wisdom in a "don't sweat the small stuff" attitude. Being able to understand what is at the core of an issue and to marshall your energies on real priorities is a hallmark of a good leader. Maybe that is how the White House approached the SOTU address - stand firm on the critical issues of Iraq, fighting terrorism, taxes; and, for the rest, just throw out any old nice-sounding political garbage. After all, you can't be a bulldog on everything. That has to explain the rubbish that Bush spouted about America's addiction to oil and the need for ethanol from wood chips and switch grass.
We need energy diversity and Bush might have thought that was what he was promoting, but that is not what he actually achieved. He fed the large amorphous, unknowledgable, anti-hydrocarbon blob. He may have thought he said that we are too reliant on foreign oil and have not made adequate progress on alternatives to oil, but what the world heard, his adversaries especially, was "oil is bad, very bad." Now, I understand the political impossibility of getting up before the Congress and the nation and saying "Oil rocks. It's cheap, abundant, can propel thousands of pounds of metal and humans long distances, and saves us from having to kill whales or farm millions of acres just to feed horses." But the American people inherently understand this despite the pervasive harping and bad-mouthing of our hydrocarbon-driven society. Thus, you can stand before it and say "like it or not, we use alot of oil, and until the day comes when we have alternatives, we'll be buying alot of it from murderous, socialist jerks like Hugo Chavez when we could be supplying ourselves and employing more of our own folks. Seems pretty obvious, so let's get cracking up in ANWR while we are doing the other smart things, like mandating ultra-low-sulphur diesel or encouraging hybrid technology, that take time to have an impact. It doesn't have to be black or white, we can have a shades of gray energy policy." But no, what does he do, but throw out "Americans are addicited to oil" which is straight out of an enviromental absolutist's playbook. And the one policy proposal to go with this indictment...more ethanol. No nuance no reasoned approach. Most shockingly, no attempt to sensibly frame a complex issue, of which he clearly has extensive knowledge. Bam! Oil bad, more ethanol.
He didn't just punt, he gave upper hand to the legions of radical people and ideas that are at odds with a sensible, free-market driven energy policy. Our energy market is under assault from all sides and the repercussions on the economy and on society are enormous. By legitimizing the demonization of oil he failed to stop the dangerous momentum that anti-free market forces have gained and hastened bad things.

7 Comments:

Blogger Zoltan said...

I was really surprised by Bush's ethanol and hydrogen comments. The problem with ethanol is that it requires more energy to make than you get out of it. In other words, you need to consume X amount of energy to produce a liter of ethanol, which can be consumed to produce X-n energy. If ethanol was a viable energy source, the market would have deliverd it by now. But I probably don't have to tell you that...

People who point to hydrogen piss me off. They often say that hydrogen is produced by hydrolysis of water, producing elemenatal oxygen and hydrogen, which is great since we have lots of water. The problem is, in order to lyse some water (hence the term hydrolysis) you need to hit it with electricity. Electricity comes from various sources, including nuclear and coal-burning plants, which have some nasty environmental ramifications. If we burn more coal to make more electricity to have zero-emission hydrogen cars, we're shooting ourselves in the foot; the coal emissions are just as bad, or even worse, as the hydrocarbon emissions. Furthermore, you don't just stick hydrogen in a tank, you have to compress it in order to have a large enough supply to drive around. This too takes energy, so between the coal burnt to make electricity, which is in turn used in a process to cleave the water molecules (and that has some energy loss...entropy and all that thermodynamic jazz), which require more energy to package, you end up consuming more energy per liter of hydrogen than you get out of a liter of hydrogen.

Again, if there was a better way to power a vehicle besides gasoline, the market would have delivered it by now.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Donny Baseball said...

Great points indeed. Plus hydrogen puts us back on the bottom of the learning curve. We are better off making incremental improvements in our use of hydrocarbons. Ultra Low Sulphur Diesel and the new, highly efficient diesel engines that will be hitting the US in 2006 and beyond are great starts. More diesel engines on the roads will spur the development of biodiesel too. We can pull off similar improvements in traditional mogas. That's where the research dollars should be spent.

11:52 AM  
Blogger Zoltan said...

The problem with diesel, as I understand it, is that the emissions are pretty bad. In Europe they use low sulfur fuel, which you mentioned, but for some reason it's not available in the US. I'm also not sure that current diesel engines sold in the US can use ultra low. I'm sure it's some bizarre regulatory nonsense keeping ultra low out of the US. Diesels also kick out particulates which clog the air. VW, I think, has a cool muffler system that captures this stuff and burns it up with the heat of the exhaust. But again, it's a European car that runs on ultra low which is not available here. Do you know the deal with ultra low?

12:08 PM  
Blogger Donny Baseball said...

I don't know the exact switchover, I want to say June, but the EPA is targeting ULSD (<15 ppm) to be 95% of the transport diesel fuel sold here by the end of 2006. I think that engines modifications for ULSD must be incorporated by 2007. Mercedes and BMW have annouced diesel models for the 2007 model year. I believe that a few other manufacturers are doing likewise. The third pillar of diesel technology (after refining and engines) is filtration. I don't know of any mandates on the filter producers, but the technology there is improving too and there appears to be a future in it as witnessed by BASF's huge overpay offer for Englehard.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Donny Baseball said...

I don't know the exact switchover, I want to say June, but the EPA is targeting ULSD (<15 ppm) to be 95% of the transport diesel fuel sold here by the end of 2006. I think that engines modifications for ULSD must be incorporated by 2007. Mercedes and BMW have annouced diesel models for the 2007 model year. I believe that a few other manufacturers are doing likewise. The third pillar of diesel technology (after refining and engines) is filtration. I don't know of any mandates on the filter producers, but the technology there is improving too and there appears to be a future in it as witnessed by BASF's huge overpay offer for Englehard.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Donny Baseball said...

Zoltan-
N.B. Peter Huber writing in today's WSJ Op-Ed page, makes your point about the false promise of hydrogen.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Zoltan said...

Thanks for the heads up on Huber's piece. People have been writing about the difficulty of producing hydrogen for years, but no one seems to care. I'm all for alternative energy sources, although I am a huge fan of the internal combustion engine. I just don't understand why hydrogen is always offered up as this panacea when it's really not a feasible option. I'd like to preserve the environment and use less oil as much as anyone, but I also look at the science behind alternative energy sources before I start talking about them.

11:24 AM  

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