Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

This is my brain on ethanol

Ethanol’s been in the news a lot lately, given a real boost by Bush’s mentioning it in his state of the union speech. Ethanol has a sketchy history. Production in the 70s and 80s was apparently a net energy loser (that is, more fossil fuel energy was required to create a gallon of ethanol than that gallon could displace), and while its reputation as an energy loser remains, more recent evidence seems pretty convincing that ethanol is now a net energy winner. There’s a rundown of the debate at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s “New Rules” website. A recent analysis of ethanol energetics [175 kb PDF file] was published in Science. The authors come to a very interesting conclusion, that while producing ethanol is a distinct energy saver compared to producing gasoline, the net greenhouse gas release into the atmosphere is not much better for ethanol under current technology. Their model predicts that the adoption of “cellulostic” ethanol technology will lead to meaningful reductions in GHG releases, relative to gasoline. (Virtually all ethanol today is derived from corn because of corn’s high sugar content. Cellulostic ethanol is derived from plant materials, like the now fast-becoming-famous switchgrass, that don’t have much or any sugar content.) One thing that I noted previously is that using plant cellulose for ethanol production means that plant material is not being allowed to return to the soil. This can result in reduced soil quality. It can also be a problem from the point of view of GHGs, because adding organic matter to soil is a terrific way to sequester carbon, removing it from the atmosphere. (Yet another reason to support farms that rely on compost and manure for their fertilizers instead of industrial NPKs.) I’m sure there’s some ideal balance between using some portion of a crop for ethanol and leaving the remainder on the farm, but it’s something that will have to be figured out. The ILSR brings up another issue regarding ethanol: the changing status of its economics. Until now, ethanol has been only a moderately sized business, and many ethanol factories are relatively local facilities owned as farmer co-ops. That meant that the value-added in converting corn to ethanol went back, at least in part, to the farmers. However, with an ethanol boom in the offing, new facilities are planned that are mega huge, requiring outside investing. The result is likely to be that Wall Streeters will get the profits from the value-added, while the farmers will be back to square one as mere suppliers of a commodity input. ILSR’s David Morris writes on how to “ensure a biofuels industry that truly benefits rural America.” [large file: 1.4 meg PDF]

The Limits to Growth and Greece: Systemic or Financial Collapse?

Could it be that the ongoing Greek collapse is a symptom of the more general collapse that the Limits to Growth model generates for the first two decades of the 21st century? Author Ugo Bardi (Extracted: How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet) examines the correlation between what is unfolding between Greece […] Read More..

Permaculture Q&A: Mulching Options for Your Garden

As Permaculture Month continues, we are making our expert authors available to answer your burning permaculture questions. If you have a question to submit, fill out this form. This week, Lottie from Florida asked if there are other garden mulch options that are as effective as hay. Josh Trought, one of our soil building and garden management […] Read More..

Designing Your Own Solar Cooker & Dehydrator

In today’s world, nearly everything we use, from phones and computers to cars and kitchen appliances, requires energy derived from fossil fuels. Wouldn’t it be nice to offset some of that energy use by harnessing the renewable power of the sun? Josh Trought, founder of D Acres—an educational center in New Hampshire that researches, applies, […] Read More..

Building a Sustainable Community: The D Acres Model

If you were going to create a community-based homestead or farm from scratch, where would you start? What building materials would you use? What crops would you grow and what animals would you raise? How would you develop an organizational structure and connect with your community? And, how would you make sure all of this […] Read More..

A Man Apart: Remembering Bill Coperthwaite’s Radical Life

A Man Apart is the story—part family memoir and part biography—of Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow’s longtime friendship with Bill Coperthwaite (A Handmade Life), whose unusual, and even radical, life and fierce ideals helped them examine and understand their own. Framed by Coperthwaite’s sudden death and brought alive through the month-long adventure of building with […] Read More..