Posts tagged with: alternative fuels

Blog author: lglinzak
Thursday, July 7, 2011
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Political news changes quickly, and now reports are coming out of Washington DC that Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has been leading the way in killing the ethanol subsidy and tariff, has struck a deal with Senators Amy Klobuchar and John Thune, two stalwarts for protecting ethanol. While the rumored deal does not indicate the repeal of the blending mandate it is a step in the right direction.

However, while we wait on Congress and the President for action, the Brazilian ethanol industry is eying the U.S. ethanol market. Repealing the tariff will allow Brazil to expand its ethanol industry. Many questions need to be answered before ethanol is imported into the U.S. from Brazil.

In a previous post I posed concerns about whether ethanol can meet both U.S. and Brazilian demands. Furthermore, what are the environmental consequences of ethanol? Reports are showing deforestation in the rainforest. Finally, what will happen to food prices?

It is unfortunate that there are even more questions that need to be answered.

Like the corn based ethanol in the U.S., Brazil’s sugar based ethanol is a false market created by the government. Brazil doesn’t subsidize ethanol; instead it resorts to high taxes. Brazilian gasoline taxes are at 53 percent while the tax placed on ethanol is much lower making ethanol cheaper than gasoline. The question is how long can an industry last and actually be sustainable when it is propped up by the government and is a false market?

It is also important to note that the Brazilian ethanol industry needs a large sum of new investment, about $80 billion worth in the next ten years, to meet global demand. In an industry that is heavily dependent on the government one must wonder, who will pay for these new investments?

Another potential hazard of relying on ethanol is crop shortages. Such crop shortages may occur for a variety of reasons, one of which is out of our control: the weather. What happens when fuel relies on crops, and there is actually a shortage in the harvest? How much of the crop goes to fuel and how much goes to the food supply? Both are important. Food nourishes, however, fuel gets people to their jobs where they earn a salary which they use to purchase food. Brazil may be forced to answer these questions this year as sugarcane production is currently down 25 percent as compared to last year. The lack of production is due to bad weather and aging plants.

However, because of the lack of production sugar prices are on the rise as they saw a 14 percent surge in June. While some are sounding the alarm, other analysts are remaining calm, such as Eli Mamoun Amrouk of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization:

El Mamoun Amrouk, sugar analyst at the Rome-based FAO, said: “It’s difficult to predict exactly what’s going to happen to the sugar price because the market’s so volatile and so any new information can have a big effect on price. The speculation is still there, exacerbating the trend and changes in the dollar also play a part.

“But the signs are that production is growing significantly and, especially in India and Thailand, the prospects are very positive, so we should see the price start coming down in the summer,” he said.

Whether sugar prices do come down or not, we still face a critical question. If we continue to pursue an energy plan based on biofuels, what happens when we do face a shortage in crop production? The world will be faced with not just rising food prices but also with rising fuel prices. How do people in developed countries, who already have a difficult time affording food, feed themselves when the food supply is actually going into the fuel supply?

The future of corn ethanol is up in the air, and while the Senate gave signs of repealing both the subsidy and the tariff on imported ethanol, the bill the repeal was attached to failed and Congress is back to square one in the ethanol debate. The uncertain future of corn ethanol has brought forth discussion on the possibility of importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

Before the U.S. begins importing ethanol from Brazil, a broad cost benefit analysis needs to be taken by the government to decide if it is actually a smart decision to begin importing and using sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil.

A concern of many critics of alternative fuels is whether or not alternative fuels can meet demand. According to the Energy Tribune, corn ethanol cannot meet U.S. demand whereas even the country turned all of its corn into ethanol only 6 percent of its total annual oil needs would be met.

This leaves ethanol supporters looking for another energy source to help close the gap. They may be looking no further than the sugar cane based ethanol produced in Brazil. However, even importing Brazilian ethanol will leave the U.S. looking for another energy resource.

In 2010 the U.S. consumed 138.6 billion gallons of gasoline and Brazil currently produces about 7.4 billion gallons of sugar cane based biofuels. Importing sugar cane based ethanol from Brazil while still consuming corn ethanol does not even get the U.S. close to meeting its energy demands especially when 75 percent of Brazil’s ethanol output is sold within its borders, and it experienced a shortage earlier this year.

And the simplistic answer to this problem, planting more sugar cane, may not be the best solution. The Brazilian government has been surprised by the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. According to Brazil’s space research institute, deforestation of the Amazon rainforest increased from 103 sq km in March and April 2010 to 593 sq km during the same period this year. This surprised the Brazilian government which reported that deforestation had fallen to its lowest rate in 22 years when actually there was a 27 percent jump in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011. The biggest rise in deforestation was in Mato Grosso, a state in Brazil, which produces more than a quarter of Brazil’s soybean harvest. However, what does that have to do with sugar cane causing deforestation?

A 2010 article by Foreign Policy explains how sugar cane based ethanol fosters “agricultural displacement” resulting in the deforestation of the rainforest:

Public officials declare that ethanol will not lead to deforestation in the Amazon or exacerbate climate change. They say that the particular soils and rainy weather characteristic of the rainforest are not suitable for the growth of sugar cane. Agriculture minister Reinhold Stephanes has been quoted as saying that “Cane does not exist in Amazonia.” In a withering blow to Stephanes’s credibility, however, authorities recently raided a sugar cane plantation in the state of Pará where 1,000 workers were laboring under appalling debt slavery conditions. In all, environmentalists claim, hundreds of thousands of acres of sugar cane have been planted in the Amazon.

Even if there are only a few cane plantations operating in the Amazon, ethanol may exert an indirect impact on the rainforest through a phenomenon known as “agricultural displacement.” Though the state of São Paulo is located far from the Amazon rainforest, the sugar cane there can drive other crops toward the agricultural frontier. In the state of São Paulo, sugar cane has been planted on former pastureland and this has pushed cattle into Mato Grosso. Hundreds of thousands of cattle are moving into the Amazon every year as a result of displacement by ethanol in the state of São Paulo alone, say environmentalists. This migration is becoming all the more likely since one can purchase 800 hectares of land in the Amazon for the price of just one hectare in São Paulo. Additionally, some soy plantations in the center of the country have been turned over to ethanol production, prompting concern among environmentalists that this will lead soy producers to move into the Amazon. And local observers say that sugar cane plantations are already pushing soy farmers and ranchers into the rainforest.

The same article by Foreign Policy states that sugar cane crops have also led to the deforestation in the Atlantic rainforest.

There are still many unintended consequences and factors the United States needs to take into account before importing sugar cane based ethanol. CNNMoney published an article stating that, “Some experts say the Brazilian formula gets even less gas mileage than its corn ethanol counterpart, which itself gets lower mileage generally than gasoline.” Furthermore, biofuels will have an adverse effect on food prices. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which is the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, biofuels will absorb 13 percent of global coarse grain production, 15 percent of vegetable oil, and some 30 percent of sugar by 2020. Again, what is more important, food or fuel? How are the poor and vulnerable expected to purchase food when it is being shipped to prosperous countries for fuel?

Just like corn based ethanol, sugar cane based ethanol also has its consequences. Experts continue to debate whether sugar cane based ethanol is a viable option. However, before jumping on the bandwagon, policy makers need to take a pragmatic approach when discussing the energy future of the U.S.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, August 3, 2006
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Might these be the new “Cuisinarts of the sea”? This story, “Energy from the Restless Sea,” in today’s NYT examines the efforts of experimental inventors to find machines that excel in “harnessing the perpetual motion of the ocean and turning it into a commodity in high demand: energy.” There are a variety of designs and types of machines, so of course not all of them are a danger to chop up hapless fish.

Watermill of Braine-le-Château, Belgium (12th century). Photograph taken by Pierre 79.

These innovators are facing huge bureaucratic and regulatory burdens. Verdant Power, for example, “embarked on a new East River turbine project in 2003, but it has taken two and a half years to get regulatory approval for the project from environmental agencies and the United States Army Corp of Engineers.”

To comply with the concerns of regulators and environmental groups, Verdant “is installing $1.5 million in underwater sonar to watch for fish around the turbines ’24 hours a day, 7 days a week,’ and the data will be shown online.”

In some sense, these are just twenty-first century versions of innovations that are, shall we say, somewhat older. Watermills have been found at Cistercian abbeys dating from the twelfth century. See, for example, the Fountains Abbey Mill, opened in June 2001 at the Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire.