Busting the Ethanol Myths with David Blume
Myth #1: It Takes More Energy to Produce Ethanol than You Get from It! - Most ethanol research over the past 25 years has been on the topic of energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). Public discussion has been dominated by the American Petroleum Institute’s aggressive distribution of the work of Cornell professor David Pimentel and his numerous, deeply flawed studies. Pimentel stands virtually alone in portraying alcohol as having a negative EROEI—producing less energy than is used in its production.
In fact, it’s oil that has a negative EROEI. Because oil is both the raw material and the energy source for production of gasoline, it comes out to about 20% negative. That’s just common sense; some of the oil is itself used up in the process of refining and delivering it (from the Persian Gulf, a distance of 11,000 miles in tanker travel).
The most exhaustive study on ethanol’s EROEI, by Isaias de Carvalho Macedo, shows an alcohol energy return of more than eight units of output for every unit of input—and this study accounts for everything right down to smelting the ore to make the steel for tractors.
But perhaps more important than EROEI is the energy return on fossil fuel input. Using this criterion, the energy returned from alcohol fuel per fossil energy input is much higher. In a system that supplies almost all of its energy from biomass, the ratio of return could be positive by hundreds to one.
Myth #2: There Isn’t Enough Land to Grow Crops for Both Food and Fuel! - According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. has 434,164,946 acres of “cropland”—land that is able to be worked in an industrial fashion (monoculture). This is the prime, level, and generally deep agricultural soil. In addition to cropland, the U.S. has 939,279,056 acres of “farmland.” This land is also good for agriculture, but it’s not as level and the soil not as deep. Additionally, there is a vast amount of acreage—swamps, arid or sloped land, even rivers, oceans, and ponds—that the USDA doesn’t count as cropland or farmland, but which is still suitable for growing specialized energy crops.
Of its nearly half a billion acres of prime cropland, the U.S. uses only 72.1 million acres for corn in an average year. The land used for corn takes up only 16.6% of our prime cropland, and only 7.45% of our total agricultural land.
Even if, for alcohol production, we used only what the USDA considers prime flat cropland, we would still have to produce only 368.5 gallons of alcohol per acre to meet 100% of the demand for transportation fuel at today’s levels. Corn could easily produce this level—and a wide variety of standard crops yield up to triple this. Plus, of course, the potential alcohol production from cellulose could dwarf all other crops.
Myth #3: Ethanol’s an Ecological Nightmare! - You’d be hard-pressed to find another route that so elegantly ties the solutions to the problems as does growing our own energy. Far from destroying the land and ecology, a permaculture ethanol solution will vastly improve soil fertility each year.
The real ecological nightmare is industrial agriculture. Switching to organic-style crop rotation will cut energy use on farms by a third or more: no more petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. Fertilizer needs can be served either by applying the byproducts left over from the alcohol manufacturing process directly to the soil, or by first running the byproducts through animals as feed.
Myth #4: It’s Food Versus Fuel—We Should Be Growing Crops for Starving Masses, Not Cars! - Humankind has barely begun to work on designing farming as a method of harvesting solar energy for multiple uses. Given the massive potential for polyculture yields, monoculture-study dismissals of ethanol production seem silly when viewed from economic, energetic, or ecological perspectives.
Because the U.S. grows a lot of it, corn has become the primary crop used in making ethanol here. This is supposedly controversial, since corn is identified as a staple food in poverty-stricken parts of the world. But 87% of the U.S. corn crop is fed to animals. In most years, the U.S. sends close to 20% of its corn to other countries. While it is assumed that these exports could feed most of the hungry in the world, the corn is actually sold to wealthy nations to fatten their livestock. Plus, virtually no impoverished nation will accept our corn, even when it is offered as charity, due to its being genetically modified and therefore unfit for human consumption.
Also, fermenting the corn to alcohol results in more meat than if you fed the corn directly to the cattle. We can actually increase the meat supply by first processing corn into alcohol, which only takes 28% of the starch, leaving all the protein and fat, creating a higher-quality animal feed than the original corn.
Myth #5: Big Corporations Get All Those Ethanol Subsidies, and Taxpayers Get Nothing in Return! - Between 1968 and 2000, oil companies received subsidies of $149.6 billion, compared to ethanol’s paltry $116.6 million. The subsidies alcohol did receive have worked extremely well in bringing maturity to the industry. Farmer-owned cooperatives now produce the majority of alcohol fuel in the U.S. Farmer-owners pay themselves premium prices for their corn and then pay themselves a dividend on the alcohol profit.
The increased economic activity derived from alcohol fuel production has turned out to be crucial to the survival of noncorporate farmers, and the amounts of money they spend in their communities on goods and services and taxes for schools have been much higher in areas with an ethanol plant. Plus, between $3 and $6 in tax receipts are generated for every dollar of ethanol subsidy. The rate of return can be much higher in rural communities, where re-spending within the community produces a multiplier factor of up to 22 times for each alcohol fuel subsidy dollar.
Myth #6: Ethanol Doesn’t Improve Global Warming! In Fact, It Pollutes the Air! - Alcohol fuel has been added to gasoline to reduce virtually every class of air pollution. Adding as little as 5–10% alcohol can reduce carbon monoxide from gasoline exhaust dramatically. When using pure alcohol, the reductions in all three of the major pollutants—carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and hydrocarbons—are so great that, in many cases, the remaining emissions are unmeasurably small. Reductions of more than 90% over gasoline emissions in all categories have been routinely documented for straight alcohol fuel.
It is true that when certain chemicals are included in gasoline, addition of alcohol at 2–20% of the blend can cause a reaction that makes these chemicals more volatile and evaporative. But it’s not the ethanol that’s the problem; it’s the gasoline.
Alcohol carries none of the heavy metals and sulfuric acid that gasoline and diesel exhausts do. And straight ethanol’s evaporative emissions are dramatically lower than gasoline’s, no more toxic than what you’d find in the air of your local bar.
As for global warming, the production and use of alcohol neither reduces nor increases the atmosphere’s CO2. In a properly designed system, the amount of CO2 and water emitted during fermentation and from exhaust is precisely the amount of both chemicals that the next year’s crop of fuel plants needs to make the same amount of fuel once again.
Alcohol fuel production actually lets us reduce carbon dioxide emissions, since the growing of plants ties up many times more carbon dioxide than is created in the production and use of the alcohol. Converting from a hydrocarbon to a carbohydrate economy could quickly reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.
by David Blume
More articles, insights, books and videos by Mr. Blume at http://www.permaculture.com
(Andrew Singer cartoon)
At http://youtu.be/pzgk9DqnIrA David Blume explains how to use alcohol and save even if your vehicle is not a flex-fuel design.
David Blume started his ecological training at a young age. He and his father organically grew almost all the food their family ate on a city lot in San Francisco in the mid-sixties!youtu.be/pzgk9DqnIrA
Dave taught his first ecology class in 1970. He majored in Ecological Biology and Biosystematics at San Francisco State University while doing volunteer fieldwork with a number of non-profits like the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. He put himself through school by teaching backpacking and wildlife biology through open universities during the summers.
In 1978, he was employed by NASA to work on an experimental solar self-sufficient energy, sewage treatment, desalinization plant in the Virgin Islands. After solving many previously persistent problems in this system, he went to work for the Mother Earth News Eco Village.
When the energy crisis of 1978-9 struck, Dave started the American Homegrown Fuel Co. Inc. It was an educational organization teaching farmers and others how to produce and use low cost alcohol fuel at home or on the farm. Alcohol, a renewable and virtually pollution-free fuel, is used in place of gasoline in automobile engines. AHGF became a small corporation with 15 employees. Dave taught 180 workshops to 7,000 people over a two year period while appearing over 1000 times in print, radio and television.
PBS asked Dave to put his workshop on television. He spent two years working with PBS to make the 10 part series Alcohol as Fuel, which aired in 1983. To accompany the series he wrote the comprehensive manual on the subject, Alcohol Can Be A Gas! The book and series were so powerful that shortly after the series began to air in San Francisco oil companies threatened to pull out their funding if the series was released to the rest of the PBS network!! PBS caved in and halted the distribution of the series and book.
Alcohol Can Be A Gas, has been completely rewritten after four years of full time research by Dave and his team. Its now available in bookstores and online everywhere and is being hailed as the bible of alcohol fuel production.
Dave went on to consult for a wide array of clients including foreign governments, farmers and food processors in turning waste into fuel, animal feed, carbon dioxide, and valuable industrial products.
Dave founded Planetary Movers Inc in 1984. This commercial venture was a financial success and a major social experiment. Within five years, Planetary Movers Inc. went from one truck and no capital to a 2 million dollar per year corporation employing 45 people. Planetary Movers won many awards as a progressive employer and pioneered practices in the 80's which 10 years later would be called "green marketing". It was the first corporation in California to advertise its donation of 10 percent of its profits to peace and environmental causes. It pioneered customer service practices and employee management practices at least 10 years ahead of its time. For instance all employees received monthly financial statements on all aspects of the corporation. Employees were taught how to read the statements. Sometimes this required teaching the employees how to read! Employees were routinely organized into self-managing and self-supervising units with shared financially in all innovations they created. When Planetary closed in 1990 due to the deregulation of the moving industry, all employees were placed with other companies and all vendors were paid off, a demonstration of business integrity not duplicated by any other company during the industry meltdown.
Planetary was best known however for its work with Nicaragua. Planetary became the transportation infrastructure for the Peace and Environmental Movement during the 80's in the battle against Ronald Reagan's illegal war against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. Planetary used its leverage in the trucking world to coordinate virtually all the shipping for Peace and Solidarity Groups west of the Mississippi. It collected humanitarian aid from over 100 organizations and arranged shipping to Nicaragua and distribution to over 50 governmental and NGO's. In three years Planetary shipped over 2,200,000 pounds of aid to Nicaragua conservatively worth $22,000,000. This was one million more dollars than Reagan gave to the Contra terrorists.
In addition to its major work on Nicaragua, Planetary also provided support for many groups nationally. The Names Project, sometimes known as the Aids Quilt, in its third year of operation found they could not get any trucking company to ship the quilt to Washington from the West Coast. No moving company wanted to risk the possible public backlash against them due to the hysterical fear of AIDS and homophobia of those early days of the epidemic. Planetary not only got the quilt moved to Washington but did it on a non-profit basis.
Due to its strong community support, superior marketing and progressive management, Planetary Movers became the 23rd largest mover in the state of California out of a total of 750 companies. All 22 companies above Planetary were three generation or greater established moving companies with military contracts, (which of course Planetary refused to accept.)
Dave entered the non-profit world by serving on the board of Ecosites International. Not content with a simple supporting role, he led survey teams to sensitive ecological sites, and there designed student study centers for these sites.
In 1990, Dave joined the board of Vivamos Mejor as the director of Agroecology Projects. A year of this time was spent working in Mexico. In this position he developed and implemented an integrated ecological project in Central Mexico with a cooperative of the Nauhautl people. Agricultural waste (coffee pulp) was used as a base material to grow oyster mushrooms, a highly nutritious food. Coffee pulp is dumped into rivers around the planet and is one of the most serious water pollutants worldwide. For each pound of coffee produced, 30,000 gallons of water have been terribly polluted.
The process of growing the mushrooms keeps the pulp out of the rivers and converts the pulp to a good quality animal feed. Feeding cattle raw coffee pulp makes the cattle nervous and they lose weight! Dave taught the Coop how to compost the mushroom by-product as well, which the cooperative uses to grow their vanilla. To make this project work Dave had to bring the Coop, the Mexican Government Agricultural Extension Service, Mexican scientists, and the US non-profit to consensus. Currently, the Cooperative produces over 200 kilos a day of mushrooms and has spawned satellite farms in five more communities as was envisioned in the original project design.
Upon returning from Mexico in 1992, Dave was recruited by the Committee for Sustainable Agriculture (now known as the Ecological Farming Association) for its board. For 22 years the EFA has put on the planet's best-attended and most diverse sustainable agriculture conference at Asilomar each year. Last year almost 1500 people attended this event. In addition, a dozen one-day workshops are held around the state each year. These workshops, which typically have 150 attendees, are directed at conventional farmers to show them how they can profitably go organic. The workshops are focused on one crop or a related group of crops, such as nuts, stone fruit, or mixed vegetables. He served on the board for three years.
During this time Dave's "day job" was as executive director of the 1600-acre Hidden Villa Farm and Wilderness Preserve. Using his entrepreneurial and ecological skills in systems design, he turned this organization around in one year from losing $250,000 per year on a $750,000 budget, to a million dollar balanced budget. Dave attributes this success to using ecological principles and applying them to business. He instituted the organization's CSA farm which converted that unit's $60,000 per year loss to a surplus revenue-generating profit center which also provided a high profile community outreach opportunity.
Dave then decided it was time to get back to working with the land in a personal way. 1n 1994, he started the community supported agriculture farm, Our Farm. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is considered the best system to save small farmers from going extinct. In a CSA, the farmer contracts directly with a group of consumers to grow their food for them. Each week, the consumers receive a box of whatever is in season for a fixed price, paid at the start of the season. By eliminating all the middlemen the farmers receive enough compensation to sustainably produce our food. In the last ten years it has been estimated that over 4,000 CSA farms have developed; some estimates for the year 2010 envision over 75,000 farms embracing this model. CSA's allow a farmer to make a middle class living on as little as two acres. Our Farm held regular tours for the public, school children and international groups. Dave has hosted delegations to see the farm and discuss its model, from China, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Holland, Poland, Hungary, Japan, Croatia, Lithuania, India, Korea, Mongolia, Ghana and dozens of US cities (examining the model in the context of inner city farms.) Thousands of people have attended farm tours, which have inspired scores of farmers and hundreds of gardeners to adopt some of the sustainable practices they've observed on the tour.
Our Farm fed approximately 450 people through 150 shares in its CSA at its peak. Annually, it grew as much as 100,000 pounds of food per acre, without a tractor, using only hand tools, on a terraced, 35 degree slope similar to farms in China or Guatemala. Dave used a combination of biointensive and permaculture techniques to produce these impressive yields.
Our Farm was a teaching farm, which hosted over 200 live-in interns and apprentices from all over the world, during its existence. Our Farm also pioneered public/private partnerships, which connected inner city residents with the source of their food. Hope House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation safe house for abused women, participated in the weekly harvest for the CSA in return for healthy organic produce for its program. The Foundry School of San Jose, a last chance school for at-risk youth and part of the public school system, worked with Our Farm for years bringing groups of high school kids to the farm for work days and environmental education. Many environmental groups like Greenpeace held fundraising events at Our Farm. Click here for printable material (PDF) on Hope House and Foundry School.
Our Farm was part of the International Institute for Ecological Agriculture (IIEA). This non-profit organization, founded by Dave in 1993, is dedicated to healing the planet while providing the human community with research, education, and the implementation of socially just, ecologically sound, resource conserving forms of agriculture - the basis of all sustainable societies. Dave Blume is currently Executive Director of the IIEA.
Although Our Farm was part of a non-profit, it did not fund itself with grants or charity. On the contrary, Our Farm funded its educational programs on surplus revenue generated by the CSA project! Our Farm lost its lease in 2001 and had to close its doors at that time.
The IIEA has been teaching Permaculture, an ethical system of ecological land design, which incorporates the disciplines of agriculture, hydrology, energy, architecture, economics, social science, animal husbandry, forestry, etc. Permaculturally designed land can have up to 16 times the yield of conventional single-crop agriculture. It is now taught in over 80 countries around the world. The IIEA has trained and certified over 450 participants in its two-week residential Permaculture Design Courses since 1996.
More recently, the IIEA held Permaculture Design Courses in 1999-2000 for the Blackfeet Nation of indigenous Americans in Montana. Dave consulted with the tribe on ecological microenterprise, improving the state of the land and the health of the people.
Dave recently completed an investigation for Quality Organic Nuts in Mexico. The goal was to meet with Macadamia nut farmers and government officials to determine the feasibility of organizing a 500 grower cooperative for exporting products. He consulted with individuals and the government of Antigua, West Indies, on a combination water harvesting/reforestation project involving a permaculturally designed high value hardwood forest.
His current work is wide-ranging. He consults on a series of projects for the Government of Ghana in alternative fuels, training the country's agricultural extension agents in organic farming and designing an ecological strategy to stop the advance of the Sahara Desert into the country. Utilizing his expertise in Natural Building, he inspired the City of Urbana, Illinois, to hold a conference between builders, lenders, developers, municipalities, building inspectors, architects, and engineers to bring all region stakeholders up to date on the mainstreaming of natural building technologies.
Dave and his staff have begun work on establishing a biofuels station in the City of Santa Cruz that will offer alcohol fuel, beginning Fall 2007. It will be the first driver owned fueling station in the US which passes the tax credits usually harvested by oil companies to the drivers. He has worked with Ford Motor Company in demonstrating alcohol fuel powered vehicles at a series of events in the U.S. In the Spring of 2004, he researched Brazil and documented the alcohol fuel program there, as part of the research for Alcohol Can Be A Gas!
Farmer Dave is often called upon to testify before various agencies on issues related to the land and democracy. He has been a leader to stop forced spraying of private property by the Department of Agriculture for the Glassy Winged Sharpshooter, resulting in the rewriting of legislation and workplans to safeguard the health and rights of citizens against corporations. Dave's work opened the door for activists to adopt similar plans in other California counties. Click here to see Dave testify before the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors.
Farmer Dave is a frequent speaker at ecological and agricultural conferences in the Americas. He has spoken at the Bioneers Conference, Upper Midwest Organic Farmers Conference, Ecological Farming Conference, University of Mexico (Xalapa campus) International Forum on Globalization, Technology and Society Committee, San Francisco's World Vegetarian Day, the Whole Life Expo (in a number of cities), the Omega Institute, Grow Your Own Conference, Veggie Fest in San Jose, Earthsave, Gaia-Song Ecological Living Conference, Plenary Speaker at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farming Association, Plenary speaker at the American Agriculture Movement convention, the Solar Living Institute's SolFest and a host of smaller events including advanced training for USDA Master Gardeners.