Archive for April, 2008

Why Ethanol is a Bad Idea, Part 2

Ethanol is a bad idea. Why, you may ask?

1. ROI? Well, it turns out that you invest a lot of energy, water, and resources to grow that corn and turn it into ethanol. A gallon of ethanol requires 26 pounds of corn. 26 pounds! So a standard 15 gallon tank could be filled with the equivalent of 360 pounds of corn. Once. Do you have any idea how incredibly land-intensive that is? And what if you’d chopped down a forest to grow that corn?


2. Ethical? So people starve in the world, and you’re burning edible food to make fuel? Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, called biofuels a “crime against humanity,” and in October 2007 called for a 5-year moratorium on the production of biofuels from edible crops. This, he argued, would give time for technology to develop to turn waste (such as corn cobs) into biofuel instead.

3. Bad economics? For human beings lucky enough not to be starving, an Iowa State University study published in May 2007 estimates that food prices rose an average of $47/person because of the 2006-2007 ethanol boom. That’s thanks to heavy government subsidies. A 2006 Businessweek article asks, “If the government hadn’t mandated this product, would it survive in a free market?” Doubtful. Hey government, don’t create that market!

4. Not very effective. Ethanol gets bad fuel mileage. E85, which has 85% ethanol content, has a lower energy content and drops a car’s miles per gallon 20-30%. It may even interfere with the performance of some cars.

It makes me wonder why we continue to push ethanol as a green alternative.

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Ethanol is a Bad Idea, Part 1 – What is Ethanol?

Ethanol, otherwise known as CH3CH2OH, is also the stuff that makes you drunk. The colorless clear liquid is flammable, and therefore you can put it in your car. They say Henry Ford’s Model T ran on 100% ethanol.

In theory, ethanol cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions and VOCs (volatile organic compounds) when you put it in your car’s gas tank, although Businessweek tells us that “the EPA’s own attorney admitted to the judges that because of its higher volatility, putting ethanol into the nation’s fuel supply would likely increase smog where it was used.” Greeeeeat. In the Midwest (CORN country!) and certain cities in wintertime (mandated by the 1990 Clean Air Act), “gasohol” is sold at the pump – a blend of fuel including 10% ethanol.


So ethanol is produced when yeast eats sugar, and sugar can either come from sugar (easy) or corn (a little harder). Half of Brazil’s cars run on 100% ethanol because sugarcane is a readily accessible crop. If you’re not lucky enough to grow a lot of sugar nearby, there are enzymes that will digest cellulose, and scientists have found a way to produce them more cheaply. Why is this important? Cellulose is in CORN. And CORN COBS. And CORN is from the U.S. In 2006, 36% of the world’s ethanol came from the U.S and 33% came from Brazil (with runners up China, India, France and Russia). As of July 2007, there were 110 U.S. ethanol plants and 73 more were under construction. Corn grown for biofuel production is highly subsidized, and pro-ethanol legislation sells easily to the right (pro-farmer! reduces dependence on foreign oil!) and to the left (pro-environment!).

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Solar v. Redwoods

Oh, California.
You sue-happy, tree-hugging nuts.

Just look at this nonsense from Sunnyvale.

A man sues his neighbor because the neighbor’s redwood trees are blocking his solar panels.


image (c) New York Times

Thanks to the Solar Shade Act of 1978, your neighbors’ trees actually can be considered a nuisance. California Senator Joe Simitian has introduced a bill to rectify this situation, ensuring that trees planted pre-solar enjoy the right to grow in peace. The bill will undergo committee vote this month.

As for the panels-vs.-trees feud, it ended up in Santa Clara County criminal court, with the tree owners convicted and ordered to ensure that no more than 10 percent of their neighbor’s solar panels will be shaded.

Goooooooooood grief.

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Quote for Spring


“The green economy needs Ph.D.’s and Ph.-do’s,” said Van Jones, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland.

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