The Answer, My Friend, Is Certainly Not Blowing in the Wind—or the Corn

Opinion

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agribusiness (with the possible exception of algae-based biofuels, if they can be made to work). I could end it there, but I will keep blathering. There are two categories of biofuels. Ethanol is essentially alcohol produced from corn, wheat, sugar cane, and sometimes even biomass such as corn stalks and produce waste. When combined with gasoline, ethanol increases octane levels while also promoting cleaner combustion. Then there’s biodiesel—a renewable fuel for diesel engines made from natural oils like soybean oil.

The issues with biofuels are straightforward: it’s hard to scale up their production, they aren’t great for the environment, and they put pressure on the agriculture system by raising commodity prices, hurting the most vulnerable.

Now, as unbelievable as it may sound to the people who responded to my previous articles by calling me a Bush-loving fascist, I am actually a rather liberal Democrat. Right after I finished school I worked as an aide to two Clinton Administration cabinet secretaries, including Dan Glickman at USDA. I also come from a family of farmers, and I know that farming is all about resources, the environment, the elements, and tradeoffs presented by them.

First off, there isn ‘t enough biomass in the country to replace 30 percent of the petroleum we use, as our politicians are calling for. As Berkeley Professor Tad Patzek noted in a recent study, the energy in the fossil fuels we consume every year in the United States comes out to about 105 exajoules. If you burned every living plant within our borders, including its roots, you’d get 94 exajoules of energy—and much of that plant material goes to other things we need, like food, feed crops, paper, and building materials. An acre of good land can yield about 139 bushels of corn, which can be converted into 250 gallons of ethanol, according to USDA studies. This means that using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of the demand.

One alternative is to squeeze ethanol out of cellulose from switch grass, cornhusks and other biomass sources. But cellulosic ethanol remains quite experimental. Huge breakthroughs in enzyme biochemistry would be required to make its production cost-effective on an industrial scale.

Using these “waste” materials from crops also raises some environmental issues. Two words for you: soil depletion. The material that is removed to make cellulosic ethanol is actually the same stuff that replenishes the soil for next year’s crops. In other words, it’s not really waste. To keep land farmable for even a short time without plowing non-food biomass back into the soil, you would need GMO seeds and lots more fertilizers and water. And outside of America’s heartland, in places like Brazil, they’re leveling the rainforest to grow crops for biodiesel. A Princeton study points out that clearing previously virgin soil to grow biofuel crops releases long held carbon into the atmosphere. The Nature Conservancy adds: “Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.”

As if that wasn’t enough, ethanol may be directly linked to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone—a region off the coast of Louisiana where oxygen levels are so low that the water can’t support carbon-fixing aquatic life. If farmers produced enough corn to meet Congress’s goal of producing 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, nitrogen runoff into the Gulf would increase by 10 to 19 percent, according to University of Wisconsin researchers. At that point, shrinking the dead zone would be “practically impossible.”

The unpredictable nature of drought, bad weather, and crop disease is another major issue with biofuels. Add to that the need for new biorefineries construction and the dangers of bailing and storing hay before it’s processed into ethanol. Yes, farming neophytes, hay can be dangerous—it can (and does) spontaneously combust, and once on fire, can’t be extinguished, leading to fire loss and increased fire insurance costs, not to mention carbon emissions. Somehow the bales have to be kept from combusting during the several months it takes to dry them from 50 to 15 percent moisture. A large, well drained, covered area is needed to vent fumes and dissipate heat. Finally, biofuels must be delivered by fossil-fuel-powered trucks, ships, and trains, as pipelines seem to be a poor solution for transporting it.

So, for the most part, biofuels are pretty crappy, whether they are made from corn, switchgrass, soybeans or any other agricultural commodity. They lead to environmental problems and higher commodity prices, potentially raising the threat of starvation for the world’s poorest. Wind is also unattractive for anyone but the heavily-subsidized wind operators. It’s unfortunate that some folks in the environmental movement have taken the short-sighted stand in favor of “anything but petro or nuclear.” Worse still, many financiers are reenforcing this erroneous position with their investment dollars.

My point with these pieces is really to ask hard questions and avoid letting our desire for a cleantech revolution press us into making bad assumptions and hasty decisions. Showing the warts on these technologies doesn’t make them irredeemable, it just means that the costs and benefits need to be fully explored. Next time, I’ll write about energy technologies that actually make economic and environmental sense. I promise.

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Mark is the general manager at Treeline, a US-based technology development and advisory firm. He has co-founded five venture-backed companies, with three successful exits. Follow @

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12 responses to “The Answer, My Friend, Is Certainly Not Blowing in the Wind—or the Corn”

  1. greensolutions says:

    I agree that centralized wind power is a boondoggle but distributed wind is another story. Maintaining a 5kW wind turbine is relatively easy, while maintaining a 1MW turbine is a big job. Small wind turbines, generating power where the power is used, don’t need special roads built for them or massive cranes to lift them or dedicated substations to deliver their electricity. Small wind turbines don’t have the long-distance delivery losses (due to grid resistance) that large wind farms do. Small wind is also more socially equitable with more of the manufacturing, installation and generation revenues benefiting a larger number of smaller companies and individuals–the complete opposite of centralized wind. Having said all that, people should be realistic about what a wind turbine will deliver–ideally by installing an anemometer at or near the proposed turbine site (and height) and observing wind speeds for a full year. That information can lead to a very accurate assessment of the potential for that site.

    About the biofuels, you’re damn right. It’s a bunch of bullsh*t from thermodynamic, economic, social and ecological perspectives.

    One biomass energy technique that I think has promise is decentralized gasification. I think a small farm can divert a portion of its resources (you’re right–it’s not WASTE and it NEVER WAS) to a small gasifier that creates biochar (an incredible, very stable soil amendment) and producer gas, which can be used in place of propane or natural gas, though it doesn’t have nearly the energy density. This only makes sense when done locally (as in all the inputs come from the farm and all the outputs go to the farm) and it makes even more sense if the gasifier is cogenerating (for hot water and/or space heat at the farm house). One major obstacle to this is the inherent threat to agribusiness and energy companies, who would stand to lose revenue from fertilizers, biocides and natural gas.

    I am curious, in your time as a cabinet aide, (or your farming family background) did you ever hear the word “permaculture?” A major part of the solution to our energy problems lies there.

  2. alan says:

    Mark,
    This is the second article by you I have read. You make rather good sense and I enjoy your read but I hold very little hope for our species when a substantial number of adults think the sun goes around the earth. Is it asking too much for most adults to understand a little about thermodynamics, quantum mechanics and chemistry? Yes sir. I have hope for their kids but I won’t be around to see their success.

    Cheers.

  3. Michael McCann says:

    I think the tremendous PR that wind energy is receiving (and buying) these days has completely ignored the variety of impacts of the huge industrial wind farms that are sprouting up in the U.S, and indeed world wide. In that regard, and despite the unpopularity of my research findings amongst the wind energy industry and cash-hungry rural governments, I believe I am perhaps the only independently objective professional who is actually studying the impact on home values of being surrounded by these modern day power plants… as differentiated from merely being able to see the 400 foot towers from one’s front porch against the distant horizon, 5 miles or more away.

    The empirical and factual evidence I have researched to date reveals that a significant impact occurs, as homes sit on the market for 800 or more days, once would-be buyers view the “neighborhood”, or will sell at a steep (20-30%) discount after the market has almost entirely rejected such an overlaid “industrial” home setting. Clearly, the turbines are having a significant negative financial impact on homeowners, and only the tip of this iceberg has thus far emerged.

    The wind energy developers are somehow able to place their projects on thousands of acres in rural residential and agricultural settings, without any consideration of the pre-existing residents with homes on 1 to 5-acre lots, or any official requirement that the home owners at least be offered a buy-out or property value guarantee. Having worked on numerous large scale development projects, I can think of no other example that mirrors the wind industry lack of consideration toward the existing residents. I feel quite comfortable in asserting the truism that if any developer tried to build a shopping center, etc., “around” any residential lot and home, without buying them out or convincing the sponsoring governmental agency to employ eminent domain powers for the “public good”, the chance of obtaining zoning approval would be slim to none.

    The majority of the public has only been exposed to the positive aspects of wind farm produced energy. However, when the financial and social gain to the public or even just the profit margin for the energy companies is achieved at the expense of a (increasingly large) handful of non-participating property owners, and the destruction of their property values results, then that is tantamount to a large scale shelving of the long established legal requirement that just compensation must be paid to a property owner when they lose the use, enjoyment and value of their property for the public purpose or use in question.

    No one wants to live among the towering giants sent to save us from dependence on Arab oil. Case in point: Even T. Boone Pickens was quoted as saying he will not build any part of his $10-billion Texas wind farm on his 6,000 acre ranch….”because they are ugly”.

    Mr. Obama and other influential proponents of wind energy would be fully justified in making sure the rural residents of this nation are protected from a property value “meltdown”, rather than simply rolling out the red carpet for poorly planned growth and energy production. Otherwise, it will be too late for 30, 40 or 100 times as many people as have been ignored thus far, and the parallel lessons of the mortgage crisis will have been too quickly forgotten.

    There are other experts familiar with noise and health impacts, which would “round out” the issue with counter points to the wind energy PR statements. I provide this snapshot of wind farsm through the lens of my expertise, and it is not the pretty picture the wind energy PR has talked about.

    Sincerely,

    Michael S. McCann
    McCann Appraisal, LLC
    Chicago

  4. Mark Modzelewski makes some provocative points but reality is more nuanced than that. These are fast-changing technologies, and the companies working on each of them are in a steep and useful learning curve. There is no single silver bullet that will replace fossil fuels, and most of the alternatives in development have an important role to play. Mark criticizes some of the startup aspects of wind power, as if they will be permanent features. To take just one example: oceans cover 70% of the Earth, and many deep-water areas are far from shipping lanes, bird migration routes and view of land — and are very windy. Deep-water anchoring and transmission lines are not there yet but they will be. Clean technology is a movie that has just started, and today’s technologies should be examined in that context. I applaud the companies that are working to solve the inevitable start-up problems (and misssteps) in every sector of this planetary challenge.

    Chris Noble
    MIT Technology Licensing Office

  5. Eric Wesoff says:

    Mark,
    Step away from your computer before you hurt yourself, try to make a contact with someone who actually works in the energy industry, take a tour of a wind farm, do a little research on the wind industry, and then try to write a cogent column from an informed viewpoint. Wind works in certain instances and geographies, all energy sources are subsidized to a certain extent, and wind will provide a small piece of the global energy mix. You have the potential to do for the renewable energy industry what you did for the nano-industry.
    Eric

  6. Sam Nejame says:

    Mark;

    You’re smart, funny and a good writer, but you clearly know just enough about these subjects to be dangerous. Sorry I don’t have time to correct all your conclusions, but here are a few thoughts…

    Wind is the only alternative energy technology that can go toe to toe on price with new coal. A vast majority of wind projects in the states have a positive ROI without subsidies, which make up about 30% of operating revenue. Subsidies just make them more attractive to (greedy?) investors.

    As for turbines being ugly… have you spent much time in Texas? Most of our wind resource is in the midwest from TX to MN and that’s where these things are getting built. Forgive me, but I can’t think of another good use for this land… which can still be farmed under the props. Perhaps you’re part of the yachting crowd that doesn’t want to see a wind farm in Nantucket sound, but hey even I’ll admit they don’t belong everywhere. And come on, no one who works in the Wind Industry claims they operate at 30-40% capacity, the goal is 20% in Germany capacity averages 8%.

    In terms of biofuels… No one who knows anything about this thinks ethanol is the right molecule and no one, absolutely no one thinks corn, soy or other food grains are the right feed stock. Even the etoh facilities cranking it out to meet the RFS mandates know its shit, but hey, they’re making money. Yes, the corn lobby needs a spanking, but this is colossal, will take decades to get right and the country has to start somewhere. Out of time.

    Best,

    Sam Nejame
    Promotum

  7. Drew Thornley says:

    An article in today’s Wall Street Journal makes the same mistake that most articles make re: wind capacity. In a piece on Siemens’ plans to expand international operations (subscription required), the Journal writes,

    “This year, Siemens expects installed capacity of 2 to 2.1 gigawatts. A gigawatt is equivalent to one billion watts, enough to power about 300,000 U.S. households.”

    Yes, a gigawatt is equivalent to one billion watts; but, no, a gigawatt of wind capacity alone is not enough to power 300,000 homes. Saying a certain wind capacity is “enough to power X households” is misleading, as it indicates that wind power is all you need to ensure the light comes on when you flip the switch. If you are not concerned with whether the power will work at all times, then, sure, your home can be powered solely by wind energy.

  8. Rich Mac says:

    Mark,

    It’s painful to watch politicians talk about energy independence and investing in alternative fuels, etc. You just made a great case as to how the whole wind power and biofuel industries are built on a flawed set of assumptions, government subsidies and economics. Not to mention that if you compare the various energy sources from creation through operation and distribution, the real footprint of these alternative energy generators after all this investment isn’t impressive…at all.

    What kills me is that one of the best potential sources of alternative energy isn’t either of these two boondoggles. Its biogas…not to be confused with biofuels. And why haven’t we heard more about biogas??? Because biogas is made from waste…from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, dairy farms, and food industry/agricultural waste. As anyone can imagine…waste isn’t sexy. Cow poo, raw sewage and landfill refuse don’t make for nice posters, brochures or photo opps for the green crowd, the political crowd or even the media. And of course, waste, sewage and garbage don’t have groups promoting their use as a superior energy source and they don’t have lobbyists trying to create tax breaks, grants and subsidies for converting them into productive energy sources. I don’t recall the united waste creators for alternative energy coalition being formed.

    The funny thing is, someone said that the current alternative energy focus is all bullsh*t, well it is, but the real potential is actually in “sh*t” itself! In landfills around the country, methane gas is being released by a natural anaerobic process that pumps a potent greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that is 20 times more harmful than CO2. And we have all sorts of waste that has the potential to throw off methane, a gas that can be cleaned up and used to produce energy in co-generation, or it can be cleaned up to pipeline quality.

    Why do I know this? Because Biogas is a growing multibillion dollar industry in Europe with real results. Germany by 2010 will generate 17% of its power from biogas…and the source for this gas is sewage, refuse, organic waste, etc. The US isn’t even in the game yet on this power source and unlike just about every other alternative fuel, Biogas actually has a negative carbon footprint!

    Maybe when reality sets in on the current approaches, someone will wake up and see the huge opportunity to turn our waste into energy with the dual benefit of capturing methane before it gets released into the atmosphere and converting it productively and economically into a viable and sellable energy source. No single alternative energy source is the answer, but when we have one this easy and this smart, we should be investing in it and we are not.

  9. gmcq says:

    Mark,
    Interesting article. So after all that negativity, what do you like? Wave/tide power, geothermal, a.n. other? What are areas of true potential?