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Thursday, January 6, 2011

Disarming the Food to Fuel Conflict

Corncob Bob (left) and Bob Dinneen, CEO of the RFA.

In this post I am going to critique an article titled:

Disarming the Food to Fuel Conflict

...which was written by someone who did not seem to be aware that his main source of information, the Renewable Fuels Association, is the nation's largest and best funded corn ethanol lobbying firm. I used the same title because it is just as applicable to my article.

And he's not the only unwitting corn ethanol missionary out there helping the corn ethanol propaganda mill to spread the word (the missionary analogy is a very apt one if you think about it).


Ethanol Exports Increase Dependence on Foreign Oil

The story successfully disseminated by the corn ethanol lobby is that of David (corn ethanol) fighting Goliath (big oil). In reality corn ethanol has become Goliath. David is represented by the likes of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resource Defense Council, and the Nature Conservancy as well as just about every other wildlife conservation and environmental "non-profit" organization.

Big oil is waiting to see which technology will win in the market before they assimilate it into their liquid fuel business model. This will take a while thanks to politicians picking favorites (corn ethanol) for political gain. Biodiesel enthusiasts will point out that their cars get 30% better mileage than gasoline, while corn ethanol imparts a 30% drop in mileage, giving their choice of fuel a 60% improvement in mileage over ethanol.

Palm oil produces far more energy per acre than even cane ethanol, which produces about eight times more than corn ethanol.

Not that I'm not promoting palm oil or cane ethanol over other biofuels because they also convert wildlife habitat and carbon sinks into farmland. Electrification of transport is by far our best option. My wife spotted a Nissan Leaf in a parking lot yesterday with dealer plates on it.

Lobbyists are akin to lawyers in that they are paid to defend a client, right or wrong, through thick or thin, and by any means possible within the bounds of the law. It's their job to sway public opinion in order to garner political favor. Nothing personal. Just business.

He cites the Renewable Fuels Association and its abbreviation (RFA) in the body of the article a total of ten times. Picture trying to write an informed, honest, and accurate article on the subject of corn ethanol not realizing that your main source of information is a for-profit corporate corn ethanol lobbying firm! The name of the firm, the Renewable Fuels Association, like a Trojan Horse, was deliberately crafted to mislead people like the author of the article I'm critiquing.

The RFA is all about corn ethanol, which is anything but renewable. About three out of every four units of energy in a gallon of corn ethanol came from non-renewable fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, diesel).

This author has unwittingly collected into one neat article every paid-for study and conspiracy theory disseminated by the corn ethanol lobby he could find.

I critique his article below, starting with his concluding paragraph:

Corn based ethanol will never replace gasoline, we simply use too much gas.

This may be the only thing he got right in the entire essay and it defeats his entire premise. The renewable fuels legislation effectively caps ethanol made from corn at 15 billion gallons. Now, why would our politicians put a cap on how much biofuel can come from our food stocks?

It's because converting food into fuel increases the price of food. Food and fuel compete for the same feedstock. It was a stated goal by the USDA to increase the price farmers get for corn by diverting the supply to ethanol. And it worked:

It's because a point of diminishing political returns will be reached when voters decide they no longer want to pay higher food prices in addition to subsidies to support a fuel that is worse than what it replaces that has been feeding from the government trough for over thirty years already.

But don't kid yourself. The corn ethanol lobby just successfully changed the rules for the 10% limit in cars and just got the subsidy (which was slated to expire) reinstated. They have no intention of stopping at 15 billion and would happily turn all of our food into fuel if we let them get away with it.

Ethanol has replaced MTBE in most of the United States and performs the same function; it is added to gasoline to reduce knocking. It has to be added at a greater ratio than MTBE ...

Not according to this study by the EIA, Table 2, page 5. Note that it takes 9 barrels of ethanol to replace 10 barrels of MTBE.

And because MTBE production peaked in 2002 at about 3 billion gallons per year it takes just less than 3 billion gallons of ethanol to replace MTBE in our fuel supply. So, if ethanol is being mixed into our fuel to act as an anti-knock additive, why are we presently blending 10 billion gallons of it annually into our fuel supply when we only need three?

There are a number of ways to increase the octane rating of gasoline (increase its resistance to knocking) without using lead, MTBE, or ethanol. It's generally a matter of economics or in the case of ethanol, government intervention, that determines how a given company will vary gasoline octane ratings. You can still buy ethanol free gas that has all of the usual octane ratings.

The Clean Air Act requires oxygenated fuel to be sold to reduce air pollutants. Ethanol as an additive performs these functions of oxygenation ...

This is outdated information. The federal requirement to add oxygen to fuel was removed in 2006 based on the recommendation from a special panel formed by the EPA to study the benefits of adding oxygen:

...removes the oxygen content requirement for RFG sold nationally (effective on May 6, 2006)... These rules also revise a current probation against commingling ethanol-blended VOC-controlled RFG with VOC-controlled RFG produced using other oxygenates. The revision is to prohibit commingling ethanol-blended VOC-controlled RFG with non-oxygenated VOC-controlled RFG, except under certain limited circumstances (Source).

The author continues:

The EPA mandates a gasoline blend of up to 10% ethanol, with a 15% blend advocated for newer cars and trucks.

The EPA does not mandate a gasoline blend of up to 10% ethanol. That sentence does not even make sense. The EPA is the department charged with carrying out that the provisions of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007, which states that "...the total amount of biofuels added to gasoline is required to increase to 36 billion gallons by 2022, from 4.7 billion gallons in 2007. The Energy Act further specifies that 21 billion gallons of the 2022 total must be derived from non-cornstarch products..."

And the EPA does not "advocate" a 15% blend. Last year the corn ethanol lobby pressured the EPA to increase the maximum allowable blend in cars from 10% to 15%. After much study, the EPA concluded that it would be safe to increase the blend in some newer models of cars and trucks. The corn ethanol lobby was very unhappy about this because they were wanting to force all cars to use that higher blend.

See EPA approves E15--Bob Dinneen unsatiated

The author continues:

According to the EPA website, testing was done a large fleet of government vehicles to determine effects of RFG on power and fuel mileage. No impact on power was noted, but a 3% drop in fuel mileage was noted due to oxygenation.

This is also outdated information. As mentioned above, federally mandated oxygenation was dropped four years ago. However, you will get a similar mileage loss with a ten percent blend of ethanol. A test done by Consumer reports found a 27 percent drop in mileage using E85 in a flex fuel vehicle.

However, a bevy of misinformation campaigns surround the use of resources for these clean energy initiatives.

And why does the above statement not apply to his own article? Because the means justifies the ends when battling evil--big oil? In reality the battle is between the corn ethanol lobby and the likes of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resource Defense Council, and the Nature Conservancy as well as just about every other wildlife conservation and environmental "non-profit" organization.

This isn't a battle between big oil and big biofuel. In reality, oil companies will buy out biofuel production with their pocket change (BP, Shell, Exxon, Chevron).

Google the term "oil company buys ethanol plant."

Should biofuels become profitable, they will own all production of it because disseminating and burning liquid fuels in gas hog liquid fuel wasters is their business model. It's what they do.

They should be more concerned about the electric car, which will eventually be mostly powered by natural gas, wind, solar, and nuclear energy--no liquid fuel involved.

These misinformation campaigns, despite the empirical evidence to the contrary, promote the idea that exports of corn are diminishing due to ethanol requirements as well as the idea that domestic ethanol production affects the availability of food in America’s trade partners.

This isn't true. More specifically, this is a strawman. I've never seen critics claim that corn exports have declined. The USDA data is easy to find and readily available for anyone to see. Keep in mind that none of these arguments were formulated by the author of the article I'm critiquing. He's simply parroting the stuff he's found on the internet, put there by corn ethanol lobbying organizations.

This is actually the latest argument being pushed hard by the lobbying arms. The NRDC critiques it here and here, pointing out that "The U.S. is feeding less and less of the world because demand is growing faster than our supply."

The logic goes something like this; if exports have not declined, how could there be a shortage of food (ignoring for the moment their contradicting argument that the type of corn used for ethanol isn't food)?

It's a tad more complicated than that. Every year, 75 million human beings are added to the world population. If exports don't tend to go up enough, something has to break. People are going to go hungry or more land is going to be put under the plow.

And it's a matter of supply and demand which sets food prices. The nearly one billion hungry people on this planet (three times the population of the U.S.) simply can't afford the corn meal that provides them with most of their calories. Click on the chart below:

Beginning in 2005 (the year of the fuel mandate legislation) the price of corn has increased 100% (doubled) compared to the two preceding decades. The corn lobby wants you to believe this is just a gargantuan coincidence.

In fact, evidence points to changes in diet and economic growth in America’s trade partners as the reason for a diverting of corn imports away from traditional food uses (and, largely, into livestock production). However, misinformation campaigns have swayed public opinion against the ethanol industry with the belief that food product is being affected.

Waaaaay back in 2008 when food riots were raging around the world, several studies were done to try to understand what happened. Every last study listed several factors that contributed and in every last study biofuels shared the honor of being one of the factors starving people. These studies were done by the likes of the World Bank and the United Nations, and were not part of any misinformation campaign.

Note that as I write, food riots are starting up again as the price has begun to soar yet again just two years later.

The argument of “food for fuel” is in regard to the diversion of cropland and crops to biofuel production and away from food production [snip] is surprising to see the volume of misinformation that is available with regards to biofuels, disseminated by figures of authority, politics and learning. It would seem that in the rush to have an informed opinion for policy-making, traditional sources of information have failed to disseminate the truth in volume sufficient to drown out the voices of profit and conflict . [my emphasis]

The author of the article I'm critiquing repeats himself a lot and for that I apologize. Again, whoosh! Right over his head. For reasons hard to infer, the author of the article I'm critiquing has chosen to align himself with big oil's Minnie Me (big biofuel) instead of the major environmental and conservation groups (backed by scientific research). The RFA is the voice of profit and conflict for the corn ethanol industry. Like a law firm, they are paid to promote their client's interests, no matter what, and whatever that takes.

There is an incredibly large amount of profit to be made or forfeited by changing public fuel policies, and those entities that are already deeply entrenched in the status quo of petroleum fuels are reluctant to give up their immense profits without battle.

Ah, no. The environmental and conservation organizations arrayed against corn ethanol are mostly, if not all non-profit organizations. Big oil is waiting in the wings to buy out all of the biofuel refineries with their pocket change should they ever prove profitable without government support.

There are also corporations involved in food production that see opportunity to divert attention away from their own profits by misdirecting public opinion through organized campaigns of misinformation.

Ironically, or comically, that is a perfect description of what the corn ethanol lobby is doing. See Corn Ethanol Propaganda Blitz Backfires.

And it's illegal to collude. Livestock producers and grocery manufacturers would risk imprisonment if they ever tried that. The diversion of attention and misinformation is coming entirely from the corn ethanol side.

Tremendous amounts of money change hands, and political favor is purchased and coerced.

An accurate description of our political system, but good God, the corn ethanol industry is famous for doing all of that.

Academics and scientists serve both sides of the fence, and scholarly papers are introduced with great frequency to support either side

Or so the corn ethanol lobby wants you to believe. Let me give you an example. Back in 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists published a letter signed by about 170 scientists and economists (including nine members of the National Academies of Science and two Nobel laureates) urging the California Air Resources Board to ignore the letter signed by 25 biofuel company executives and CEOs who wanted them to ignore greenhouse gas emissions from indirect land use change issues.

As with global warming, it is a rather lopsided scientific battle.

In April 2005, [snip] a indicated that America can produce this amount of biomass through forestry products and agricultural products, with “relatively modest changes to land use and forestry and agricultural practices.” ... Bear in mind that the research was done prior to 2005, and does not reflect the current technologies of second-generation ethanol production from ultra-efficient sources like algae and sugar cane bagasse[my emphasis].

Note that the author of the article I'm critiquing has suddenly taken a diversion from defending corn ethanol to tell us about fuels that don't exist in economically viable formats.

Back in 2005, the year the biofuel mandates were put in place, it was assumed that second generation cellulosic ethanol was just around the corner. However, none of the mandates were met and the EPA had to roll them back. From Consumer Energy Report:

...the reason for the EPA’s 100 million gallon estimate [for second generation ethanol] was that they were counting on 70 million gallons from Cello.

Cello was convicted of fraud in 2009.

And just a few days ago Range Fuels threw in the towel:

Congress initially set the 2010 target for cellulosic biofuel at 100 million gallons, but the EPA cut that to 6.5 million gallons. It appears the industry might have produced less than 1 million gallons last year...The EPA expects Range Fuels to produce 100,000 gallons of cellulosic ethanol 2011.

And from here:

We guess that when the company told us earlier this week that it expected to start producing ethanol this week, it really meant it would produce just a single batch, followed by throwing in the towel on the plant and workers.

And how's that algae thing working out? Not bad if you can pay hundreds of dollars for a gallon of it. From Green Fuel Bites the Dust:

GreenFuel was the first high profile algal concern to go under, but they won’t be the last. I predict that few of them will be standing in just a few short years. Growing algae is trivial and can be done in water, and there is the allure. Turning into biodiesel is not technically very difficult. Doing it all economically is next to impossible. I have had one very prominent algae expert tell me that it will be at least 15 years before there are serious prospects for commercial viability – and that will require multiple large technical breakthroughs.

And finally, what does sugar cane bagasse have to do with biofuels grown in the United States?

Speculation on commodities and the price of crude oil has driven up the price of food, claims a 2010 Energy article by Amela Ajanovic. (Ajanovic, 2010). She also cites farmer’s increased fertilizer prices and rising fuel costs as the primary factor in increased food costs. She also cites as evidence the relationship between dropping food prices and the post 2008 fall in crude oil prices. According to another study, biofuel production has shifted some arable land away from food production, and could have affected food prices temporarily, but the trend is by no means permanent and most likely short term. (Rathmann R, 2010 ) Most of the lands recently switched from other land uses to feedstock production are marginal lands, and were not used for agricultural production previously on a regular basis. (Ajanovic, 2010)

Not one study I read claimed that biofuels were the sole culprit. However, they are always listed as one of the culprits. Note that they are listed as a culprit above as well.

Food prices should eventually drop once enough land is put under the plow to bring supply and demand into better balance, and that is a major reason environmental and wildlife conservation organizations are opponents of corn ethanol.

The speculation was largely fueled by low grain reserves caused in part by the diversion of grain to biofuel. And note that since the cost of corn is tied to the cost of fossil fuel, it goes up with the cost of oil. Thanks to corn ethanol, food prices are now even more closely tied to the price of oil.

These "marginal lands" are called the Conservation Reserve. They "were" wildlife habitat and carbon sinks.

There is mounting evidence that the corn the U.S. exports is not used to feed the world’s poor, but to feed the source of more affluent nation’s rising meat intake
There is no such "mounting evidence" and the fact that a lot of corn goes to livestock overseas is nothing new. The sudden dramatic rise in food prices correlates in time to the sudden dramatic rise in corn ethanol production which correlates in time with the doubling of the price of corn. Pretty simple really.

While ethanol attackers have shown images of starving children in Mexico to shore up the defense of the food vs fuel argument ....

For a sampling of political cartoons on this topic, be sure to click on this link.

...the USDA reports that Japan is the world’s leader in US corn imports, followed by Korea and Mexico is following close behind. (US Department of Agriculture, 2010) According to this report, these nations use American corn imports to feed livestock for meat production.

The USDA has an active online database that is open to the public, which clearly documents that those countries have long imported corn for livestock. And how, exactly does the diversion of thirty thousand square miles of corn acreage to American gas tanks reduce this problem?

“Mexico processes much of its production of white corn into human food products, but has turned to imported yellow corn and sorghum for livestock feed to support increased meat production.” (ibid) This report hardly bolsters the claims that lack of corn meal is directly the fault of ethanol production in the U.S., but rather that foreign importers of corn choose to use the imports for animal feed to support the demand for meat by relatively affluent citizens.

And how, exactly does the diversion of thirty thousand square miles of corn acreage to American gas tanks reduce this problem? As part of his ongoing education, the author of the article I'm critiquing should read the FAO report titled Livestock's Long Shadow. He would learn how important chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, and cattle are to the world's poorest. A diet of pure corn meal without adequate protein will lead to severe iron deficiency and death.

As the above chart from the article shows, the per capita income of Koreans increased 265.1 times in fifty years. China’s per capita income grew by 34.5 times in the same period. Changes in urbanization, per capita income and population growth all affect meat consumption and production. (van der Zijpp, 1999) As home to the largest population in the world, China’s increased appetite for meat dramatically affects the use and price of imported corn. As China’s affluence grows, meat consumption has increased at the rate of 10% per year. (Zhan G. Li, 1999) China was recently the second-largest exporter of corn, but changing economics and consumer demand have spurred corn imports, of which 80% goes to animal feed. (Zhan G. Li, 1999) as China continues to industrialize, valuable farmland is being lost to development and residential uses. This trend is likely to continue as China’s economy continues to grow. (ibid)

And how, exactly does the diversion of thirty thousand square miles of corn acreage to American gas tanks reduce this problem?

Perhaps the most damning evidence of manipulation of public sentiment towards American ethanol production is in the form of a memo released to the public by the office of United States Senator Chuck Grassley. The memo was from a prominent Washington lobbyist firm, The Glover Park Group, as a business solicitation to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a special interest group founded to promote the interests of food marketers. The memo states that the purpose of the PR campaign would be to “a single message that clearly conveys the ideas that: Support for corn-based ethanol is driving up food prices and creating a crisis that threatens the kitchen tables and pocketbooks of millions of Americans and the welfare of vulnerable populations worldwide.” (The Glover Park Group, 2008)

Come again? Support for corn-based ethanol actually is driving up food prices and creating a crisis that threatens the kitchen tables and pocketbooks of millions of Americans and the welfare of vulnerable populations worldwide.

To accomplish this end, The Glover Park Group suggests “First, we must obliterate whatever intellectual justification might still exist for corn-based ethanol among policy elites.” Glover Park also had no trouble spelling out how easy this would be due to their low opinion of American voters. “Average voters understand perfectly well what increased food prices mean and with the right messaging are fully capable of drawing the connection to cornbased ethanol

Ah, average voters do understand perfectly well what increased food prices mean and with the right messaging are fully capable of drawing the connection to corn-based ethanol.

Use some common sense. This is a business that has been negatively impacted by government support of corn ethanol, which has doubled the price of corn. Feed is one of the major expenses for livestock, egg, and dairy producers.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association subsequently hired the firm to implement this strategy, and the fallout was quick and lasting. According to Jerry Kram in Biodiesel magazine, Six U.S. senators held a press conference in Washington D.C. to combat the disinformation campaign: Sens. Grassley; Kit Bond, R-Mo.; Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.; John Thune, R- S.D.; Ben Nelson, D-Neb.; and Ken Salazar, D-Colo. “The Grocery Manufacturers Association has an obvious self-interest in launching this campaign,” Grassley said. “They need to blame someone for high grocery bills, but they’ve aimed their fire at a false target.” Grassley later requested a meeting with 15 chief executive officers of GMA member-companies but subsequently canceled the meeting when only one CEO was willing to defend the group’s actions. (Kram, 2008

The GMA lobby has been quite simply out-gunned by a bigger lobby. Six politicians decided to side with the wealthier donors, the corn ethanol and agricultural lobbies. I'm shocked and aghast. This is unheard of in American politics!

Use some common sense. Why would the GMA go to all of this trouble if they were not stinging from the record high corn prices? Grocery stores have razor thin profit margins. The price of food has been rising rapidly since the corn ethanol mandates.

The Congressional Budget Office calculated that ethanol was costing food aid programs almost a billion annually, which translates to about eight billion in the general populace.

The Price of corn quickly doubled when the ethanol mandates kicked in and have held steady. When you multiply that $2 per bushel increase in price times the number of bushels produced you find that corn consumers are paying about $25 billion extra for corn, annually. One big consumer of that corn is corn ethanol! The higher price they pay for their corn increases the cost of the ethanol we are forced to buy from them.

The poor people of the world are the ones who have really been hit. The price of corn doubled in just a few years. It only takes a few weeks for a badly malnourished child to be permanently damaged.

As an environmental manager, it is important to note that no matter how beneficial or positive a change in policy may be, a determined adversary can derail public opinion using whatever means are at their disposal. These attacks may be matters of disagreement with government policy, economic policy or ethical disagreements with a far deeper bias.

I'll be honest with you, I don't know what an environmental manager is, but I share the opinion with the world's major environmental and conservation organizations that corn ethanol is an environmental disaster, not a positive change.

The determined adversary is the corn ethanol lobby. What the "far deeper bias" the Union of Concerned Scientists and the world's major environmental and wildlife conservation organizations have is beyond me.

In the case of domestic ethanol production, it is important to remember that ethanol is added to gasoline not just as an anti-knock agent but because it is federally mandated as an oxygenator. This is required to reduce air pollution. It has the tertiary effect of stretching our fuel supply, because it must be added in larger amounts than previous toxic anti-knock compounds.

As I said earlier, the federal mandate for an oxygenate was dropped in 2006 on the recommendations of a special panel assembled by the EPA and it would only take 3 billion gallons to replace MTBE as an anti-knock additive. We are presently blending 10 billion gallons. Ethanol is being used as a fuel, not as an additive.

The food vs fuel debate caught fire because of the initial efforts of a professional PR and lobbying firm hired by an economically opposed manufacturing group. Glover Park Group is responsible for the operation of at least three websites opposing corn-based ethanol, and organized “expert” testimony to represent the interests of their client in Washington. (Kram, 2008) With a initial budget of $300,000 the Glover Park Group achieved far reaching impact to the corn ethanol industry. (The Glover Park Group, 2008)

Above is also a description of the activities (and also a perfect example of a pot calling a kettle black) of the corn ethanol lobby, except they spend tens of millions on lobbying and PR efforts.

Read Biofuels Industry Lobby Spent $22 Million Buying Influence

The author continues below:

Real causes of high food prices were ignored in the media, such as high fuel prices and fertilizer costs.

Those causes were in addition to biofuels. They are not the "real" causes and they were not ignored in the media. They were listed right there along with biofuels.

The advocates of food vs fuel charged that American farmers and ethanol producers were starving the world’s poor, when the real culprit is the expanding incomes of certain economic sectors of our trade partners.

Not true at all. The expanding incomes were listed right there along with biofuels, but incomes rise gradually. The price of corn doubled in the span of about two years and has stayed that high ever since.

American exports of corn continue to grow, and show no signs of slowing. (US Department of Agriculture, 2010)

The fact that the price of corn doubled even with record acreage being planted is all the evidence needed that exports are not growing fast enough to meet global demand. It's simple supply and demand.

America uses all but 4% of its ethanol production domestically. (Tabak, 2009)

Ethanol exports rose dramatically in 2010:


Taxpayer Subsidized Ethanol Exports May Bite Industry in the Future


Ethanol Exports Increase Dependence on Foreign Oil

The author continues below:

The ethanol industry has contributed over 400,000 jobs to Americans is all sectors of the economy

Not true. Read:

Corn ethanol tax credit: most expensive way to create jobs ever?

Big ethanol is using bad jobs numbers to push bad tax credit

How the RFA Wastes Your Tax Dollars – Part I: How Much is a Job Worth?

How the RFA Wastes Your Tax Dollars – Part II: Blatant Dishonesty and a Debate Challenge

... and provided tax revenues in excess of 15 billion dollars. (Renewable Fuels Association, 2010)

...and also not true. A full analysis has to subtract the costs from the benefits to see if there is a net gain or loss. You can't just add up the gains and publish them, well, I guess you can but that's deception by omission.

High promise is shown for second-generation ethanol from algae and other sources...

Not true. The author uses the repetition tactic a lot, forcing me to repeat things a lot as well. My apologies but:

Back in 2005, the year the biofuel mandates were put in place, it was assumed that second generation cellulosic ethanol was just around the corner. However, none of the mandates were met and the EPA had to roll them back. From Consumer Energy Report:

...the reason for the EPA’s 100 million gallon estimate [for second generation ethanol] was that they were counting on 70 million gallons from Cello.

Cello was convicted of fraud in 2009.

And how's that algae thing working out? Not bad if you can pay hundreds of dollars for a gallon of it. From Green Fuel Bites the Dust:

GreenFuel was the first high profile algal concern to go under, but they won’t be the last. I predict that few of them will be standing in just a few short years. Growing algae is trivial and can be done in water, and there is the allure. Turning into biodiesel is not technically very difficult. Doing it all economically is next to impossible. I have had one very prominent algae expert tell me that it will be at least 15 years before there are serious prospects for commercial viability – and that will require multiple large technical breakthroughs.

The author continues below:

and in combination with large increases in mass transit and vehicle fuel mileage, these technologies will help supplant our growing need for vanishing fossil fuels.

Vanishing fossil fuels? Three out of every four units of energy found in a gallon of ethanol came from fossil fuels. Corn ethanol, the fuel this author is defending (because it is the only ethanol we got), is worse in the aggregate than gasoline--as bad as gasoline is. It makes no sense to replace gas with something that is worse in the aggregate.


Transgressing identified and quantified planetary boundaries


Biofuels Reduce The Biosphere's Capacity to Absorb Carbon

In America we used corn to make the mandated ethanol instead of importing it from Brazil,

Used is past tense. We "use" our corn to make fuel. Our government did not need to mandate the use of ethanol at all. Our politicians will never let Brazilian ethanol become a significant player in the market because unlike corn ethanol, there is no political advantage in doing that.

...or rolling back Clean Air Act requirements for fuel blending.

There has never been any need to roll back any clean air requirements, although this author has made an impressive attempt to give that impression. See my critique of this earlier in the post where the author still thinks there is a federal oxygenation requirement (that was dropped four years ago). He has confused the ongoing seasonal changes in fuel chemistry (known as reformulated gas) with the now non-existent requirement to add even more oxygen for some areas of the country.

I will spare readers a repetition of it here but adding extra oxygen (not to be confused with seasonal reformulation of gasoline that continues to this day) was found to have dubious, if marginal benefit and there are many ways to change octane ratings other than using lead, MTBE, or ethanol.

In doing so, we created American jobs, generated billions in tax revenue and

In doing so we created American jobs, but also created job destruction by diverting billions of tax dollars away from other job creating businesses. It's the net job creation that counts, the gains minus the losses.

...reduced the need for gasoline imports in 2009 by 364 million barrels, the amount of gasoline replaced by ethanol.

Actually not. From Ethanol and Petroleum Imports: of petroleum import displacement have been at a minimum grossly exaggerated. It may even be that ethanol hasn’t backed any petroleum imports out, or that the impact is so small as to be unnoticeable.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Battery History Lesson from a Nerd King


Justin Lemire-Elmore is a founder of a very small Canadian company that sells electrical supplies for do-it-yourself electric bicycle enthusiasts. His website contains a wealth of information that many thousands of DIY builders have put to great use (myself included) like this hub motor simulator. He also has a degree in engineering physics from the University of British Columbia.

Justin is a bit of a legend in the hot-rod electric bike community. He has personally designed and manufactures several gadgets to meet the needs of DIY electric bike builders.

He recently gave a 2 hour talk titled "Lead Free Since 2003" to the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association (VEVA) about his seven year struggle with different battery technologies, which was video taped (poorly) and can be viewed by clicking on the following links (in sequence). Oh, and the battery on the video camera pooped out five minutes before the end, which explains why there are no concluding remarks: 1/6 2/6 3/6 4/6 5/6 6/6 1/5 2/5 3/5 4/5 5/5

You should also download the following PDF which will let you see what he is talking about in the video:

He sums it all up below (taken from a post on Endless Sphere): was an almost therapeutic experience to get all that off my chest too! It gave some closure to this whole chapter of trying to work out custom ebike packs with all the various Chinese cell and pack assembly companies. From now on it'll be just eZee batteries with Samsung / Sanyo / Panasonic cells and programmable O2micro BMS circuit. Don't care what's the price at this point. Just want reliability.

My own personal feeling is that unless the cells are coming from a long standing big company with years and years of expertize and R&D and internal know-how in battery manufacturing, then they're not going to come close to the standards needed for a consumer industry. Almost all the new companies eagerly selling larger format EV batteries fall way short of this category. I mean we got 4 sample 48V headway packs earlier this year, and have already had to do cell replacements in two of them. A hobbyist can put up with those kind of statistics, an industry can't.

BionX was smart and used Sony cells in their lithium packs. Much as some might begrudge them charging $1200 for a replacement 36V 9Ah lithium pack, at least their users almost always get 3-4 years of regular use from the batteries before they start to wear down, and virtually never have cell problems. Sony can't afford the risk associated with their cells having problems. In hindsight I would have so happily paid twice as much for our packs to have those kinds of statistics, and at the end of the day our customers (assuming they weren't put off by sticker shock) probably would have too.

For now, we're taking a gamble on Samsung being able to deliver a reliable LiMn ebike cell, and they are assembled into packs for eZee at the same facility that does the BionX pack assembly. It's only been 6 months that we've been dealing with them though, so too early to say if that typical lifespan will be 12-18 months or 3-4 years. I'm sure hoping it's the latter because ebike users really deserve it.

For all the talk of LiFePO4 lasting 5-10 years and thousands of cycles, we've yet to see anything firsthand that comes close to consistently delivering this in practice with the ebike grade LiFePO4. I'm sure A123's are up to the task, but I have sincere doubts about all the other manufacturers.

As for the house burning down at the end of the slides (video cutoff just before I got here), that occurred to my very close friend just this summer. She happened to have a battery pack that had all the EU ebike certifications, including the stringent UN38.3 shipping tests, with a UL/CSA certified charger. Went to walk the dog for 15 minutes with the battery charging by her door and came back to the suite in flames, with the battery pack and charger (which had been beside her coat rack and a wicker basket) right at the epicenter. The fire investigation that followed was inconclusive at determining the exact cause or event sequence that lead the pack to do this.

Just 4 months before that I was actually on a tour of this very battery facility and saw the test rooms where they drive nails through the cells, heat them up to 100oC, charge them to 10V, pound them with a sledge hammer, etc. and in all cases the cells wouldn't fail with flames. So what happened that would cause a 2 year old battery that hadn't shown a single sign of strange behaviour to suddenly burn down a house? I have no idea.

Following are a number of links documenting my experience with an electric bike I have been riding since 2005:

Videos: (video has over 700,000 hits) (view from helmet cam, with afterburner) (with trailer going uphill)

Blog posts:

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