Sunday, July 10, 2005

Biofuels, thumbs up/thumbs down

State helps finance study on biodiesel plant:
Efforts to build a $20 million biodiesel production plant in Douglas County are picking up state support.

The Kansas Department of Commerce has agreed to help finance a feasibility study for a proposed plant, said Lynn Parman, vice president for economic development at the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce.

The department is providing $40,000 through its value-added loan program.

Leaders of the chamber’s New Horizons Agriculture Alliance hope to build a plant that could employ more than three dozen people and pump out 20 million gallons of fuel each year.
and this Goodland project to produce power, ethanol, biodiesel:
Investors in northwest Kansas hope to fire up the region’s economy with a power plant and two fuel processing plants that will use some of each other’s products.

Construction of the Goodland Energy Center, about four miles west of the city, is expected to start by late summer, with production of electricity, ethanol and biodiesel fuel to begin in late 2006.

The 20- to 28-megawatt coal-fired power plant will produce electricity and steam. Steam is required to run the ethanol plant, which will produce a molasses-like substance needed to create fuel at the biodiesel plant.

“We eliminate waste, because we use it all,” Pickman said.

Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative fuel, produced from renewable resources. Ethanol, made from fermenting and distilling the starch in corn or sorghum, also is a fuel and can be used as an additive in gasoline.

As a wholesaler, the power plant also will sell electricity to a city or company, which in turn will sell the power to residents and businesses. Fairbanks said finding customers for the three plants shouldn’t be a problem.

“I think all small towns struggle with energy and the cost of energy,” he said.
These plants are obviously interesting ideas. We have tons of energy tied up in corn and soy, and using these plants as "solar cells" is not a bad idea at all. This could be carbon neutral, since any CO2 being produced by burning had been taken up from the atmosphere as the plants grew.

There is a problem, though.

Ethanol, biodiesel from crops not worth the energy:
Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."

Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:
corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and

  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:
  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and

  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis.

While burning plant products may be neutral, it's too costly to grow and convert them in the first place. Reducing those costs could turn Kansas into a net exporter of energy.

It's important to point out that using agricultural waste in these plants will be more efficient than letting it rot, and improving the efficiency of production could change this calculus.