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Letter to the Editor: The New Technology Of 'Cellulosic Ethanol' Could Be Very Important For New Mexico

on September 24, 2014 - 9:08am
Director, Institute for Energy Resourcefulness
Los Alamos

We can now make fuel for our cars from wastes. Called “cellulosic ethanol," this fuel is identical to the corn ethanol fuel that comprises 10 percent of the ingredients that make up the fuel we call ‘gasoline’, but, this ethanol is made from wastes – all kinds of wastes, as well as non-food crops. Cellulosic ethanol is now being made on a commercial scale by a number of different processes. Because it uses wastes, and non-food crops grown on marginal (draught ravaged) land, this technology can be of great importance for the future of New Mexico. Herein I discuss three of the important economic benefits, and two of the health benefits it can have, and how we can help bring the benefits of this new technology to our state.

NM is uniquely situated to take advantage of this new cellulosic technology; as it can help preserve NM’s heritage while carrying NM into the future. On the economic front, encouraging the use and production of ethanol will set the stage for new jobs and industry in NM. As you must clearly be aware, we, as a State have stagnated economically, and as the Earth’s climate warms we are told that things will get worse with respect to draughts and fire. The way forward is to reduce our fossil energy usage by converting our wastes to energy. Clear NM examples include:

  • revitalizing the Eastern counties of NM so farmers can once again make a living – now from non-food crops like sorghum, and new draught tolerant species that can be used for cellulosic ethanol,
  • reducing the threat of forest fires by thinning forests and converting the waste wood to ethanol,
  • converting our Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) to ethanol to alleviate our landfill problems.

On the health side, it is increasingly clear that gasoline and diesel fumes are unhealthy for us, promoting asthma, lung disease, heart disease, cancer, and has recently been associated with the development of autism. Ethanol does not contain cancer causing benzene, or memory lapse causing toluene and emits far fewer asthma causing particulates. Thus, the production and use of cellulosic ethanol in NM can also have significant heath benefits.

Converting our wastes to ethanol will help NM grow by providing enough jobs to keep our livelihood in depressed areas of the State, while keeping our fantastic traditional life style. Because ethanol is a fuel that which is cheaper, cleaner, and renewable with lower net carbon, it has a market advantage. Certainly oil companies will continue to put 10 percent ethanol into their gasoline, as it is the cheapest octane enhancer they can use. But because they only have to meet the Federal regulation of 87 octane, they only need the 10 percent. Any more means they use less oil. They see this as an unnecessary giveaway. But I believe that the use of ethanol will grow beyond 10 percent because more citizens understand the health and economic benefits of ethanol.

It is in our bet interest to get off of the oil habit, no matter what the oil conglomerate sees as a liability, plus the law of the land requires oil companies to add at least 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels to the fuel supply by 2022. Having this cellulosic fuel market means that the tasks of farming water stressed land, adding MSW-to-energy projects and forest thinning, all of which take money, will occur, because now there will be a profit in them. They will not require continual grant money to continue or to survive.

This fact seems to have escaped people’s attention; that cellulosic ethanol technology can take us from solving these problems via grants, to solving them because there is profit in doing so. For New Mexico’s situation this could be an ‘ace-in-the-hole’. Keeping the best parts of our lifestyle, but in a decent economy, which has jobs – and jobs, that can’t move away! Oil and gas have brought us to where we are, but in spite of the unbelievable profits they make, they can take us no further. New Mexico’s economy has stagnated.

Of great importance is the fact that this new technology is not liked by the oil companies, and is being vilified in every way they can find to do so. It is not my purpose to discuss their attacks here, but simply to make you aware of them. Remember the mantra “keep her dumb and happy”? Oil companies do not want to allow cellulosic ethanol technology to gain a foothold, because once you have it available why would you go back to gasoline. Simply put, if you could use a fuel that was cheaper, much lower in pollution, had lower adverse health effects, had very low CO2, would bring jobs and prosperity to our State, and used our wastes to make it -- so the beauty of our land, and the quality of our air and water could be preserved -- would you continue to use gasoline?

Oil interests see this, and although cellulosic technology is just getting a foothold, it is close enough for oil companies to ‘taste it’ and have convulsions -- and they are doing everything possible to discourage you from participating in this revolution. Its success will decrease their profits. That’s the problem. That’s it. They don’t care about your health; never mind the health of the world (why do your think they kept lead, yes lead, in gasoline for decades – decades - after they knew it was dumbing us down; dumbing all of us down). Although most ethanol available today is made from corn, the infrastructure and vehicles that are needed will take time to be acquired and put in place. Therefore, participating in the developing revolution requires your participation to begin now, to be a proactive participant in the progress. Waiting will enable the oil companies, who are mounting arguments to kill the existing ethanol Federal legislation, to win the day.

Although the petroleum industry has said that it is a fantasy that could never be done, cellulosic ethanol is here today! The first large scale plant using agricultural wastes, of 25 million gallon per year capacity opened 3 Sept 2014 in Iowa, and the second one, making cellulosic ethanol in a different way, opened a week later in Galva IA. Two more plants of the 25-30 million gallon capacity, also using plant wastes, are scheduled to open in October (the 17th), and December in Kansas and Iowa. So, we are on the cusp of the revolution, and I hope you will see that your support is important for the continued growth of the technology and the contribution it will make to New Mexico.

In the past you may have said, “I can’t use ethanol because it is made from corn, and there are starving people who could be fed by it.” This would be a reasonable opinion from a distance, but the reality is very different. So, lets look at the current corn ethanol picture to clarify the situation. Corn yields this year are the highest in World history, and corn prices are lower than they were in 1975 – long before large-scale use of corn based ethanol. This means that the demand for corn is low; there is an oversupply. Over the course of 5½ decades the land-use for corn has increased less than 2 percent (since 1960), while corn yields have increased 300 percent.

This is due to better seeds and farming practices. At the same time that this oversupply exists, we are producing record volumes of Corn Ethanol. Even with farmers having the additional market of sales to ethanol factories to prop up the price, the cost of producing corn this year is more than the price a farmer can get for it, even with this additional market! Thus, because of increased productivity, the situation has returned to the days when farmers would choose not to plant to save money-- and instead, they would receive a government subsidy for not planting –this goes back to before WWII – before most of us were born. It is definitely kept secret in the arguments the oil industry makes of the ethanol industry using “food-for-fuel”. The reality of the marketplace is that the corn would never be grown if the farmer looses money doing so! Thus, it is important to understand that using corn to make ethanol is not a ‘food-for-fuel issue in our country. This understanding of the current situation allows us, in good conscience to begin our campaign to support the use of ethanol, with the future of cellulosic ethanol in mind and its value to NM.

So lets look in more detail at some of the things the cellulose ethanol process can do for NM. First we need to note that it can keep current farmers farming, and perhaps make farming in NM a viable, exciting occupation once again. The new cellulosic technology enables the farmer to not only harvest the corn, but in addition harvest 25 percent of the corn leaves, stalks and cobs that were traditionally left on the fields after the corn harvest, and sell this additional biomass to the cellulosic ethanol producers. The extra income per acre tips farming over to the profitability side, and encourages the farmer to plant next year.

Furthermore, in the future, the University of Nebraska and USDA studies show that 50 percent of the waste stalks, cobs, etc., can be removed safely, meaning that in the future even more money will likely come from the waste left on the fields after the harvest. But, as you are probably are aware, farmers are very conservative and want to move ahead slowly, understanding that the health of their soil is very important. Clearly, if your tax dollars had to go to subsidize their NOT planting corn, versus being spent for health and education which would you prefer? Under the current system, and increasingly as cellulosic ethanol takes hold, the farmer is instead supplying the “for profit” market with a feedstock that is in demand, and worth more money than the subsidies pay. Supporting ethanol production by buying this fuel is an important way you can vote for the increased use of ethanol, and thus the increased development and use of cellulosic ethanol.

The area where cellulosic ethanol technology can have a very large impact for New Mexico is on farming in Eastern Counties. As you probably know, a combination of the lower rainfall in the past decade and the drying up of the Ogallala aquifer used for irrigation in some of these counties has severely hurt the economy. This problem is also experienced in Texas, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. In all these states farmers have moved to growing grain sorghum, which needs about ½ the water, as corn requires. In normal years sorghum does not need irrigation. Sorghum is used as cattle feed, but it can also be used to make ethanol. An ethanol plant in Portales NM used sorghum for many years, as did the one in Tucumcari. However, although sorghum can be grown in dryer climates, it typically has yields of fewer than 100 bushels per acre, whereas corn has about 150 bushels per acre. However, sorghum grain produces the same amount of ethanol per pound as corn.

Thus, somewhat more acreage is needed to supply an ethanol plant than is needed if corn is the feedstock. However, with the advent of cellulosic ethanol production, a given acreage of sorghum can yield enough feedstock, using the grain plus the leaves, cobs and the stalks, to make it profitable for a farmer to supply an ethanol plant. This reopens the Eastern Part of NM to farming. In addition to sorghum, cellulosic ethanol plants can also use prairie grass, and other dry land plants. Also, new ‘energy crops’ are being tested in California’s drought plagued central valley for use as cellulose ethanol feedstock that could work quite well in NM. An additional profit driver is that the cellulosic ethanol factories produce their own biogas to run themselves, and can additionally make electricity. Furthermore, we make a lot of cheese in Eastern NM, and adding cheese whey (an additional waste product produced in Eastern NM), to the back end of the cellulosic ethanol plant can significantly enhance the amount of biogas produced at the plant. This is an additional attractive economic driver to bring the factories here.

The second aspect of economic, cultural, and quality of living, improvement New Mexico stands to gain by the cellulose revolution is the managed reduction of forest fires. As noted above, cellulosic ethanol can be made from wood wastes. In fact the possibility of cellulosic ethanol being produced from thinning the forests in Northern NM - to lower the chance of forest fires – is currently being discussed. We have all experienced the increasing frequency of forest fires, and the trend does not look like it will reverse. So let's save our environment and make cellulosic ethanol at the same time. This fuel will initially have a dramatic 90% GHG (green house gas) REDUCTION compared to gasoline. A key point here is that providing a PROFITABLE forest conservation industry (via ethanol profits) is also a way to ensure regularity of the thinning, insuring the reduction of forest fires, the growth of healthy forests, and enjoyable forests recreation areas.

The third important economic benefit to NM is that cellulosic ethanol technology can produce ethanol from our Municipal Solid Wastes (MSW) – from our garbage. As you probably know, if you are a LA resident, the Los Alamos landfill is filled and closed, so that we have to carry truckloads of our garbage to Rio Rancho. This is clearly not a sustainable arrangement. Making cellulosic ethanol from our (or a combination of our and Santa Fe’s/Espanola’s) MSW is a real possibility. One cellulosic ethanol plant using MSW is running in Edmonton Canada with a population of 815,000 people.

Another Plant using a combination of agricultural wastes, MSW and specific wood wastes has been operating in Florida since 2012. In Italy the company Beta Renewables has been using a number of non-edible plants for two years making cellulosic ethanol. In Phoenix, AZ, which has also filled it landfills, bids are going out for an MSW to ethanol plant. Cellulosic ethanol technology is here. The ethanol made from all of these processes is chemically the same, and works equally well in your vehicle.

So, what does this cost you? My reference is the average of $2.57 per gallon of E85 I paid over this first week of September driving to visit the cellulosic ethanol plants mentioned above (I own a 2007 Yukon XL Flex Fuel Vehicle - FFV). On a dollar/mile basis I spent 20 cents per mile using E85, vs. the 22 cents per mile it would have cost me to do the trip on gasoline (at $3.34 per gallon for low test at the time of the trip). So, even though my mileage was reduced from 15.1mpg on E10 to 12.9 mpg on E85, I actually spent less to support the farmers now, and to encourage the future of cellulosic ethanol.

It is important to know that current vehicles, even FFVs (Flex Fuel Vehicles), are far from optimized for ethanol use, and that manufacturers like Ford and Cummins are testing engines that will use it more wisely, resulting in more mileage and performance. The issue today is that engines are ‘dumbed down’ for the low octane that gasoline has, but that they can show significant power and mileage improvement when built to use the higher octane that is in ethanol (just look at the power and performance of NASCAR and Indy cars which run on E15 and E85 respectively).

I believe we should encourage these possibilities. We should ask to have Blender Pumps in Los Alamos and throughout NM. These enable 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent, 85 percent (E10, E15, E20, E30, E85),percentage levels of ethanol to be dispensed.  Most of the new and used E85 Flex Fuel vehicles already in NM that could use high percentages of ethanol use only E10 (10 percent ethanol) gasoline because of the lack of E85 or blender pump availability. These Blender pumps would enable us to choose any ethanol blend that our vehicles can currently use. Since most new vehicles are at least able to use E15, you can immediately begin to contribute to the revolution, even if you don't have an FFV (which would allow E85).

Blender pumps would allow all of us to show that we understand and want to participate in the revolution that will uniquely bring NM into the next century without forcing Her to lose the values of the last centuries. (At the moment to get ethanol we have to drive to the Nambe filling station by Buffalo Thunder or to Santa Fe or Albuquerque, and there they only enable pumping E85 – limiting so many of us from participating.) We need ethanol fueling options on the Hill, and we need competition among distributors that can bring the price into a reasonable range (see what I paid in Iowa, above). Blender pump dispensers have the additional retailer advantage that the fuel dispensed at an island can suit every customer – the island is not exclusively reserved for FFV customers, as it would be with an E85 only dispenser.

The health effects of ethanol use should not be ignored. They are an important part of this revolution – one leading into a healthier new world. An important local benefit of using ethanol is the reduction of pollutants such as benzene, CO, CO2, NOx, and particulates in the air. Even with the current generation of engines and their tuning for gasoline, running ethanol blends results in cleaner emissions, and hence clearer air. And these engines, when calculated on a cost of driving (dollars-per-mile) basis can save money using ethanol blends. Through our use, competition in ethanol distribution will emerge, bringing about a reduction in our fuel costs to save us even more. By using ethanol in blends above the current (default) E10, you can drive the demand for ethanol up, and essentially drive up the demand for all of this new cellulosic ethanol technology.

One day cellulosic ethanol from dry land farms, timber wastes and the garbage of cities will enable fuel to be so inexpensive that our economy will have the room to flourish, unlike the choking it is experiencing now from high fuel costs – and no one will be able to take this cheap renewable fuel away from us. Of course, exploiting these new cellulosic ethanol technologies will also create additional jobs – how many – we can only guess. But, this will not happen if we are passive. If we actively use and promote ethanol, every additional ounce we use becomes a market driver for the new cellulosic ethanol industry.

And, there are additional benefits for the Earth we live on. Cellulosic ethanol is the lowest carbon fuel we can use – potentially carbon neutral and sometimes even carbon negative (hydrogen fuel cells and battery electric cars actually produce much more CO2 – because of the need to make electricity and hydrogen). If all vehicles in the US used cellulosic ethanol, we could reduce the CO2 we put into the air by 1/3 of our country’s total emissions. This would result in a huge decrease in the buildup of the Earth’s Greenhouse Gases. Using cellulosic ethanol in our vehicles represents essentially the maximum contribution an individual citizen can make to reduce CO2 emissions, while still preserving his/her lifestyle.

Finally, buying an FFV (Flex Fuel Vehicle) COSTS NO MORE than an ordinary vehicle, and you are getting higher quality components in it. FFVs can always fall back to using gasoline. If you don’t have access to higher ethanol blends now, you should still consider buying an FFV when you are in the market for a new or used car. It opens fueling options for all the future years you will own it. LA residents should ask their County Councilors to support the use of ethanol by bringing the fuel to Los Alamos for the county’s Flex Fuel Vehicles to use. They should ask for the option of opening these pumps to the public. Ask your service station owners for it. Ask why the Lab isn’t using it more widely. Let’s accelerate the revolution. With the rapid development of cellulosic ethanol technologies, on top of the existing and new grain (sorghum and energy crops) ethanol production, there is finally a light at the end of the (oil) tunnel.

What are we waiting for? This is a painless way to lower our carbon footprint, protect our health, bring new jobs to NM, foster a higher standard of living for New Mexicans while preserving our precious lifestyle, and save money at the same time.