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Can’t we just be objective?

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Can’t we just be objective? Okay, so I’m a scientist. That means I’m trained to deal in facts—not just “meadow muffins,” as a famous TV colonel used to say. The corn-based ethanol industry is in a dither. A leaked draft of the EPA’s suggested renewable fuel standard (RFS) volumes for 2014 showed a continuation of the biomass-based diesel renewable volume standards at 1.28 billion gal. for 2014 and 2015. But the volume requirements for ethanol were reduced from 2.75 billion ethanol-equivalent gal. (BEG) in 2013 to 2.21 BEG.

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Letters are being sent from all over the corn-based ethanol industry to the EPA crying foul. The letters basically say that Big Oil is thwarting attempts to grow the renewable fuels industry. Meadow muffins! The EPA is just reflecting our government’s wishes to reduce GHG emissions. Since corn-based ethanol produces more GHG emissions than ethanol produced from biomass or sugarcane, the EPA is trying to force more cellulosic based R&D to occur. For once, I agree with the EPA.

We’ve created this enormous corn-based ethanol industry composed of farmers and Big Ag. Much like the birds that show up at your bird feeder, they’ve become dependent on us making them rich and too complacent to do their cellulosic biofuel R&D. It’s like the rangers at Yellowstone who tell people not to feed the animals so they won’t become dependent. Corn-based ethanol producers want us to support them financially.

Why can’t we as a nation just look realistically at our energy requirements and plan for the betterment of the entire country, not just whoever happens to go to Capitol Hill to plead their own selfish interests? I’m not a chemist or a chemical engineer, so I can’t get into the chemistry of a feedstock or the economics of that feedstock’s production, but neither are our nation’s politicians. Let’s look objectively at our country’s future energy needs.

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The original premise, which was used to “sell” corn-based ethanol, was that it would be a viable renewal fuel until alternate sources of energy were found. Our nation can’t survive long term making fuel out of people and/or cattle food. Look what has happened to cattle feed, corn and beef prices. We have a similar situation with the latest energy fad-producing wood pellets out of biomass. What happens when we create a large industry and the biomass available isn’t sufficient to support it? Then the producers will want to start cutting down our forests.

It seems to me that the latest forecast from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) is very logical. The EIA forecasted its estimate of energy sources from 2020 through 2040, which was: Liquid biofuels would slowly increase to about 2% of our total fuel sources and remain at that level; coal would decrease from 19% to 15% of our total requirement while nuclear would remain constant at 9%; and crude oil based liquids would decrease from about 34% to 32% of our supply.

The estimated growth areas were natural gas (from 26% to 28%) and renewables other than liquid (biomass, solar, wind) from 7% to 11 % of our requirements. These predictions were made assuming that transportation fuel usage would remain steady because growth increases would be offset by fuel economy gains. Residential needs were predicted to increase from 8% to 11%, which industrial usage would increase from 24% to 28%.

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Here’s what the old physicist reads into the EIA’s predictions. First, biodiesel usage will continue to increase with the advent of fuels such as butanol, dimethyl ethers and isobutanol. Ethanol usage will decrease as fuel economy regulations require improved fuel economy. Our government has high hopes for renewable fuels other than liquids, but I disagree with them unless our scientists scan develop effective methods of storing solar and wind energy. I also think the natural gas increases predicted are a bit light. With the pressure to reduce GHG emissions, more and more electrical power generators will turn from coal to natural gas. Additionally, I think the trucking industry will embrace natural gas over ethanol and biodiesel due to its lack of cold weather issues. Of course, I’ll be dead by then, so sue me!

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