Blogs > Liberty and Power > Alternative Fuel Decisions

May 13, 2010 12:08 am

Alternative Fuel Decisions

There is no question that a drastic change in off shore drilling policy because of the mammoth spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a terrorist attack on the Saudi oilfields, or Iranian interference with shipping in the Persian Gulf are unsettling possibilities. Any one of these events would wreck havoc with the American economy. That is why Frank Gaffney sees a silver lining in the massive amount of sludge that is approaching our coastline. He believes this looming disaster will finally wake up the population to the dangers of continuing to use oil as our primary energy source.

If a major disruption in the petroleum supply were to occur, Gaffney asks if under “those circumstances, would we hesitate to make the fullest possible use of available technologies, particularly highly cost-effective ones, to tap our nation's vast potential for alcohol-based fuels and, thereby, to enable 'fuel choice' to the consumer? Not bloody likely.” Certainly a switch to bio-fuel seems like an idea whose time has come but there are important choices involved with such a change and they must be made intelligently because we will have to live with them for a long time.

Currently the primary alternative fuel choice being pursued is ethanol made from corn. The government subsidizes its production and the auto makers have committed to making cars that use it. However, this is happening despite the fact making fuel from corn is a very poor choice from both an economic and an energy standpoint. It takes more energy to produce a liter of ethanol from corn than you get out of that liter. Also, using corn to make fuel has unnecessary negative consequences for the food supply.

The suitability of other plants to produce energy needs to be explored and that includes the use of cannabis hemp. Activists trying to legalize the use of industrial hemp have long contended that the plant has characteristics that make it ideal as an energy source. They point out that “it is the cellulose in low moisture herbaceous and woody plants that provides the hydrocarbons necessary for fuel production. ... Hemp is both a low moisture herbaceous and a woody plant.” Combine that fact with the ability to grow on marginal land and relatively high yields per acre and it seems more than sensible to study this possibility.

Congressman Ron Paul, sponsor of the Industrial Hemp Farming Act (HR 1866), made a statement for the Congressional Record in which he asserted that “reintroducing industrial hemp farming in the United States would bring jobs to communities struggling in today's economy, provide American farmers with another crop alternative, and encourage the development of hemp processing factories near American hemp farming.” If the use of this plant were to also allow us to quit using so much oil then the benefits would be enormous. Should we not find out if its advocates are correct?

Cross posted on The Trebach Report

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Andrew D. Todd - 5/20/2010

Coal costs something like twenty to forty dollars per ton. As a ton of coal is the energy equivalent of two hundred gallons of gasoline, that is comparable to gasoline costing ten to twenty cents a gallon. Wholesale electricity (baseline load) generated from coal costs about three cents per Kilowatt-hour, half of that going for the coal. Nuclear electricity costs seven cents per Kilowatt-hour, and I understand that wind electricity is rapidly closing in on nuclear. The value of gasoline derives not from its inherent value as fuel, but from "lock-in," the fact that automobiles and roads are designed to use gasoline, that the roads are not fitted with electric trolley wires, etc. Historically, oil only only cost fifty cents a gallon, on a wholesale basis, before we began playing silly games in the Middle East, and the retail price of gasoline was only about a dollar. Five or ten dollars a gallon for gasoline, exclusive of tax, is not sustainable on a long-term basis, simply because that is enough to trigger the adoption of electric transportation, and the end of "lock-in."

For most annual plants, there is a fairly narrow time-window when the plants are fully mature, and have comparatively low moisture content, before they die and release seeds. Often, once the plants have been cut, they generally have to be stacked in the open fields to dry out further. This means that during harvest season, the farmer is always worrying about the weather, and about the availability of a short-term labor supply. That gets expensive. Over the long term, if you try to sell fuel at farm crop prices, you will be undercut by electricity, possibly nuclear, possibly wind-based.

Now, the two conventional crop-based biofuels, that is corn-based ethanol and legume-based biodiesel, are based around the premise that extracting them improves the value of the residues. Specifically the residues are high-protein foods. One commentator describe the process as "taking the candy bar out of the corn." The idea is that if you feed cattle a high-protein, athletic-training-table sort of diet, their meat will command higher prices. From the agricultural standpoint, the sugars and lipids (fats, oils) which go to make biofuels are waste products.

The hemp advocates, I find, are taking the opposite tack. They are expecting to have large quantities of hemp fiber available as a waste product of the production of hemp oil, considered as a foodstuff. According to David Malmo-Levine, whom you cite, an acre is supposed to yield something like six tons of hemp fiber, suitable for fuel uses, and a hundred gallons of hemp oil at something like fifteen dollars a gallon. However, fuel consumption is measured in tons per capita. When one scales Malmo-Levine's figures up to the level required to make a significant dent in national energy requirements, it works out to something like a sixth of the United States' land area under hemp cultivation, and every man, woman, and child consuming a quart of hemp oil per day. That is totally unrealistic. Recipes call for the inclusion of a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil in a dish which serves four or six people. Obviously, the edible-oil market would be saturated long before enough was produced to subsidize a significant quantity of biofuel.

That puts you back into the situation of producing a crop roughly comparable to hay. Again, you would be trying to sell fuel at food prices. Fuel is required in such large quantities that you cannot really produce it as a byproduct of anything else. The fuel-producing process has to be economic in its own terms.

For something low-value like fuel, the scarce resource is the labor of the people who harvest it. A forestry operation divides up its land into, say, twenty parcels, and visits each parcel once every twenty years. They start by cutting down existing trees, and planting seedlings, and move on to a different parcel, and after twenty years, they can come back to the first parcel. They cut wood at a steady pace over the year, adverse weather permitting. In fact, the way forestry was actually practiced in the American West in W. R. Hearst's time, they tended to cut old-growth timber, trees hundreds of years old, and several feet in diameter. Eventually, shortages of really big trees developed, and regulations in National Forests became more stringent. The 1980's were the decade of the Spotted Owl. I am reminded on the legend I saw, in the late 1980's, on the billboard sign of a rough mill-workers' tavern in an Oregon saw-mill town, reading: "You can hoot and howl/ We don't give a ----- for the Spotted Owl." At that time, large trucks were still hauling logs a couple of feet in diameter down out of the mountains, bound to the local Weyerhauser plant. There was another plant, on the outskirts of town, which made sawdust into charcoal briquettes.

As for the Hearst conspiracy, as per Steven Wishnia, cited above, the indisputable fact is that W. R. Hearst was a newspaper owner on a very large scale, and that, as such, he had a massive interest in cheap paper, from whatever source. At a minimum, you would have to show that he was producing substantially more paper than his newspapers consumed. Furthermore, Hearst added substantial added value to raw paper in the course of turning it into newspapers. Again, it seems undisputed that Hearst was having difficulties paying for the raw paper he purchased, and got into debt to the paper mills. Unless you can challenge that, in a well-documented way, I don't see that you have the beginnings of a case.

Paper-making consists of two parts. First you cook unspecified stuff in large kettles, until you get pulp, and then you spread the pulp out in thin sheets and squeeze the water out of it. The second part is inherently more laborious, requires more elaborate machines, etc., That said, it seems probable that a paper-mill could have adapted to a different raw material by adjusting the cookery necessary to get pulp, and then proceeding normally. Beyond paper-making per se, there are additional processes to give the paper the desired kind of surface, etc. Magazine paper has to be coated with a thin layer of clay, for example. The raw material is the least part of paper-making.

Keith Halderman - 5/19/2010

It does not take twentu years fr hemp to grow that is the point of using it for fuel. Also, while there needs to be more work to prove the DuPont/ Hearst theroy of marijuana prohibition it is far from being debunked. During the 1937 hearings representives of the Hemp industry were promised the legislation will not effect them, yet in 1938 Harry Anslinger makes a bureuacratic interpretation which effectively reneges on that promise. Also, why does Irenee DuPomt's name appear on the list of directors of the World Narcotic Defense Associations in 1936 after he had been so active in the fight against alcohol prohibition?

Andrew D. Todd - 5/19/2010

Abundant at the level that you can go botanizing for it is one thing. Abundant at the level to enable mechanical harvesting is another. The dominant plant biomass in a state of nature is pine, or spruce, or oak, or maple, as the case may be, or some mixture of them. Annual shrubs such as Cannabis occur only in clearings in the forest. Almost anything which involves annual harvesting is likely to be uneconomic as a source of fuel. The kind of harvesting mechanisms which work for foodstuffs don't work for fuel, because fuel has to be so much cheaper. The whole point of a woodlot is that you leave it for twenty years, and come back and harvest the accumulated growth, stored in the form of tree trunks.

The so-called Hearst conspiracy:

This conspiracy theory was put forward by a bong salesman, and has been thoroughly debunked, not that it needed much debunking. You can make paper from just about any kind of fiber. In fact, good paper is traditionally made from cloth rags. The economics of jute paper or sisal paper would probably have been very much the same as those of hemp paper. As for the claimed merits of hemp paper, every inventor claims that his invention is the greatest thing since Polar Bear ice cream. It's the nature of the beast.

Keith Halderman - 5/18/2010

Until the 1930s when the government stared a program to destroy it,wild cannabis hemp grew naturally in great abundance all over this country. Whether or not to switch from fossil to bio fuels is one question to be answered. But if there is a decision to awitch then is seems to me that all plants should be considered. Alos there are a number of people that would argue cogently that you have it backwards. hemp is not illegal because of marijuana, marijuana is ilegal because of hemp.

Andrew D. Todd - 5/17/2010

he hemp-istas start from their desire to legalize cannabis, and proceed to rather convoluted arguments. I don't object to cannabis legalization, on purely practical grounds, though I have some difficulty in seeing cannabis as a great freedom, rather than a small vice. I would certainly agree that cannabis is less destructive than distilled spirits. However, I doubt that hemp would make a very good fuel-stock.

If you leave land to its own devices for a few years, it does not revert to hemp. In most parts of the United States, it reverts to trees (depending on region, varying proportions of Oak, Maple, Beech, Pine, Aspen, Spruce, etc. ). On the great plains, the land reverts to tallgrass. Unlike a cultivated cropfield, the wildland is not a monoculture-- it has a little of this and a little of that. If you walk through a pasture-type-field and look closely, you can easily pick out a dozen different species, and the same applies for a woodlot. The natural seeding process carries seeds for miles, and a process of natural selection operates, favoring all kinds of synergistic relations. The one-species monoculture crop is a kind of market distortion, reflecting the need to produce a standard grain that a trader on the Corn Exchange, who has never got the soil of the land on his boots, can buy and sell.

Methanol is sometimes called wood alcohol, because it was first discovered as a byproduct of the making of charcoal from wood. People traditionally burn wood for fuel, and the charcoal kiln is simply a modification of this. The charcoal-burner took the customary fuel of his time and place, whatever that was, and used it to make pure carbon for metal-smelting. When coal became the dominant fuel, the kiln was re-designed to burn off the impurities of coal, and became a coking oven. Both methanol and pure carbon (charcoal, coke) are simply the result of quenching the combustion process in midstream. Methanol and carbon can be made from anything which will burn. They are not primary fuels in their own right, but intermediate energy carriers, equivalent to electricity. Nowadays, I might add, the ascendant form of steelmaking is the electric-arc furnace. The latest development involves microwaving iron ore.

Major coal deposits were formed about four hundred million years ago, at a time when the world was comparatively swampy, and dead small plants tended to accumulate to a considerable depth in the form of organic muck, or peat. Over geological time, peat got compressed, first into lignite, and then into coal. In swampy areas, people traditionally don't cut wood for fuel-- they cut peat instead. On a larger scale, the Irish electric authority runs some of its power plants on peat. What people do not generally do is to cut small plants of a particular species for fuel, because that is extremely labor-intensive.
Prairie Agricultural Machinery Institute and Alberta Farm Machinery Research Centre, "Using Straw as a Farm Heating Fuel" (Research Update 719, 1995). This article describes using straw-- a byproduct of grain production-- for fuel. Straw has a fuel value, per pound, roughly comparable to wood or lignite, and about half of that of coal. This system works economically because the combine-harvester has to cut the entire grain stalk to feed it into the thresher unit, and the spent straw is deposited in a compact windrow, where it can be easily gathered up. It would not work if the fuel use of straw had to bear the full costs of production.
Presumably hay, the most nearly comparable crop to hemp which is grown in its own right, would have a roughly comparable heat value, and the going rate for hay is about a hundred dollars a ton (to the farmer), or, in terms of fuel value, about five to ten times the price of coal. The probable sources of fuel for methanol will be substantially the same kinds of fuels which are used to make electricity, especially, for the time being, coal, which is at present the single largest source of electricity.

More fundamentally, electricity is in the ascendant. Interesting new transportation systems will naturally run on electricity. Let me give you an example. This new volcano in Iceland will presumably be erupting, off and on, for a year or more. The practical effect is to put European aviation back thirty years or so, to the days when airplanes were at the mercy of the weather. When the weather was bad, the flights simply had to wait until it improved. Railroads, on the other hand, keep getting better, with ever-faster electric bullet-trains. Gaps in the high-speed railroad network will be bridged. As the railroads improve, they tend to become more and more like subways, becoming more and more detached from the environment. Madrid seems to be free of the volcanic ash for the most part, and transatlantic flights will presumably be re-routed there, the travelers getting between Spain and the rest of Europe by train.

Here is a link to a review essay of material, mostly about electric cars, and about the intelligent use of electricity in transportation.

I developed a kind of dialectic to show how the transportation energy problem practically reduces to coming up with a good electric subway. That said, hemp is not a serious candidate for fueling electric power plants. Such plants run on fuels which are, generally speaking, both inexpensive and locally available. Consequently, electricity generation does not involve a significant global commerce in fuels.