Wednesday, April 04, 2007

More on the ethanol debate

The ethanol issue continues to heat up, with a new Op-Ed by Fidel Castro in Granma. The Miami Herald also jumps on the supposed change of heart by Hugo Chávez on ethanol.

I don’t think the analyses we’re seeing are getting the fundamental point. This isn’t about ethanol per se, but rather corn-based ethanol, which is produced by the United States. In other words, Fidel’s argument is that Latin America, under the leadership of Venezuela and Cuba (and to a lesser extent Brazil because of the presence of foreign companies there), will support sugar-based ethanol while the U.S. (and other wealthy countries) will promote hunger by using corn for fuel. When I read Chávez criticisms of ethanol, he always refers specifically to corn--as far as I can tell, he still supports the use of ethanol. If he suddenly rejects even sugar-based ethanol, that will be a different story.

This second Castro editorial can easily be seen as a clarification of the first, which he did not write well, since with his criticisms (including a reference to Brazil) he definitely left the impression that he was opposed to ethanol generally. Now he’s backing off that criticism, being careful to smooth any possibly ruffled feathers with Brazil.

So if this is to gain traction, the two governments need to get their talking points in better order. Can they make this message stick with people who aren’t already supporters? To what degree will people even care if they do not rely on corn as an essential foodstuff? Another question left unanswered is that if you use a hunger-based argument against using corn, shouldn’t you also argue that the land used for sugar be employed instead for a food crop?


Anonymous,  8:06 PM  

what I don´t get about this whole ethanol debate is the essential difference between the corn based and the sugar based.
I read a couple of times that the corn based takes more energy to produce, making it more inefficient. But I haven´t "seen" any proof of this; call me an empiricist if you may.
Second thing I don't get is EXACTLY what Prof. Weeks points out in the last part of the post regarding the hunger-based argument against using corn.
Anybody can offer some insight that can help me begin to understand these things?

On another note, have you read the NYT (Larry Rohter, of course) article on Chile? It picks up where The Economist left off. I disagree with a lot of the criticisms, especially re: corruption scandals.
What's also pretty hard to agree with is the great deal of time and attention devoted to them by most local media here in Chile (La Tercera in particular).

Anonymous,  11:06 PM  

mb, corn takes more energy because you get less energy from it because the sugar content of of corn is less then sugar cane. You also have to factor in crop density and fertilizer use of growing corn vs. sugar cane.

I was actually going to post this at a later date but here are some numbers I found:

sugar cane
5,300 -6,500 liters ethanol/ha
green house savings ~90% vs. petrol

3,100 - 3,900 liters/ha
green house savings ~15% vs. petrol

Nature, 2006, 444:670-672

Corn isn't a great source of ethanol but it plays well in US politics. This may help (?) 3rd world farmers since they compalin that they get priced out of the market due to US and EU subsidies on corn. It will take time but the market will stabalize.

Research is heading in the direction of using grasses (myscanthus - there are specific reasons for this) and some are researching butanol instead of ethanol. As a side note BP just gave $500 million over 10 years to two universities to research biomass conversion. I assume Petrobas will increase R&D into this area to.

boz 8:17 AM  

I'll agree with KA. However, it is not just because of subsidies. Corn is also easier from a technology standpoint to convert to ethanol than many other sources of biofuel. It took Brazil decades to get sugarcane ethanol to the point where it was truly cost-effective, but once they got it there, it is more efficient than corn.

Similarly, the technology to get ethanol from other non-food biofuel sources (grasses, weeds, hay, cornstalks, woodchips, etc.) is much more difficult, but once we figure it out, it will be generally more efficient than either corn or sugarcane. Some scientists say were as close as five years away, I think it's more like 10-15.

Greg Weeks 8:32 AM  

And everyone can check out Boz's recent post to see how he disagrees with me on Chávez's stance. I am sure Chávez will make a big speech about this before long--I doubt Castro will remain the point man.

Anonymous,  1:36 PM  


Justin Delacour 7:15 PM  

There was an interesting commentary in the New York Times today entitled The Consequences of Corn; it has to do with the alleged trade-offs between conservation and ethanol production. I have no expertise on the subject, so I don't really know what to make of it, but it seemed like food for thought.

Greg Weeks 7:44 PM  

There is also an article in Foreign Affairs about how using corn is not a good way to produce ethanol.

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