Sunday, March 18, 2007

Cellulosic ethanol rapture...

Every now and then the Christian community gets all riled up about some sign indicating the Rapture (Second Coming) is immanent. This happened back in the 70's when various authors, notably Hal Lindsey extracted from Daniel and Revelations prophesies that seemed (to them) to pinpoint the hour of judgment for mankind.

God apparently had other plans, and here we are. But I have noticed all the hubbub about cellulosic ethanol has induced a similar apprehension in many true biofuel believers. "Cellulosic will usurp our hard-won ethanol mandates", they moan. Others worry that within a few years the advantages of cellulosic will make corn ethanol obsolete.

To be sure, cellulosic ethanol does have powerful efficiency advantages. And it can be made from whole bunches of cheap inputs - like garbage and trees.
But for ethanol made from trees, grasses and other types of biomass which contain a lot of cellulose, the energy balance can be as high as 16, at least in theory. In practice the problem is that producing such “cellulosic” ethanol is much more difficult and expensive than producing it from other crops. But the science, technology and economics of treethanol are changing fast. Researchers are racing to develop ways to chip, ferment, distil and refine wood quickly and cheaply. [More]

But I think it's important to read these predictions closely, just like the apocalyptic foretelling of the 70's. For example, notice the sizes of the c-ethanol plants been loudly announced.
The Southern California Biorefinery Project will turn green waste and wood residues at landfills into about 19 million gallons of fuel grade ethanol per year. Additional products that will also be sold include lignin, gypsum, and yeast. BlueFires's current production estimates for the project will be significantly lower that DOE's cellulosic ethanol goal of $1.07/gal in production costs by 2012, and DOE's current estimate of approximately $2.26/gal. [More]

Now contrast 19 million gallons with the 100-million gallon corn ethanol plants starting up about weekly. Next check the press releases for any mention of partnering with feedstock suppliers. Unlike corn ethanol plants which were pushed by corn growers, c-ethanol backers have not bothered to link strongly to sufficient suppliers to create very much of the stuff.

When they do get around to sourcing straw or stover or whatever, my guess is the value of these formerly low-cost feeds will skyrocket. Even corn growers would have to be compensated significantly to gather, handle, store and deliver bales of stover. And then add more fertilizer to compensate.

My view is c-ethanol is one of the great hustles of the energy bubble. If it happens in my lifetime I may live too long.

Besides, I don't find any mention of it in Daniel.

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