Sunday, July 31, 2005

New Energy Bill Worse than Doing Nothing

The new energy bill passed by the house is counterproductive in a couple of ways.

  1. It provides $2.7 billion in tax breaks to encourage domestic oil production. That might sound good, but the effect will be to hasten the time when there is no more oil to be had in the US. Wouldn't it be better to have some domestic oil in reserve for an emergency instead of using it all on gas-guzzling SUVs today?

  2. It requires refiners to use 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol annually, double the current production, by 2012. Why is that counter-productive? Because making ethanol takes more energy than is produced when you burn it...by a whopping amount. According to a recent study conducted by researchers at Cornell and Berkely:

    • Corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy to produce than can be extracted from it (as ethanol)

    • Switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced

    • Wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

    The study didn't make biodiesel look any better: In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

    • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and

    • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

  3. There are tax credits for buying gas-electric hybrid cars, but (1) these cars are selling as fast as they can be manufactured, without any subsidy, and (2) the newest, and hottest-selling hybrid cars offer no fuel-saving advantage over existing gasoline engines. Instead, these new cars spend increased efficiency on increased power, not better mileage.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Rich said...

It isn't necessarily the case that encouraging domestic oil production will also encourage oil consumption at the same rate. Some of the petroleum could go to the Strategic Reserve, right? It is kind of ugly to see this drilling subsidy when the industry posted some $55B in profits in 2003, however. Even uglier is the lack of real effort at bringing national vehicle fuel efficiency standards back up, since I agree with the comments on the hybrid tax credit.

I would have been surprised if Pimentel and Patzek came up with the opposite conclusion from the one they did, for that would have implied that one could then build a perpetual motion machine of the first kind. One could use the same argument to say that creating a hydrogen economy is nonsensical because it takes more energy to hydrolize water than one gets back out of the fuel cell. Also, I'm a little confused about "fossil energy." Not all of it is created equal, since I cannot (yet) put coal or natural gas into my car. (Nor photovoltaics nor wind energy, which he favors in the news article.) So even if one loses 1/3 the energy content of the raw materials required in producing the corn-derived ethanol, one might still be able to justify the effort.

There's an interesting
feature in this month's National Geographic magazine on the search for energy sources, including some nice pictures of wind turbines I remember seeing when we visited Denmark. On our recent vacation on Cape Cod, we saw articles in the local paper about residents opposing an offshore wind farm development there for fear that it will be unsightly and dangerous for wildlife.

6:07 PM  
Blogger Daryl McCullough said...

Rich says: I would have been surprised if Pimentel and Patzek came up with the opposite conclusion from the one they did, for that would have implied that one could then build a perpetual motion machine of the first kind.

No, growing corn gets some energy from the sun, after all. So in theory ethanol could be a way of turning solar energy into automobile fuel. The surprising result is that growing corn uses more energy from fossil fuel than it produces.

Yes, if it were really the case that one could turn coal into ethanol, that would be worth it. Natural gas isn't much more plentiful than petroleum, so I don't think that would be much of a win.

7:39 AM  
Anonymous R said...

Yeah, not a closed system... mon mauvais.

11:25 AM  

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