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Corn Ethanol Is Dead, Long Live Corn Ethanol

The United States is overwhelmingly the world's largest producer and exporter of corn (or maise, as most other people in the world call it). It grows about two fifths of the globe's total, more than twice as much as the next largest grower (China) and almost six times as much as the European Union's 27 countries combined. It accounts for more than half of corn exports, Argentina running a distant second.

So it's of greater than merely parochial interest that last year, for the first time, more of the U.S. corn crop went for the manufacture of ethanol fuel than for livestock feed, traditionally its main use by far. About 40 percent of U.S. corn now goes to ethanol, as Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group noted on National Public Radio this week.

It's a sign of the fuel's growing maturity that ending direct U.S. support for ethanol production is under serious consideration. Essentially unrelated factors--the desire and need to cut Federal spending, a desperate search for bipartisanship, rising food prices, and (not least) the viability of the corn ethanol industry--are conspiring to end direct government support for the industry.  On June 16 the Senate voted to end both the 45 cent subsidy for every gallon of corn ethanol blended into U.S. gasoline and the 54 cent per gallon import tariff protecting  U.S. industry from Brazilian producers of sugarcane ethanol. Though the measure will not directly become law, it's being pretty universally interpreted as a clear sign that Congress will vote to end the subsidy and import duty by the end of this year.

The U.S. corn ethanol industry is facing the prospect with remarkable equanimity. That's partly because it will continue to benefit from Federal support, mainly in the form of a mandate--the renewable fuels standard--requiring that 7.5 billion barrels of ethanol be blended into automotive fuel in 2012, versus 4 billion in 2006. And it's partly too because corn ethanol is now being manufactured at a cost of $2-.2.50 per gallon, competitive or very nearly competitive with gasoline at current world prices.

To be sure, the case for ethanol has been overstated in terms of net energy and carbon-reduction benefits, by comparison with gasoline. Despite that, a general consensus continues to prevail--and not just in the United States--that substitutes for depleting oil must somehow be found, even if costs are somewhat higher and climate benefits minimal. Accordingly, the ethanol industry is here to stay.

Many dozens of plants are now producing corn ethanol in the United States. The largest single company in the business, POET LLC, operates 27 and produces 1.7 billion gallons per year.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Energy extended a $105 million loan guarantee to POET for expansion of a pilot cellulosic ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, which will manufacture ethanol from corncobs, husks, and leaves. It is the first such Federal loan guarantee for production of cellulosic ethanol and thus represents a major milestone.

Another milestone this month: Shell Oil's announcement that its Brazilian joint venture Raizen will invest $7 billion in the next five years to double production of sugarcane ethanol. With Petrobras and BP making sizable investments in sugarcane ethanol as well, Brazil is poised to take advantage of the opening of the U.S. biofuels market.

In the short run, to be sure, Brazil is not expected to be a major factor in the U.S. market: With domestic demand high and current production unexpectedly low, Brazilian ethanol prices are much higher than U.S. prices. That's yet another reason why U.S. Congress is almost sure to decide to save the Treasury $6 billion a year by ending subsidies and tariffs.

Eastern U.S. Coal Emissions to Get a Scrubbing

It's mid-July, so hot it's hard to think straight, get angry, or even keep anything in focus. What better time to issue controversial clean air rules? That's what happened several years ago when a Federal appeals court threw out the Environmental Protection Agency's plan to clean up eastern U.S. coal plant emissions—and, more or less concurrently, the Bush Adminstration's EPA said it would not regulate greenhouse gas emissions, even though the Supreme Court had invited it to do so.

Now EPA has reformulated its so-called Cross State Air Pollution Rule, presumably in a way that's more bullet-proof than the Bush administration's 2005 version that was rejected in court. EPA said the new regulations might save as many as 34,000 lives per year, a number that seems to err slightly on the side of oversell, as the best current estimate of total annual U.S. fatalities from coal pollution is about 20,000. Still, EPA makes a persuasive case that large public health benefits will greatly outweigh the relatively modest costs of compliance, which it puts at about $2.4 billion per year.

About 1,000 power plants in the eastern half of the country will be affected by the new rules, which requires them to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide by 73 percent and nitrogen oxide by 54 percent by 2014, from 2005 levels. Coal-burning utilities are complaining not only about the projected costs, but the accelerated pace at which new regulations are being issued. Some of the new cross-state rules come into affect next Jan. 1.

Yet that is not likely to deter EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson from also issuing by the end of this year regulations affecting greenhouse gas emissions. A recent Supreme Court decision appears to have reaffirmed its position that EPA may regulate carbon under the Clean Air Act and Clean Air Act Amendments, even though it's widely acknowledged the legislation was written without global warming in mind and is not ideally suited to carbon regulation.

New Mapping Tool Shows Tidal Power Potential

A group at Georgia Tech University has created a database-driven mapping tool aimed at illustrating the tidal power potential around the coastlines of the entire United States. The map was validated by the Department of Energy and is now available to all.

There aren't yet any major tidal power installations in the United States, but according to the DOE, the map indicates strong potential in both the Northeast and the Northwest. Some related projects do exist, such as turbines under the East River in New York City. Atlantis Resources Corporation, which makes a double-turbine type of tidal power device, has several projects under development around the world, including in India.

And as with any type of energy, assessing tidal power's practical generation potential is the first step. Though some reports have suggested a global capacity of 90 gigawatts and a U.S. potential equaling 15 percent of total electricity requirements, assessments on a more local, project-specific level will now be much easier with the Georgia Tech map.

As the team who created it wrote in their documentation, "Tidal energy is one of the fastest-growing emerging technologies in the renewable sector and is set to make a major contribution to carbon-free energy generation."

Image via Georgia Tech/DOE

More Smart Meter Pushback

The United Kingdom's National Audit Office is predicting that the cost of delivering smart meters to 50 million British homes by 2020 will be considerably higher than the government projects and that it will be harder than expected to induce the desired changes in consumer behavior.

"For the money spent to provide value, we all have to change the way we behave. It is not clear how the department will stimulate this behavior change. And as technology changes, the department will have to be properly flexible to respond with up-to-date technology for the smart meters. These uncertainties can drive up costs more than planned," commented Margaret Hopf, a member of Parliament who chairs the parliamentary Committee of Public Accounts.

Separately, British citizens were also found to be broadly skeptical about smart metering costs and benefits, according to a survey conducted by The Economist magazine for the technology provider T-Systems, a subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom that has offices in California and India.

The promise of smart metering is that it will help utilities make the grid more reliable and help customers save electricity and money. Hence the multiplicity of new products being offered by major suppliers like Landis+Gyr [photo above]. Yet adverse reactions to smart metering have turned out to be surprisingly widespread in terms of both geography and concerns. For example: The Dutch have worried about home security as utilities gather more detailed information on domestic energy use, Californians about radiation from wireless communications devices in meters, and Texans about unexpected increases in electricity bills.

Inasmuch as smart metering is but the first phase of global efforts to integrate advanced computing and communications into traditional power grids, the broad pushback it's encountered indicates that the smart grid may have a tough row to hoe.

Troubled Kabul Power Plant

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer.

Spectrum executive editor Glenn Zorpette, who has developed something of a subspecialty with muckraking accounts of poorly conceived electric power projects in poorly chosen war zones, has an op-ed in today's New York Times about the newly built Tarakhil power plant outside Kabul. Zorpette compares the the Afghanistan track record of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), which was responsible for the plant, unfavorably with that of the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers. (In an AID photo [left], the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry, is seen at the plant.)

Zorpette's investigative work in Afghanistan builds on earlier accounts by Pratap Chatterjee, whose work has been published by CorpWatch (which does what it says) and by the Institute of Policy Studies, a left-leaning research institute in Washington, D.C.

Zorpette's earlier investigation of similar power problems in Iraq was honored with a Grand Neal business journalism award and with a National Magazine Award reporting nomination.

New York Governor Targets Indian Point

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency. For more details on how Fukushima Dai-1's nuclear reactors work and what has gone wrong so far, see our explainer.

New York State governor Andrew Cuomo let it be known this week that he intends to have the Indian Point nuclear power plant, on the Hudson River north of New York City, closed down when its current operating license expires. Though a state's power to close a licensed reactor is limited, Cuomo already has established himself as a man to be reckoned with, having just won major victories on gay marriage and the budget.

Critics of the governor's attitude, including New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, were quick to ask how New York City would replace electricity from Indian Point, which at present provides a quarter of the city's power. So it surely was no coincidence that Cuomo also announced this week that he would open much of upstate New York to natural gas fracking while protecting the New York City and Syracuse watersheds.

The issue of Indian Point's license renewal has centered and will continue to center on the plant's cooling system. It's a once-through plant, obtaining water from the Hudson and returning it to the river. The state has taken the position that the plant's operator, Entergy, should install cooling towers while the energy company would prefer a cheaper and more innovative "wire wedge" filtering system.

Protection of the river's fish is of course a real and legitimate issue, but everybody knows that's not the only issue.

Especially since Fukushima--but also after 9/11--New Yorkers have worried about the safety and security of these nuclear reactors and their cooling ponds, located only 45 miles north of the Empire State Building and just outside the perimeter of a metropolis with close to 20 million inhabitants.

The plant's advocates give Entergy credit for investing many millions in improving the plant, significantly enhancing its efficiency. Radio ads heard constantly by New Yorkers boast that the plant reliably provides relatively cheap electricity. And so it does. Having visited the plant, I personally came away impressed by what Entergy has done to upgrade it.

Since I am on record firmly in the pronuclear camp, let me say where I stand on Indian Point. As I see it, the plant--though a nicely running operation--is a classic case of a reactor complex that should never have been built in the first place. If a severe accident should occur, the immediately surrounding area could not possibly be evacuated, And it it were a worst-case accident involving a complete meltdown penetrating the steel reactor vessel, the Hudson River flowing into New York City would end up disastrously contaminated--permanently contaminated for all practical purposes, that is to say, from a human point of view.

My critics will say that I'm a weak-kneed nuclear advocate who just doesn't want to see a reactor in his backyard. I say I don't want to see this kind of plant in anybody's backyard. From Three Mile Island, which could have permanently contaminated Chesapeake Bay, we learned that reactors should not be built on or in major waterways. If they can't otherwise be built economically, so be it.

I see nuclear energy as an indispensable part of the solution to global warming, but the nuclear industry still has to prove itself in terms of economics and safety.

Hell Hath No Fury Like . . .

A few decades back my most significant other (that is to say, my wife) worked as an editor for a small organization called Environmental Action. Wags said it was dedicated to the promotion of physical intimacy in the woods. Actually, it was founded by the individuals who organized the first Earth Day in 1970, and it was best known--to the extent it was known at all--for its "Love Your Mother" T-shirts and poster [left].

As the editors of The Onion would have us believe these days, Mother Earth is feeling scorned and "doesn't know how to make it any clearer [she] wants everybody to leave," as one of its headlines blared a couple of weeks ago. Or as another magazine's blog put it this week, "Let's see: Today, it's a story about rising sea levels. Now, close your eyes, take a few seconds, and try to imagine what word or words could possibly go with such a story.... If 'faster,' 'far faster,' 'fastest,' or 'unprecedented' don't come to mind, then the odds are that you're not actually living on planet Earth in the year 2011."

That's just one sign of Mother Earth's self-professed defenders going into high dudgeon. In this week's Rolling Stone magazine, former vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore delivers an eloquent rant about the current state of climate politics, which he compares to a dirty Tennessee wrestling match.  Gore takes President Obama to task for not going to bat for climate legislation and, still more sharply, for never presenting to the American people "the magnitude of the climate conference." He quotes the respected presidency expert Richard Neustadt to the effect that the president's most important single power is the power to persuade and gently rebukes Obama for not exercising that power.

More interesting than any of that, perhaps, is a chart accompanying the Gore article showing how the drought-afflicted Earth of the last decade compares with what a drought-ravaged Earth will look like in the last decade of this century.

A sharper bite may be coming from another Earth steward, Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's former minister of the environment, the former chairperson of the Copenhagen climate conference, and now the European Union's environmental commissioner. She has been defending the EU's controversial new rule governing airline emissions, which will require carriers starting January 1 to participate in Europe's emissions trading scheme. Both China and the United States have taken strong exception and are challenging the rule in European court. China has cancelled an order for Airbus A380 superjumbo jets in retaliation, and the U.S. government has told the EU it does not want its airlines participating in the trading scheme. The EU's leaders take the position that the rule represents European law and have said they will not back down.

At Copenhagen, Hedegaard first faced a rebellion from third-world countries that feared the conference was going to impose mandatory carbon cuts on them and then saw the principle of differential mandatory cuts virtually scuttled because of the combined opposition of China and the United States. (China refused to commit itself to any kind of mandatory limits, and the United States refused to get into step with Kyoto in any way, shape, or form.) At the very end, Hedegaard had to relinquish the chairmanship of the conference to the Danish prime minister.

Scorned, perhaps she is now getting her revenge.

France Doubles Down on Nuclear Power

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of IEEE Spectrum's ongoing coverage of Japan's earthquake and nuclear emergency.

French president Nicolas Sarkozy announced a new investment of 1 billion euros (US $1.4 billion) for nuclear power on Monday, bucking the European trend that has seen other countries move away from nukes in the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

France gets about three-quarters of its electricity from 58 nuclear reactors, a bigger proportion than any other country in the world. President Sarkozy told reporters on Monday that "there is no alternative to nuclear energy today."

Of course, the billion-euro investment--which will be accompanied by a further 1.3 billion euros ($1.9 billion) invested in renewable energy--is little more than a drop in the bucket when it comes to expanding nuclear power. Reactor costs run into the multiple billions, and with a new increased focus on safety after Fukushima, those costs could rise even further. The European Union's existing plants are all undergoing additional safety testing after Japan's earthquake and tsunami highlighted some of the risks.

And safety testing aside, much of Europe is taking the opposite tack from France and moving away from nuclear power. Germany has plans to shutter all of its reactors by 2022, and Switzerland, which gets almost 40 percent of its power from five nuclear reactors, will shut all of them down at the end of the reactor lifespans. A recent referendum in Italy showed that 94 percent of voters were against plans to resume a nuclear power program.

In spite of the reactions around the world to Japan's nuclear crisis, France obviously sees little upside to shelving its own nuclear power infrastructure. According to Sarkozy, putting a hold on nuclear power after Fukushima "makes no sense."

(Image via Toucanradio/Flickr)

Economics of Gas Fracking Is Called Into Question

The U.S. natural gas industry and its critics may be starting to wonder who that masked man is. Sunday's New York Times led with a major investigative article by Ian Urbina raising questions about whether the natural gas industry has overhyped the economic promise of gas fracking, with one source even calling the business a kind of Ponzi scheme and another comparing the conduct of individual companies to Enron's.

A follow-up in today's Times raises questions about the extent to which the U.S. Energy Department's Energy Information Administration and other agencies have relied on the gas industry for information about itself.

Earlier in the year, Urbina wrote another high-impact investigative article about gas fracking in which he raised important issues about water management, especially the regulation of fracking fluid disposal in Pennsylvania.

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Federal Greenhouse Gas Regulation

Yesterday's unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision rejecting a state suit against electric power companies crosses political lines in complicated ways. Brought in 2004 by six states, New York City, and three land trusts, it sought to force utilities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; it had the support of environmental groups and was strenuously opposed by the electric power industry. Yet the decision is being hailed by the Obama administration as a victory, because it wishes to keep regulation of greenhouse gas emissions firmly in the control of the Environmental Protection Agency. And environmentalists, even in tactical defeat, are taking it as a signal for EPA to proceed forcefully. "Now the EPA must act without delay," said NRDC attorney David Doniger, who had supported the suit. "In this case," commented the Financial Times, "the EPA found itself in the rare position of being supported by the big coal companies."

The bottom line would seem to be this: In unanimously upholding EPA's authority in the domain of climate change, the court is reaffirming its 2007 decision that EPA could regulate greenhouse gases and should in fact do so if scientifically warranted. The 2007 decision has been challenged by states like Virginia, and House Republicans have introduced a bill instructing EPA not to regulate greenhouse gases. Yesterday's decision indicates that state challenges to the 2007 decision will not stand, and it takes political wind away from the sails of those seeking to block EPA action.

NOTE: In at least one earlier blog post, I incorrectly reported that former justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the swing vote in the 5-4 Supreme Court decision on carbon regulation. In fact, O'Connor had already left the court, and Bush appointees Alito and Roberts were already on the court. So the liberal-conservative political balance on the court is essentially the same today as it was then, contrary to what I suggested before.


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