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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Waste Not

Air Date: Week of

Part I: Some environmentalists and businesses are taking a new look at ethanol, the alcohol fuel now made from Midwestern corn. They believe expanding ethanol production to grass and crop waste could mean importing less gasoline and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project about the promise of waste-based ethanol.
Part II:Our conversation on cellulosic ethanol continues with Jerry Marin of California’s Air Resources Board. He says his state doesn’t like ethanol. Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project responds.


GELLERMAN: There was once a time when happy motoring meant touring the USA in your Chevrolet and you even got service with a smile. Life seemed simpler then.

[BANJO MUSIC: “And up through the ground, come a bubblin’ crude, oil that is…” ]

GELLERMAN: But today, 50 or 60 bucks a fillup, Jed Clampit might have abandoned the old cement pond and chosen to stay on the family farm. Instead of drilling Texas tea, he might be distilling moonshine, ethanol. Since the 1990s, ethanol’s been required by some states as a gas additive to curb emissions. Now, with the price of gasoline sky high, the homegrown alternative fuel has President Bush’s support.

BUSH: I like the idea of people growing corn. It gets converted into fuel for cars and trucks. Our farmers can help us become less dependent on foreign oil.

GELLERMAN: With me to discuss the buzz about making ethanol from agricultural and industrial waste is Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project. Hi Brooke.

COLEMAN: Thanks for having me.

GELLERMAN: So, ethanol has been around for a long time. I mean, the Germans were using it, I think we were using it in World War II.

COLEMAN: That’s correct. Ethanol in this country has been produced since the early part of the 20th century. The Model T, the Ford Model T, ran on both an ethanol blend and a petroleum blend.

GELLERMAN: And in the ‘70s when they had the oil shock prices then in the long gas lines. Ethanol was in the news and people were using it. So, what’s new here is that, instead of making it from corn, now we can make it from other things.

COLEMAN: Correct. There’s a term called cellulosic ethanol and the end product is the same. However, cellulosic ethanol comes from the leaves, stems and stalks of the plants instead of just the fruits and the seeds. So if today’s ethanol producers grow corn to harvest a corn kernel, tomorrow’s producers may be choosing from rice, wheat, oat, barley, straw, switch grass. Some companies even want to make it out of urbanized waste streams and municipal waste and even stale beer.

GELLERMAN: So, how much ethanol is the United States using right now as fuel in gasoline?

COLEMAN: Oh, it’s about just over three billion gallons of ethanol, around three billion gallons and that is still a fairly small percentage of the United States’ overall consumption of gasoline, which is up around 130 billion gallons a year.

GELLERMAN: So, it can be used to extend the supply of gasoline?

COLEMAN: It can.

GELLERMAN: And I was reading it can increase octane levels and it can decrease engine emissions.

COLEMAN: That’s true.

GELLERMAN: What’s new now is that we can use all of these other waste products, now why is that new? Couldn’t we have taken all this waste and turned it into fuel before?

COLEMAN: The reason that that’s new is to produce ethanol from the stems and stalks of a plant as opposed to say the corn kernel. There’s another step in the production process. The corn kernel is what people refer to as a fermentable carbohydrate. That means that it ferments easily into a fuel-grade alcohol. The stems and stalks have to be broken down into a fermentable carbohydrate and that involves a variety of methods and the one that many investors see as the future of the industry is using micro-organisms to break the plant matter down into a fermentable carbohydrate.

GELLERMAN: And those are novel micro-organisms, or you can get them in any store?

COLEMAN: No, you can’t get them in any store. There are companies that are working on putting these enzymes on the market and what that allows is a more efficient production of ethanol.

GELLERMAN: I know there’s a big controversy over whether you are actually getting a yield, an energy yield for using corn for ethanol production because you have to have oil to have the tractors and you have to have pesticides, chemical-based, herbicides and all that kind of stuff.

COLEMAN: That’s correct and it’s a responsible question to ask. In the last five to six years, ethanol production efficiency has increased significantly and the Department of Energy in several studies has confirmed that there’s a positive net energy balance. But the point here is to let, allow the industry to further mature, to implement more efficient production strategies and to move toward cellulosic ethanol, which is far more efficient.

GELLERMAN: And then you could have distilleries or fermenters all over the country. You wouldn’t be dependent upon just a few refineries at either end of the country.

COLEMAN: And that is one of the reasons that the oil industry is so opposed to ethanol production. They know that it’s a naturally decentralized industry. They know that there are not as significant barriers to entry as there are now. I mean there are a few upstart environmental entrepreneurs that are considering opening an oil refinery, however, there are several that are considering opening an ethanol refinery.

GELLERMAN: What is the potential of what you’re calling cellulosic ethanol?

COLEMAN: The potential is great. We’re talking on the order of 150 billion gallons by 2050 and presuming that our consumption of liquid fuels increases over 150 billion gallons by 2050, that still represents a majority of our consumption of liquid fuels, which would create jobs, tax revenue, fuel diversification, increase competition in the marketplace and reduce CO2 emissions which is where we need to go.

[MUSIC: Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” Television Themes: 16 Most Requested Songs (Columbia) 1994]

GELLERMAN: We’re talking with Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project about the promise of cellulosic ethanol. Coming up—California just says no to the stuff. It already has its fill. That’s just ahead on Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: G Love & Special Sauce “Lay Down the Law” Yeah, It’s That Easy (Okeh) 1997]

GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. Brooke Coleman of the Renewable Energy Action Project is a big fan of filling up our cars with ethanol made from waste. We’ll continue our conversation with him but first, California leads the nation in the use of clean fuels including ethanol. And because of its expertise curbing auto emissions, other states, even other countries, seek the advice of California’s Air Resources Board. But agency spokesman Jerry Martin says the Air Resources Board doesn’t share Brooke Coleman’s enthusiasm for waste-based ethanol.

MARTIN: The state of California and the Air Resources Board have some reservations about ethanol largely because we have done studies on granted older vehicles that show that using large amounts of ethanol increases nitrogen oxide emissions. Nitrogen oxides are the building block of photochemical smog and another problem we have with ethanol, of course, is that ethanol for California is an import product, which means that California drivers will have to pay an added cost to have ethanol put in their gasoline.

GELLERMAN: But California growers raise rice, you’ve got vineyards, you’ve got some of the largest agricultural areas in the country.

MARTIN: That’s correct. As a matter of fact, the state Air Resources Board has sponsored research projects to develop ethanol from rice straw as a way of helping rice growers in the Sacramento Valley get rid of the straw. We have nothing against ethanol, but we recognize some limitations with the product.

GELLERMAN: But you’re also fighting the federal government to get out of using ethanol in gasoline.

MARTIN: That’s correct. Largely because we don’t think it’s necessary. Cars built today are equipped with mechanical and electronic solutions to the problems that oxygenates in gasoline solved in the early ‘90s.

GELLERMAN: But Jerry, you know, as goes California, so goes the nation. Investors are watching California to see what you do with the waste ethanol, to give it a green light or not. Aren’t you depriving the rest of the country of a relatively clean renewable fuel?

MARTIN: We don’t think so and as I said earlier we are not against ethanol, we are just against a requirement demanded in Washington that California use an oxygenate when we don’t think it’s necessary. We think it adds to our air pollution burden and, of course, this is the most polluted state in the nation with 75 percent of the health-threatening pollution occurring here. We cannot afford to add a product to our fuel which we know will increase air pollution. Right now, ethanol is just another product Californians would have to pay for in their fuel.

GELLERMAN: Jerry Martin is spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. Jerry, thank you very much.

MARTIN: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Brooke Coleman, you’re with the Renewable Energy Action Project and maybe this is not such a bright horizon as you were thinking originally?

COLEMAN: Well, we don’t agree with that position. There is a zone of disagreement basically. We don’t think that the evidence suggests that ethanol blends worsen air quality. In fact, ethanol has been used in some states since the mid ‘80s. Not a single state that has replaced either MTBE, which is the old oxygenate, with ethanol has ever had a documented air quality problem. And it’s important to point out here that every major city in this country monitors smog every hour of every day, 365 days a year. And so, when ethanol’s been used for two and a half decades and there’s no empirical evidence to suggest that the cities that use it have problems, then I think it’s time to move onto the more important issues here. And that’s petroleum displacement, global warming, job creation, and creating tax revenue in the state of California.

GELLERMAN: Brooke, is it possible that the rest of the country could increase its use of this waste ethanol and California do what it’s doing and the country would be better off or worse off, but that this could happen without California?

COLEMAN: It could, but when the California Air Resources Board comes out and says something, the rest of the country listens. And that’s true across the board for environmental policy makers.

GELLERMAN: But you said yourself, that, you know, in Midwest states they’re using this to a greater extent already.

COLEMAN: That’s correct, but we, there’s an opportunity here. And California’s the biggest consumer of gasoline in the country. To move a major, major sector of the transportation market toward what we believe is a more sustainable fuel use, I mean, we’re talking about; I mean look at California’s situation right now. They are blending 900 million, almost a billion gallons of ethanol. And their position to give refineries flexibility is basically, let refiners use as much ethanol as they want. And what that sounds like to the average consumer is, hey, flexibility is usually good. Well, what that sounds like for someone trying to develop an ethanol plant is a waste of money because you don’t build a 40-million dollar ethanol plant and hope that the refineries are going to use it.

GELLERMAN: Brooke, you mentioned that the petroleum companies are seemingly not all for this, they’ve got a vested interest in petroleum, so how do you create a market for this?

COLEMAN: One of the ways is you get several plants up and running. You know, the government says, hey, this is worth it from a public policy perspective. We’re going to invest, you know, a billion dollars, over the next 25 years and we’re going to get four or five plants up and running and we’re going to have a deployment strategy. And if it doesn’t work, you know we’re going to have reinsurance and insure the people based on performance.

GELLERMAN: Brooke Coleman is with the Renewable Energy Action Project in Massachusetts and Brooke, thank you very much.

COLEMAN: Thank you.



Renewable Energy Action Project

California Air Resources Board


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