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Why Focus on Ethanol Instead of Biomass Incineration? June 2, 2009

Posted by federalist in Energy, Transportation.
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Government has been paying domestic companies to turn food into vehicle fuel, even during food supply shortages and even though more ethanol is being produced than the current vehicle fleet can consume.  Government is also funding efforts to build plants that can convert non-edible biomass into ethanol.

At the same time, government is funding initiatives to make vehicles more dependent on electricity and less dependent on liquid fuels.

If the goal is to increase the domestic supply of liquid fuel for the transportation sector, there is no question that coal liquification is the most cost effective and realistic solution: We have vast coal reserves, and liquified coal produces heavier fuels that can support existing kerosene, diesel, and gasoline engines.  (Ethanol is a light, hygroscopic fuel that can only run efficiently in modified gasoline engines.)

If the goal is to effect a shift from fossil to biomass fuels then simply burning biomass to generate electricity is far more efficient at recovering energy than first trying to distill it into ethanol.  Even if we do develop effective cellulosic ethanol technology, WSJ reports:

An acre of crops can generate enough electricity for a battery-powered SUV to travel 15,000 miles, nearly twice the distance that would be covered if the crops were turned into cellulosic ethanol….

And unlike all these other tentative technologies biomass power plants have been in existence for decades.

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1. federalist - July 19, 2009

And then there’s the spectacle of intercontinental shipping of biomass fuels in the form of hundreds of thousands of tons of “pelletized” wood:

Government mandates are essential to the increasing use of pellets in power generation, and the growing global pellet trade, experts say.

“You are looking at a totally artificial market,” said Christian Rakos, chief executive of Propellets, an Austria-based trade group of pellet producers. “No power plant would consider using pellets for one minute if they didn’t have to do it.”


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