Cellulosic ethanol

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Thursday, February 02, 2006
By Yokota Fritz

The media and blogosphere has made much of President Bush's acknowledgement during the State of the Union speech that the United States is "addicted to oil." In the past, Bush has pushed for increased domestic drilling to reduce American dependence on foreign oil. In his latest SOTU, Arctic drilling wasn't even mentioned, instead promoting cellulosic ethanol as an alternative fuel.

To reduce imports from the Middle East by 75%, Bush pushed alternative fuels, especially promoting cellulosic ethanol as a replacement for petroleum fuels. Cellulosic ethanol is made from agricultural waste products: wood chips, stalks, and lowland weeds such as switchgrass. Currently, most ethanol is produced by fermenting corn or sugarcane. The hope is that using "waste" biomass reduces the cost of ethanol production.

Cellulosic ethanol also -- to a degree -- addresses the issue of agricultural land use. Natural gas is the feedstock for nitrogen fertilizer. Natural gas prices are rising faster than gasoline prices. Farmers are buying much less nitrogen fertilizer. In two or three years, crop yields will begin to drop dramatically. Corn ethanol, which is already expensive, will become even pricier, as will food and other products made from corn.

There are some technology hurdles to overcome in cellulosic ethanol production, distribution and use. Let's assume we'll overcome those hurdles. In the United States, we currently burn over 130 billions of gasoline to run our cars and small trucks every year. To grow enough biomass to replace that gasoline means we need to cultivate about 500 million acres. That's about one quarter of the land area in the lower 48 that needs to be converted to biomass production for fuel.

Cellulosic ethanol research is perhaps a needed step, but sustainable energy resources can provide only so much. Clearly we need to do much more than create alternative fuels if we wish to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. Although the current administration opposes conservation measures, curing our addiction to oil and transitioning to sustainable fuels means the U.S. needs to significantly cut back on the fuel that we burn for transportation.

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Sounds to me like some investment in safe infrastructure for cycling, even long distance with dedicated greenways even running interurban might be a possible help, Uncle SAm could offer tax creds for vacations by bike for example as well!
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