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Why Cellulosic Ethanol, Biofuels are Unsustainable and a Threat to America

  • Peak Soil: Why cellulosic ethanol, biofuels are unsustainable and a threat to America
    By Alice Friedemann
    Culture Change, April 10, 2007
    Straight to the Source

"The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." - President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Editor's note: There are many serious problems with biofuels, especially on a massive scale, and it appears from this report that they cannot be surmounted. So let the truth of Alice Friedemann's meticulous and incisive diligence wash over you and rid you of any confusion or false hopes. The absurdity and destructiveness of large scale biofuels are a chance for people to eventually even reject the internal combustion engine and energy waste in general. One can also hazard from this report that bioplastics, as well, cannot make it in a big way.

The author looks ahead to post-petroleum living with considered conclusions: "Biofuels have yet to be proven viable, and mechanization may not be a great strategy in a world of declining energy." And, " only a small amount of biomass (is) unspoken for" by today's essential economic and ecological activities. To top it off, she points out, "Crop production is reduced when residues are removed from the soil. Why would farmers want to sell their residues?" Here's an Oh- god-she-nailed-it zinger: "As prices of fertilizer inexorably rise due to natural gas depletion, it will be cheaper to return residues to the soil than to buy fertilizer." Looking further along than most of us, Alice has among her conclusions: "It's time to start increasing horse and oxen numbers, which will leave even less biomass for biorefineries." - JL

Part 1. The Dirt on Dirt.

Ethanol is an agribusiness get-rich-quick scheme that will bankrupt our topsoil.

Nineteenth century western farmers converted their corn into whiskey to make a profit (Rorabaugh 1979). Archer Daniels Midland, a large grain processor, came up with the same scheme in the 20th century. But ethanol was a product in search of a market, so ADM spent three decades relentlessly lobbying for ethanol to be used in gasoline. Today ADM makes record profits from ethanol sales and government subsidies (Barrionuevo 2006).

The Department of Energy hopes to have biomass supply 5% of the nation's power, 20% of transportation fuels, and 25% of chemicals by 2030. These combined goals are 30% of the current petroleum consumption (DOE Biomass Plan, DOE Feedstock Roadmap).

Fuels made from biomass are a lot like the nuclear powered airplanes the Air Force tried to build from 1946 to 1961, for billions of dollars. They never got off the ground. The idea was interesting -- atomic jets could fly for months without refueling. But the lead shielding to protect the crew and several months of food and water was too heavy for the plane to take off. The weight problem, the ease of shooting this behemoth down, and the consequences of a crash landing were so obvious, it's amazing the project was ever funded, let alone kept going for 15 years.

Biomass fuels have equally obvious and predictable reasons for failure. Odum says that time explains why renewable energy provides such low energy yields compared to non-renewable fossil fuels. The more work left to nature, the higher the energy yield, but the longer the time required. Although coal and oil took millions of years to form into dense, concentrated solar power, all we had to do was extract and transport them (Odum 1996)

With every step required to transform a fuel into energy, there is less and less energy yield. For example, to make ethanol from corn grain, which is how all U.S. ethanol is made now, corn is first grown to develop hybrid seeds, which next season are planted, harvested, delivered, stored, and preprocessed to remove dirt. Dry-mill ethanol is milled, liquefied, heated, saccharified, fermented, evaporated, centrifuged, distilled, scrubbed, dried, stored, and transported to customers (McAloon 2000).

Fertile soil will be destroyed if crops and other "wastes" are removed to make cellulosic ethanol.

"We stand, in most places on earth, only six inches from desolation, for that is the thickness of the topsoil layer upon which the entire life of the planet depends" (Sampson 1981).

Loss of topsoil has been a major factor in the fall of civilizations (Sundquist 2005 Chapter 3, Lowdermilk 1953, Perlin 1991, Ponting 1993). You end up with a country like Iraq, formerly Mesopotamia, where 75% of the farm land became a salty desert.

Fuels from biomass are not sustainable, are ecologically destructive, have a net energy loss, and there isn't enough biomass in America to make significant amounts of energy because essential inputs like water, land, fossil fuels, and phosphate ores are limited.

Soil Science 101 - There Is No "Waste" Biomass

Long before there was "Peak Oil", there was "Peak Soil". Iowa has some of the best topsoil in the world. In the past century, half of it's been lost, from an average of 18 to 10 inches deep (Pate 2004, Klee 1991).

Productivity drops off sharply when topsoil reaches 6 inches or less, the average crop root zone depth (Sundquist 2005).

Crop productivity continually declines as topsoil is lost and residues are removed. (Al-Kaisi May 2001, Ball 2005, Blanco-Canqui 2006, BOA 1986, Calviño 2003, Franzleubbers 2006, Grandy 2006, Johnson 2004, Johnson 2005, Miranowski 1984, Power 1998, Sadras 2001, Troeh 2005, Wilhelm 2004).

On over half of America's best crop land, the erosion rate is 27 times the natural rate, 11,000 pounds per acre (NCRS 2006). The natural, geological erosion rate is about 400 pounds of soil per acre per year (Troeh 2005). Some is due to farmers not being paid enough to conserve their land, but most is due to investors who farm for profit. Erosion control cuts into profits.

Erosion is happening ten to twenty times faster than the rate topsoil can be formed by natural processes (Pimentel 2006). That might make the average person concerned. But not the USDA -- they've defined erosion as the average soil loss that could occur without causing a decline in long term productivity.

Troeh (2005) believes that the tolerable soil loss (T) value is set too high, because it's based only on the upper layers -- how long it takes subsoil to be converted into topsoil. T ought to be based on deeper layers - the time for subsoil to develop from parent material or parent material from rock. If he's right, erosion is even worse than NCRS figures.

Erosion removes the most fertile parts of the soil (USDA-ARS). When you feed the soil with fertilizer, you're not feeding plants; you're feeding the biota in the soil. Underground creatures and fungi break down fallen leaves and twigs into microscopic bits that plants can eat, and create tunnels air and water can infiltrate. In nature there are no elves feeding (fertilizing) the wild lands. When plants die, they're recycled into basic elements and become a part of new plants. It's a closed cycle. There is no bio-waste.

Soil creatures and fungi act as an immune system for plants against diseases, weeds, and insects - when this living community is harmed by agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, even more chemicals are needed in an increasing vicious cycle (Wolfe 2001).

There's so much life in the soil, there can be 10 "biomass horses" underground for every horse grazing on an acre of pasture (Wardle 2004). If you dove into the soil and swam around, you'd be surrounded by miles of thin strands of mycorrhizal fungi that help plant roots absorb more nutrients and water, plus millions of creatures, most of them unknown. There'd be thousands of species in just a handful of earth -- springtails, bacteria, and worms digging airy subways. As you swam along, plant roots would tower above you like trees as you wove through underground skyscrapers.

Plants and creatures underground need to drink, eat, and breathe just as we do. An ideal soil is half rock, and a quarter each water and air. When tractors plant and harvest, they crush the life out of the soil, as underground apartments collapse 9/11 style. The tracks left by tractors in the soil are the erosion route for half of the soil that washes or blows away (Wilhelm 2004).


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