Variety of biomass produces fuel for energy independence
by Anne Pyburn Craig
You may have heard bad news about ethanol production. It’s often characterized as a sort of failed attempt at producing renewable energy that ended up cutting into the world’s food supply, costing taxpayers big money, and ultimately adding to environmental problems. This negative impression is largely fueled by the work of Cornell University researchers who’ve been widely debunked since the mid-2000s, but you know how it is—the arrest makes page 1, the acquittal ends up on page 14. As a more balanced picture emerges, it becomes obvious that it’s time to take another look at ethanol.
“You know, Henry Ford—who for all of his flaws was an interesting guy—intended the Model T to run on alcohol,” says Pete Robbins of Stone Ridge. “He was contracting with farmers to produce ethanol. Then Rockefeller needed a way to get rid of the waste product from kerosene, which was gasoline. He subsidized Prohibition, and that was it for ethanol.”
Robbins took a permaculture course at SUNY Ulster several years ago —“I got tired of just complaining and wanted to be part of the solution,” he says— and has become an avid advocate and educator on the subject of small to mid-scale ethanol production. Ethanol, he reminds us, does not have to come from massive, monocultural grows that are taxpayer-subsidized and Big Ag owned. Ethanol, properly understood, can be produced on a sustainable scale that can make local energy independence a reality while creating an entirely new cottage industry and income stream for local farmers, and he’d like to see us move in that direction.
“You should suspect that ethanol’s very good if only because there’s so much spin against it,” says Robbins wryly. “It’s actually very viable. The requirements for local sustainability are food, water, and energy- we’re doing pretty well with developing CSAs and food hubs. Water is barely on the radar yet, although with SUNY Ulster wanting new dorms and having water issues, it may become more so. But producing ethanol, especially from food waste, is something we could get started on any time that would benefit us enormously environmentally, economically and otherwise.”
Ethanol, he points out, doesn’t have to be made from corn, in fact, corn is one of the less efficient ethanol producers. “You can make ethanol from a variety of feedstocks, or from food waste. A pickup-load of stale doughnuts can make 100 gallons of ethanol, which will heat your house for the winter. You can’t legally drive on a public road with a tank full of ethanol, but you can run any engine on it that normally runs on gasoline, and the engine will run much cleaner. You can use it to run your generator, heat your home, cook with it. I would like to see us start community supported energy facilities, along the lines of community supported agriculture…I’m aware of the imperfections of ethanol, but meanwhile, tell me this: does it sound better than fracking?”
Robbins gives much of the credit for his enlightenment to David Blume, whose website—permaculture.com—features an extensive ethanol section entitled “Alcohol Can Be a Gas.”
Blume makes the case succinctly: “Anywhere that has sunlight and land can produce alcohol from plants. Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world imports no oil, since half its cars run on alcohol fuel made from sugarcane, grown on 1% of its land.”
In other words, the only thing standing between any country or even any town and energy independence is the will to make a change. And the benefits of alcohol fuel don’t stop there: since alcohol is made by growing plants, the process of producing it absorbs carbon dioxide, helping to reverse global warming; byproducts of the process can include healthy animal feed and nutritious plant fertilizer. The byproducts, Blume points out, “can make petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides obsolete.”
And as a fuel for most any engine, ethanol is clearly superior. “It’s 105 octane, burns much cooler with less vibration, is less flammable in case of accident, is 98% pollution-free, has lower evaporative emissions, and deposits no carbon in the engine or oil, resulting in a tripling of engine life,” Blume points out. “Specialized alcohol engines can get at least 22% better mileage than gasoline or diesel.”
Ah, you’re thinking, specialized alcohol engines! Surely those must be terribly complicated, high-tech, and expensive, and that must be why we aren’t already using this wonderful substance. Think again. The car in your driveway right now can run on a 50/50 gasoline/ethanol blend with no problems, and conversion kits to straight ethanol capability cost only a few hundred dollars.
The problems of fossil fuels are well known, and Robbins prefers to focus on the positive. “The science involved is not incredibly complicated, and you can easily get a permit and make a couple of hundred gallons in your backyard. In California, they’re working on changing the laws to allow 100% ethanol engines, but meanwhile you can heat your house, run farm equipment, use a generator and make electricity.”
“It’s so basically simple, and the entrepreneurial opportunities are so clear. Ethanol production could do wonders for our local economy.”
Robbins has had some successes in bringing attention to the issue, bringing it to the attention of the Rondout Valley Permaculture group, getting biofuels onto the agenda of the Hudson Valley Regional Economic Council’s Energy Subcommittee, and speaking with Rochester town supervisor Carl Chipman- who, he says, seemed interested. “I’m not sure why it’s been an uphill slog getting people to pay attention to this, but it is- all anybody remembers is that study from Cornell and that movie King Corn.
“Just because big industry did it wrong doesn’t mean that we can’t do it right locally. We live in an area that’s so rich in human energy. I’m thinking of applying to the Dyson Foundation for some help, and maybe approaching the new owner of the Stone Ridge Orchard- if you’re setting up to make hard cider, ethanol production isn’t very different. I think we need to just start doing this and let it prove itself.”
Robbins says there’s considerable irony in his becoming a promoter of ethanol. “I spent 27 years of my life as a substance abuse counselor, and now here I am telling everybody we should be making more alcohol,” he chuckles. “I’m also a big fan of industrial hemp for sustainability. Who’d have thought, right? I’m 67 and I want this to be my contribution, to get this going.”
“There are so many possibilities. In Sweden, every bakery is mandated to collect the ethanol from the bread making process. Why not here? Imagine having an ethanol facility next to a candy factory! If you mix ethanol and vegetable oil it produces butynol. which is much closer to gasoline. If you add glycerine, you create biopropane…I could go on and on. If you pump the CO2 emissions into a greenhouse, you double the production.”
Robbins’ vision of local fuel co-ops and decentralized production is very much in line with Blume’s suggestions- which, Robbins says, were meant to be the subject of an extensive PBS documentary in the 1980s until one of the network’s major sponsors threw a hissy fit.
“Scale matters—most of the widely publicized potential problems with ethanol are a function of scale,” says Blume. “Once production plants get beyond a certain size and are too far away from the crops that supply them, closing the ecological loop becomes problematic. Smaller-scale operations can more efficiently use a wide variety of crops than huge specialized one-crop plants, and diversification of crops would largely eliminate the problems of monoculture.” Producing ethanol from food waste also considerably reduces the waste stream- a point that Robbins feels should be attractive to anyone but might especially appeal to a town like New Paltz, with its Zero Waste Initiative program already underway.
Nationally, organizations like the American Coalition for Ethanol (ethanol.org) are trying to spread the word, and there are currently 8.5 million flex-fuel vehicles, legally allowed to run on “E85,” an 85/15 ethanol/gasoline blend, on the road. A 2004 study showed that ethanol, just at the low levels at which it’s currently in use, reduced greenhouse gas emissions by seven million tons — the equivalent of taking a million cars off the road.
New York State does offer some incentives for ethanol production through NYSERDA, but these are targeted to large scale production, which defeats the purpose. “I got stuck in Hurricane Irene and it was pretty scary,” says Robbins. “We need to be locally self sufficient in every possible way. Even the Department of Defense is starting to get interested in this- talk about your strange bedfellows!”
Indeed. If you’d like to learn more about ethanol, its benefits, its creation, and its uses, the websites in this article will give you a great start. If you’ve got any good ideas to share with Robbins about local ethanol production, he’d love to hear them. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.