Raising Cane


Can we go ‘flat out’ on ethanol?

This is the issue at the heart of current debates over the viability of ethanol and biofuels as potential substitutes for at least a part of our dwindling petrol supplies. So let me look at the issues, as an observer without vested interests.



On the positive side, the experience of Brazil demonstrates unequivocally that ethanol can be produced more cheaply than the current cheapest oil without subsidies. There has been a belated recognition of Brazil’s success in the international press. (See, for example, ‘With Big Boost From Sugar Cane, Brazil Is Satisfying Its Fuel Needs,’ by Larry Rohter in the New York Times and ‘The Future Of Ethanol,’ by David Morris in the Star Tribune. )

Not all countries, of course, can produce ethanol from sugar cane as cheaply as Brazil. But many are close including Australia, India and many of the tropical countries in Africa. For the latter, a little dose of technological assistance from the developed world would create an ‘ethanol zone’ covering Brazil and Central America, India and South East Asia and Africa that is every bit as productive of liquid fuel as the Middle East is of oil today.

The difference is that growing sugar cane and producing ethanol in these countries would kick start their development efforts, especially in rural areas; freeing them from dependence on oil imports and the accompanying financial burdens; underpinning their energy security; and thus bringing them out of poverty.

So what are the negatives? Most of the arguments against ethanol come from the US, where it is produced in a temperate climate largely from corn and grains. (See ‘E85: Spinning Our Wheels,’ by Robert Rapier in The Oil Drum, and Rapier’s debate with billionaire ethanol promoter, Vinod Khosla, in EnergyBulletin.net.) They argue that the intensive agricultural practices of the US corn-belt produce ethanol requiring heavy energy inputs in the form of fertilisers, herbicides, and transportation. Some estimates put the net energy produced in this way at zero or something very small.

But Brazil produces ethanol with an energy gain of up to 8 to 1, because of the favourable conditions in which the fuel is produced. Add to this the fact that Brazil has spent years perfecting suitable varieties of cane and even genetically engineering it to optimise yields.

Now, I have no brief for the US corn-belt, and I am opposed to the use of intensive agriculture that exhausts soils and produces unacceptable run-off. But do the counter-arguments mentioned above carry across to the use of sugar cane in tropical countries?

Taking them in reverse order, transport is minimised when ethanol refinement plants are built next to sugar cane fields, as is always the case in tropical countries. Herbicides are not needed in cane fields you don’t do any weeding for such a crop, and in fact any weeds that manage to grow are simply swept up as ‘biomass’ to go to the sugar/ethanol mill. Fertiliser inputs are minimised by recycling the waste from ethanol distillation (vinasse) after drying it. And the drying, as well as the entire operation of the mill, can be powered by burning the cane stalks after extracting the juice.

If Australia were to swing behind sugar cane for ethanol production in a big way, the results would be almost entirely positive. Farmer co-ops would be formed to build the ethanol refinement plants, providing steady employment in rural areas. The supplies of ethanol would encourage independent retailers of fuel to challenge the near total dominance of the oil majors over distribution of petrol and fuel oils.

But debate is bogged down in Australia over an incident in 2002, when it was alleged that John Howard made a preferential deal with the boss of Australian ethanol company, Manildra, before announcing the Government’s subsidy package. But it’s time to move on from such pettiness to look at the bigger picture an ethanol industry in Australia would dwarf Manildra.

Globally, there is everything to gain from creating a free and open global market for ethanol. It makes as much sense for motorists in the US and Europe to import their liquid fuel from progressive and democratic countries in the tropical parts of the world that are developing fast such as Brazil or India or even Australia as it does to import oil that props up Middle East regimes.

But the US slaps an import tariff of 54 cents per gallon on ethanol imposed at the behest of the corn-belt producers and largely to the benefit of the big ethanol blenders such as Archer Daniels Midland. Australia too imposes a high tariff against imported ethanol. It is imperative that this be removed and a free market for energy in Australia be introduced.

What about all the furphies put about by the motor industry in Australia regarding ethanol and engine damage? Suffice to say that in Brazil almost everyone is driving Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFV) now, and Detroit is promoting the idea heavily. Just check the range of vehicles that are produced as FFVs by Ford, General Motors, et al.

Biodiesel is another product that has a far more promising future in tropical countries than in temperate Europe or the US. India is experimenting with new sources such as Jatropha cursus (grown by the Japanese military during World War II to produce aviation fuel), and the Brazilians are sowing soybean and other fast growing vegetable oil sources on lands left degraded after cattle grazing.

Thanks to Sean Leahy.

Australia too could generate a very successful biofuels industry, based on vegetable oils. At the moment, companies are building the business such as the Australian Biodiesel Group based on animal oils. These are fine, but cannot be scaled up very far. Heavy users of diesel in Australia mining contractors like Leighton Holdings for example are potentially extremely important customers for such biodiesel.

Beyond ethanol from sugar cane, and biodiesel, there is cellulosic ethanol produced from wood pulp and biowastes with the aid of new cocktails of digestive enzymes. This experimental front of biofuels has the most promise. I agree with Adam Fenderson in last week’s New Matilda that this is where Australia could reap huge advantages in developing fast growing forest plantations for fuel use.

The usual case against biofuels is that proposals for their serious scaling up would destroy forests, create vast areas of arid land through overcropping and monoculture, and drive up food prices. But again, these objections are Eurocentric and US-centric, and ignore the possibilities available in tropical countries and in Australia.

There is a conventional wisdom, based on developed-country perspectives, that biofuels cannot possibly pick up the full burden of transport fuel supplies. ‘All renewables suffer from low areal densities,’ is the opinion of Professor Hoffert and his colleagues, writing in the premier journal Science. Hoffert et al go on to comment: ‘ photosynthesis has too low a power density (~0.6 W/m2) for biofuels to contribute significantly to climate stabilization. [Photovoltaic] and wind energy (~15 W/m2) need less land, but other materials can be limiting.’

These illustrious authors, having dismissed so cavalierly the terrestrial efforts to make up for fossil fuel deficiencies with biofuels, solar and wind energy, then go on to devote paragraphs to an untried and speculative description of a space-based solar array.

The reality is rather different, especially for developing countries, where sunshine and desolate landscapes are not in short supply. In India, for example, there are now several major investment programs underway in ethanol and biodiesel production, on vast areas of degraded or under-utilised land. These projects can also capture latecomer advantages through using the latest biorefinery technology as recognised in a more recent article in Science.

Let’s be realistic about the land. Brazil produces its current output of just over 14,000 million litres of ethanol from 2.66 million hectares (26,600 square kilometres) of land. Australia could match that with just a strip of land 50 kilometres deep and 500 kilometres long. We have the land, either in Queensland’s interior or in the north west of Australia, where regular monsoon rains water a 50-kilometre coastal belt and are simply washed back to the sea by rivers such as the Daly.

Still, the key to the transition is the role of government in rolling back the subsidies enjoyed by fossil fuels, and in creating demand as well as forcing the shift in infrastructure needed by, for example, mandating supplies of ethanol “petrol blends in service stations around the country. This is the part that is conspicuously lacking in Australia. But it can’t be allowed to continue, because the oil companies and the automotive companies are singing a very different tune in countries like Brazil.

If you only read the mainstream press in Australia, you’d be forgiven for remaining ignorant of these matters. Who is aware that there is a Senate inquiry currently underway into ‘Australia’s future oil supply and alternative transport fuels’?

You should be adding your voice to the debate.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.