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Energy, Ethanol & Water

On Wednesday, April 29, President Barack Obama toured POET Biorefining in Macon, MO.
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On Wednesday, April 29, President Barack Obama toured POET Biorefining in Macon, MO. POET produces ethanol. In fact, it is claimed to be the largest ethanol producer in the world, putting out 1.6-billion gallons for ethanol a year from its 26 facilities. The Macon plant was the first ethanol plant in the state of Missouri. It started production in May 2000 with a capacity of 15-million gallons per year. It is now capable of 46-million gallons per year.

In his remarks at the plant, the president said—and we’re quoting here from the official White House document:

“I want us to be first in wind power, first in solar power, and I want us to be first when it comes to biodiesel and the technologies that are being developed in places like POET.

“And that’s why my energy security plan has been one of the top priorities of my administration since the day I took office. We began early last year by making the largest investment in clean energy in our nation’s history. It’s an investment that we expect will create or save up to 700,000 jobs across American by the end of 2012—jobs manufacturing next-generation batteries for next-generation vehicles; jobs upgrading a smarter, stronger power grid; jobs doubling the capacity to generate renewable energy from sources like sun and wind and biofuels, just like you do here.

“And that investment was part of the Recovery Act. It included $800 million in funding for ethanol fueling infrastructure, biorefinery construction, advanced biofuels research to help us reach the goal that I’ve set, which is to more than triple America’s biofuels production in the next 12 years.”

Which is pretty much all good. Except for that part about the biofuels.


We recently attended a conference on the topic of sustainable mobility that was organized by Toyota. And we heard from people including Dr. Jan F. Kreider, founding director of the University of Colorado’s Joint Center for Energy Management and professor emeritus of Engineering. Dr. Krieder looked at low-carbon fuels—including biofuels—from an engineering, not political, standpoint, using life cycle analysis. He pointed out quite simply, “Corn ethanol is a water-intensive fuel.”

And while there is a whole lot of focus on petroleum, water is going to be an increasing concern, as was made clear by another speaker, Dr. Michael Dettinger, research hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Brach of Western Regional Research, and a research associate of the Climate, Atmospheric Sciences and Physical Oceanography Div. at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Dr. Dettinger pointed out that there is a “water-energy” nexus, and that generating electricity, for example, takes a considerable amount of water. He noted that about 90% of U.S. electrical generation is thermoelectric and it requires cooling water and that in the renewable space, most of that is hydroelectric, which requires running water. Moreover, of all of the water use, 14% is the public supply, 6% is industrial use, 2% is for livestock, and the remaining 78% is split evenly between agriculture and thermoelectric use. As more people demand more electricity, they demand more water, so. . . .

But back to the biofuels. Dr. Kreider noted that the amount of water needed to come up with a gallon—a single gallon—of corn-based ethanol is on the order of 170 gallons of water or more. Cellulosic ethanol is better, but it requires 146 gallons of water per gallon of fuel. Soybean biodiesel? 900 gallons per gallon of fuel.

Somehow tripling the amount of biofuels doesn’t necessarily look like such a good idea. At least not if you’re thirsty.