Gov. Crist hopes to spur biofuels in Florida
Promise? Politics? Ethanol is both

By JIM ASH capital bureau

Originally posted on August 06, 2007

TALLAHASSEE — Some scientists are skeptical as Gov. Charlie Crist spends millions of taxpayer dollars to nurture a plant-based biofuel industry — one of the most expensive weapons in his war on global warming.

“It’s big money and hope. Politics is another way to put it,” said David Pimentel, a Cornell University professor whose research shows that it takes more energy to turn plants into fuel than the plants actually yield.

Biofuels are nothing new and the technology is not rocket science, although it is evolving. The U.S. industry, based largely on corn and soybeans, has been around 20 years. Extracting ethanol to blend with gasoline requires boiling and distilling, much like the ethanol distilled for liquor.

It requires a lot of energy.

Even the most ardent ethanol boosters acknowledge that all of the corn and soybeans in the U.S. would quench only 12 percent of the nation’s gasoline thirst and satisfy 6 percent of its diesel diet.

Figures like that suggest the $6 billion in government subsidies for biofuels in the United States could be better spent, Pimentel insists.

In 2005, Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley in California, looked at ethanol produced from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as biodiesel distilled from soybeans and sunflower plants.

Their report, published in the scientific journal Natural Resources Research, found that it requires 29 percent more energy to produce ethanol from corn than the energy the ethanol yields, switch grass 45 percent more and wood biomass 57 percent more.

Soybeans require 27 percent more energy to produce biodiesel than they yield and sunflowers 118 percent more, the study showed.

“If I could suggest a better way for Gov. Crist to spend the money, I would say one word, ‘conservation,’” Pimentel said. “I’d put that in capital letters.”

Crist remains confident the state is making a good investment.

“Governor Crist respectfully disagrees,” said spokesman Anthony DeLuise. “There is ample evidence that biofuels yield a very positive net balance. There are countless other studies out there.”

Last year, a report published by the National Academy of Sciences refuted Pimentel’s findings.

In it, University of Minnesota researchers found that corn yields 25 percent more energy than it takes to turn it into ethanol. Soybeans yield 93 percent more energy than it takes to turn them into biodiesel, the researchers concluded, even after looking at such things as the energy that goes into producing the farm equipment needed to harvest the crops.

“In short, we find no support for the assertion that either biofuel requires more energy to make than it yields,” the report states, although it acknowledged that corn’s “net energy balance” is small.

The U.S. produced about 5 billion gallons of biofuels last year, coming in a close second to Brazil. It’s far short of the 35 billion gallons President George W. Bush wants the country distilling within 20 years.

Crist hopes to use Brazil’s industry, which is based on higher energy yielding sugar cane, as a model. He plans to tour a plant in Sao Paulo on a trade mission later this year.

“We don’t have a lot of corn, but we’ve got a lot of sugar,” Crist said last month after he announced the trip.

Last week, University of Florida administrators began evaluating bids for a demonstration ethanol plant that Crist hopes will spur the industry in Florida. He helped get it off the ground with a $20 million appropriation, the biggest single-ticket item in his $60 million energy package.

UF microbiologist Lonnie Ingram, director of the Florida Center for Renewable Fuels and Chemicals, said his 30 years of research tells him that biofuel’s time has come.
In the early 1990s, Ingram patented a genetically engineered E coli bacterium that can harvest the sugars in a plant’s woody cell walls, dramatically improving the efficiency of the process.

Within 18 months, the demonstration plant will be turning sugar cane residue, orange byproducts and other “biomass” into 1 million gallons of ethanol a year, he said.

FPL Energy last month announced plans to build a citrus-to-ethanol conversion facility in Hendry County. Boca Raton-based Citrus Energy LLC will be a partner in that project.

The cellulosic ethanol plant will be owned and operated by FPL Energy and is expected to produce 4 million gallons of ethanol per year. Orange and grapefruit waste will be converted into ethanol that will be sold to Florida motorists at gasoline pumps.

Ingram is aware of Pimentel’s work, and the competing studies, and he’s convinced the technology will be beneficial.

“Most of the scientists feel that it is a net energy positive, but his point is well taken,” Ingram said, referring to Pimentel’s studies of corn-based ethanol. “It is not a huge energy gain.”

The promise of “cellulosic” ethanol is that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions even more than corn-based fuels and doesn’t dip into the food supply.

A demonstration plant in Jennings, La., is already using Ingram’s discovery to turn sugar cane residue, or “bagasse,” into 1.4 million gallons of ethanol a year. Another one in Japan is converting demolition wood waste into biofuel.

The hope is to finally ignite a market in Florida, where biofuel technology was pioneered, Ingram said.

“I can’t see any downside to investing in biofuels,” he said. “We’re trying to bring it home.”