The trouble with ethanol

Tad Patzek's anti-biofuel crusade comes home to Berkeley

Published October 10, 2006 7:51PM (EDT)

I went to see Tad Patzek give a seminar on the U.C. Berkeley campus yesterday titled "Agriculture, Biofuels and the Earth," because I wanted a firsthand look at one of the more controversial figures in the emerging world of biofuels. The Berkeley chemical engineering professor is the co-author (along with retired Cornell professor David Pimentel) of two studies that cast doubt on the energy efficiency of corn-based ethanol and other biofuels. The studies have been widely cited both by anti-biofuel right-wingers who want to stop subsidies of all forms of alternative energy, and by left-wing critics who believe that a rush to biofuels will result in the destruction of tropical rain forests, the proliferation of genetically modified monocultural crops across the planet, and assorted other ecological disasters. If you've got a problem with biofuels, Patzek and Pimentel have your back.

The veracity of Patzek and Pimentel's numbers has been vociferously debated hither and yon. They've been accused of using old data, of cherry-picking numbers, of making unfair or outdated assumptions on what factors to include in their data analysis. For many biofuel fans Patzek's background as a petroleum engineer has been considered grounds for immediate dismissal of all his claims. A good summary of the back and forth can be found here.

In January, I wrote about a study published in Science by a group of Berkeley researchers that contradicted Patzek and Pimentel's findings. But that hasn't dissuaded Patzek from crisscrossing the country in a one-man jihad against the idea that biofuels offer any hope of replacing oil as an energy source. Since Berkeley is also a hotbed of home-brew biofuel geeks and the seminar was part of a series put on by U.C. Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, I was curious to see if any sparks might fly.

Conflagration, however, was in short supply. The lecture was attended by 50 to 60 people, most of whom appeared to be graduate students, and some of whom came with frowns already set in place, but there was zero heckling. Patzek's evident good nature and friendly demeanor may have been partially disarming. But he also just happened to skip the section of his prepared talk that dealt with his data on energy efficiency, and there was very little time for questions at the end, although, judging from the number of raised hands, there was no shortage of audience members eager to follow up. It was not a setup for give-and-take with a critical audience. Patzek gave his spiel (which could easily have been retitled "How We Are All Completely Doomed,") and that was that.

But in response to the one questioner who did ask what could explain the huge discrepancies between the numbers cited by Patzek and those put forth by some biofuel advocates, he hemmed and hawed, making references to "complex systems" and how the choice of models "determines answers."

And he said, at least twice, "Let's not squabble about the details."

Now, asking a bunch of graduate students not to squabble about the details is a strange thing for any professor to say, and critics of Patzek and Pimentel's numbers would be entirely correct to guffaw scornfully at such a statement. Details make a big difference, especially when the details determine whether something is energy efficient, or isn't. But in the larger context of the main thrust of Patzek's lecture, the deflection made a certain kind of sense.

Patzek's primary message was that we (and by we, he especially meant "Homo Colossus Americanus") consume too much energy. One of his favorite statistics is that each American consumes 105 times as much energy as he or she needs to live. Patzek did not come off as an oil industry shill. He's a strong believer in peak oil who predicted that by 2020 the world will be consuming more energy than we produce, if current trends are extrapolated forward. He's a fan of Greenpeace who said flat out that "ANWR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] will not save us."

His fundamental point is that our current energy consumption is unsustainable, even if biofuel production was ramped up at spectacular growth rates. Thermodynamically, we just can't do it -- we're burning through the planet's accumulated energy reserves faster than we can create or discover new sources of fuel.

Patzek kicked off his lecture by asserting that a 15 percent improvement in fuel efficiency would eliminate dependence on Mideast oil. If there was anything that I took away from his barrage of charts and invocations of thermodynamics, it was not so much that biofuels are inefficient, but that the human race has to become more efficient.

Which is not the most startling of conclusions, I'll grant you. Drill down deep enough into the intricacies of the human love affair with energy consumption, and it seems pretty clear that only a "portfolio solution" will address the oncoming crisis. We need to consume less and be more efficient in what we do consume even as we ramp up solar, wind and, yes, biofuels, where and if it makes sense to do so. And we're going to need to strive mightily to ensure that new coal-fired energy plants incorporate carbon sequestration technologies and new nuclear plants are as safe as humanly possible. We can hope that solar becomes cost-competitive and we can dream of cellulosic ethanol technologies or algae-brewed biodiesel that leave old-fashioned corn-based ethanol in the dust, but there is unlikely to be a magic techno-fix. We're going to have to do more with less.

I came away from professor Patzek's lecture feeling as if he hadn't done anything to defend his ethanol numbers from their many critics. But I was also doubly glad to have ridden my bike there and back, because the shame of being Homo Colossus Americanus is getting to be too much to bear. I thank Patzek for stepping up the pressure.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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