Ethanol and the Debate Between Corn Ethanol and Cellulosic Ethanol

trying to keep it simple

At PlanetWatch, we try to help members understand climate change and energy efficiency and security issues and to simplify the multitude of remedial measures proposed, often very passionately, by various interest groups. Not only do most commentators have an "axe to grind", but also, in an effort to add credibility, they often pack their proposals with technical terms and reams of statistics. This can be confusing and often drives audiences to "tune out".
     First, a few overarching beliefs to which we subscribe:
     1. Curbing our excessive appetite for fossil fuels will not happen by selecting and implementing a few programs from among many; instead we will need to adopt virtually all the changes we hear and read about in order to get a good outcome.
     2. We need not suffer reduced standards of living in order to achieve good results. Long, hot showers can still be enjoyed. Transportation can still be by private car when public transport does not satisfy. Air travel will still be available, albeit at higher cost. Houses will still be warm in winter and cool in summer. But, if we do not substitute renewable and non-polluting energy sources for those we now employ, we will not succeed. And it is going to take a lot of invention, investment, and systemic change. Government involvement must be greater than in the past.
     3. There is plenty of energy available, but most of it is in a form that will require us to modify our ways of using it.
     4. Bridging the gap between the present and the future will require us to conserve energy almost instinctively; most thoughtful experts believe we can save nearly half the energy we now consume by adopting a mindset which recognizes that treating energy as nearly free no longer makes any sense, if it ever did. If the cost is high, that will come naturally. If not, it might require fiat.
     With that as backdrop, here is a framework for thinking about the problem coherently.


      We use energy in dozens of ways. Most uses are stationery, like heating our houses, or lighting our streets, or cooking our food. But moving a car, truck, train or ship requires that energy be "portable". Powering airplanes is even more demanding, since its energy source has to be light enough to carry around at 38,000 feet, while containing enough power per pound to achieve useful results.
      If we were "inventing the world" for the first time, we would have to invent a fuel that did not evaporate or explode between zero and 200 degrees F, that burned well at higher temperatures, and released impressive amounts of energy. We would formulate it, and then find a way to manufacture it in quantities large enough to use. Without it, we could not fly from here to there. However, we could travel on the surface, because alternatives exist for powering cars, trains, trucks and buses. Ships are a bit more problematic.
      That motor fuel (gasoline, diesel and jet fuel) can be relatively easily refined from naturally occurring liquid crude oil is an extremely lucky, and most unlikely,