In its bid to halt climate change, Florida has pumped $50-million into ethanol projects in the past two years.
Is it worth it?
Florida has bet millions on unproven technology. If it works, in a decade Florida will produce enough ethanol to offset less than 2 percent of its thirst for gasoline. The state's gamble on ethanol continues, even as new research indicates that ethanol could be far worse for the planet than gasoline.
Jeremy Susac, director of Florida's Energy Office, stands behind the state's investment. He believes that the latest science is flawed and that ethanol offers deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Even if ethanol turns out to be a major polluter, he'd still back it.
"Even if it's a wash, even it's just as bad as gasoline, why not stimulate production in-house?" Susac asked. "How many wars do you have to have in the Middle East before you say it's a good idea to reduce our dependence on foreign oil?"
Ethanol, an alcohol-based fuel that the United States makes largely from corn, has been hailed as the saving trinity: It will reduce greenhouse gases, save the family farm and free the country from the grip of foreign oil. In December, Congress passed sweeping energy legislation that pushes the country to use 36-billion gallons of biofuels a year by 2022. Ethanol, with more than 6.5-billion gallons produced in the United States last year, stands ready to fill the breach.
Florida has trumpeted $37.5-million in renewable-energy grants since the start of the year. More than $20-million went to ethanol. By contrast, the state put $2.6-million into wind projects and $2.4-million into solar.
Susac argues that ethanol is a prudent investment, just "one arrow amongst many in a quiver to reduce greenhouse gases and achieve energy security."
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Some have divided the ethanol debate into warring camps of "uncritical lovers" against "unloving critics." If Susac lands squarely in the first camp, Mark Z. Jacobson, engineering professor at Stanford University, stands firmly in the second.
"There's no reason to think that ethanol will reduce carbon emissions," Jacobson said. "There's no legitimate study in the world that shows that."
Jacobson's own research shows that using ethanol instead of gasoline could make air quality worse. When he published his article last April, the industry quickly attacked. Ethanol backers claimed his funding came from Exxon Mobil. (It came from NASA.)
Ethanol boosters launched a barrage of counterclaims and fell back on ethanol's strongest defense: that it reduces the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. The industry has long championed its feedstock crops as traps for carbon dioxide. Subtract the trapped carbon from ethanol's emissions, and the fuel gains an enormous carbon advantage over gasoline.
Susac pointed to an Argonne National Laboratory study popular among ethanol lovers that claims corn ethanol would cut greenhouse gases by up to 29 percent and cellulosic ethanol by as much as 85 percent.
But that claim suffered a double blow in February. Two new studies published in the peer-reviewed journal Science concluded that ethanol from corn could double greenhouse gases over 30 years. Cellulosic ethanol, made by unlocking the sugars in switch grass, could increase greenhouse gases by 50 percent.
The authors tried to calculate the poorly understood costs of turning America's farmland into a gas station. Left alone, land stores carbon. If we turn food crops to fuel crops, we still have to eat. That means new land will have to be cleared to grow food, releasing the carbon tucked away in its trees and grasses.
That indirect carbon penalty should count against ethanol, argued Tim Searchinger, visiting scholar at Princeton University and author of one of the studies.
"If you can count the benefit of using land that way, then you have to count the cost of using land that way," Searchinger said. "The point is that land is not free, either in terms of money or of carbon."
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There's an important exception to Searchinger's equation, something he calls "the free carbon lunch": waste products.
Of the $50-million Florida has devoted to ethanol production and research, at least $13-million went to projects that will use waste such as tree trimmings and citrus peels. An additional $20-million went to a University of Florida project with Florida Crystals to make ethanol from sugar bagasse.
These waste-to-ethanol projects depend on cellulosic technology, which produces ethanol by unlocking the energy potential in complex fibers of tree trimmings or orange peels.
"One group talks about it as being at least 10 years away, and there's another group that talks as if it's ready to turn the spigot today," said Lonnie Ingram, director of the Florida Center for Renewable Chemicals and Fuel at the University of Florida. "I think it's between those two."
Ingram, 60, patented the genetically engineered bacteria that made it possible to use wood and agricultural waste to create cellulosic ethanol in the 1980s. But after gas prices dropped, so did interest in his breakthrough.
Development lagged until oil prices surged again in recent years. The long delay leaves cellulosic ethanol playing catch-up. The United States started building its first cellulosic ethanol plant last year in Louisiana. When completed, it will produce about 1.5-million gallons of ethanol each year.
So far, the projects under way in Florida have yet to produce a drop.
Have patience, urged Jay Levenstein, deputy director of the Florida Department of Agricultural and Consumer Services. "The science has been done, and some of the work has been done. They just really haven't made that leap to commercial scale yet."
In the meantime, U.S. motorists consume more than 388-million gallons of gasoline every day.
Numbers like that infuriate "unloving critics" like Jacobson.
"If you're trying to solve climate problems, biofuels don't do anything for climate, and they don't do anything for air quality," Jacobson lamented. "But other renewables do, and that's what we should be investing in."
Times researchers Carolyn Edds and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Asjylyn Loder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or