17 Oct 2008

Ethanol in California?

Ethanol is not only a monster that refuses to die, but it's spreading its foul tentacles throughout these United States Congressional Districts [prior posts].

This press release is a classic -- hitting all the best PR memes (ST jobs, multiplier effects in economy, LT jobs, green-collar jobs, cow food production, etc.):
Pacific Ethanol, Inc. (Nasdaq: PEIX), the leading West Coast-based marketer and producer of ethanol, officially marked the opening of its newest ethanol production facility in Stockton on Friday...

"We are excited to celebrate this milestone with the community," said Neil Koehler, Pacific Ethanol's President and CEO. "The start-up of our Stockton plant marks the achievement of our goal of 220 million gallons of annual production capacity and dramatically increases the availability of renewable fuels produced in the state of California." The 60 million gallon per year Stockton facility is located at the Port of Stockton, with access to water, rail and road transportation. This San Joaquin Valley destination is home to over one million dairy cows, providing a ready local market for wet distiller's grains (WDG) and other ethanol co- products.

The facility will process 21 million bushels of corn per year, producing both ethanol and 500,000 tons of WDG annually for the use by local dairies for feed products.

"The opening of this new ethanol facility not only advances the use of cleaner, renewable sources of energy, it is creating green collar jobs and bringing economic opportunities to the region," said Congressman McNerney. "That's an important step toward achieving long-term sustained economic growth and energy independence in the future." Construction of the Stockton facility entailed a $150 million investment. The construction phase generated 200 new construction and service-related jobs and provided a $200-$250 million boost to the economy. The plant will permanently employ 38 full time employees, will generate $1.6 million in local tax revenues and help create 700 jobs economy wide.
They go on to say how "clean and green" ethanol is (NOT!), but that's to be expected. [Did you see the 500,000 TONS of WDG? That's a lot of corn waste -- but apparently enough for one-half ton/cow...] What they fail to mention is the impact of ethanol production on water supplies. Conveniently, Kevin Fingerman et al. (UC Berkeley) have looked into the question. In this paper [PDF], they say
water use... could be, in the words of a recent report, the “Achilles heel” of biofuel production (Keeney, 2006). This study projects the effects on California water resources from some scenarios of in-state feedstock and fuel production...

We find that on average over 1500 gallons of water are consumed... in the production of a single gallon of corn ethanol in California – with feedstock cultivation accounting for more than 99% of this use. In comparison, the amount of water required to produce the average daily diet in North America is 1330 gallons...


Our research shows that biofuel production in California could either increase or decrease the sustainability of the state's water resource use. It also makes clear the feasibility and importance of estimating the water consumed in production of fuels from various feedstocks grown in different regions of the state.
This figure highlights the tradeoff between water consumed (x-axis) and ethanol production (y-axis). Notice that Imperial County (top right) can produce about 1425 gal/acre -- by using about 3.7AF/ac, i.e., taking about 850 gallons of water for each gallon of ethanol.* (Kings County has about half that yield; does this mean Imperial is a good place to grow stuff or that Kings is just really bad?)

Bottom Line: With one step forward, we go two steps back. Not only are we growing fuel of dubious environmental benefit, but we are diverting water from elsewhere [the authors say ethanol may reduce water use IF water-thirsty crops are not grown] and encouraging more industrial meat production (a million cows!). What a disaster!

* Who grows anything in Imperial with less than 5-6 AF/ac?


  1. "Does this mean that Imperial is a 'good' place to grow stuff?" That all depends on how you define "good." If what you want to do is maximize the number of $ generated per gallon of water consumed in agriculture (that is one definition of water productivity afterall) then your best bet is to send that water down where there's a ton of sun for the plants to soak up. This does mean consuming more water per acre, but since those acres are very productive it's actually less water per unit of product. HOWEVER, if you're concerned with other things such as total water resource consumption, equity of water availability, environmental impacts of water use, carbon footprint of moving that water around, then your calculus changes a bit. This is one of the take-home messages of our paper; what's "sustainable" for water resources varies a great deal spatially and depends on what you're concerned with.

    Kevin Fingerman
    Energy & Resources Group
    UC Berkeley

  2. The most damning critique of biofuels that I have seen comes from Berkeley's Tad Patzek: http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/patzek/index.htm
    I'm not smart enough to know whether he's right or wrong, but he sure makes a convincing case.


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