Corn for Cars: Mistake/Scam or Capitalist Normalcy?

Given global warming’s impact on established farming patterns, the federally mandated diversion of a huge chunk of the United States corn crop into automotive gas tanks is under some unusual scrutiny. If present, late-stage trends hold and the estimates are correct, the corn-to-ethanol mandate will require using about half of this year’s crop on cars. Among the assured impacts of that will be sharply higher food prices and increased rates of malnutrition in areas of the world where food access is unreliable.

Under such circumstances, any decent, democratic society would obviously recognize the foolishness of the corn-to-cars rule and cancel it without delay.

The left-liberal blogosphere is rightly abuzz over the fact that such recognition and cancellation are not only not being done now, but appear to not be in the cards at all. Indeed, President Obama has gone out of his way to travel to none other than Iowa to appear to be taking sides with beleaguered corn farmers as he upholds the corn-to-cars mandate.

Amid some attempt at sorting through the “debate” over the topic, which pits corn farmers and ethanol refiners against the (usually vilified) oil industry and hunger activists, the overwhelming opinion on the left is that the failure to cancel the corn-to-cars mandate is some combination of mistake or scam, a failure of insight and honesty in national government. More generally, that mistake/scam tends to be explained, in this piece by George Monbiot, as a matter of the rich world versus the poor world, with “the rich world” being defined as all of us who reside in automobile-intensive societies, as if cars-first transportation is of equal importance to all of us “rich worlders.”

Even those who have a great deal of useful information about energy use tend to talk in such “Oops, we did it again!” terms. Consider Robert Bryce, whose piece today on Counterpunch explains the practical implications of the corn-to-cars rule, but then chalks it all up to bumbling and simple corruption:

Last year, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chairman of the Swiss food giant Nestle declared that using food crops to make biofuels was “absolute madness.”

He’s right, of course. But what is so maddening about the madness is that all of this was so easily predictable. The leaders in Congress who foisted the ethanol scam on the American people should have known that droughts happen, that corn crops cannot, will not, grow to infinity.

The only question is whether the feckless bureaucrats in the Obama administration and their willing enablers in Congress will finally put an end to the ethanol madness.

Feckless madness?

Such naive analysis forgets that cars are the lifeblood of the entire corporate capitalist order, and the “biofuels” ruse is vital to preserving the strategic lie that cars-first transportation is sustainable on planet Earth. It also forgets, as somebody once said, that some portion of the role of politicians is to serve as the executive committee of the overclass, i.e., to make decisions that preserve the conditions required to keep profit-making maximal and maximally secure for all business factions.

Obama is certainly a sell-out, but the world “feckless” simply doesn’t apply to this highly skilled and calculating social climber. As he himself admitted, he is the main pitchfork catcher for the status quo, and he knows it. That’s where the money for elections and wealthy retirements comes from.

Cancellation or even suspension of the corn-to-cars rule is certainly a matter of contesting interest groups and pressing social concerns. But, at the larger level, even a temporary withdrawal of the ethanol mandate would constitute a very bad precedent within overclass-owned political marketing operations, aka government and public policy as we now know it. Without complete freedom to push cars-first transportation above all else, the system enters a zone of serious potential risk. Allowing any consideration — including ballooning food prices and mass starvation — to become a higher priority, even for one year, than that freedom is something close to anathema for the powers-that-be.

Hence, DbC hereby predicts that the Obama (and Cameron) strategy of preserving the corn-to-cars mandate while raising food aid expenditures will continue to win the day, unless and until the public enters the scene and demands a change.

Corn Pone

cob doll CNN reports on the idiocy of running automobiles on ethanol:

Current rules stipulate that nearly 10% of the nation’s gasoline supply come from corn-based ethanol. To make that ethanol, up to 40% of the country’s annual corn production can be required.

Of course, such reckless waste is built into cars-first transportation and the corporate capitalist dictatorship that insists on its preservation, come hell or high water.

Meanwhile, no commercial media story on cars would be complete without a whopping dollop of exculpatory fantasy. Hence, CNN quotes, without comment, one “Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association,” who contends:

“There is no need to lift the mandate at this time.”

The mandate is crucial, he said, because not only is ethanol a domestic fuel that’s cleaner than regular gasoline, but it spurs investments in advanced ethanol like cellulosic, which can be made from trees or switch grass — not food crops.

Ah, yes, cellulosic ethanol, that magic elixir which, despite a decade of promises, public subsidies, and massive corn-ethanol profits, remains commercially unavailable in the United States! And just how, an actual journalist might have asked Mr. Hartwig, does burning refined sugars from corn kernels “spur investments” in this rank fiction?

No answer, because no question. Of course.

A Psychic Weapon

Asked to elaborate on his firm’s findings that most first-time buyers of hybrid cars do not buy a second one, yet do exhibit increased loyalty to the corporate brand of their first hybrid, R.L. Polk & Co researcher Brad Smith tells Automotive News that offering a hybrid is “a great conquesting tool for brands…a competitive edge when it comes to attracting new customers.”

“Hybrids,” notes Automotive News, “accounted for just 2.4 percent of total U.S. auto sales last year.”

More evidence for the DbC thesis that “alternative fuel” cars are simply loss leaders, an expensive but effective marketing ploy.

Annals of Delusion: CNG and Mini Cars

If you’ve been following this site, you know that it is a core DbC thesis that automobiles are far closer to their right walls of perfectibility than their sponsors admit or the deluded fans of alternative fuels understand. 100 MPG is simply never going to happen in any car, regardless of its power source, that’s viable in sprawling, cars-first-transportation conditions. The laws of physics forbid it.

To wit, two pieces of news today:

According to this story in the online version of the Albany Times Union the compressed natural gas Honda Civic gets “38 mpg highway, 27 mpg city.” Converting cars to CNG, in other words, would burn up natural gas at the same rate as the better petro-cars now burn oil. Hardly a potential rescue for the status quo.

Meanwhile, here’s why physically tiny cars aren’t as fuel-efficient as you might expect:

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — When most people look at really tiny cars they figure they must get really good fuel economy.

And when compared to trucks or family sedans, they do.

But subcompact and mini-cars — the likes of the Fiat 500 and Chevrolet Sonic — usually don’t get much, if any, better fuel economy than roomier compact cars.

For instance, at 33 miles per gallon, the most efficient version of the subcompact Chevrolet Sonic gets the same overall fuel economy as the larger Chevrolet Cruze Eco compact car. Other versions of those two models differ by only small amounts in combined city and highway driving.

Same for the teeny Hyundai Accent versus the larger Hyundai Elantra. Again, both get 33 mpg in combined city and highway driving. The subcompact Ford Fiesta actually does get better mileage than the compact Ford Focus. But the Focus, with 30% more horsepower and 43% more cargo space, gets beaten by just two miles per gallon.

It’s even true of hybrids. The tiny Prius C gets the same overall fuel economy (city and highway combined) as the larger Prius. Both are rated at 50 miles per gallon.

What gives?

Aerodynamics, mostly.

No matter how small it is, a car still has to hold people inside comfortably.

“You can shorten it up and make it narrower, but the height of a car can only be so small,” said Scott Miller, director of mass, energy and aerodynamics at General Motors, which makes the Sonic and the even smaller Chevrolet Spark, due out soon.

That means that, once you get past compact car size — the size of an Elantra, Cruze or Focus — cars start looking like tall boxes on wheels.

That’s not the best shape for pushing through the air. Slightly larger cars allow designers to refine the shape to better control airflow around the vehicle. Small cars provide less sheet metal to work with.

The Wages of McKibbenism

ostrich Tom Zeller, Jr. is Arianna Huffington’s “senior energy and environment writer.” Here is Mr. Zeller’s take on the meaning of the Keystone XL ruse:

This debate pits rich and powerful fossil fuel interests, which, for both good and ill, have shaped and dominated the last century of American economic, industrial and political life, against a growing swell of citizens who insist that it’s high time — for the sake of the planet and everyone who breathes — to turn the page and support cleaner alternatives.

Wrong — radically wrong — at both ends, Tom.

First of all, not only is the Keystone XL scuffle a minor issue to the ruling class, that ruling class is absolutely not organized around “fossil fuel interests,” as if the system is just randomly corrupt. In reality, we live under corporate capitalism. As such, the most important systemic and practical factor is maximum salable waste, not the random promotion of one or another “bad apple” industry. The ultimate problem — the one that makes fossil fuel interests so crucial — is cars and the geo-spatial sprawl they engendered. The oil companies are certainly a major part of the automotive industrial complex, but they are secondary, not primary, in it. The point, to the overclass, is to find a way to keep selling 10 million new cars every year. Change that, and oil becomes a minor issue. Fail to even mention it, and oil is certain to keep flowing in present patterns, Keystone or no Keystone, until there’s no more oil left.

Second, what cleaner alternatives? The so-called “electric” car, pathetic as it is, is actually running on hydrocarbon combustion and nuclear fission. If you are going to paint “cleaner alternatives” to oil as so readily doable, then you are obliged to offer evidence of their viability. Of course, you can’t, because your suggestion there is even more dishonest than the silly idea that the Keystone XL project is somehow vital to the national interest and/or the human future.

Electric Lemon

lemon Tell me, who wouldn’t want to pay triple the price of a Nissan Versa for this driving experience?:

Door to door, my drive to The Globe and Mail’s head office in downtown Toronto is about 35 kilometres each way, which should be fine for the Leaf. Still, I charged it from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. to ease any anxiety. When I left for work, the display in the dashboard reads 185 km of battery power. Confidence set in and I cranked up the heat and radio. But after only 10 kilometres on the highway, the battery capacity dropped to 100 km.

Anxiety set in. I turned off the heat and radio for the rest of the drive. I reached work with 85 km remaining – plenty of juice to get home. But the problem is there’s no place to recharge at work. And the battery range varies depending on the driving conditions, speed, weather, and temperature.

So, after a nine-hour work day with the Leaf sitting in the cold, I returned for the drive home. This time, I played it safe from the get-go – no radio, no seat warmers, no heat – only the wipers working intermittently as it rained. Eyes glued to the dash, the numbers dropped steadily. Relieved, I made it home with 23 km to spare. I was in the red zone, which means recharge as soon as possible. I breathed a sigh of relief and plugged it in immediately. Since the battery was almost fully drained, the display indicated that there was an estimated 21 hours to a 100 per cent charge.

This is the report by Toronto Globe and Mail reporter Petrina Gentile. 70 kilometers, by the way, is 43.5 miles. Gentile barely made that round trip, and had to do so without a heater running in Toronto, Canada in the late fall. As a reward, she lost access to the car for the next 21 hours, meaning, if she’d been an owner rather than a journalistic reviewer, she couldn’t have used the Leaf to go to and from work the next day!

As an illustration of the ideological power of the “electric” car, despite this objectively ridiculous performance, Gentile gives the Leaf a rating of 8.5 out of 10! She also echoes Nissan’s preposterous marketing claims by calling the Leaf “greener than green,” despite the importance of nuclear fission and hydrocarbon combustion in Canada’s electrical generation, despite the Leaf’s heavy reliance on scarce and precious minerals, and and despite the inherent insanity of using a 3,354-pound machine to take a single person to work and back.

Leaf Blows Smoke, Too

It takes amazing chutzpah to try, in the 21st century, to imprint the word “innovation” on anything having to do with the automobile. So it’s no surprise that the Nissan corporation is also aggressively preying on the public’s enforced energy ignorance. Here is the current form of that effort, an ad being run in heavy rotation during NFL football games:

The Nissan Leaf, of course, is barely selling, given its exorbitant price and pathetic performance. But the haloware effect is, given the otherwise inexplicable existence of this expensive TV ad, obviously of great value to car marketers.

The above ad shows people in various settings dealing with smoke and inconvenience from an imaginary world in which small appliances burn gasoline. “What if everything ran on gas?” intones Robert Downey, Jr., Nissan’s voice-over actor.

“Then again, what if everything didn’t?” Downey smugly concludes, suggesting that the “electric” car isn’t every bit as toxic and stupid as a petrol-powered dentist’s drill would be.

So, okay Robert, what if all cars were electric?

A few images relevant, for rather basic reasons, to that suggested reality:

miner

coal plants

sickness

nukes

Multiply as needed to create a world of a billion+ new “electric” automobiles…

Where There’s Smoke…

chevy-volt-garage-fire Remember our recent report about a Chevy Volt catching fire three weeks after a crash test? Turns out it wasn’t a fluke. According to Automotive News:

In lab tests completed last week by U.S. safety regulators, a second Volt [battery] pack began to smoke and throw off sparks while a third battery pack caught fire a week after a simulated crash.

GM may redesign the battery for its Chevrolet Volt to address issues raised after federal officials opened a safety probe into the plug-in electric [sic] car, CEO Dan Akerson said today.

GM said on Monday it would also offer loaner vehicles to about 5,500 Volt owners as it works with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on ways to reduce the risk of battery fires breaking out days after crashes involving the car.

How delightful! After shelling out $40,000+ for the car and another few thousand for the home charging station, you get to enjoy a loaner GM.

Such is reality in the Rube Goldberg world of late Oil Age automobiles.

MPG of Bicycles and Walking

einstein_bike Tom Murphy of Do the Math walks us through a topic that’s as crucial to the future of progressive, science-and-communications aided, modern society as anything could be: the comparative energy efficiency of human muscled-powered locomotion.

Corporate capitalism presumes the continuation — and, hence, the sustainability — of present mobility arrangements in at least its core areas. Under that arrangement, a large percentage of everyday, local-area travel is accomplished via automobile. This is due to the unique demand- and profit-stimulating effects (read: wastefulness) of cars-first transportation orders.

From an energy point of view, cars-first transportation means that fueling automotive engines is a major bottleneck for normal social existence. As such, the obvious question is how well does and could the cars-first arrangement compare to its major alternative, the reconstruction of towns and cities to encourage bicycling and walking?

Tom Murphy’s conclusion: On a diet of normal, mixed foodstuffs (rather than pure lard or some other means of maximizing the energy density of the comestible), short-distance bicycling yields an MPG equivalent of 290, or about 6 times the energy efficiency of a Toyota Prius. Walking, meanwhile, delivers about 160 MPG.

There is, Murphy says, one fly in the ointment here: the energy intensity of current agricultural and food delivery arrangements. Factoring that in, Murphy figures that the MPG of cycling drops to 130 and that of walking to 34.

einduh So, even without altering the food system (via increased organic farming, localization of supply chains, moves away from food processing/packaging, improvement of the veggie/meat intake ratio, etc.), bicycles are almost four times more energy efficient than Priuses, and walking is right in the same ballpark. A blend of the two — surely a main feature of any genuinely sustainable, modern human future — would be far more energy efficient than any conceivable cars-first arrangement.

(All this, of course, leaves aside the question of the energy required to build and maintain the infrastructures involved. Cars-first requires huge streets, large parking areas, scattered building patterns, and gigantic, ornate fuel-delivery processes. Muscles-first living would imply much smaller streets, less need for parking, dense building patterns, and comparatively simple fuel-delivery processes.)

Muscles-first would, of course, also be a far healthier arrangement: Using one’s own body, rather than 3,000-pound electrical or fossil-fuel combusting machines, to achieve the desired movements, would have radically positive impacts on public health, as would the accompanying reduction in exposure to the chemicals and large collisions involved in cars-first living and breathing.

Need we mention which society would be more fun and sociable and sane?

Old Wine, Phony Bottles

winehead You know all the ads like this one, the ones that imply we live in an age of new fuels, and the task at hand is merely deciding which one is best?

Well, when it comes to cellulosic ethanol, one of the handful of major candidate “alt” fuels, guess how new that process is? Chemical engineer Robert Rapier reports:

I don’t think I have ever had the privilege of using a literature reference from 1819, but here it is. In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid (Braconnot 1819). The technique was later used by the Germans to first commercialize cellulosic ethanol from wood in 1898 (EERE 2009).

But believe it or not, commercialization also took place in the U.S. in 1910. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill (PDA 1910). Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullteron, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years (Sherrard 1945).

To put that in perspective, Iogen claimed in 2004 that they were producing the world’s first cellulose ethanol fuel from their 1,500 gallon per day plant. (While 1,500 gal/day is their announced capacity, if you look at their production statistics they have never sustained more than 500 gallons per day over the course of a year; 2008 production averaged 150 gal/day).

Many companies are in a mad rush to be the “first” to commercialize cellulosic ethanol. The next time you hear someone say that they will be the first, ask them if they plan to invent the telephone next.