Category Archives: Author essay

The ongoing controversy over ethanol

By Bill Kovarik

Remember all the cute news items two years ago about how the price of movie popcorn just went up $2 thanks to ethanol, or how your grocery cart (or your wallet) just got lighter, thanks to ethanol? Turns out, it was mostly fiction.

Continue reading

Recognizing the complexity of biofuels issues

By Bill Kovarik and Scott Sklar

At a time when the need for public understanding of environmental science and energy technology issues has never been greater, the debate over biofuels illustrates a serious problem.

Because the issues are extraordinarily complex, participants in the debate often resort to misleading oversimplifications even when their concerns are quite legitimate. Continue reading

Shallow takes on ethanol


Its easy to be smug about opposing ethanol. Critics say:

• If ethanol was so great, it wouldn’t need a subsidy.

• It robs food from the poor to give fuel to the rich

• It takes more energy to make ethanol than it produces

• Ethanol causes more air pollution than gasoline.

• Even if all America’s corn were turned into ethanol, it would only come to 12 percent of the country’s fuel.

There are grains of truth in each of these statements, but this is a complex argument, and each of these statements contains omissions, distortions and  inaccuracies.  So lets take them in turn …

Continue reading

From poplar to ethanol: Plant could help save Northwest’s biofuels industry

By Hal Bernton

Seattle Times staff reporter

BOARDMAN, Ore. — The poplar trees here grow 10 feet a year, transforming an irrigated stretch of desert near the Columbia River into a neatly pruned forest. For now, the trees provide lumber for cabinets and pulp for paper.

But in the years ahead, energy entrepreneurs hope the pulp from poplar can be turned into ethanol, helping resuscitate the Northwest’s floundering biofuels industry.


Who was that muse? Props to Polyhymnia

By Bill Kovarik

This illustration — from the Congress des Applications de L’Alcool Denature, Dec. 16 – 23, 1902 (published by the Automobile Club de France) — popped off the cover of a book I happened to pick up at the National Agricultural Library archives in Beltsville, MD while I was a grad student in the 1980s. At the time I was reading Leo Marx’s “Machine in the Garden,” and I was instantly struck by the beauty of the visual correspondence to that metaphor.

This “muse of biofuels” is probably an adaptation of the image of Polyhymnia, the muse of agriculture and lyric poetry, one of the nine muses of Greek mythology. Of course, the hair style and the cog-wheel brooch are modern for the year 1902, but the flowing robe and the diadem in her hair  would be typical of depictions of a Greek muse through the ages. Continue reading

Historic moment for second generation biofuels

By Bill Kovarik
For SEJournal, Summer 2009
(w/ some updates,  2011)

The US and Canadian biofuels industry is struggling to pull through an historic shift to second generation production feedstocks and production technologies.

There is pressure coming, in part, from  low carbon fuel standards passed by the California Air Resources Board  in April 2009, and also from the need for some return on federal development funding injected into the industry since 2007.

At least  eight major cellulosic biofuels plants  are in production or under construction in the US and Canada.

So, it’s now or never for cellulosic biofuels — the “fuel of the future” for almost a century, and long seen as the only source of renewable fuel that could replace petroleum.

“We think, ultimately, cellulosic materials are the only materials where you can produce enough under environmentally sustainable conditions,” said Chris Somerville, director of the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California at Berkeley at the 2008 Society of Environmental Journalists conference.

Somerville is restating  an opinion expressed by Henry Ford, Isaac Asimov, and even, 90 years ago, by the scientist who founded the Cellulose Chemistry division of the American Chemical Society – Harold Hibbert, who said:

“It looks as if in the rather near future, this country will be under the necessity of paying out vast sums yearly in order to obtain supplies of crude oil from Mexico, Russia and Persia,” Hibbert said in a 1921 journal article.   “It is believed, however, that the chemist is capable of solving this difficult problem…. (and) it would seem that cellulose in one form or another is capable of filling that role.”

Continue reading