Three Step Plan to Ending Oil Imports

Marc Franke, Vice President, Iowa Renewable Energy Association urges shift to conservation, biofuels and plug-in hybrids.

Published: 25-May-2005


Can the US really kick the petroleum habit for our transportation needs? It sure seems like a long way off from our modest amounts of renewable fuels we have today. In 2004, the US produced enough ethanol to displace 2.8% of the petroleum used for gasoline and enough soy biodiesel for .5% (one half of one percent) of the petroleum used for diesel fuel.

Wow! All this effort going into building ethanol and biodiesel plants here in the Midwest but so far achieving less than 4% displacement of the petroleum we use for transportation.

Is there enough crop production to get even close to getting off of petroleum?

Every year, we plant about 75 million acres in corn and about 70 million acres of soybeans. If every bit of corn were used for ethanol, at a rate of about 300 gallons per acre, that would be 22.5 billion gallons of ethanol or about 19% of what is needed to displace gasoline usage.

If every acre of soybeans was used for biodiesel, at a rate of 49 gallons per acre, that would be about 3.7 billion gallons of soy biodiesel or about 6.2% of what is needed to displace petroleum diesel. By the way, both crops still produce food products even after the fuels are extracted.

Wow! Only enough corn ethanol for 19% of our gasoline and only enough soy biodiesel for 6.2% of the diesel fuel. Can we ever get off of petroleum fuels?

Yes! I believe we can. But if we do, we will have to use today's situation only as a starting point for new ideas about our transportation. Here is my three step "road map" for getting off of petroleum:

  1. Conservation - Conservation alone will never get us off of oil. We will continue to guzzle it up until it is all gone or until the remaining oil left in the ground is so expensive to extract that we simply abandon it. However, conservation and efficiency can drastically reduce the amount we need to create so that we can still have all of our transportation but at reduced levels of consumption.

    The current CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standard is sitting at 27.5 mpg. That means that the fleet of cars that each automaker sells in the US has to average 27.5 mpg across the entire mix of vehicles sold. If we sell more gas guzzling luxury cars, then the automakers have to make the high mileage cars more attractive to purchase either with features or cash incentives to get people to buy them. If we increase the CAFE limit to 30 mpg, that would be a 9% improvement in fuel usage. My VW Golf TDI is EPA rated at 49 mpg; a VW Passat Wagon TDI is rated at 38 mpg. The Ford Escape Hybrid is rated at 31 mpg combined hwy/city. Considering the advances we've made in recent years, it sure seems like we could raise the CAFE limit to 30 mpg. The SUVs that so many people drive aren't even covered by the law. SUVs are considered "light trucks" and don't figure in. The standard for light trucks is 20.7 mpg. If this were raised by 9%, we'd be at 22.6 mpg. That seems achievable with our newer technologies.

    So ... seems like conservation and efficiency can get us at least a 9% reduction before we even start talking about other fuels.

  2. The partial switch to electricity for transportation - The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) did a study of battery powered vehicles for using electricity for transportation. Here's a quote from their article: "For example, Plug-In Hybrids with a battery providing a 40-mile electric range could accommodate more than 60% of the total annual miles traveled by the average U.S. vehicle in the all-electric mode." A Plug-in Hybrid Vehicle (PHEV) is one that can run on its fuel engine (either gasoline or diesel) when needed, but operate on battery electricity for some large portion of its miles. In the past, people were reluctant to consider a battery powered car because the range was so short, but today's hybrids (like the Prius with real world mpg in the mid-40s) are becoming well accepted in the market place. It is only a small technical step to increase the battery size to deliver a 40-mile range in cars like the Prius. One company in California has already experimented with a Prius in this way and achieved close to 200 mpg on gasoline by supplementing the gasoline power with charged electricity from the home. The car still has the long range associated with a liquid fueled car, but a significant part of its driving can be all-electric.

    The municipal electric utility of Austin, Texas, is already discussing offering $1,000 rebates on its electrical customers' bills when they purchase a PHEV if they become available. This utility has estimated that the cost for electricity would be the equivalent of paying 56 cents per gallon for gasoline for the electric part of the propulsion.

    Does using electricity really help anything? Yes, it does. It is much easier to clean the emissions at one, fixed, stationary point of a power generator than it is on millions of individual engines driving around our roads. Also, as our cars age the emissions controls do too. Often they get worse mile by mile, year by year. At a single, central power plant, it is much easier to inspect and maintain the controls to keep them operating at peak efficiency over time.

    As technology improves, the controls can get even better, whereas older cars never do. Even though much of our electricity comes from coal or nuclear, some comes from clean hydro-electric dams and an increasing amount each year comes from clean, renewable wind energy.

    A friend of mine in California owns an electric Toyota Rav4 and charges it entirely off of roof-mounted solar panels at his home. More and more, electricity for transportation could be renewable.

    Would we have to build many new generators and hugely upgrade the electrical grid? No, not really. PHEVs are used during the day and charged at night. Our generating capacity is sized for daytime industrial and air conditioning loads. So is the grid. At night, the grid is hugely under utilized and generating stations often simply waste power. You can't just shut down or mostly throttle back a huge coal burning generating station. Low night time electrical demand has been a problem for utilities for years.

    So switching some of our transportation needs to electricity can get us another 60% reduction in oil needed.

  3. Expanded potential for renewables - Ethanol from corn (produces 300 gallons/acre) may be the most inefficient way to get ethanol. A farmer in Knoxville, Iowa, has invented a new process for harvesting and processing sweet sorghum that promises to deliver 900 gallons/acre (with much lower inputs for fertilizer required and much less need for energy to convert to ethanol). New enzymes have been developed to convert cellulose waste (like corn stalks, straw, husks, etc.) into ethanol, further reducing the overall energy to make ethanol and greatly expanding its potential yield.

    The same is true for soy biodiesel. Biodiesel from soybeans delivers 49 gallons/acre. If you harvest canola oil instead (from the rape seed plant), you get 127 gallons/acre. Biodiesel from algae farming delivers 400 gallons/acre today (from dry desert climates using salty water). The University of New Hampshire is studying new algae production methods that may deliver as high as 10,000 gallons/acre. Further, the Conagra Butterball Turkey plant in Carthage, Missouri is converting turkey processing waste into #1 diesel fuel using Thermal De-Polymerization (TDP). The TDP process works with any organic waste including old plastic bottles, field waste, old rubber tires, waste from hog farms, etc.

    Clearly, ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soybeans is only a place to get started. Biofuels have hugely higher potential with new approaches and technologies.

So how soon can our society get off of petroleum?

Most of these technologies are here today and work today. It isn't as though we need amazing new breakthroughs to get started. If we start now, and really focus our policies on energy independence, I believe we could be off of imported oil (currently 55% of our oil is imported) in 10-15 years. We could be off of the rest of it in another 10 years after that.

What if you personally want to get started now?

Well, I've been using 100% soy biodiesel in my VW Golf TDI most of the year since March of 2003. It works fine and I've been getting 44 mpg that whole time on fuel we grow! E85 vehicles (85% ethanol) are readily available both new and used although E85 stations are not so commonly available yet. You can already do a lot right now, today, to cut your connection to petroleum and start using renewable fuels.

To find out more, visit my web site at

And come to the I-Renew Expo in September ( in Hiawatha, Iowa. This year, I intend to build my workshop around the technologies to get us off of petroleum: imports first ... then off of petroleum entirely!

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