One of the more interesting propositions to face California’s voters in November 2006 is Proposition 87, which would tax in-state oil producers to fund alternative energy projects. Proponents of this bill air a television commercial, narrated by Bill Clinton, where the Brazilian ethanol industry is referenced. The closing message is “If Brazil can do it, so can California.”
This is preposterous. First of all, Brazil, which only replaces a bit more than 10% of their petroleum with ethanol, has a per capita petroleum and ethanol consumption of about 4.0 barrels per year per citizen (ref. EIA). California, the most energy-efficient of all US states, nonetheless has a per capita petroleum consumption of over 20 barrels per year per citizen (ref. DOE). For this reason, California, with 33 million inhabitants and sitting on maybe 40,000 square miles of fully utilized farmland (ref. NetState), requires nearly 700 million barrels of petroleum per year. This is almost as much as Brazil; with 186 million people, and nearly 10,000 square miles of farmland already dedicated to growing sugar cane, Brazil requires only about 800 million barrels of petroleum and ethanol per year.
Where is California going to find enough land to make any dent whatsoever in their petroleum consumption through planting biofuel crops? Let’s not forget that sugar cane doesn’t grow in California, but corn does. Sugar cane, best case, will yield maybe around 11,000 barrels of ethanol per square mile per year (ref. UCLA), but corn yields less than half that, around 4,700 barrels per square mile per year (ref. USDA).
This math is not encouraging: For California to replace 10% of its current petroleum consumption with ethanol, California would have to convert 50% of its existing farmland to grow biofuel crops. Not a chance.
Obviously California can import ethanol from America’s cornbelt, but the issue remains of how to find sufficient land. As we note in Biofuel vs. Photovoltaics, there are around 5.0 million square miles of arable farmland in the entire world, and even at yields of 11,000 barrels of oil per year, to get 80 million barrels per day (to match world petroleum consumption), you would pretty much have to replace 100% of the world’s farmland.
Proponents of biofuel correctly point out that it isn’t meant to completely replace petroleum, and that new techniques to extract biofuel from cellulose or to grow it in self contained reactors may greatly increase capacities. What they aren’t saying is that meanwhile food prices are being driven up all over the world, particularly in poorer countries, and deforestation is accelerating, because of this new cash crop.
Bottom line – if this is the best proponents of Proposition 87 can come up with, they don’t have anything worth voting for. Let’s not forget it was government bureaucrats who wasted billions of dollars on hydrogen fuel cells, delaying the introduction of hybrids and all-electric cars by a decade or more.
It’s tempting to support Proposition 87 if the bureaucrats would use 100% of the funds to expand photovoltaic capacity. But investments are already going into photovoltaic research and new manufacturing. And the private funds going into photovoltaics today are coming from the Silicon Valley, where investors are managing their own money with an eye towards breakthroughs, not patronage.