Marginal: Grassoline

Columns From: 7/1/2007 Automotive Design & Production, , Editor-in-Chief from Gardner Business Media, Inc.

Why cutting your lawn may help U.S. energy security

Several years ago, before it was the thing to do, I bought a mulching lawn mower. This is not because I figure myself to be particularly avant garde when it comes to my quasi-horticultural activities. Rather, it comes down to the fact that I’m lazy.

I remember going into the lawn mower store in downtown Plymouth. The guy who sold me the Bolens—a man who was rather advanced in age and had a character that one might describe as “crotchety,” but in a pleasant way—explained that he owned one just like it. He said that sometimes—particularly in the Spring, when grass grows more quickly than our desire to cut it does—the mower would leave a line of clumps. There was no bagging option for this unit. “My neighbors might not like it, but I don’t care. It’s good for the lawn.” And that wisdom I will never forget, as it serves to justify my approach to lawn cutting. However, going forward it may be that grass clippings are good for the auto industry, too. Listen to Tom Stephens, group vice president, GM Global Powertrain and Quality: “We believe that ethanol has the greatest near-term potential to displace petroleum, and that is why we are committed to working with government, academia, and industry to promote both supply and availability. We also support advances in research to commercialize and increase ethanol production through cellulosic energy sources.” Cellulosic ethanol can be made from lawn clippings. Yes, what’s good for the lawn may be good for the energy security of the country.

According to Bruce E. Dale, director of the Biomass Conversion Research Laboratory at Michigan State University (which was established in 1855 as the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan), who has been working on transforming cellulose into ethanol for some 30 years, “I like to call cellulosic ethanol ‘grassoline’ because it literally can be made from grass. It is a completely renewable fuel source that reduces our dependence on petroleum. Grassoline is domestically produced, environmentally sound and helps support rural and regional economic growth.” Dale says that using technology that goes back to the 1940s—back when there was a war and commodities such as gasoline were is short supply so clever people had to come up with clever alternatives to the status quo—could produce cellulosic ethanol at about $2.50 a gallon. Perhaps he gives more credit than is due, but he projects that by 2012 the price of a gallon of ethanol could be $1.30 per gallon and less than $1 per gallon by 2020. Tom Stephens says that U.S. Dept. of Energy projections have it that by 2030 the U.S. could produce 90 billion gallons of corn and cellulosic ethanol a year—and he acknowledges that it represents 60 billion adjusted energy gallons of fuel, as it isn’t as energy-dense as gasoline.

For those who would line up and start spouting reasons why undertaking a program to create more ethanol is not a good idea, I would like to recommend that they spend some time reading Oil on the Brain: Adventures From the Pump to the Pipeline by Lisa Margonelli (Doubleday). Margonelli writes, “American drivers buy one-ninth of the world’s crude oil production per day” so consequently, “our needs are felt around the world, from the tiniest villages in Africa, the Amazon, and the Arctic, to the highest towers in Vienna, Riyadh, and New York.” And while our needs may be “felt” by these people, they don’t necessarily feel our “pain at the pump.” Arguably, some people who literally control the taps may enjoy our discomfort. For example, consider Venezuela, the country with the largest oil reserves outside of the Middle East, and which sells a majority of its output to the U.S. “In the winter of 2003,” Margonelli writes, “the United States was taken completely buy surprise when Venezuela’s oil production fell suddenly from 3 million barrels a day to almost nothing.” Was this done by Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez? The man who said the following to the U.N. General Assembly on September 20, 2006: “Yesterday, the devil came here. Right here. Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of. Yesterday, ladies and gentlemen, from this rostrum, the president of the United States, the gentleman to whom I refer as the devil, came here, talking as if he owned the world.”? Yes—but because of a strike by workers against him. But he’s still in charge. Other places where there’s oil include Chad and Nigeria, and reading Margonelli’s coverage of her time on the ground in those places provokes feelings of both admiration (for her) and dismay (for the prospects of those sources for the local gas station). And then there’s that new big customer: China. Grass clippings are beginning to look a whole lot better.