About the Author

Stephanie Cohen

New Atlantis blogger Stephanie Cohen is a journalist who covers energy and environmental issues for a wide range of print and online publications. She can be reached at scohen@thenewatlantis.com.


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Stephanie Cohenís Latest New Atlantis Articles

 Energy Incrementalism” (Spring 2006)

 Energy Dreams and Energy Realities” (Spring 2004)


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Power Politics

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ethanol to blame for rising price of ... movie tickets? 

Does ethanol make it too expensive to enjoy? 

First it was tortillas. Now it’s movie tickets.

The price of movie tickets is expected to go up this year due to the rising cost of corn used to make popcorn, according to Ricard Gil, a University of Santa Cruz economist who studies the movie industry. The price corn, in turn, is partly being bumped up by the increased production of ethanol.

Gil’s comments first appeared in an article in Advertising Age (subscription required). They were quickly picked up by other press outlets, with reports appearing in the Kansas City Star, the Seattle Times, ABCNews.com, NPR, the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, and elsewhere.

The reasoning goes like this: Movie theaters subsidize the price of tickets with sales of high priced popcorn. While theaters have to share ticket revenues with movie distributors, they get to keep all the money they make on concessions. But if moviegoers start passing on the pricey popcorn -- which the theaters are making less of a profit on -- theaters will need to get more money at the window. According to the press reports, Gil expects ticket prices to jump by as much as 30 percent this year.

Earlier this year, Gil and Wesley Hartmann of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business coauthored a report (available here) on the price of theater popcorn and its relation to movie economics.

[Photo by Flickr user PPDIGITAL (CC)]

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 11:36 am
File As: Biofuels

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Carbon dioxide emissions are up 

But could higher energy prices bring emissions down?

 The Energy Information Administration (EIA) announced last week that U.S. energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rose 1.6 percent in 2007. Some of this growth can be attributed to economic expansion; the U.S. Gross Domestic Product increased by 2.2 percent in 2007. Also, 2007 saw more heating- and cooling-degree days (which require more energy to run heating units and air conditioners), and a 2.5 percent rise in generation from power plants.

But according to an article in the Oregonian, emissions may soon begin to decline thanks to higher energy prices: “We’re likely to burn through a lot less energy over the coming decades than experts assumed as little as a year ago.”

The gist of the article is simple: higher energy prices reduce consumption, which helps limit greenhouse emissions. “In effect, the market itself -- through higher fuel costs -- is reducing use of fuels just as greenhouse gas control measures would aim to do,” the article says.

The article points to recent downward revisions in projected energy demand. EIA initially projected growth of 1.2 percent per year from 2005 to 2020. This year, the agency revised that growth projection downward to 0.7 percent per year, the article said. A downward revision in energy demand led to revisions in greenhouse emissions. Last year EIA said it expected emissions to rise 16 percent from 2005 to 2020, but this year scaled that projected increase back to just 7 percent, according to the article:

Three main factors led to the lowered forecast of energy demand, said Paul Holtberg of the Energy Information Administration. First, projections of economic growth have been pared back -- which translates into fewer new homes, for instance. Also, the Energy Independence and Security Act, passed by Congress last year, mandates new fuel economy standards for cars and efficiency standards for appliances and home lighting.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 11:05 am
File As: Energy

Monday, May 26, 2008

New satellite to study oceans 

Joint U.S.-French mission

A joint U.S.-French satellite project announced by NASA this week will track trends in sea levels and the climate. The satellite, which will be launched on June 15, 2008, will help scientists look at the world’s ocean circulation and its links to the Earth’s climate over the next decade.

The Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)/Jason 2 is a partnership of NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the French Space Agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT).

Measurements by past satellites have shown that the mean sea level has risen by about 0.12 inches a year since 1993, twice the rate estimated from tide gauges in the past century, according to the NASA press release -- although “15 years of data are not sufficient to determine long-term trends.”

The oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface, have a huge impact on Earth’s weather and climate. “Earth’s oceans serve as a thermostat for our planet, keeping it from overheating,” NASA says in its description of the satellite (click here for a PDF). “More than 80% of the heat from global warming over the past 50 years has been absorbed by the oceans. The rate of sea level change allows scientists to estimate how much of this heat the ocean is storing. Scientists want to know how much additional heat the oceans can absorb, and how that absorbed heat affects our global atmosphere.”

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 12:26 pm
File As: Climate Change, Satellites

Monday, May 26, 2008

Ethanol and the corn we eat 

Also: The impact of corn prices on Texans

There are some interesting new statistics about how much of the corn grown in the United States is directly consumed for food. These numbers, which come from a transcript of a recent conference call about the food-versus-fuel debate hosted by the Renewable Fuels Association (a pro-ethanol group), are worth a look. (The transcript is available here in PDF format.)

In 2007, the U.S. had 85 million harvested acres of field corn that produced 366 million tons of product valued at $52 billion, according to Rick Tolman of the National Corn Growers Association. He broke down how the corn was used:

42% went for livestock feed
9% went for direct human consumption
22% percent went for ethanol production
17% was exported
10% was carry-over

When the ethanol mandate hits its 15 billion gallon cap in 2015, Tolman said, the corn industry “can see no more than 27 percent of our corn crop ever going for ethanol use.”

Tolman’s main point was that ethanol isn’t taking food out of anyone’s mouth. In fact, the U.S. will export record amounts of corn this year. This is because productivity has grown, Tolman argues, specifically the number of bushels yielded by a single acre. In 1967 the national average yield was 80 bushels to the acre; last year the figure rose to 151 bushels per acre. How did this happen? Biotechnology:

Our corn yields have doubled in the last 40 years using less inputs. We expect them to double again in the next 20 years. Why is that happening? Because of biotechnology, because of improvements in corn breeding, because of the sequencing of the corn genome. We have much more technology to put the traits in that give us yield enhancement.

Tolman did acknowledge that corn prices have played a role in driving up retail prices for food. He believes corn can account for 25-30 percent of the price hikes. The farm industry’s math showing why it isn’t responsible for the bulk of price increases looks like this:

There are 56 pounds of corn in a bushel.

Right now a bushel is going for $5-$6 a bushel (the Agriculture Department has estimated that the average price for the year will be $4 a bushel). In 2003, the price of corn was $2.50 a bushel, according to Tolman.

If we take $5 as the average price, that comes to 9 cents a pound.

It takes 2.8 pounds of corn to produce a pound of beef.

At $5 a bushel, that’s 25.2 cents worth of corn in a pound of beef. At four dollars a bushel it is 19 cents. That’s a difference of 6 cents per $1 per bushel increase. So, the reasoning goes, the changing price of corn can’t be blamed for the rising price of food. Instead, it’s the price of oil, Tolman argued, that should be blamed for food prices -- “that’s where the impact is coming” from, he said.

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry, a Republican, has some figures of his own. Last month, he asked the Environmental Protection Agency to reduce by half the amount of ethanol that must be blended into the nation’s gasoline supplies. In making his case for a waiver -- which would apply only to Texas -- Perry said ethanol production is lifting costs for Texas livestock producers. A one-cent rise in the price of a bushel of corn costs the Texas livestock industry an additional $6 million, according to Perry’s request, because the state industry uses about 900 million bushel of corn feed each year. The increase in the price of a bushel of corn between 2004 and 2007 will end up costing Texans more than $1 billion, the waiver request claims. Governor Perry’s request is available here in PDF format.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 10:38 am
File As: Biofuels

Friday, May 23, 2008

John McCain signs on to bill that would lower ethanol mandate 

Legislation introduced this week by Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Republican, would cap U.S. corn-based ethanol production at 9 billion gallons in 2009. The 2007 energy bill that was enacted raised the level to 15 billion gallons by 2015. Ten other Republican lawmakers have signed on as cosponsors, including Republican presidential nominee John McCain, long a foe of federal subsidies for ethanol. Other cosponsors include Senators Sununu, Collins, Dole, Barrasso, Allard, Cornyn, DeMint, Stevens, and Enzi. The legislation is S. 3031 (available here in PDF format).

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 5:48 pm
File As: Biofuels

Friday, May 23, 2008

American drivers log fewer miles in March 

The Transportation Department confirmed Friday that higher gasoline prices are curbing the number of miles logged on American roadways. The department's Federal Highway Administration said monthly data shows that the estimated "vehicle miles traveled" (VMT) on all U.S. public roads for March 2008 dropped 4.3 percent compared with travel for the same month a year ago. This is the first drop in March travel figures since 1979. "At 11 billion miles less in March 2008 than in the previous March, this is the sharpest yearly drop for any month in FHWA history," the administration said.

Americans are showing a modest willingness to cut back. Cumulative VMT has fallen by 17.3 billion miles since November 2006. Total VMT in the U.S. for 2006 topped 3 trillion miles.

The statement also notes that greenhouse gas emissions fell by an estimated 9 million metric tons for the first quarter of 2008. Though the statement doesn't explicitly link the decrease in driver miles with fewer greenhouse gas emissions, the assumption is that there is a connection.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 2:07 pm
File As: Energy, Transportation

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cellulosic ethanol gets a boost from Detroit 

A car company in search of a new fuel that doesn’t rely on corn? That’s the story according to a joint announcement by General Motors Corp. and Mascoma Corp. In a press release dated May 1, the companies said they have partnered to “develop cellulosic ethanol focused on Mascoma’s single-step biochemical conversion of non-grain biomass into low-carbon alternative fuels to help address increasing energy demand.” GM is providing an “undisclosed equity investment.”

Mascoma’s method for turning biomass into fuel is called “consolidated bioprocessing,” or CBP, and it relies on microorganisms and enzymes to turn biomass into biofuels. Mascoma says it is using proprietary microorganisms developed at the company’s laboratories in Lebanon, N.H.

The company says the CBP process lowers costs by limiting the additives and enzymes used in other biochemical processes. The company has an explanation and diagram of the process on its website.

Mascoma is testing the process now and expects to begin producing ethanol later this year at a demonstration plant under construction in Rome, N.Y.

GM says it cares about alternative fuels because it sells flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) -- cars that can run on traditional gasoline or 85% ethanol. GM says that of the roughly 7 million flex-fuel vehicles on U.S. roads, 3 million are GM cars and trucks. But even though these millions of cars can use high ethanol mixes, almost all Americans with FFVs in their driveways or garages are actually just filling them with gasoline.

Mascoma, a privately-held company in Massachusetts, has raised equity from venture capital investments and “secured more than $60 million in state and federal grants.” Investors in the company include a who’s-who of venture capital firms: Flagship Ventures, Khosla Ventures, Atlas Venture, General Catalyst Partners, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Pinnacle Ventures, VantagePoint Venture Partners.

Mascoma has also partnered with the University of Tennessee to develop a pilot facility in Tennessee to turn switch grass and wood chips into fuel. The plant is expected to be operational by 2009. It is one of three small-scale cellulosic ethanol biorefineries the Energy Department announced in April it was giving a total of $86 million over the next four years. The other two will be built by London-based Ecofin, LLC (in Kentucky) and RSE Pulp & Chemical, LLC (Maine), a subsidiary of Red Shield Environmental.

Interesting tidbits: The chairman and CEO of Mascoma is Bruce Jamerson. He was the president of VeraSun Energy Corporation -- a leading maker of ethanol from grain -- from 2003 to 2007; Mascoma was founded in 2005 based on technology developed by Drs. Lee Lynd and Charles Wyman in Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering.

GM previously announced a separate investment in a cellulosic ethanol startup that “uses a thermo-chemical process to make ethanol from non-grain sources.”

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 9:12 pm
File As: Biofuels

Monday, May 5, 2008

... but in Kansas, proposed coal plants are nixed 

A veto by Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of two proposed 700-megawatt coal-burning coal-fired plants stands. According to news reports, members of the state House rebuffed the effort to override her veto of the power plants.

"The Kansas House voted 80-45, falling four votes short of the required two-thirds majority needed in the 125-member chamber to override the veto," according to the Lawrence Journal-World & News.

Speaker Melvin Neufeld, a Republican, reportedly kept the roll call open in the House for two hours and kept the chamber under lock-down (members could only leave with permission and had to return quickly) while proponents of the project tried to muster the needed votes -- to no avail.

But the two chambers of the state legislature were divided over the veto. On Wednesday of last week the state Senate overrode Sebelius’s veto 32-7, five votes more than the required two-thirds majority.

Apparently, the original rejection of the permit for a coal-fired power plant by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment marked the first time that any government agency in the United States cited carbon dioxide emissions and greenhouse gas concerns in rejecting such a permit.


Speaking at a Yale climate change event two weeks ago (I was in attendance), Governor Sebelius said she was opposed to the plants because much of the electricity they produced would be exported to other states (namely Colorado and Texas) while Kansas residents would be forced to live with the emissions pumped into the air and the effects of climate change.

Prior to the veto override vote, lawmakers approved a separate bill that would have increased the amount of energy from the project for Kansas residents from 200 megawatts to 400 megawatts.

According to the Energy Department, seven coal-fired power plants supply more than 75% of electricity to Kansas residents. Almost all of the coal used in Kansas’s power plants is shipped by railcar from other states -- mostly from Wyoming.

The Kansas supreme court decided in April to put on hold its review of the commission's decision blocking the power plants to allow legal challenges to be considered in district court and in administrative hearings involving the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, according to news reports.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 3:41 pm
File As: Energy Policy, Coal

Friday, May 2, 2008

Indiana clean-coal plant price tag goes up... 

Duke Energy filed a report with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission updating the agency on the expected cost of completing a clean coal gasification power plant currently under construction in southwest Indiana. The company upped the cost estimate of the plant by $365 million to $2.35 billion. This translates into a 2% rate impact for customers between 2008 and 2013. Duke president James Turner said the increase was similar to increases for other types of buildings. The plant is located in Edwardsport, Ind. and is expected to be completed in 2012. The 630-megawatt plant will use integrated gasification combined cycle technology. That total cost will be offset by about $460 million in local, state, and federal tax incentives.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 12:53 pm
File As: Energy Technology, Coal

Friday, April 18, 2008

Why Switchgrass? 

Panicum virgatum and American energy policy

On Wednesday of this past week, the Department of Energy (DOE) released a report — first prepared and published in the summer of 2007 by Lynn Wright — titled Historical Perspective on How and Why Switchgrass was Selected as a “Model” High-Potential Energy Crop. The report is a detailed, chronological look at how the United States came to focus on switchgrass as a potential fuel source. It reveals how an unheard-of crop came to be mentioned by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union address and has since become a symbol of the biofuel revolution.

Switchgrass being harvested. (Department of Energy)Switchgrass may have seemed to come out of nowhere in that speech, but Wright shows it has interested alternative-energy analysts for a surprisingly long time. DOE started developing biomass resources as early as 1976 when its Biomass Systems Branch funded several studies on sugar crops, agricultural residues, wood energy farms, grains and grasses, and aquatic plant production. In 1977, the department co-funded a field study with the Department of Agriculture on woody crops, sugar cane, and tropical grasses. This led the Energy Department to established its own energy crop research effort.

Wright points to the “screening trials” funded by DOE in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a key development in the department’s efforts to assess the potential of so-called energy crops. The agency funded research projects looking at 34 species on 31 different sites spread over seven states in crop-producing regions of the U.S. The research was conducted by six universities and one private company.

In 1984, the Herbaceous Energy Crops Program was launched to focus on “grass and legume herbage” that could be grown in the Southeast and Midwest states. The focus was on these sources because a government report had identified them “as second in size only to wood.”

Wright finds that while “several species were identified as having merit for further development,” a majority of the groups conducting research identified switchgrass as “having high priority for further development.”

The results of these trials, along with assessments by Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Biofuels Feedstock Development Program (and funding limitations — of course), led to a decision by DOE in 1991 to invest in switchgrass as a “model” or “prototype” bioenergy crop.

In a 1992 report, the Biofuels Feedstock Development Program justified the decision to focus on switchgrass, saying that the annual yields from these crops on test sites were “well above the production level considered prerequisite for a successful biofuels industry.” The potential land base for switchgrass was also believed to be large, namely the 48 million acres of marginal land that has severe restrictions for conventional crop production:

As a widely adapted endemic species of the tall grass prairies, switchgrass has demonstrated a capacity for high yields on relative poor quality sites.... Research at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has shown that ... switchgrass has a significant capacity to improve soil quality by sequestering carbon belowground. Improved erosion control, reduced fertilizer and pesticide requirements and a capacity for providing wildlife cover are additional positive environmental attributes. An important quality of switchgrass is its strong potential appeal to landowners, for whom cultivation of a perennial crop that can be grown, harvested, and stored with conventional equipment represents an easy interface with current agricultural practices.

In short, part of the potential promise of switchgrass was that it could be produced using land in danger of erosion — and could even help protect the soil.

Following the decision to focus on switchgrass in 1991, the Energy Department kicked off a decade-long study of switchgrass at ten institutions.

Fast forward to 2007: “It is very apparent that while switchgrass may not be a perfect energy crop (and there may not be a perfect crop),” Wright says, it is clear today that it is “one of the more sustainable feedstocks for the production of renewable alternative fuels in the U.S.”

Wright points out that while the Energy Department decided to focus on switchgrass because it was an “environmentally and economically sound choice for many parts of the country, it was not a clear winner in all locations.” Wright also points that research conducted specifically to improve switchgrass as a “model biomass energy crop during the 1990s has been very successful in improving its potential as a dedicated biomass energy crop.”

In 2006, a paper published in Science brought attention to “mixed grassland biomass” as an environmentally preferable, low-cost alternative resource for bioenergy, Wright notes. The paper focused on the energy input/output comparisons between growing corn grain for ethanol, soybeans for biodiesel, and grassland crops for biomass electric, biomass ethanol, or biomass synfuels. The grassland-crop-based systems were shown to have significantly higher net energy balances than either the corn-grain-to-ethanol or soybeans-to-biodiesel systems.

posted by Stephanie Cohen | 10:54 pm
File As: Biofuels

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