Friday, May 16, 2008

Remedial Math

To my four readers: you know me -- I don't write about politics, government, issues, that sort of thing. This morning's Sioux Falls Argus Leader had an opinion piece that was so astonishingly bad that I couldn't resist. I like an easy target as much as the next guy.

The entire South Dakota congressional delegation, all three of them, combined their talents to write in support of ethanol. No big surprise -- lots of corn farmers around here, and lots of ethanol plants. OK, fine. You're just pandering to the voters representing your constituents. But get the arithmetic right, will you?

Let's go over this.

Francisco Blanch, a Merrill Lynch analyst, estimated that the use of renewable biofuels keeps gasoline prices 15 percent below what they might be. With today's gas prices, that means a $.52 per gallon increase from $3.50 for gasoline today to $4.02.

So that means $3.50 is 15% less than $4.02, right? Wrong. It's about 12.9% less. Maybe they meant to say prices would be 15% above what they are now if not for ethanol, or maybe the Merrill Lynch analyst meant to say that. Either way, somebody got it wrong.

Iowa State University recently confirmed Blanch's estimations with a study that showed ethanol has reduced gasoline prices from $.29 to $.40 per gallon.

So, a $0.29 to $0.40 estimate "confirmed" a $0.52 estimate. Got it.

Today, the United States imports about 12 percent (16.9 billion gallons) of the total refined gasoline consumed nationwide. When all ethanol facilities currently under construction are completed, the United States will have approximately 13 billion gallons of ethanol capacity. This will displace 77 percent of the total amount of gasoline imported into the United States each year.

13 billion is in fact 77% of 16.9 billion. Hey! They got one right? Alas, no. The increase from today's 8.5 billion gallons to tomorrow's 13 billion is only 4.5 billion, which is only about 27%. Furthermore, this assumes that ethanol has the same energy density per gallon as gasoline. It is much lower. In other words, it takes more than a gallon of ethanol to replace a gallon of gasoline.

Still, the renewable fuels industry is in its infancy, and we can do more. United States farmers produced 13.1 billion bushels of corn in 2007, averaging 151.1 bushels per acre. USDA estimates that we will produce 178 bushels per acre by 2015. Additionally, many experts predict that we will produce 300 bushels per acre by 2030. If these projections are accurate, the United States will be able to produce 60 billion gallons of ethanol from corn in 2030 without diverting corn from other uses and without expanding planted acreage in the United States. Moreover, this projection does not take into account increased efficiencies that will be realized through new technologies.

So what does it take into account? Magic? How do we nearly double our corn production per acre without increased efficiencies through new technologies? Maybe they're talking about increased efficiencies in the ethanol conversion process. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Importantly, worldwide corn production increased by 2.7 billion bushels from 2006 to 2007, and during this period ethanol demand for corn increased by 600 million bushels - 2 percent of the total.

Maybe 2% of the total, but 22% of the increase. I guess this one falls under Disraeli's third category of lies.

Today, distillers grains are $66 per ton cheaper than feeding with corn. With corn at $5.56 per bushel, cattle feeders would pay $268 per ton of total digestible nutrients for corn while only paying $201 per ton of TDN for distillers grains.

$268 - $201 = $67. Or $66. Whatever.

The results are clear. Without ethanol, consumers would be paying more for gas at the pump and more for food at the store.

We'd be paying more for food without ethanol? Seems like I read somewhere that the opposite was true. Now where was that? Oh, right here -- you said it, just a few paragraphs ago:

[T]he White House recently has stated that "production of corn-based biofuels is estimated to account for only three percent of the 43 percent increase in global food prices."

Is our delegation in Washington really this bad at math, or do they just think we are?

We now return to our regularly scheduled program of self-indulgent cat photos.

UPDATE: The Guardian reports that a World Bank study shows that the increase in food prices due to biofuels isn't 3% like the White House says, but a whopping 75%. Yikes!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Potting plants for Mother's Day

Stupid flash tricks

I bought an old Nikon SB-26 flash on Ebay, and, serious photographic artist that I am, the first thing I tried was a dumb, gimmicky shot.

Sunday, May 04, 2008


Johanna pointed out some squirrels on our deck today. I thought perhaps she would go outside and slay them, so I grabbed the camera. She stayed inside, and the rodents escaped with their lives.