The Economics, History and Politics of Hemp Fuels
By David Malmo-Levine
Part One: The Economics of Hemp Fuels
“In the most favorable growing conditions, we obtained yields of up to 15,000 kg of stem dry matter per hectare (6,070 kg per acre). Under similar conditions, other crops such as maize, sugar beet or potato produced similar dry matter yields. All results indicate that as far its yield is concerned, fiber hemp is in no way exceptional.”
“Hemp facts and hemp fiction” Hayo M.G. van der Werf, Journal of the International Hemp Association, (1)
“The added cost of the extra drying needed for crops such as sugar cane, corn and Napier grasses make these high moisture plants an inefficient source for growing methanol. The (Hawaii Natural Energy) Institutes’ 1990 report concluded that thermo chemical (pyrolytic) production of methanol from biomass is the most economical alternative for transportation fuel. They also confirmed Stanford Research Institutes’ conclusion from the late seventies that woody or low moisture herbaceous plants are the most efficient biomass resource for thermo chemical conversion into liquid fuels such as methanol. It is the cellulose in low moisture herbaceous and woody plants that provides the hydrocarbons necessary for fuel production. … Hemp is both a low moisture herbaceous and a woody plant.” “Energy Farming”, Lynn Osburn, The campaign against biofuels:
I, like many other hemp activists, am interested in the potential for hemp as a fuel source. It is one of the key reasons I have devoted my life to the re-legalization of this impressive plant. The thought of replacing easy-to-monopolize, constantly-fought-over, climate-changing, polluting petroleum with a clean, ecologically sound, cheap, renewable resource able to be grown anywhere by anyone has – with the exception of a few “cannabiphobics”, skeptics, narcs and oil barons – personal (and I suspect near universal) appeal. Thus I was dismayed to stumble across a series of recent articles on CIA watchdog Mike Ruppert’s websites that attack bio-fuels in general as “uneconomical”. These articles claim that it takes more energy to create biofuels than one receives from the created fuel. I then discovered that this is a common argument found in other books and articles.
To shake my hemp-fuel confidence further, I came across an article from the International Hemp Association saying that hemp as a fuel source is “in no way exceptional.”
Other arguments against bio-fuels are that a) there isn’t enough land to both grow fuel and food with, and that ethanol isn’t as efficient as gasoline, so even if ethanol is cheaper per gallon it would be more expensive per mile.
I decided to investigate these arguments against bio-fuels and hemp fuels by bouncing them off people doing research in this area. I spoke with Adrian Francis Clarke of Fibre (Europe) Laboratory LTD, Don Wirtshafter of the Ohio Hempery, Tim Castleman of fuelandfiber.com, and Shaun Crew of Hemp Oil Canada.
It is important to understand that hemp provides two types of fuel; hemp biodiesel – made from the oil of the hemp seed, and hemp ethanol/methanol – made from the fermented stalk. To clarify further, ethanol is made from such things as grains, sugars, starches, waste paper & forest products, and methanol is made from woody matter. Through processes such as gasification, acid hydrolysis and enzymes, hemp can be used to make both ethanol and methanol.
I asked questions about the current prices of hemp biodeisel and hemp ethanol/methanol, and what these prices would be post cannabis re-legalization. To be economically viable, these fuels would have to be cheaper than gasoline, currently priced at up to 120 cents per liter or up to 3 dollars per gallon(US) Of course, petroleum prices could get much more expensive in the near future, a topic which will be covered in the third part of this article under “peak oil”. Don Wirtshafter responded that the size of the industrial hemp industry determined how much hemp “waste” would be created, which would then dictate the price of hemp fuel. He wrote:
“Hemp oil is too valuable to burn up as fuel. It will be the waste products that become the fuels of the future. … Because we sell the protein for a good price, the price of hemp oil drops. When I was selling the seed cake to make Hempen Ale, making the oil was almost free. Again, it is the waste stream from your primary processes that will go into power generation.”
When I asked Don about the actual price of hemp biodiesel, he replied:
“Twenty cents per gallon more than the cost of hemp oil. At this point, hemp seed oil is $15 per gallon. As we gain volume, our costs and therefore the price is dropping. Until hemp is a huge industry, it can’t compete with the other huge industries. If the hemp protein powder continues to sell well, then the oil will continue to get cheaper and cheaper.”
On the topic of hemp ethanol/methanol, Don opined:
“The big change will come with green processing as is being developed by Adrian Clarke in Australia. This machine will change all the equations for fiber as did the cotton gin 150 years ago. The waste from that process will be the energy source.”
When I asked Adrian Clarke about the price of hemp ethanol/methanol, he replied: “I cannot supply even a guess for the cost except to say that it must be simple and low cost for so many farmers to have done it. Ask a legal distiller what it would cost.”
Distillers of things-other-than-hemp provided a variety of possible prices: According to one source, Brazilian ethanol recently sold “for 45% less per liter than gasoline”. According to another source, “…the cost of producing ethanol from cellulose is estimated to be between $1.15 and $1.43 per gallon in 1998 dollars”. Back in 1981, a Canadian “fuel alcohol distiller” activist estimated his actual cost to be “22.9 cents a gallon” which would be about 49.37 cents per gallon in today’s dollars!
Shaun Crew is a hemp seed oil expert. I asked him the hemp biodiesel question and he answered: “the price of hemp seed oil is higher than the price of corn oil at present. This may change in the years to come as acres significantly increase or yields significantly increase. Right now, hemp biodiesel could not be easily made for under $2.50 per litre.”
In Tim Castleman’s article “Hemp Biomass For Energy“, he wrote his observations about biodiesel too, explaining that “Some varieties are reported to yield as much as 38% oil, and a record 2,000 lbs. per acre was recorded in 1999. At this rate, 760 lbs. of oil per acre would result in about 100 gallons of oil, with production costs totaling about $5.20 per gallon. I asked Tim if there were any other factors that could further reduce the price per gallon. He replied: Hempseed oil is worth $30 per gallon as food. … hemp (biodiesel) doesn’t make the lineup for fuel.”
Hemp methanol, on the other hand, does make the fuel lineup. According to Tim, hemp ethanol could be produced for 1.37 per gallon plus the cost of the feedstock, with technological improvements and tax credits reducing the price another dollar or so per gallon! And the cost of the feedstock would become much more available as more hemp was grown for more products, providing more and more free (or nearly-free) feedstock as a “waste product”. Could you imagine paying under 50 cents per gallon(US) or 15 cents per liter for your hemp ethanol?!!
Some might argue that ethanol isn’t as fuel efficient as gas – thus the dollar-per-mile ratio of hemp ethanol would make it more expensive than gas to run. Ethanol contains approx. 34% less energy per gallon than gasoline, and therefore will result in a 34% reduction in miles per gallon. This problem may be overcome through designing a more efficient vehicle – recently, French High School students achieved the best fuel efficiency at the European Shell Eco-marathon, using an ethanol-powered car with an energy consumption equivalent to traveling 2,885 kilometers on a single liter of gasoline (6,788 mpg). Other technologies are being developed to make ethanol similar to gasoline in fuel efficiency.
Availability of waste-hemp and over-regulation Is there enough hemp around right now to provide enough waste/feedstock to replace fossil fuels? No. Will this always be the case? That depends on how successful the medical and recreational cannabis activists are in removing irrational laws around this plant. Currently, the Canadian hemp economy is under “tight controls”. A minimum of 10 acres must be grown. The hemp must test below 0.3% in THC. The strain must be “approved”. Hundreds of potentially profitable industrial strains are denied to farmers. The US won’t approve importing Canadian hemp products if they contain even trace amounts of THC Hemp seed must be rendered non-viable and tested for viability. Those with criminal records for cannabis farming are not allowed to grow hemp.
Breeders licenses – permitting access to the most economically rewarding element of industrial hemp farming – are difficult to obtain. One needs a science degree and 10 years experience working under an accredited breeder.
When I asked Arthur Hanks of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance why this was so, he responded that “Certified seed is supposed to deliver known quantity. For a lot of buyers this is very important. Using common seed might be a false savings.”
“Can you provide me with an example of a false savings?” I asked.
“Well, there was that problem with USO 14…” Arthur responded. “… breeders were not crossing it back with it’s parents.”
“But that’s a fuck-up by accredited breeders.” I replied, “So certified seed doesn’t necessarily mean fuck-up free seed.”
“Good point.” Responded Arthur. “It’s also true that cheap common seed will help make biomass hemp fuel more economically viable.”
“Do you think that the seed growers association may be acting like an elitist club that – like doctors and lawyers – is concerned more with controlling an industry than helping clients?”
“There may be some of that in there …”
At that point, I felt I hit upon the way the hemp industry was most unjustly over-regulated – through artificially high seed prices. Farmers cannot supply themselves with seed – they have to obtain it every year through government approved breeders. Seed is the farmer’s biggest cost, varying between $6,250.00 to $16,875.00 for the average hemp farm (250 acres). For the largest hemp (3000 acres), seed costs can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars!
Canadian hemp farmers spent somewhere between $1,250, 000 to $3,375,000.00 on seeds in 2006 – an unnecessary cost … more than a down-payment on a large hemp fuel manufacturing plant. The estimated cost of such a plant rages from $60 million for a plant that can produce 75 million liters per year, to $335 million, producing 1.7 billion liters per year. Banks don’t invest money in hemp processing and manufacturing – perhaps partly due to the red tape making hemp so artificially expensive, perhaps partly due to most of their current customers being hemp-substitute industries.
The red tape can only be justified if cannabis is considered dangerous – the moment medicinal and social hemp are re-legalized and treated like other herbs, the industrial hemp red tape will disappear. No doubt this will result in an increase in hemp seed breeders – all those considered “criminal” due to their history with breeding the drug strains will get a crack at breeding the hemp strains. Seed quality will then increase, the price will drop, and more money will stay in the pockets of farmers breeding their own seeds. Hemp products will become cheaper and more available. Farmers and cannabis cafe owners will both have capital to invest. At that point, the industrial hemp industry will be free to grow large and compete with non-renewable materials on an even playing field.
According to the 1938 Popular Mechanics article, hemp hurds “can be used to produce more than 25,000 products, ranging from dynamite to Cellophane”. That’s just the hurds. When you factor in the fiber, the oil and the resin, the number of products hemp can produce is closer to 50,000. Almost everything that isn’t glass or metal – including paper, pressed particle board, fabrics, plastics and concrete – can be made from hemp. (31) With a massive manufacturing base to reflect its massive utility, there will be plenty of hemp waste to make fuel from, driving the price down considerably.
The evil Dr. Pimental:
If the above-mentioned sources say hemp ethanol and non-hemp ethanol are so affordable, then why do so many sources claim otherwise? Apparently, the source for this other view comes from a single report from Dr. David Pimentel ofCornellUniversity. He claims that bioethanol has a “negative net energy value”. It turns out that this is a well-publicized myth. In fact, Pimental’s findings are flawed and disproved by other studies.
The best fuel crop?
As for the argument that hemp is not an exceptional source of cellulose, it’s important to keep in mind that hemp:
1) doesn’t need as much fertilizer or water as corn, switchgrass or other energy crops
2) doesn’t require the expensive drying required of corn and sugar cane,
3) can be grown where other energy crops can’t
4) is more resistant to “adverse fall weather” than other crops and
5) has long been known to be the lowest-moisture highest-cellulose crop.
The hemp stalks being “over 75% cellulose” according to a 1929 paper from Schafer and Simmonds, with more conservative estimates indicating 53-74% of the bark being cellulose. According to the Stanford Research Institute and the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, it is woody, low-moisture herbaceous plants which make the best biomass for liquid fuels. If one goes beyond simple cellulose-level comparisons and examines the cost-per-gallon with these extra cultivation and processing and transportation costs taken into account, hemp seems to be the best candidate for a fuel crop. Of course, all crops should be grown in rotation – too much of one thing is bad for the soil – but hemp seems the best crop to add to the rotation if we want to replace fossil fuels with something else in the tank.
Not enough land?
According to the 3rd edition of “Environmental Chemistry” by Professor Stanley E. Manahan, “Meeting US demands for oil and gas would require that about 6% of the land area of the coterminous 48 states be cultivated intensively for energy production.” According to one source, the US has 60 million idle acres of farmland – about 3% of US land area – and another 130 million or so acres devoted to raising meat. According to another source, more than 302 million hectares of land are devoted to producing feed for the U.S. livestock population — about 272 million hectares in pasture and about 30 million hectares for cultivated feed grains. Either way, it seems there’s more than enough land to grow fuel with, if we each eat five or ten fewer steaks every year. As well, urban agriculture is another option to free land up for fuel crops – for example, 6% of Cuba’s food supply is grown in the city of Havana. Not only would urban agriculture increase the area available for food, it would conserve energy previously used to transport food.
Recycling food oil can also help address our energy needs.US restaurants produce about 300 million gallons of vegetable oil waste a year, much of which ends up in landfills. That oil could be reused as bio-fuel. Beyond vegetarianism, energy conservation, urban agriculture and recycling, alternative fuel sources such as wind, wave and solar – combined with various types of battery-powered vehicles – could reduce the amount of land required to meet energy needs still further.
Make your own biofuels:
The process isn’t quite rocket science, but involves many steps and many choices. For diesel-powered car drivers, one must decide if one is a) using the oil just as it is — usually called SVO fuel (straight vegetable oil); b) mixing it with kerosene (paraffin) or petroleum diesel fuel, or with biodiesel, or blend it with a solvent, or with gasoline; or c) converting it to biodiesel. For regular gas-power car drivers, there are gasification and distillation processes that could turn any plant matter into fuel. Large car companies are already producing ethanol-friendly vehicles. Some sources describe the adjustments to the engine required to convert a gas-powered car into an ethanol-powered one as “minor”, others as “extremely complicated”. As more and more people make such adjustments, they should become easier and less costly. These methods are too detailed to explain here, but there are many good resources on the internet where you can learn to make your own bio-fuels. Here are just a few:
The real reason for alcohol prohibition
As an interesting aside, I learned from Adrian Clarke that alcohol prohibition may have ended at the request of the oil companies, as the illegal stills set up to provide bootleg booze were being turned into sources of fuel. Apparently, there was even hemp ethanol production!
In an email to me, Clarke wrote; “I asked an historian who was working as a senior adviser to our Victorian State Government what he thought about the proposition that Prohibition was enacted to protect the Oil Companies and at their request, from the self-sufficiency hemp gave to farmers and other drivers. The historian had worked in American Universities and said he would consult his network. Three weeks later he called me to confirm absolutely that Prohibition was to stop people making their own car fuel. He said that records showed that up to 90% of all the illegal alcohol made up to that time, was for the fueling of cars. … This historian did not go public.”
I attempted to verify this information, and found out that Henry Ford originally designed his “Model A” car to run on either alcohol or gasoline, whichever was available to the driver – and that John D. Rockefeller, owner of Standard Oil (now Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, American BP and a dozen other oil companies), put 4 million dollars into alcohol prohibition. After alcohol prohibition began, Ford proposed that the dead capacity of shutting down distilleries might be used to produce denatured alcohol – “a cleaner, nicer, better fuel for automobiles than gasoline”. Veteran hemp activist Chris Conrad writes that Ford’s dream of a nation of plant-powered vehicles was “thwarted first by alcohol prohibition, then by hemp prohibition”.
The plan to shut down alcohol fuel through alcohol prohibition may have backfired. The number of illegal alcohol stills increased during alcohol prohibition. Thus, in a celebrated 1932 letter, subsequently printed on the front page of The New York Times, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a lifelong teetotaler, argued against the continuation of alcohol prohibition due to the “increase in disrespect for the law”. This letter became the singular event that pushed the nation to repeal alcohol prohibition. This concern of John D. Jr. may be considered suspect, for as any good Rockefeller historian will point out, the Rockefellers themselves had been known to disrespect the law from time to time. Perhaps John D was really concerned that people would become less dependent on his oil if they had their own stills, and he adopted the “disrespect for the law” concern to hide the self-interested motive behind his change of opinion. And then I stumbled on this bit of information:” Fifty years ago it was a corporate alliance between DuPont (which controlled GM) and Standard Oil (now Exxon) which suppressed Henry Ford’s alcohol gasoline engine and committed the continent to using lead as an additive.” DuPont and Standard Oil…hmmmm…where have I heard those names before?…
Oh yes! It was these companies that had the most to do with making hemp illegal! I began to wonder to myself if both alcohol prohibition and hemp prohibition were created by the same corporations for the same reasons – as attempts at fuel monopolies. A close examination of the history of hemp fuels, hemp prohibition, DuPont and Standard Oil might reveal the answer.