Sunday, August 26, 2007


As much as you hear politicians talking about it(both D's and R's), you would think that ethanol is the answer to all of our energy and pollution problems. Well, not so fast. It's more about courting votes in the pivotal Midwest (specifically Iowa). Ethanol, in general, is not necessarily the problem. It's the specific type ... corn. From Sierra Magazine:

In our beautiful biofuel future, cars and trucks are powered by wood chips, prairie grass, wheat straw, fast-food grease, garbage, and even algae--whichever material is most plentiful locally and least damaging environmentally. With cars getting 40 miles a gallon or better, greenhouse-gas emissions plummet. The biofuel revolution sparks an economic boom by keeping U.S. dollars at home instead of sending them to Middle Eastern sheikhs.

Biofuels can be made from nearly any organic material. By essentially recycling carbon from living things (as opposed to the ancient biomass in coal and petroleum), biofuels help fight global warming. But some could also add to our environmental problems: In an equally possible but less rosy future, governments and agribusiness clear rainforests and wetlands for vast plantations of biofuel crops like oil palms. With arable land increasingly devoted to fuel production, food prices push higher. The roads clog with biofuel SUVs that still get lousy mileage. Global warming slows insignificantly, if at all.

... corn is the source of 95 percent of the United States' ethanol. Although politically popular in farm states, corn is a problematic source of fuel: It requires good land and petroleum-intensive cultivation and fertilization, and it can also readily feed both humans and livestock. (Food prices are already increasing because of competition with ethanol.) If the mill processing the corn is powered by coal, ethanol produces more net greenhouse gases than gasoline does ...

... Putting a dent in global warming requires conservation as well as biofuels. A 3 percent increase in fuel-economy standards for vehicles, for example, would save more gas than the entire 2006 production of corn ethanol. Sadly, we've been driving in reverse: For the past five years, U.S. gasoline consumption has increased by 1.4 percent annually, and diesel by 3.6 percent.

The rush to biofuels is putting the squeeze on wildlife. Nearly 40 million acres of farmland are currently idled under the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which seeks to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, and provide habitat. The Bush administration has proposed that land set aside under the program be converted to fuel production ...

The answer is to think of it more as a global issue and an engineering issue instead of a political one. We need to stop thinking we can just trade kissing the ass of big oil for kissing the ass of companies like ADM and Monsanto. Ethanol can be part of the answer if done in the right way:

The best sources of biomass for fuel are waste products and native perennial grasses, which provide more usable energy per acre than corn ethanol or soybean diesel. In fact, says a report by the University of Minnesota, fuels made from native plants can actually be "carbon negative," because they store excess carbon dioxide in their roots and the surrounding soil, reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

But here's the kicker, and why I am against corn-based ethanol as the whole answer -- It's raising the cost of my beer:

Here's where some get off the biofuel bus: It's raising the price of beer. In Germany, subsidies for corn and rapeseed production are squeezing production of barley--an important ingredient in the national beverage. The effects of higher barley prices are starting to appear at the tap. The price of a liter mug of beer at this year's Oktoberfest, for example, will be up by 5.5 percent.


shrimplate said...

Corn ethanol is a dead end. It takes more energy to produce it than we get back by burning it. It's a net loss.

And we won't be able to afford to take land out of food production. We will already be growing less food because we'll be without as much natural-gas derived fertilizers.

Thank you for getting on this issue and writing so well about it. Along with global warming, energy concerns will be a very big deal in the coming years.

Laura said...

Yeah but typical American fashion dictates we find the easiest (and most politically viable) possible solution that costs us the least amount of added effort and voila!

GOD forbid we drive less, use less, buy more efficient cars, and put money into public transit - that shit takes time, and a lot of work. GOD forbid we actually have to sacrifice anything or think about the big picture...

Oh wait, that's right... understanding the big picture requires a better education that most Americans get anymore, nevermind.

greatwhitebear said...

You are certainly right about the politics of ethanol.

And you can tell that corn farmers have a lot more money than sugar farmers. When you consider that it is 8 times more efficient to make ethanol from sugar than corn, it would seem logical that government supported ethanol plants would be sprouting in michigan, oklahoma, and louisianna, rather than Iowa and Indiana.

But wait, if we start making ethanol from sugar, Cuba might get rich!

Sugar based ethanol is how Brazil has become energy independant, btw.

Speaking of btw's, i have actually gotten around to posting. A sot of back to school essay.

Scott said...

This post is an excellent example on why alternative energy must be researched and developed on the free market rather than government subsidies and aid.