Thursday, August 23, 2012

The hidden cost of ethanol

Because of the drought plaguing the mid-west, about 2.2 billion less bushels of corn will be produced this year. That correspondingly means a huge hike in corn prices, from $6/bushel in May to a record high of $8.50/bushel today, a 40% increase. That fact got me thinking about ethanol.

Oil independence sounds like a good thing, right? Grow our own fuel, from a renewable resource, without strip mining the land or polluting the earth. Who wouldn’t want that?

There seems to be a good deal of debate about how ethanol is produced and what impact it actually has. Massive lobbyists are on both sides—agribusiness on one side, and petroleum on the other—so it pays to look at where the information is coming from.

The unfortunate reality of current corn production is that it needs a lot of oil to keep it going. Fossil fuels are used for farm machinery, fertilizer, and pesticides. Raising corn uses a terrific amount of fresh water, which is not an unlimited resource. Because of these factors, raising corn for ethanol does not necessarily reduce the carbon footprint of your gas tank—in fact, it may increase it.

Some plants are much better than corn when it comes to carbon footprint, like switchgrass, algae, sawdust, or sugar cane. These all use either material that is already waste or much more of the plant. Corn ethanol the way it's made today uses at most 50% of the kernel—just the starch. The rest of the kernel, stalk, husk, cob, is cellulose waste that could be used, but current production methods can’t take advantage of it.

Unfortunately, you can’t pick where your ethanol comes from. I want a green tank, but I can’t choose the source of any ethanol I might buy. Because ethanol is primarily made from corn today, for now it would seem that the balance tilts away from ethanol as a truly green choice. That isn’t to say that all biofuels will always be problematic. There’s certainly something to be said for voting for further ethanol development and breaking our dependency on oil. But I feel that in the current biofuel environment, voting for ethanol is really just lining the pockets of agribusiness. We’ve gotten the “green” message ahead of the true bigger picture of the implications of ethanol production.

(But if you want to be truly green, your best bet is to be a vegan that bikes everywhere. That’s a little ambitious—even for me. As a compromise, just drive an electric car and charge it up with your windmill.)

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