1.13.2008

Mr. Rogers for President. Part II: Energy and Aimless Action

I guess it all started with the energy bill. There's a lot of stuff in there, and for the most part, I'm not really qualified to comment. I do think these are important issues, but I just don't know a whole lot about them.

However, there were two elements of the bill on which I was actually informed enough to be confused.

One issue was light bulbs (I cherish my right to safe, high quality lighting that doesn't give me headaches, even if CFLs are more energy efficient), the other was ethanol. Now, I'm very much in favor of developing alternative forms of energy... but corn? Corn? This is not good. Corn is not a long term solution for our dependence on foreign oil, since the corn industry itself is so dependent on foreign oil. You can only grow so much corn in one place without using lots and lots of fertilizers. Petroleum based fertilizers. Poisonous petroleum based fertilizers, to be precise. And when it rains, all these fertilizers run off into the water supply, and ultimately into the ocean. As good as this stuff is for corn, it's deadly for children and for fish. Corn is actually a big problem.

Because of federal policies artificially favoring corn, America consumes a lot of corn. Not just in obviously corn-based foods, but in just about every processed food. We have a big sweet tooth, and high-fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice. Not because it's particularly good, or efficient to produce, but because thanks to federal subsidies, it's artificially cheap.

For better or for worse, corn is at the heart of almost everything we eat. It's what they feed the chickens that provide us with Grade A Extra Large eggs and boneless skinless chicken breasts. It's what they feed the cows that give us beef and milk. Corn: it's what's for dinner.

And now we run our cars on it, too. Which wouldn't be such a problem if corn was actually a good source of ethanol energy. But it isn't. Down in Brazil they use sugar cane to make ethanol, and they get 500%-800% more fuel out of it than they use in growing and processing the cane. It's a great way to harness solar energy. Corn, on the other hand, barely breaks even. Not even the most optimistic corn enthusiast dares estimate the returns at above 125%.

Of course, the energy bill doesn't specify that it has to be corn ethanol. In fact, it specifies that some of it has to be non-corn, and gives grants to help establish processing plants to convert cellulose into ethanol. All this is fine and dandy, but in the mean time, corn is what we're set up to do, and in order to meet these new quotas, corn ethanol production will have to increase by 1500%.

The world cheered because at long last, America was finally doing something about global warming--but as far as I could tell, whatever the impact of the increased industry standards, the ethanol portion of the bill was simply going to make matters worse.

I was discouraged, confused, and dismayed.

I was also curious. Hadn't I heard somewhere that industrial hemp could be used to make ethanol? And that it grows amazingly fast, without depleting the soil or requiring the use of fertilizers?

So I started poking around. Why don't we grow hemp?

4 comments:

Robbie said...

I may be confused, but don't the farmers that grow sugar and hemp also use pesticides to protect them from harmful bugs that threaten to destroy their crops? Wouldn't the same probelm occur as far as the fish go? I know that pesticides are a problem for the environment, but I am more immediately concerned about feeding my children, and if the farmer that employs my husband and all of the other farmers in the US, for that matter, cease the use of pesticides, the crops will be destroyed by harmful bugs and he will no longer be able to feed his beef, or pay my husband, or his family for that matter. Which in turn will eventually destroy the economy. I understand the ideal, however are they really that realistic. Please do not vote against the production of ethenol.

Robbie said...

You know I have to appologize, because for one thing I was wrong you were talking about the fertilizers, not the pesticides. However I am proud to say that the majority of the fertilizers used on the corn farms around here is good old fashioned cow poo-poo. The cows are left over the winter to graze on the left over corn and stalks in the fields over the winter. If that sets your mind at ease at all.

Elena said...

Hi Robbie! Thanks for your comments--it's good to get the perspective of someone more directly involved in these issues.

I'm glad to hear that the farms in your area do things the good old fashioned way--my concerns about corn only apply to those farms that don't raise cattle.

But in any case, I definitely think that farmers should do what they must in order to grow corn for us to eat. As you said, feeding our kids is the top priority, and corn is a fantastic food. I'm just not convinced that it's such a fantastic fuel source.

I'm very excited about biofuels. I absolutely hate it that so often, as I fill up at the gas pump I'm lining the pockets of Islamic jihadists with my hard earned cash. I long for the day when I can fill up my car, and know that I'm purchasing my fuel from hard-working farmers in the midwest.

But with such a low net energy yield, I just don't see corn ethanol accomplishing that goal. And I'm concerned that the focus on corn ethanol is simply a big distraction, a way to look like we're doing something, without actually disrupting petroleum's monopoly on our energy supply.

That said, I'm excited about the grants for the development of facilities to convert cellulose into ethanol, so that agricultural byproducts can be used, and so that farmers can grow more efficient dedicated energy crops such as switchgrass... or hemp, if they'd only legalize it.

Rocks In My Dryer said...

Just wanted to let you know you're a finalist in my limerick contest!