Ethanol vs. Dust Bowl
Unacceptably high oil prices coupled with anxiety over global warming and a renewed inter in carbohydrate fuels (ethanol, alcohol) is propelling the United States toward a policy of a mandated ethanol economy. This is not the first time that carbohydrate fuels were utilized in the United States and the rest of the world. Coal gas was used to power the first street lighting systems in cities, such as, London and New York. Ethanol was a best selling chemical and wood provided a majority of the nation's heat and energy. Since the cost of ethanol, production was so much greater than the cost of fossil fuels, ethanol as fuel did not recover. Today, there is a great get-rich-quick proposal by the agribusiness industry. Before moving too quickly to an ethanol economy, other influences need to be analyzed. Factors like soil depletion and nutritional values, water shortages and the energy exhausted to generate the ethanol in the quantities requires to drive an industrial nation like the Untied States.
The following is a condensed version of the history of the carbohydrate fuels and hydrocarbons from American Prospect. "Less than 200 years ago, industrialized societies were carbohydrate economies. In 1820, Americans used two tons of vegetables for every one ton of minerals. Plants were the primary raw material in the production of dyes, chemicals, paints, inks, solvents, construction materials, even energy." (Morris, 2006). "The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself." - President Franklin D. Roosevelt. "There are in most places, on earth six inches of top soil, on which the entire life of the planet depends." (Sampson, 1981). A country ends up like Iraq, once known as the Mesopotamia 2000 years ago, where now the farmland is 75% salty desert. Today, there is a push to an ethanol economy, especially within the agricultural community. Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) makes record profits from ethanol sales and government subsidies. (Barrionuevo, 2007).
"To be economically and ecologically viable, gains in energy from a potential biomass source must outweigh the energy use in production, and collaation of biomass,(Lal,R.,2004), and any losses due to adverse effects on ecosystem functions." (Rattan, 2004)
Observing the present developments in ethanol production, can be revealing experiences.
"In 2005, Minnesota farmers jumped into the biodiesel market by opening three refineries that produce more than 60 million gallons annually. Minnesota, also became the first state to require 2 percent biodiesel be added to every gallon of diesel sold in the state, creating an instant 16-18 million gallons of biodiesel" [demand] (Lemke, 2007). It should be noted here; most of today's homegrown ethanol is made from corn.
Don Cox looks at the idle farmland in Henry County and sees opportunity. The 60-year-old farmer and Paris, Tenn. fire chief, is one of five farmers participating in a University of Tennessee Extension pilot project to grow switchgrass, a hardy perennial grass that many believe will play a vital role in the country's furture energy needs. Cox, has switchgrass growing on 28 acres of his 350-acre farm" (Eder, 2007). "It's a very easy crop to grow," said Cox, the Henry County farmer, who grows corn and soybeans and raises cattle. "It's hardy, it's draught resistant, insects don't bother it" (2007).
"The Department of Energy hopes to have biomass supply 5% of the nation's power, 20% of transportation fuels, and 25% of chemicals by 2030. The combined goals are 30% of the current petroleum consumption (DOE Biomass Plan, Feedstock Roadmap).
Fuels made from biomass are a lot like the nuclear powere airplanes the Air Force tried to build from 1946 to 1961, for billions of dollars. They never got off the ground.
The idea was interesting atomic jet could fly for months without refueling. But, the lead shielding to protect the crew and several months of food and water was too heavy for the plane to take off. The weight problem, the ease of shooting this behemoth down, and the consequences of a crash landing were so obivious, it's amazing the project was ever funded, let alone kept going for 15 years" (Odum,1996).
The American public must learn to read, question, and voice their opinions, about the consequences of short-term solutions to long term problems. Using biomass (plants matter) to convert to ethanol, when it destroys the top soil of our nation, is not a viable solution to our energy problem and we must consider the results twenty, thirty, or fifty years hence. We cannot survive without food and if we destroy our ability to grow plants, there will be nothing for the herbivore and omnivore populations to live on, which means humans will not have the food required to survive.
Atchison, J et al (2004). Innovative methods for corn stover collecting, handling, storing, and transporting. Processing Cost Analysis For Biomass Feedstock. DOE/EERE, 2002.
Barrionuevo, A. (2006, October 12). A bet on ethanol, with a convert at the helm. New York Times.
Eder, A. (2007). The Knoxville News-Sentinel, Tenn. "Economics of ethanol." Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, 04 March 2007. http://elibrary.bigchalk.com
Freidman, A. (2007). "PEAK SOIL." Rachel's Democracy & Health News. 10 May 2007.
Lal, R. ( 2004). "Is crop residue waste?" Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.
01 November 2004. 136A. http://elibrary.bigchalk.com
Lemke, D. (2007). "Agricultural residuals drive producer-owned energy." BioCycl. 48, 45. http://elibrary.bigchalk.com
Morris, D. (April 2006). "The once and future carbohydrate economy." American Prospect 17, A3. http://elibrary.bigchalk.com
Odum, H. T. (1996). Environmental accounting. EMERGY and Environmental Decision Making. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sampson, R. (1981). Farmland or wasteland. A time to choose. Overcoming The Threat To America's Farm and Future. New York: Rodale Press.
Wilhelm, W., et al (January-February, 2004). Crop and Soil Productivity Response to Corn Residue Removal: A Literature Review. Agronomy Journal. 96 (1). 1-17.