The making of ethanol from corn has been blamed for everything from food shortages in the third world to higher food prices in the west. You had to know that comeuppance of corn based ethanol was coming. Now we have some of the biggest names in the bio-fuels industry going bankrupt. In addition, there is an industry wide slow down in building new facilities.
Not all of corn ethanol’s problems are of its own devising. There has been an economic slow down in general. Credit, the life blood of economic growth and expansion has been getting tight for everyone. But corn based ethanol has problems all its own. For instance, as the price of gasoline drops, the economic incentive to blend gas with ethanol lessens.
Not everyone believes that corn based ethanol is on its way out. Some people are even investing in developing technology to convert the waste products of ethanol conversion into useful products such as corn oil. Moreover, Corn based ethanol has long been the darling of Midwestern politicians and liberal activists. Now that liberals control the government they may increase government subsidies and mandates for corn based ethanol.
Nevertheless, corn based ethanol has never been a particularly good idea. If you look at the examples of how other countries make ethanol work you can see why the current US model is not likely to be a winning one in the long run. For instance, Brazil makes it’s ethanol from sugar cane. Chemically speaking it’s a quick, low energy step from sugar to alcohol. Given the natural process of fermentation, it winds up being a good fit.
When you make ethanol by starting with corn you are forced to turn starches into sugars. Then you can turn the sugars into ethanol. In other words it takes more energy and more processing to turn corn into ethanol than to turn sugar cane into ethanol. In addition, we and our animals eat corn. If we continue to make ethanol from corn we will also be keeping food prices high in the US and around the world. Imagine if we were inadvertently the cause of world wide food riots.
Solar energy is a much better long term alternative solution to our energy needs. Breakthroughs in efficiency and manufacturing will still be necessary but solar has the long term benefit of being truly renewable and sustainable. You don’t have to worry about the year to year effects of crop yields for instance. The efficiency of turning sunlight into electricity is not yet where we need it to be to make solar a mainstay of our energy infrastructure. And some of the manufacturing process use harmful chemicals. Nevertheless, I am convinced that our current level of technology research will eventually solve these problems.
There are some who tout wind energy as the wave of the future but a close examination shows that in order to bring the electricity generated from wind energy from where it is created to where it will be used requires the building of an immense transmission line infrastructure with it’s attendant right of way problems. It appears that a lot of government investment and spending is required to make wind energy more of a reality an it’s still not clear that you could generate much more that 5% of the energy we need as a nation via wind energy.
I have serious doubts about the notion that we could run our country off salad dressing and hamburger grease. Yes it’s nice that some cars can be modified to run off the used cooking grease. But I am fairly convinced that we are not about to eat our way out of our energy woes.
I am actually a little more sanguine over the notion that we can grow our way out of at least a portion of our energy problems. For instance, some scientists are performing detailed studies on the mechanisms behind photosynthesis with an eye toward using biological processes directly to do things like make hydrogen to fuel hydrogen cars. Others are looking at using bio trash like switch grass to create ethanol. If microbes can be developed to eat the plants and make alcohol then concerns about the amount of energy required to generate the ethanol from starches would be greatly diminished. Also, making ethanol out of stuff we don’t eat is a cool idea.
Scientists are looking at every weed on the planet to see if they can be turned into fuel and food and that will beneficial for all of us.
No mater which alternative energy future we eventually choose, we will need conventional fossil fuels to fill the gap until the alternatives come online. We should use clean coal and nuclear power to fill the void until the breakthroughs arrive that will enable us to replace our energy infrastructure.
What some people don’t seem to realize is that recasting our energy infrastructure will take energy and materials which may have to come from oil. It’s difficult to see how you could obtain the materials and chemicals required to manufacture a solar cell with out oil. You also have to transport intermediate products for solar and wind energy. For this reason we should drill for oil in the United States. After all, who is going to be more environmentally responsible when it comes to drilling, transporting and using that oil? The United States, or countries which do not have environmental laws?