Energy: Alternative fuels

Corn is not the future of ethanol

Living in corn country, it’s practically heresy to speak ill against corn-produced ethanol. Doing so pits a person up against farmers and the president, against the local economy and job growth, against a good home-grown solution to this country’s dependence on oil.

But wait a minute, it’s not all that simple. Criticizing corn-based ethanol production is certainly a challenge to the corn lobby and large agribusiness companies that promote the process, but it’s no stab at grain farmers.

It’s necessary to look beyond the rhetoric to realize that corn is not the future of ethanol.

The energy-efficiency of corn-based ethanol production is always in dispute. Some researchers say it uses more energy than it produces. Although a recent study determined a net energy gain of 20 percent, that study was then criticized for not factoring in farm machinery and for overestimating the value of corn byproducts.

While that debate continues, researchers tend to agree that higher-cellulose plants such as switchgrass and even willow trees will do a better job than corn. That’s future talk, however, because the technology isn’t yet here and corn is taking precedence.

But don’t forget, it’s not just the replacement of oil that’s important. Reduction in greenhouse gases must accompany any change in fuel source, and corn ethanol comes up short, particularly in coal-fired ethanol plants. With the rising cost of natural gas, coal-fired plants might dominate new construction.

Two ethanol plants in Minnesota are fueled by gasified biomass and one in Illinois by solar collectors, pointing toward a greener future for ethanol compared to the current generation of facilities.

Changing fuels isn’t the entire answer to solving this country’s energy needs. Reducing energy needs might be the best place to start and that could be done by demanding higher efficiency standards for vehicles, appliances and industrial machinery.

Meeting future energy needs isn’t as simple as swapping one energy source for another. That’s the approach that falsely paints ethanol as the solution to oil dependence.

– David Green, June 1, 2006