Contributed by John Leys, Principal of Sherwood Design Engineers
I was interested to learn last year that the US government is contributing more money to alternative fuel generation domestically. From an energy perspective we have all heard in the media about the success of Brazil using ethanol to power its growing fleet of automobiles. The US actually started importing some of this ethanol and is now offering a subsidy to farmers to grow more ethanol-producing crops. On the face of it the policy seems like the right thing to do as alternative energy to this administration usually means nuclear or maybe a large dam project. Upon further review however I have come to suspect that the White House is doing nothing more than greenwashing.
A recent study out of UC Berkeley and Cornell has shown that there is no energy benefit for using plant biomass for liquid fuels. Comparing BTUs out to BTUs in the study found that corn requires 29% more energy to produce ethanol than the fuel produced (switchgrass was 45%). Looking deeper still it is important to note who the recipients of this funding were and who your and my tax dollars went to support. You may (or may not as the case may be) be surprised to know that these weren’t small farming operations sustainably working the earth, but large agribusinesses with deep ties to the White House.
Ethanol production is dependent on large amounts of water (four gallons of water will produce one gallon of ethanol in an unirrigated pasture); fertilizers (nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas); and fossil fuels (fuel is required extensively during the production process). Additionally, the processes large farming operations use when working the land lead to high rates of soil erosion – in Iowa topsoil is being lost at a rate of 30 times its formation.
In fact, quoting the Energy Bulletin,
Increasing corn-ethanol gives you MORE pesticide contamination, MORE drilling for gas, MORE air pollution from E85 & refineries, MORE greenhouse gasses as they move to coal to power refineries, MORE demand on our water system, MORE water and air pollution, MORE soil erosion, and LESS land protected in the Conservation Reserve Program.
The administration it appears has found yet another way to support unsustainable agricultural practices – and this time under the guise of fossil fuel independence!
Image from friedben’s blog