A university is just a group of buildings gathered around a library. ~Shelby Foote

Friday, February 08, 2008

Who Didn't See This Coming?

Turns out Bio-fuels on a large scale actually cause more greenhouse gas emissions. What a shock. Yes-- that was sarcasm. Bio-fuels, in particular ethanol but also various grasses and seaweeds as well, have been put forth as a fuel alternative to oil and gas for decades. Turn them into alcohol and then burn the alcohol in modified combustion engines or mix it with regular gasoline. The conclusion has always been that the amount of oil and gas consumed transforming the bio-source into combustible energy was at or close to the zero-sum range. That is to say, to make a gallon of ethanol required the consumption-- through direct (ie, running equipment to make the ethanol) and indirect (ie., running the machines necessary to build the ethanol plant) causes-- of close to a gallon of gasoline.

On top of that, there were always concerns with side-effects like the incompatibility of ethanol with small engines (borne out by the fact that most outboards, snow blower, lawn mower and other small engines run poorly on ethanol and wear out faster, requiring people to buy more of them and more frequently) and the possible inflation of food prices as corn and other crops are converted to fuel production (borne out by the rapidly inflating costs of beef, soda and other products that rely on corn or corn byproducts like corn syrup). Plus, you get worse gas mileage with ethanol, meaning you use more of it to go the same distance as with gasoline. Now throw in the fact that more forests are being converted to crop production to keep up with the bio-fuel demand and the fact that sub-prime land is being converted to crop production to keep up with demand and you get more erosion, more runoff, more animal displacement and probably a variety of other ills.

Ethanol is a bad answer to a real and very difficult problem. But I've known that since high school when it was a big topic for several of the debate topics we had back then. How come it took billions of dollars and oodles of wasted time, energy and resources for so many people to realize it? It's a boondoggle of gianormous proportions that benefits nobody but the ethanol industry and, to a small degree, corn farmers.

Now, on a small scale bio-fuels can work. No doubt everyone has read the "I run my car on old French Fry grease" stories. And perhaps there is a breakthrough in the processing that can make them feasible on a large scale. But right now, it's a boondoggle and if the government wants to help, it should be facilitating research into how to improve the process rather than forcing motorists to use a crappy fuel in their cars and small engines for no discernible purpose other than to line the pockets of those in the ethanol business.

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Does this mean that there is a posibility that we will hear politicians in the future complaining about "big corn" instead of big oil?
Big corn, big grass, big sugar. Wisconsin is a victim of big corn, but other parts of the world would be under the heel of big sugar and big grass.

The one area that I think might have potential is big seaweed, but even then you have to harvest the stuff some how. And no doubt the clown fish would all die out if we start mass producing seaweed.

Maybe all the zebra mussels in Lake Michigan? That would be a win/win. Harvest zebra mussels for fuel and help the sturgeon at the same time.
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