Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Ultimate Smackdown: Corn vs. Switch Grass

Corn as a fuel alternative isn’t as wacky of an idea as you might think. While most people associate corn ethanol with alcohol consumption, it has a long, interesting history as a fuel, famously as an oil to light lanterns in the 1800s. It fell out of favor because of an industrial alcohol tax levied during the Civil War. Ford’s Model T was able to run on ethanol. The only reason later models didn’t was because of Prohibition and the accusations of ethanol suppliers being bootleggers.

Prohibition being over and all, ethanol is making a big comeback. As an additive to petroleum gas, even at as low as 10%, it cuts back on carbon monoxide and dioxide emissions. It also could create upwards of 200,000 new jobs in rural America, a positive that’s needed as we teeter on the edge of a recession.

However, there’s a nasty side to the ethanol boom. The recent increase in world food prices is a direct correlation to ethanol’s newfound fame. Corn now being an in-demand commodity (and being sold for fuel not food) many farmers have also cut back on producing other grains, like wheat. Less crops means less food, which leads to the higher food cost. Also, the amount of corn needed to keep a car running for a month could feed a family for a year. This is the deal-breaker for me, and why I don’t think this is a feasible option. Life comes before convenience.

Switch grass is another biofuel that’s been making the rounds. When broken down, it can also be formed into ethanol oil. Unlike corn, it can grow in almost any location and doesn’t need much maintenance. It’s also perennial, so there’s no need to have to turn a field after every crop. An acre of switch grass produces 1,000 gallons of ethanol vs. the 400 gallons that corn produces.

But as always, there’s a catch. It takes more energy to make switch grass ethanol than what it produces. Not to mention the "environmentally disastrous" consequences the new ethanol market is having on the rainforests, wetlands, and grasslands of the world.

A prime example of the cost of ethanol opportunism is Brazil, pictured above. American farmers (seeing opportunity) are converting their soybean fields to corn, so Brazilian farmers (seeing opportunity) are expanding their soybean fields into cattle pastures, pushing cattle farmers (??) into the rainforest. Deforestation accounts for 20% of all carbon emissions; to clear the world's largest carbon sinks to make supposedly "greener" biofuels only accelerates global warming. So don't let the politicians fool you into believing they know what's best for the environment with their hoo-haaing about agrofuels.

To learn more about the hacking and burning of the Amazon and the Cerrado to a precarious tipping point, read this Time Magazine article, "The Clean Energy Scam." It'll scare you away from the moonshine for good.

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