Too High A Price: 1/4 US Grain to Gas

This is not okay. The diversion of US topsoil, ground-water irrigation, fossil-fuel manufactured fertilizer, and millions of petro-barrels-as-spoils-of-war to grow grain crops to produce gasoline for American automobiles is not okay. Only the agri-conglomerates and our government (if there is indeed any difference) think this is a good plan.

Meanwhile, our tax dollars are subsidizing the production of ethanol to the tune of 6 billion dollars every year.

From that grain (mostly corn), 330 million people could have been fed for a year. But no. The push for biofuels by American and European governments elevated food prices by 75% while over 1 billion of the world’s people go hungry.

There are perhaps some other crops than food grains that could be converted to gasoline (sunflowers seem promising and yield both food and fuel) but they too deplete our top soil, water resources and require an energy input that is a significant percentage of the energy extracted.

Basically with the bad-idea of biofuels, what we’re up against is having to play the role of sun-plant-oil energy conversion one year at a time to replace the stored sun-plant-oil stores in the ground of fifty million years of fossilized summers that we’ve foolishly used up in 100 years as if it were a never-ending pot of gold.

Meanwhile, the low-hanging fruit of conservation and energy efficiency, personal habit and engineering changes that might allow us to avoid the need for growing gasoline, continue to take a far back seat to business as usual, benefiting all the usual suspects.  | Source: The Guardian

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Many do not realize that feed grains which are passed through a distillery only lose the carbohydrates. Protein increases or remains the same since the yeast biomass converts carbo’s and nutrients to more cell yield. It is absurd that these fancy studies ignore the reality of mass balances, the spent grains are not discarded.

    Did they discuss how much petroleum is saved by using ethanol as an octane booster rather than the cracking process that eats up a fifth of the petroleum? Did they talk about how using ethanol as an oxygenator is keeping the MTBE and lead that has poisoned the ground water in all 50 states from being irremediably contaminated? Did they talk about the renewable nature of ethanol as a liquid fuel resource? Did they discuss the costs of wars fought over securing petroleum sources. Did they mention the improved fermentation, distillation, energy reutilization and cogeneration technologies, and ignored side stream utilization that make ethanol much more efficient than the recent misinformation circulated by the Big Oil and others to discredit renewable fuels? Did they mention the contribution to the local economy that additional markets for farm products can create.
    I wonder if it mentioned how low cost US corn, soybeans and other grains are displacing locally produced crops throughout the third world and making it impossible for local farmers to make a living.

    Though I am not a big fan of mono culture, I do see benefits from producing our liquid fuels from agricultural products. I look forward to new technologies employing less energy intensive and more sustainable farmed feedstocks. This has certainly contributed to employment and economies of scale in the energy balances of “3rd world” countries such as Brazil.

    I think that by using biomass as a feedstock and that by gasification of crop residue and reintroduction of that residue created carbon into the soils that a more sustainable energy loop might be realized and a change in the atmospheric C balance. A factoid not often discussed, the atmospheric Carbon passes through the soil once every 14 years.

    At the Still we supplemented our production by incorporating damaged food products, notably off-spec corn syrups, I recall other labor intensive materials too such as bags of water damaged starch (think bookbinding paste), and before I was involved heard of candy (with wrappers); also dogfood, and other “distressed” foods.

    BTW we recovered serious energy from the wastewater’s via treatment w/ anaerobic reactor (~520kgCOD/day), (that’s about 10,000cu.ft of biogas). At Floyd Ag. biogas was cycled back to heat influent, potential is there to run engines i.e. compressors, or gen-sets or boilers. Charcoal sequesters carbon and shelters microbia just as well in the temperate as the tropics. The loss of OM is as significant to the health and productivity of croplands in Virginia as to those poor primitives down in the Amazon. This is particularly true of arable lands which are permanently cropped, as opposed to land in rotation.

    Where ethanol ties into this is simple, any biomass production relies on cheap carbon and nitrogen fixation, the source is the atmosphere, and a high CEC (cation exchange complex) sponge to hold it; this is the clay mineralogy and the organic matter present in arable soils. The energy to drive these conversions has until recently been cheap, anyone price N this year?

    There is more to this than a blog will hold, but it’s good to get some of these ideas out to readers. In closing let me suggest that people should be more critical of studies that favor a simple point of view, this is a habit I learned as an undergraduate in Agronomy.
    Thanks for the forum.
    Jeff T.

  2. Normally Lester Brown does a better job of assessing technology.
    Either his team is out of their element, or they are insufficiently aware of the big picture. Maybe they need to get out more.

    I took a quick read of the referenced lit. Full of holes, though elements of truth do gleam. Biomass conversion via cellulosic fermentation is a fraud. The only institutions that believe in this technology are the funding entities and their employees.

    Overwhelming simplification on so many fronts, whatever happened to referenced scientific literature as the basis for discussion?

    We are living in an age of specialists, people that behave as though they are in such an closed environment that they can not integrate pieces of the larger picture.

  3. Kudos to the comment above by Jeff Walker. We do indeed live in an era of specialists who do not see the larger, integrated , picture.

    We need our crop producing land to produce food for the disadvantaged. Feeding hungry people is far more important than feeding automobiles. I am not against private transportation as I live in a very rural environment, but our focus needs to be on producing good electric forms of transportation that pollutes our environment less.

    I have been criticized by my peers for these attitudes. We need to retool our minds, not our wallets. If we are willing to dust out the cobwebs in our brains, innovative thinking regarding this issue (and others) is still possible.


  4. There is an interesting history about how petroleum came to dominate the fuel source for automobiles. Not many people know that the first generation of cars ran on bio-fuels. I don’t have the sources at hand, but I have read a little of this history – contrarian that I am! I don’t think that bio-fuels can replace the energy content of oil, but at some point we are not going to have a choice in the matter.