Thursday, October 11, 2007

Corn Won't Cut It (And No, I'm Not a Husker)

For some time I've believed ethanol is not the best way to go. It just isn't. I wish I had money to buy solar panels, even with the government kickback it's still too much. The U.S., being the U.S., can and should be a leader in the switch to renewable energy. It's just, for lack of a better word, butt-ass stupid that we aren't, and we're gonna go down with everyone else when we don't have to. And as an aside, watching my recorded episodes of the Ken Burns documentary "The War," it is amazing to see what our country CAN do when mobilized, focused, from grass roots to the prez. And if it was for something more peaceful / benign / responsible / balanced, vs. a war (though that was a necessary war), how much more wonderful would that be? Look at what our industrial machine did in the 1940s: we created 50% of the GLOBAL industrial output by war's end, and our recession ended overnight. Not a fool proof argument, but it's what you get in the morning.

This article, though not in depth, sums up the issues of ethanol as dumb well enough (with some quotes below):

"The U.S. agriculture lobby is incredibly powerful, and it has somehow managed to convince Congress that our next 100 years of energy should also come from the sun. Not in its most efficient route, directly transformed by the magic of electronics from solar rays into electricity via large and small grids of photovoltaic cells. But in the most inefficient way possible: From the growing of corn and then its refinement into fuel.

How inefficient is the ethanol solution? When you break the "agrofuels" system down scientifically, you can see that 99.9% of the energy in sunlight is lost in the process, with the greatest waste coming in the creation of ammonia-based fertilizer from natural gas, and in the refinery. That is, for every unit of energy that is put into creating agriculture-based fuel, almost three-quarters of it is dissipated before it actually does any work. The greatest amount of energy lost is not in the creation of ammonia-based fertilizer, as many believe, but in the refinery.

Of course, an even bigger problem is that the 6.6 billion people on Earth need all the food they can get, so every acre taken out of wheat, rice and soybean production to feed our 1 billion cars is an acre that won't feed starving kids. As Patzek notes pungently in his paper, after a lot of math to prove the point, "Our planet has zero excess biomass at her disposal."

One better solution is solar energy created at the municipal level by massive photovoltaic cell facilities, at the street level by home-based grids and at the transportation level at lots where electric vehicles' batteries can be charged. Photovoltaic cells lose only about 80% of the sun's energy to dissipation, making them at least 100 times more efficient than ethanol after the fuel cost of growing and refining the biomass feedstack is accounted for."

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