Not all energy is created equal

The 1970s, like every decade, were filled with unforgettable fads: platform shoes, mood rings, earth shoes and Rubik’s cube. Mood rings resurfaced three or four years ago, but, thank heavens, leisure suits remain buried.
The trouble with some fads is that they’re driven by “this is a really great idea” marketing or a respected spokesman, and they linger longer than the market or common sense dictates.
Agriculture is not without its fads. Think canola and emus and diet food crazes.
One hip agriculture fad from the ’70s lingers and it’s still fashionable to back it, despite economics and even the environment.
Ethanol is a warm fuzzy fad. Who doesn’t want to boost a new use for corn, protect the environment and save the family farm? It’s renewable; it’s homegrown. Politicians love it and farm groups love it.
Trouble is, it just doesn’t make economic sense.
It’s the next best thing to, well, pet rocks.
Heavily subsidized. After 25 years, the efficiency of ethanol production has increased, but only tax credits make fuel ethanol commercially viable.
“The greatest threat to the future of ethanol is that biomass and starch-based ethanols currently depend on large government subsidies to be cost competitive with fossil fuels,” write Mississippi State University ag economists Lanier Nalley and Darren Hudson.
Need something. Our whole way of life wraps around cheap, abundant energy sources, mostly oil and natural gas.
World energy use grew by 4.3 percent last year, the largest increase ever in absolute terms, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy. In China, which now uses nearly 14 percent of the world’s total energy, energy use increased by 15.1 percent.
We need to explore alternative energy sources. We also need to rethink our consumption. But I’m not convinced ethanol is the saviour.
“Embodied energy” is the amount of energy it takes to make something. Everything we use today – concrete, steel, plastic, rubber – must be forged from something before it can be used to make something. And that takes energy all the way down the line.
The whole ethanol debate centers around “embodied energy.” Oil and gas have a high return on investment, if you will, of energy needed to produce them. One source says until recently, it took 1 barrel of oil worth of energy to make more than 20 barrels available at the gas station – an energy profit ratio of more than 20-to-1.
No energy benefit. The opposite is true of ethanol.
Cornell University’s David Pimental says it bluntly: “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel.”
He calculates that:

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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