Thursday, May 15, 2008

Ethanol…Is It Worth It?

In the news recently, the hot topic of energy, more precisely, energy from oil and ethanol has been filling up the headlines. Paralleling the energy debates, the world also finds itself in a food crisis, and the United States is neck-deep in an environmental debate over the use of renewable fuels.

Some believe the ethanol industry is ruining the environment, and is the main cause of the increasing food prices around the world. Others, like Senator John Thune, and Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin, believe the food shortage has more to do with increased fuel prices across the board, and growing food and fuel demands in China and India.

The environmental impacts of ethanol are very complex…with no simple solution. Ethanol production uses vast amounts of water, and also requires large input costs such as pesticides/herbicides to grow the corn crop, fuel to harvest, and transport the corn, etc. The increase in the price of corn has caused many landowners and farmers to take land out of the Federal Conservation Reserve Program and use the land to plant and harvest corn for food and fuel consumption. In some instances, small forests and vegetation stands are plowed under in the name of ethanol production. Natural resource and environmental agencies fear this “boom” may unravel years or work.

So is there one grand solution to these issues? Does one person or agency hold all the power to make these challenges go away? The answer is most certainly no. However, I do believe many smaller solutions, collaborated on and implemented by a variety of organizations, can ultimately bring us to a better place.

South Dakota and the United States should continue its investments in alternative (renewable) fuels in order to keep progressing to a better place. Congressman John Shimkus, from Illinois, thinks we would be making a mistake by being short-sighted and walking away from ethanol. The new Farm Bill, currently working its way through Congress, may cut back on tax breaks for ethanol, with millions of dollars also earmarked for cellulosic ethanol production.

A study done by the USDA and the University of Nebraska Lincoln revealed some promising facts about cellulosic ethanol produced from perennial grasses (switchgrass, etc.). According to the data, input and production costs for switchgrass ethanol production are greatly reduced because perennial grasses do not need to be planted annually and managed in the same manner as corn. Production costs are reduced because the residue biomass leftover from production can be used as burn-fuel instead of natural gas, coal, etc.

Perennial grass-based ethanol production also looks viable because the authors of the USDA and UNL study reveal the grasses needed for ethanol production can be grown in an way very similar to CRP. So we get another source for ethanol production, lowered input and production costs, and we also get to keep CRP land and grassland habitats for wildlife.

The environment in which we live is very important…yet economic stability is also very important. We cannot stand by and neglect all options because they are not absolutely perfect right now. We must continue developing and re-developing the way we do things in order to survive in a globalized world. The answers will come in time. I stated before, the system is complex, and the only way we can arrive at the solutions is if we work together, continue investments to find the better solutions, and get a little creative in the process…

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