Corn-based ethanol takes a hit

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Switchgrass, U. of Nebraska-LincolnThere’s a kernel of good to this story, if you care about climate change and high food prices.

Sure, ethanol has been a great example of how America can begin to overcome its dependency on foreign fossil fuels. But using a staple like corn to make the biofuel has driven up food prices and displaced other food crops.

Now comes the Obama administration, which has proposed new rules for renewable fuels, aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions. At the same time, he’s vowed to help prop up the corn ethanol industry with stimulus dollars, and commit stimulus funds to biofuel research.

It’s part of a strategy to increase the supply of renewable fuels to 36 billion gallons by 2022, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials say.

Hopefully this move will help the United States move from corn-based to advanced biofuels, made with plants we don’t rely on for sustenance, like switchgrass.

Of course, the move could still displace food crops. But it also could reduce carbon emissions from ethanol production and open up new markets for biomass that is otherwise seen as waste, like corn stalks or the algae that’s been fouling beaches throughout the Great Lakes (muck tech, anyone?)

And commercial production of cellulosic ethanol will hopefully become more than just a concept some day soon. Already, 2009 has been a landmark year for cellulosic ethanol, with pilot plants starting up in South Dakota and New York, the U.S. Department of Energy says.

For the short term, the federal idea is to use non-corn biofuels to help manufacture corn-based ethanol. Is this backward? Or forward?

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  1. Anything involving ethanol seems to be a step backwards. IF we are going to insist on growing our way to oil independence, then jatropha makes a lot better sense. Irrigated, fertilized lightly, with 2 crops per year, jatropha would give us 15bbl of biofuel as opposed to 5bbl equivalent oil with ethanol – a fuel that wants to dissolve metal and mixes well with water. I think we would be better served by going all out on PHEV-40′s, and converting aggricultural/bio waste to oil. That pathway would be cheaper in the long run, less taxing on our aggriculatural sector, and lead to the US to possibly even export oil.

  2. In the Philippines, it is now mandated to produce 1% bio-diesel and 10% bio-ethanol, with bio-diesel predominantly CME from copra or coconut oil at the moment. Eventually, the government thru the PNOC-AFC (Philippine National Oil Company – Alternative Fuels Corporation) will be producing bio-diesel from jatropha as lands unsuitable for food production but with low forest cover are being converted to contract farming of jatropha. During this global financial crisis with demand for sugar and coconut oil down, our government’s response to promote alternative market for coconut oil and sugar has some beneficial effect to the copra and coconut farms as well as sugar cane farmers and producers. I believe there will always be a healthy balance between food and energy. We just need to seek a middle ground to satisfy optimally such competing needs. In the end, what will dictate it would be the national economics of each country, how much dependent it is on imported fossil fuels and how much the rural folks need additional incomes from producing food and fuels at the same time. There are no right and wrong answers. It is ultimately a question of harmony and balance to satisfy all our needs – food and energy and incomes. Thanks, Marcial. (Learn more about energy technologies and their levelized cost of energy at my website http://www.energytechnologyexpert.com)

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