RE: Editorial, Dec. 4The public should have significant concerns about ethanol as a fossil fuel alternative.
Presently, most of the ethanol biofuel in the U.S. comes from corn. Converting significant corn production from human and animal feed to ethanol will have significant economic impacts on agriculture and corn-based food costs. The energy cost-benefit considerations are poor with corn-based ethanol.
Depending on various production factors, the energy needed to produce ethanol may essentially break even with – or exceed – the fuel gained. Ultimately, this is not an efficient process. In order to achieve necessary agricultural yields, significant fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide applications are needed, all of which take fossil fuels to manufacture, distribute and apply to the crops.
Furthermore, modern large-scale corn production is quite energy intensive, as is most large-scale mechanized farming.
We also hear little discussion of the negative environmental impacts of biofuel production, although they are substantial. Production of biofuel source crops (mainly corn) contributes to increased surface water pollution from nutrient, herbicide, pesticide runoff and soil erosion.
It’s possible to make use of other crops in ethanol production, and increased use of switchgrass, or agricultural byproducts could offset some of the problems with corn. They may offer greater energy output per unit of energy input to produce, with reduced environmental impacts. Sugarcane waste and by-products of citrus processing are two of the opportunities being explored in Florida.
For now, the real advantage to corn-based ethanol is the greenhouse gas recycling process. CO2 given off through the combustion of biofuel is taken up through photosynthesis in the growing of the corn. Thus, greenhouse gas emissions are nearly neutral, which can help to offset global warming, but the energy ultimately needed to produce the fuel is much greater than with most fossil fuels.
Hydrogen power, on the other hand, has the potential to offer a nearly limitless source of clean, renewable energy. It is limited by the high-energy input needed to produce adequate supplies of hydrogen and the difficulty in storing and transporting the large quantities that would be needed to replace fossil fuels for automobiles.
President Bush’s proposal to expand hydrogen power relies on building new nuclear power plants to provide the energy required to produce the hydrogen. That approach is unwise and ultimately creates more problems than it solves.
However, investing in research to use wind and solar power to generate hydrogen from water could lead to a very efficient production system with little – if any – negative environmental impact, essentially no greenhouse gas emissions and no hazardous nuclear reactors in our communities or nuclear waste to dispose of. In addition to a significant national commitment to energy conservation, solar power-produced hydrogen fuels offer our best, cleanest and most efficient potential fuel source for the future.
All we need are intelligent politicians to support investment in research and infrastructure development, and bright students and scientists to develop the cost-effective, environmentally sensitive technologies.
Rick Oches is an Associate Professor of Geology, and past Chair of the former Environmental Science & Policy Department