Ethanol as a local, national energy solution?

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(Please note, because of the time that has passed since I wrote this article, it may no longer reflect my current views or the most accurate and complete information available on this subject.)

In today's Palladium-Item, Brian Bergen with the Richmond-Wayne County Chamber of Commerce agribusiness committee has a piece about Ethanol as a solution to the nation's energy problems.

I'm so glad that the Chamber is focusing on the relationship between agribusiness and the energy crisis that we face as a nation and as a planet. I'm also glad that the solutions we're talking about are keeping in mind a systems approach - how the inputs and outputs from a particular industrial or energy-generating process can be used as efficiently as possible.

But I hope that whatever solutions we pursue take into account that there is a tremendous amount of energy that goes into making our agricultural system work, and so any energy solutions derived from it must take that cost into account. The USDA recently noted that ethanol generates little more energy than it takes to produce. Some scientists have shown that ethanol production consumes 6 units of energy for every 1 it produces.

Richard Manning, in his Harper's 2004 essay The Oil We Eat, says:

"Ever since we ran out of arable land, food is oil. Every single calorie we eat is backed by at least a calorie of oil, more like ten. In 1940 the average farm in the United States produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil energy it used. By 1974 (the last year in which anyone looked closely at this issue), that ratio was 1:1. And this understates the problem, because at the same time that there is more oil in our food there is less oil in our oil. A couple of generations ago we spent a lot less energy drilling, pumping, and distributing than we do now. In the 1940s we got about 100 barrels of oil back for every barrel of oil we spent getting it. Today each barrel invested in the process returns only ten, a calculation that no doubt fails to include the fuel burned by the Hummers and Blackhawks we use to maintain access to the oil in Iraq."

In other words, it might be unwise to treat an agricultural system that depends so heavily on oil as a promising option for replacing oil. (As Tom Philpott also summarized in his blog entry on the matter.)

I hope the Chamber continues to pursue these important issues, and I'm glad these conversations are happening in our community and ABOUT our community. We just need to make sure that we're addressing the real issues that underly the energy crisis at hand.

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