Day 58-62: Ethanol: Thoughts on Food to Fuel

…Corn, soybeans, soybeans, corn…soybeans corncorncorn…

Certainly, there seemed to be an endless amount of these two commodities as we drove through Illinois, Iowa, into Nebraska. And since food seems plentiful and America says it wants to stop sucking from the teat of foreign oil, biomass fuels (biodiesel and ethanol) may, at first glance, appear to be a plausible solution. But are they, really?

We have discovered from our constant search of the internet and numerous interviews that there are several deep issues to examine. Americans have to consider not only energy independence, jobs, and health and security of a nation, but also the possible ramifications of biomass production on the entire planet: possible continued destruction of environmental ecosystems, as well as increased pesticide use and contamination of groundwater, soil degradation and erosion, worsening World Hunger (due to less grain coming from America), missed opportunities to research/perfect/use the truly renewable resources, like wind and solar (whose infrastructures are NOT being subsidized like farming) and, possibly the most important consequence of all, extreme water deficit due to irrigation AND processing of biofuels themselves. It’s a lot to wrap our heads around.

That said, YERT certainly could not miss the opportunity to visit biomass research and production facilities as we traveled through Iowa, to get more sides of the story. We started at Iowa Energy Center’s BECON (Biomass Energy Conversion) Facility, an Iowa State affiliate which researches cellulosic biomass processes, technologies and biochemicals (from agricultural waste) instead of petrochemicals (petroleum byproducts) for energy. Keith Kutz talked with us a little bit about the different kinds of projects going on in the facility and helped me think of some abc’s that could be made into ethanol (a= apples, b=beer, c=corn, d=dairy, etc – re: this interesting website my brother, David, sent me.) Keith even agreed to take on our several bags of cornshuck compost for his own personal compost pile. (It’s a good thing, too, as Rachel Carson was truly starting to smell like a brewery. Thank you, Keith, for saving us from making our own silage!)

Next we moved on down the road to meet Robert Anex, also an Iowa State affiliate, who is working on developing strains of crops to discover what may prove the most useful for biomass energy production. Ben and Mark interviewed him next to another small recovered prairie, while i was given the grand tour by Robert’s small son, Braden, who walked me around the park in its entirety, and explained to me that No, that is NOT a hybrid hardy lime on that tree, in fact, that is a black walnut in its green casing. (Thank you, Braden.) We followed Robert to a plot of land reserved for experimental crops. There were all kinds of different corn and soybean crops, some foreign tall grasses being studied for hardiness, yield, energy production and their natural resistance to American pests, some other plants chosen to fix nitrogen in the soil underneath corn crops, and some of the mightiest mosquitos I have seen since Denali National Park in Alaska. Holy hemoglobin goblins, i had to get in the car and shut the door.

Robert sent us on to Lincoln Way Ethanol Plant. We were welcomed by Randy Retleff and given a tour of the entire facility by John Fadler, a modest and generous fair-haired fellow who made us put on hardhats and goggles and basically showed us all the pieces of the plant, explaining to us how they all work and what they do… We did ask John some questions about some of the issues re: turning food-to-fuel. He basically hopes that biofuel is the wave of the future, and that his company is providing jobs and income to farmers, as well as an answer to America’s dependence on oil. To his credit, his information is coming from a pretty high source – our government supports the infrastructure for ethanol plants and biofuel farms through subsidies and is mandating that its own fleet change over to biomass renewables. Also, frankly, John works for a living, and his living is turning corn into fuel.

One of the most thought-provoking essays I’ve read on the controversy is Lester Brown’s address to the Senate this year entitled Biofuel Blunder. (Please do read!) He believes that the future of America as a stable country may very well depend on our understanding these complex issues, and learning how to balance the basic necessities of Life: food, water, and shelter, with the amenities to which we have become accustomed as a culture: refrigeration, artificial light, heat, air conditioning, plastic, fast cars, perfectly manufactured chemlawns, airplanes, computers, TV dinners, technology, giant bigbox stores, “disposable” everything…

The fact is that every one of the conveniences that we enjoy – every car, every light that gets turned on, every gameboy, every diaper, every plastic fork, every computer…came from this Earth. Every one. We keep taking and taking, to make more and more STUFF, but are we putting anything back? These are largely not renewable resources we are using. We have always known that in time they would run out. This is the first time in human history that scientists are beginning to believe that we are using up the planet and that, if we continue to use the earth’s resources the way we are currently using them, we will run out much sooner than later.

So? I used to think that if we ran out of oil, or coal, or natural gas, that would be alright because the government would finally have to focus its attention (= Money) on truly renewable fuel – energy from the sun and wind – and we would be forced to live in harmony with nature. However, the terrifying question that haunts me lately is: by the time we have run out of oil, coal, and gas, will we also be facing the fact that we are running out of water? What happens when a country starts running out of water? What happens if the people living in Arizona can no longer get water from Colorado? What happens to Vegas, Santa Fe, Silver City?

And, back to the point I am chewing on today, What happens to any and all biofuel farms that need water for irrigation and facilities which need massive amounts of water for processing? There are very few industrial processes that don’t use great amounts of water, and what about clean water to drink? Will individuals and companies be fighting over water? I hate to end a blog with a nightmare but these are the kinds of things that have been keeping me up at night and part of why i left my life for this trip in the first place.