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Thursday, February 07, 2008

Re: Ethanol & Competitve Disadvantage

Marcus, I had the pleasure of attending a speech by a gentleman from the Heartland Institute last year. His talk was largely on ethanol, and it was an enlightening session. If my memory serves me, he saw the future of ethanol production being cellulosic in nature. One of the highlights of, say, switch grass was that it could be grown in soils in the southeast that he said were salty and not capable of producing many food crops. Also, a crop like switch grass can create much more stock per acre in a year than corn can. He also discussed the use of crop residue to make cellulosic ethanol in agricultural regions like Wisconsin, but that opportunity is more limited because crop residue can act as a top soil erosion inhibitor. He also discussed the possibilities of genetically engineering some crops so they can be successfully grown in more arid regions out west, but I found that part of the discussion a little fanciful at worst and a long way off at best.

One additional advantage of cellulosic ethanol production is that the process could actually create a byproduct that could in turn be used as an energy source in the production process. That would reduce energy costs for those plants and increase the amount of energy ethanol gives over what it takes to produce.

Having said all of that, I still don't see ethanol as a silver bullet for our energy problems. I doubt that under any scenario we can produce enough of it. Additionally, it will never be significantly more environmentally sound than oil when all factors are considered. I am willing to consider it as a component of our energy policy as long as government stays the hell out of the way allow the best processes to succeed. I am concerned about Federal and state governments are propping up a type of ethanol (corn) that has way too many disadvantages, and once more advantageous forms of production come online that they'll continue to prop it up out of political expediency.