“Grow more corn” is not the answer to our energy woes
Reader urges thinking past biofuels to solar, wind and plug-in hybrids.

Posted November 9, 2006

Editor’s note: The following opinion has been published in the Des Moines Register and is posted here at the author’s request.


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Recently I attended a wedding in a neighboring Midwestern state, where I renewed my acquaintance with my friend Bob. A corn and soybean farmer, Bob was enthusiastic about his state’s support for biofuel production: ethanol from corn, and biodiesel from soybeans.

To Bob, biofuels are the perfect fix for our energy problems, for the farm economy and for cleaner air. Bob has a red, biodiesel-powered truck, in which he takes great pride. Its crew cab has all the space and comforts of a car. In fact, Bob’s truck serves as the family “car.” They use it for long-distance driving, such as their vacation out West last summer. For farm work, Bob has an old “beater” pickup. Bob mentioned that his pickup gets “pretty good mileage” for a one-ton, crew-cab, four-wheel-drive truck: 18 mpg.

After the reception, Bob rode back to the hotel in my gas-electric hybrid. He was surprised to see the hybrid had all the comforts of a luxury vehicle and had amazing power when accelerated as both engines kicked in. Then Bob noticed the dashboard power monitor, which indicated 52.4 mpg since the last gas fill. It was a sobering moment. In our ensuing discussion, I argued that diluting gasoline with 10 percent corn ethanol and diesel fuel with 2 percent soybean oil are baby steps towards energy self-sufficiency and clean air compared to gains possible from efficient vehicle design.

The Model T Ford reportedly got 25 mpg. According to the EPA, cars sold in the U.S. in 2006 averaged 24.8 mpg. We could double that with today’s technology. We could go far beyond doubling today’s mileage.

The next generation of hybrids will be plug-in models that will go up to 100 miles on a recharge, for only a couple pennies per mile. When the auxiliary battery charge is exhausted, the car will switch to normal gas-electric hybrid operation. Most commuters would use very little liquid fuel. And new technology will allow rapid battery recharge—faster than you can fill your car with gas.

Plug-in hybrid cars could be a key component of a comprehensive strategy for energy self-sufficiency. But we need to diversify our technology development investments beyond corn ethanol. We should invest in a complement of clean, renewable energy sources—such as wind farms in the countryside and “solar shingles” on every house, all connected to the existing electric grid. Plug-in hybrids could be recharged at reduced rates during off-peak hours.

What role can biofuels play? The liquid fuel for plug-in hybrids could be high-percentage ethanol or biodiesel (85 percent to 100 percent) that would be used when the hybrid is driven beyond the limit of its battery charge. But we should use sustainable cropping systems to produce these biofuels.

Research at Midwestern land grant universities indicates that the corn-soybean crop rotation is not sustainable. Even when we use the best management practices available, corn and soybeans leak nitrate into water resources, degrade soil structure and organic matter and cause excessive soil erosion. Nitrogen leaking from corn and soybean fields in the Midwest is a major contributor to the hypoxic (dead) zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we are going to invest public money in Iowa’s ethanol industry, we should invest in technology development to make it commercially viable to produce ethanol from cellulose. That would allow us to make ethanol from perennial, resource-conserving crops like switchgrass—which is five to six times more energy efficient than corn ethanol.

Let’s not fill our gas-guzzling vehicles with corn ethanol and soybean oil and pretend we are doing great things for energy self-sufficiency and the environment.

Francis Thicke