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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
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.