Alternative Energy and the Law of Unintended Consequences

The environmentalist lobby has been haranguing us for years about alternative energy sources. Fossil fuels = Bad. Alternative energy = Good. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for alternative energy. However, every alternative energy source comes with its own set of issues. Once it’s implemented (always at great expense), the environmentalists turn to attack the new energy source with the same fervor with which they previously promoted it.

  • Wind farms have been roundly attacked by environmental groups for slicing and dicing migratory birds and decimating local bat populations.
  • Hydroelectric plants have been taken to task for their impact on fish habitats, and environmentalists have successfully litigated for the removal of dams (at great public expense) in salmon spawning areas.
  • Nuclear power is anathema to environmentalists because of the potential for leakage and questions about adequate waste disposal.

But biofuels were supposed to be the ultimate panacea that solved everything from global warming to war in the Middle East. After all, they’re natural, renewable, and, best of all, green! Yet, from both a social and environmental perspective, biofuel production is turning out to be one of the biggest disasters of all.

The environmentalist lobby finally succeeded in getting federal legislation passed to subsidize ethanol production and provide tax incentives to fuel companies to dilute gasoline with it. Some states, like Oregon, have even mandated that all gasoline sold in the state must consist of 10% ethanol. According to an article on Hidden Costs of Corn-Based Ethanol, in the Christian Science Monitor, “ethanol yields about 30% less energy per gallon than gasoline, so mileage drops off significantly.”  (That’s OK, though, because gas is taxed by the gallon, and fewer miles per gallon means more revenue for the state.) Diluting gasoline with ethanol won’t reduce the price per gallon, either, and may even make it higher, due to of the high cost of production and handling. But the negative impact on consumers is acceptable to the environmentalists because, if consumers were environmentally conscious, they wouldn’t be driving cars in the first place…

On the other hand, there are problems with biofuel production that hit a lot closer to home for the politically correct. Our national “investment” in subsidizing bio-fuel production has been so overwhelmingly successful that it’s had the effect of repurposing the majority of our corn crops to ethanol production. It has also motivated farmers to divert production from other crops to crops that can be used for biofuels.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequences of this noble effort have been to raise food prices, not only here in the U.S., but around the world. Rising food prices hit the poor the hardest, and accelerate the spread of poverty. In an article in Foreign Affairs, titled How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor, authors Runge and Senauer said “Filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires more than 450 pounds of corn – which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year.” Even as food shortages increase in countries where people are already starving, the U.S. is being forced to reduce its international food aid due to rising food costs at home, largely due to the diversion of crops to biofuel production.

The high demand for biofuels is also having an unintended impact on some of the environmentalists’ own pet causes. Palm oil and sugar cane are some of the more efficient biofuel crops. The surge in demand for these crops has been a boon to certain third world economies but has, by the same token, led to the clearing of rainforests to create palm and sugar plantations. The environmentalists don’t like that at all! And here in the U.S., some farmers who previously rotated corn crops with soybean crops are now growing only corn. Not rotating crops strips the topsoil of nutrients, requiring the farmers to use more fertilizers and pesticides, which eventually end up in the water supply.

And, in the end, it turns out that the fossil fuel energy required to produce and process the enormous quantities of corn it takes to convert into biofuel ends up costing almost as much energy as it produces. According to a PBS Science Report, “Producing ethanol yields about 25 percent more energy than is used in growing and harvesting the corn and converting it to fuel.” Given that the ethanol produced is 30% less efficient than gasoline, the whole process results in a net reduction in energy, along with all the social and environmental negatives it engenders. But, once you get the government to latch onto something, it’s awfully hard to reverse, no matter what the unintended consequences.

But, hey, it sure sounded like a good idea, didn’t it? And, after all, it’s the thought that counts…


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11 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Thanks, hill. What a lot of people don’t realize is that corn is the staple food for livestock and poultry so, when corn prices go up, so do the prices of meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs. The divertion of other crops to corn for ethanol production has reduced the supply of many other foods and driven up their prices as well.

    Still, I don’t see anybody blaming the environmental lobby for demanding all this ethanol production. I guess that’s because the environmentalists are the “good guys,” who only want what’s best for our planet…

  2. Diverting foods for ethanol; the least thought out boondoggle yet….It’s only good for drinking and powering racing vehicles….Impractical for anything else….except….for feeling good because it shows we care….

  3. by the way, excellent post NYD…

  4. [...] presents Alternative Energy and the Law of Unintended Consequences posted at Government is not your Daddy., saying, “Biofuels were supposed to be the ultimate [...]

  5. The information you leaned on to craft this fantasy is about 18-36 months too old. Visit http://www.nrel.gov/ or http://www.eere.energy.gov/ and learn more about the biofuels that are being extracted from biomass – think every part of the corn plant EXCEPT the corn, plus agricultural waste from virtually every type of plant production.

    MYTH: Ethanol cannot be produced from corn in large enough quantities to make a real difference without disrupting food and feed supplies.
    FACT: Corn is only one source of biofuel. In the future, a significant amount of ethanol will be made from more abundant biomass sources.
    Future ethanol will also be produced from cellulose found in crop residues (stalks, hulls), forestry residues (forest thinning, wood byproducts), energy crops (switchgrass), and sorted municipal wastes. Some promising energy crops grow on marginal soils not suited for traditional agriculture. The ethanol production process produces not only fuel but valuable livestock feed products (distiller’s grain with solubles or DGS).
    A joint study by the U.S. Departments of Energy and Agriculture found that we can grow adequate biomass feedstocks to displace approximately 30% of curent gasoline consumption on a sustainable basis. This
    Billion Ton Study determined that 1.3 billion tons of U.S. biomass feedstock are potentially available for the production of biofuels.

    MYTH: More energy goes into producing ethanol than it delivers as a fuel.
    FACT: Each gallon of corn ethanol today delivers one third or more energy than is used to produce it. Over the last two decades, the amount of energy needed
    to produce corn ethanol has decreased because of improved farming techniques, more efficient use of fertilizers and pesticides, higher-yielding crops, and advances in conversion technology. Today, ethanol has a positive energy balance. That is, the energy content of corn ethanol is greater than the energy used to produce it. In the future, most ethanol will come from cellulosic ethanol, which delivers four to six times more energy than is needed in its production.

    MYTH: When it comes to environmental emissions, ethanol is the same as gasoline or worse.
    FACT: Ethanol results in fewer greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than gasoline and is fully biodegradable, unlike some additives. On a life cycle basis, cellulosic ethanol has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 86%. Ethanol readily biodegrades without harm to the environment, and is a safe, high-performance replacement for toxic fuel additives such as MTB
    possible carcinogen. The use of ethanol can increase tailpipe emissions of some air pollutants but others are significantly reduced.

    Future biofuels will be made from a wide range of hardy and fast-growing plants, such as switchgrass–which is a perennial native to all American prairies. Switchgrass requires just a quarter of the irrigation and fertilization devoted to other crops and offers an estimated net energy values of up to
    of 343%.

    Biofuel production was never intended as a long-term replacement for hydrocarbon-based fuels, but rather as a stop-gap measure to buy time while we can drive up the efficiencies of other non-polluting energy options; solar, wind, wave/current, geothermal, etc. Biofuels, even in the short-term, will create American jobs while reducing American dependence of fossil fuels and saving American lives.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Ike. I think it’s great that other sources than corn are going to be used increasingly for biofuels. I recently read that biofuels can be made from algae. That’s wonderful, and I fully support it.

    But, today, most ethanol is still coming from corn, and it’s driving up corn prices and causing farmers to divert their resources to corn from other crops, and the prices of many other foods are rising because of it.

    All of the sources I used for this post were published within a week of my writing it. It was all the current news that inspired me to write about it. So, I don’t think it’s so much that my information is out of date, as that yours is still in the future. Hopefully, the very near future.

    Your FACT about ethanol delivering one third more energy than it consumes to produce it is totally consistent with what I wrote in my post. But that’s still a very small amount of energy for the cost and effort required to produce it – not just the energy cost, but the costs of processing it and the social and environmental costs it incurs.

    I hope biofuels will be a viable energy source in the future, and I’m disappointed to hear you say they aren’t intended to be a long term solution, but only a stop gap. My main point is that we jumped the gun on this, and leapt to massive ethanol production from corn before we figured out the right way to do it, and the result has been disastrous. My other point was that the reason we did that was because of pressure from the environmental lobby. But they cannot be held accountable for the consequences, becaues they’re supposed to be the “good guys.”

  7. Your post is pure right wing drivel: blame everything on some strawman liberal environmentalist, which means everyone who isn’t a ignorant right wing partisan hack like you. I’m sorry, your post is trash. The people pushing ethanol are ADM and other agri-businesses and ethanol refiners, but why let facts get into the way of your commone as muck stupid con rant. There is hardly an environmentalist consensus, unless you are just another robot who deals with abstract beings.

  8. Why thank you, Jonas, for such an intelligent, well-thought out comment, set forth with impeccable logic and substantiated by statistical data.

    And it’s almost grammatical, too! (I guess that’s pretty good for a lefty.)

  9. [...] presents Alternative Energy and the Law of Unintended Consequences posted at Government is not your Daddy., saying, “Biofuels were supposed to be the ultimate [...]

  10. Energy has an reaction on the inviroment. If we use Fossil fuels it has a “karma” of “carbon”. The best is to use the sun (solar)= our main source of energy.
    Then there are the magnetic fields. Or energy from h2o.

  11. [...] presents Alternative Energy and the Law of Unintended Consequences posted at Government is not your Daddy., saying, “The environmentalist lobby has been [...]


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