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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