Sunday, January 11, 2009

 

Ethanol: A Bad Idea

As you can see here, ethanol and biodiesel are accomplishing nothing but absorbing subsidies. Sorry to say, the plan to free the US from foreign oil by means of biofuels was an idea whose time never came. All the program has accomplished is make money for a few people. If that was the avowed idea in the first place, we could at least be satisfied with the explanation.

But that’s not the only problem. From the very beginning, the belief that biofuels could scale up and power an oil-based industrial economy was a losing proposition. Making such quantities of biofuels requires colossal amounts of biomass, whether one uses corn or cellulose. To replace a significant amount of oil would necessitate not only building a lot more biofuel plants, but also keeping literally trainloads of feedstock coming into them. That means turning vast tracts of land into fields of corn or cellulose stock, or cutting and hauling trees at a prodigious pace. And all that would have to be done with oil, because the energy returns of biofuels are too low to power the system and leave a significant energy surplus.

Finally, the whole approach to the problem is wrong because everyone is assuming that it is possible to keep industrial society operating. In fact, the current worsening global recession is not just a recession, it’s the death knell of a system powered by plentiful fossil fuels, cheap resources, and a whole lot of debt.

Now that the Great Unwind has begun, there is a small window of opportunity left to prepare ourselves for a life with much less energy and resources, and precious little money. Instead of squandering money and energy on large-scale biofuel initiatives (I do believe biofuels have a future on a small, local scale), subsidies should be shifted to building as much renewable infrastructure as possible. That would at least help us achieve a soft landing.



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