viernes, 5 de junio de 2009

Biofuel projects cannot ignore ethical standards

It is amazing to think what kind of world we live in, where progress takes us and what needs we must sacrifice for our own wants. According to the American Coalition for Ethanol, corn crops can be turned into ethanol for your car in 11 simple steps. But is it really that simple? We cannot forget that to much of the world population corn is food, not fuel. For the sake of the human race we need to find an acceptable balance between what can be used as food and what can be used as fuel.

Though we don’t quite feel it here in the United States, the world population is growing. Our population of well over six billion people is growing at a rate of just over 1 percent. Of those six billion, just under one billion are forced to go hungry.

The problem is that we are not acknowledging the facts, hindered by our own need to keep fuel prices at a reasonable cost. Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, calculated that the amount of corn or grain required to fill a 25-gallon tank with ethanol would feed one person for an entire year. When stated that way, it is a wonder that there is any argument at all.

But there is a change afoot in the nation now that our biggest automotive manufacturers are finally beginning to feel the heat for their blatant disregard of fuel-efficient vehicles. Cars sold in the United States will have to have an average fuel economy of 35.5 miles per gallon by the year 2016, yet the question is why did we have to wait this long for an advancement like this? Logically, we would want to increase supply of fuel by decreasing demand through efficiency. Unfortunately, both supply and demand have remained high, leading to the hot-button campaign issue of gas prices in the last election. Instead of changing our habits and automobile standards, we have brashly pushed on into a new frontier of alternative fuels, disregarding ethical concerns in favor of economic stability and control.

Currently, ethanol is used mostly as an additive, comprising 10 percent of most fuels that we use. In big corn producing states such as Illinois, there are more gas stations producing E85, a fuel consisting of 85 percent ethanol. What do we gain from using ethanol? In an article on the dangers and benefits of biofuels, National Geographic shows that biofuels are more eco-friendly, producing about 22 percent less carbon dioxide than gasoline. But what the American Coalition for Ethanol doesn’t let us in on is that one gallon of gasoline is required to produce 1.3 gallons of ethanol from corn or grain.

I strongly believe that renewable energy and energy independence equate to homeland security, but this counterproductive attitude is not what energy independence is about. Energy independence is about striking a balance between environment and economy, between the needs and the wants of the world, and it starts with smart decisions on the part of researchers and consumers.

I used to work at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center here at UW-Madison, focusing mostly on refuse sugars and cellulose, compounds that would not jeopardize anyone’s food supply. Our research and development should be poured into solutions like these, not corn or other food-based fuels. The recent developments here in Madison with the coal plant on Charter Street promise a future without the ethical concerns of food versus fuel. The coal plant is switching over to biofuel power, which will use the testy-but-inedible switchgrass as a fuel source rather than dirty coal.

While research and development play catch up for the lost time, we must stress the decisions of the individual in these times. We all want cheap gas, but do we all need it? We all need to be efficient with our precarious fuel supply, regardless of where it comes from.

SOurce Cardinal

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