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Living Car Free Do you live car free or car light? Do you prefer to use alternative transportation (bicycles, walking, other human-powered or public transportation) for everyday activities whenever possible? Discuss your lifestyle here.

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Old 03-26-07, 07:20 PM   #1
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Corn Can't Solve Our Problem [Wash. Post]

Quote:

ETHANOL HYPE
Corn Can't Solve Our Problem
By David Tilman and Jason Hill
Sunday, March 25, 2007; Page B01


The world has come full circle. A century ago our first transportation biofuels -- the hay and oats fed to our horses -- were replaced by gasoline. Today, ethanol from corn and biodiesel from soybeans have begun edging out gasoline and diesel.

This has been hailed as an overwhelmingly positive development that will help us reduce the threat of climate change and ease our dependence on foreign oil. In political circles, ethanol is the flavor of the day, and presidential candidates have been cycling through Iowa extolling its benefits. Lost in the ethanol-induced euphoria, however, is the fact that three of our most fundamental needs -- food, energy, and a livable and sustainable environment -- are now in direct conflict. Moreover, our recent analyses of the full costs and benefits of various biofuels, performed at the University of Minnesota, present a markedly different and more nuanced picture than has been heard on the campaign trail.

Corn Can't Solve Our Problem
xoxoxoxoxox
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Old 03-26-07, 07:24 PM   #2
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Also see this transcript of an online discusion with one of the authors of the article:

Outlook: The Negligible Benefits of Food-Based Biofuels
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Old 03-26-07, 07:54 PM   #3
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One word DUH! now when will the politicians stop their kneejerk reactions and realize that this is not the magic pill. That the only thing that is a sure bet is CONSERVATION! and pass laws to back it up. where's the friggin' rant button

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Old 03-26-07, 09:37 PM   #4
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Picking up on Aaron's remarks, here's a couple comments about the article from the Washington Post forum. These talk about a role for bikes:

Quote:
Originally Posted by WP reader forum

Righ you are, walkerbert. Picking up on your theme, imagine what applying sweat equity and midnight oil to the problem of increased energy use efficiency and reduced use might produce? Might be a good alternative to trying to produce what we currently use. Imagine if everybody also figured out ways to use, perhaps, 50 percent less energy than they do now while also making some of their own. Or plug in your own percentage. Probably a better scenario than what I outlined above with the ethanol acreage numbers.
By billmosby | Mar 25, 2007 6:38:40 AM |


This is a more decent analysis than anything Ive heard from the Bush administration. But look what Paris is doing with bicycles - 20,600 bikes at 1,450 stations -- or about one station every 250 yards across the entire city. It has completely transformed the landscape of Lyon. The program was meant not just to modify the equilibrium between the modes of transportation and reduce air pollution, but also to modify the image of the city and to have a city where humans occupy a larger space. It could change Californias suburban sprawl and smog image -- make it quieter, less polluted, with a nicer atmosphere, a better way of life. A recent study analyzed different trips in the city with a car, bike, taxi and walking, and the bikes were always the fastest. Its faster than the car or metro, its good exercise, and its almost free.
By open | Mar 25, 2007 7:27:43 AM |

Bicycles are one example of the kind of lifestyle change that would make a difference to the energy picture. I use mine whenever I can, but find myself slipping back into car mode if I think I don*t have enough time to bike. In truth, the time savings is usually small to nonexistent for the short trips I*m thinking about. For the population in general, it*s hard to imagine very many people bicycling until fuel gets a lot more expensive. But we can hope, I suppose.
By billmosby | Mar 25, 2007 7:56:38 AM |
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Old 03-26-07, 09:38 PM   #5
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Amen, my brothers...
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Old 03-26-07, 09:40 PM   #6
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BTW, Slow Train, that's the best article on energy policy that I've read in a long time. Thanks for sharing it with us!
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Old 03-27-07, 07:24 AM   #7
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Linear thinking like this is exactly the problem that started the "ethanol frenzy" to begin with. People (politicians or otherwise) have to look at things cyclically (pun completely intended)

corn sucks for EtOH production; at least soy's just a mediocre feedstock for Biodiesel.

For biofuels to work you've got to have at least 2 feedstocks that can be crop-rotated to start to take care of the renewability issue, then you've got to feed that into a fuel production scheme with a minimal energy input and have a utilization mechanism (read: engine) that consumes them at maximum efficiency. Burning corn ethanol in a spark ignition ingine is just a bad idea by this route.
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Old 03-27-07, 08:18 AM   #8
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Does anyone know if the corn grown for ethanol is the same corn as the corn we eat? So at least when ethanol reveals itself to be a crapshoot we can at least do something with massive over abundance of corn.
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Old 03-27-07, 08:40 AM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by le brad
Does anyone know if the corn grown for ethanol is the same corn as the corn we eat? So at least when ethanol reveals itself to be a crapshoot we can at least do something with massive over abundance of corn.
No. The corn we humans eat is called sweet corn, at least around here. The corn used for ETOH is field corn or feed corn. I think it's the same as what our cattle, swine and poultry eat, at least so far. They are already developing special genetically engineered varieties of corn to be used for ETOH production, IIRC.
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Old 03-27-07, 08:46 AM   #10
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I have a technical question I hope somebody can answer:

Do they use only the corn seeds or kernels when they make ethanol? It seems that they could put the leaves into the distillery and burn the stalks and cobs to fuel the process.

(Actually it might be more efficient to just burn the corn kernels to generate electricity, rather than making them into ethanol. Then use the electricity to power plug-in cars.)
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Old 03-27-07, 08:53 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roody
No. The corn we humans eat is called sweet corn, at least around here. The corn used for ETOH is field corn or feed corn. I think it's the same as what our cattle, swine and poultry eat, at least so far. They are already developing special genetically engineered varieties of corn to be used for ETOH production, IIRC.
That is correct, with the other rub being that the land that is being used to grow the ETOH corn is not available for food crop production.

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Old 03-27-07, 09:31 AM   #12
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More importantly, what does this knowledge tell you about our elected officials.
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Old 03-27-07, 09:40 AM   #13
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If the goal is to maintain car culture for a little while longer at any cost, corn ethanol is the obvious thing to do.
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Old 03-27-07, 10:01 AM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roody
I have a technical question I hope somebody can answer:

Do they use only the corn seeds or kernels when they make ethanol? It seems that they could put the leaves into the distillery and burn the stalks and cobs to fuel the process.

(Actually it might be more efficient to just burn the corn kernels to generate electricity, rather than making them into ethanol. Then use the electricity to power plug-in cars.)
plant material other than the seeds isnt usually used because it requires and extra step to break the lignin to release the starches contained within

in some places like brazil they do make use of the "waste" to run the boilers to distill the ethanol and run the operation, but thats with sugar cane which is about 6 times better than corn as a feedstock

so far cellulosic ethanol is a dead end
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Old 03-27-07, 10:51 AM   #15
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But that isn't the case for sugar-cane ethanol or soybean biodiesel from Brazil's newly cleared lands, including tropical forests and savannas. Clearing land releases immense amounts of greenhouse gases into the air, because much of the material in the plants and soil is broken down into carbon dioxide.
Land clearing/burning has always been my biggest concern with biofuels - other than the fact that it's a half-ass answer to start with.
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Old 03-27-07, 11:57 AM   #16
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Hahaha, now that the idea of a hydrogen fuel cell in every car has sputtered out, I suppose they had to find a new "baby" to trumpet as the saviour of car culture.
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Old 03-27-07, 11:58 AM   #17
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Originally Posted by wahoonc
One word DUH!That the only thing that is a sure bet is CONSERVATION! and pass laws to back it up. Aaron
Nope, conservation won't do it. It will help, but without answering the population problem, conservation will only slow things a bit.
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Old 03-27-07, 12:49 PM   #18
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Originally Posted by Artkansas
Nope, conservation won't do it. It will help, but without answering the population problem, conservation will only slow things a bit.
If we were to mandate and enforce reasonable speed limits, and tax people for driving over a certain number of miles a year, tax the crap out of vehicles that get less than a target mileage, etc, etc we would conserve enough fuel to keep us going while we work out the issues. I have seen somewhere that if all incandescent bulbs were replaced with compact fluorescents we would cut our total electric power consumption by over 1/3. Imagine not having to build new power plants...No one says it will be easy or painless, but doing nothing is going to generate the worst results.

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Old 03-27-07, 01:16 PM   #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by wahoonc
If we were to mandate and enforce reasonable speed limits, and tax people for driving over a certain number of miles a year, tax the crap out of vehicles that get less than a target mileage, etc, etc we would conserve enough fuel to keep us going while we work out the issues. I have seen somewhere that if all incandescent bulbs were replaced with compact fluorescents we would cut our total electric power consumption by over 1/3. Imagine not having to build new power plants...No one says it will be easy or painless, but doing nothing is going to generate the worst results.

Aaron
I'm with you on this one. Conservation already has worked in that the growth in demand for energy is far less than what was predicted in the 1960s. However, we're now slipping back and demand is starting to grow at a faster pace. We need to get back to the spirit of the late 1970s--especially turn back thermostats and buy lighter cars (or of course NO cars!). Combining old-fashioned conservation with better technology -- more effective insulation, lightweight building materials, etc -- we very well could see negative growth in consumption without too much sacrifice. And that's taking into account projected increases in population.
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Old 03-27-07, 01:36 PM   #20
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Originally Posted by Artkansas
Nope, conservation won't do it. It will help, but without answering the population problem, conservation will only slow things a bit.
Population is only a temporary problem. The developed world is already into negative population growth, or nearly there. The US would have negative growth if it were not for immigration. Birth rates are declining in many regions of the developing world also. Annual population increments rose rapidly in the first half of the 20th century, but are falling just as rapidly since about the 1960s. The UN predicts that world population, currently over 6 billion, will stabilize at 10 billion in about 150 years. Most long-term predictions are for a slowly declining number of people in the centuries after the 10 billion mark is reached.

That's still a lot of people, and it remains to be seen if those numbers can be sustained for several generations. Obviously we need to be doing much better in terms of conservation, political stability, income equity and development of new technology.
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Old 03-27-07, 02:22 PM   #21
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roody
No. The corn we humans eat is called sweet corn, at least around here. The corn used for ETOH is field corn or feed corn. I think it's the same as what our cattle, swine and poultry eat, at least so far. They are already developing special genetically engineered varieties of corn to be used for ETOH production, IIRC.
Thats what I figured. So eventually 90% of our farmland will be filled with inedible corn, the soil probably poisoned since I'm sure since nobody is eating they really go with the heavy stuff as far as pesticides go.
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Old 03-27-07, 04:52 PM   #22
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Thats what I figured. So eventually 90% of our farmland will be filled with inedible corn, the soil probably poisoned since I'm sure since nobody is eating they really go with the heavy stuff as far as pesticides go.
I'm not a farmer, but I don't think they'll go heavier on pesticides or herbicides as the chemicals are very expensive. But intensive industrial agriculture isn't very good for the land, that's for sure.
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Old 03-27-07, 05:31 PM   #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Roody
I have a technical question I hope somebody can answer:

Do they use only the corn seeds or kernels when they make ethanol? It seems that they could put the leaves into the distillery and burn the stalks and cobs to fuel the process.
From the transcript of the online interview:

Quote:
Bethesda, MD: Dr. Tilman, I've enjoyed reading your papers over the years. You mentioned that in Brazil they burn the remainder of the sugar cane plants to power the ethanol stills. Other than the air pollution problems, is there any reason why they couldn't use the cornstalks instead of oil products to distill corn ethanol?

David Tilman: There are two currently unanswered questions about this matter. First, corn stalks add carbon back to the soil. If they are burned, soil carbon levels will fall, harming soil fertility and increasing the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gasses. Second, corn stalks form a soil surface mulch that help prevent soil erosion, which is a critical part of sustainable agriculture.

As things stand, I think it unwise to remove the stalks and use them for energy.
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Old 03-27-07, 05:42 PM   #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by wahoonc
I have seen somewhere that if all incandescent bulbs were replaced with compact fluorescents we would cut our total electric power consumption by over 1/3. Imagine not having to build new power plants...No one says it will be easy or painless, but doing nothing is going to generate the worst results.

Aaron
I think there is a proposal in the Maryland legislature to end the sale of incandescent bulbs. If it comes about I can just see the cars coming back from North Carolina loaded with cigarettes and, now, light bulbs
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Old 03-27-07, 06:12 PM   #25
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Just 2 points. The light bulb thing is an urban legend. It may be possible to cut residential use by 1/3 (I am not sure if I believe that even) but commercial and industrial use far more power than residential and when they are factored in light bulbs are VERY small potatoes. The corn humans eat is sweet corn, but the corn that is made into corn meal, corn flower, corn oil, pretty much anything except whole kernal corn, is all field corn. The total amout of sweet corn eaten by humans is roughly 5% of total corn production in the U.S., before the ethanhol boom. The price paid to farmers for field corn is up about 50% in 2 years. It is an absolute fact that in 1 or 2 more years (after all the ethanhol plants under construction are on line) that the US will be starving off poorer countries so we can produce fuel.
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