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The Declining Grasslands


I’ve long been skeptical of biofuels as a meaningful way out of our energy crisis, especially considering that turning corn into fuel causes a whole lot of environmental problems of its own.

Another big problem with biofuels is turning much of the United States into a gigantic corn monoculture. The rush to plant corn (and soy) on every acre of ground has meant the most intensive farming of our grasslands yet, leading to the decline of those already too rare ecosystems and crashing bird populations. But hey, biofuels makes the Iowa corn industry happy and so it’s not going anywhere.

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  • ploeg

    You don’t need corn to produce ethanol, it’s just that the subsidies are wired that way.

    • ploeg

      And just to make a further point, even if the production of fuel were efficient, the internal combustion engine is a notoriously inefficient technology and cannot be made significantly more efficient than it is. At best, ethanol buys us time to develop an alternative energy infrastructure.

      • LeftWingFox

        It might also serve as a precursor to sugar-based fuel cell technology. Less processing and energy required, same energy density, electrical engine efficiency.

    • William Berry

      Very much, this. If Obama had any real balls and any real desire to demonstrate that he is not a lackey of the power elites (in this connection, think ADM, rich Iowa/ Nebraska/ Missouri ag lobby, oil companies, etc.), he would be hammering away at the ethanol fuel-pump subsidy and the oil-depletion allowance, among other things. Brazilians make ethanol from the cellulose waste of ag ops (mostly sugar cane, I think, but why not wheat, corn, other chaff, here?). We could do the same. But we won’t, because that would interrupt the transfer of wealth from ordinary Americans into the pockets of the rich, and the donors and lobbyists who represent them in D.C.

      • asdfsdf

        South American sugar-cane sourced ethanol is very different from cellulosic ethanol. I don’t know if the Brazilians have found a way to use just the cellulose in sugar cane (the example I found is a small research facility that is yet to be constructed), but sugar-cane sourced ethanol is a very very efficient process, dependent only on climate. Sugar cane ethanol beats gasoline for price, unlike corn-based ethanol, which is such an inefficient process that it causes an increase in fossil fuel use.

        Sugarcane ethanol is sugar into alcohol, while Cellulosic ethanol is a complex polymer into alcohol. It’s one of the two holy grails of biofuel, with all the challenge inherent.

        That’s why.

  • David Hunt

    According to a friend of mine with an Agricultural Engineering degree, you could not produce enough biofuel to replace gasoline in the U.S. if you turned every square foot of arable land to that purpose. This includes all land that is currently producing food.

    Goodness, I wish there was more money in research for better batteries.

    • ploeg

      That’s the case with corn, because if you consider the energy that it takes to produce corn (planting, harvesting, spraying chemicals to kill various pests), you get slightly more energy from the corn ethanol than it took to produce the corn. Years ago, it used to be the exact same energy.

      This stands to reason, in that corn in its current form is an entirely unnatural plant. If humans were not around to cultivate corn, corn would cease to exist within a few decades. Whereas switchgrass grows despite our constant efforts to kill it off.

  • Derelict

    Biofuels are catastrophically bad choices for energy production. In the Northeast, the current fave wave is wood-fired powerplants. Proponents (read “investors”) say such plants are simply GREAT!!11!1! because they use renewable fuel! They refuse to even discuss the idea that you’re taking carbon that’s been bound up in the trees and releasing it back into the atmosphere while simultaneously destroying the organisms that most efficiently soak up atmospheric carbon dioxide.

    Ethanol is a hideously bad fuel. But, this being America, there is no idea too stupid for us to not pursue to its appointed bitter end.

    • JustRuss

      Also too, trees don’t grow all that fast. Case in point, Oregon’s booming timber industry. Which disintegrated 3 decades ago, and still hasn’t recovered.

      I’m not sure that biofuels are a dead end, supposedly algae has real potential. But corn and wood are a cruel joke.

      • The idea that trees are a renewable resource is one that constantly needs to be fought back. Trees are a semi-renewable resource and that’s a big difference, especially considering a 50-70 year cycle between crops (if we agree to think of timber as a crop to begin with) and our nation’s noted lack of long-term resource or economic planning.

        • cpinva

          you are assuming hardwoods,

          “The idea that trees are a renewable resource is one that constantly needs to be fought back.”

          and this is not what the timber industry actually re-plants. that would be pine, which doesn’t require more than a 10-20 year growth-to-harvest cycle. pine is the “every wood” of the timber industry, used for home construction and mass produced furniture alike. it may be different in the northwest, but here in the southeast, southern pine is the “go to” tree.

          • tomsk

            Most sensible wood biofuel proposals involve using fast-growing trees like willow or poplar or something, cultivated in short-rotation coppice. You let them grow 5-7 years or so, then you mow them down and let them resprout. Next year you do the same to the next coup along. In this case, trees are a perfectly sustainable energy source, not unlike switchgrass or other viable biomass fuels. If you’re cutting down mature forest trees and burning them on a large scale for energy, you’re obviously doing it wrong. It’s unlikely to scale up that much, of course, but I don’t see much reason it won’t work as part of the mix.

  • Jameson Quinn

    Agrofuel (don’t call it biofuel) is pointless unless you can do it with cellulose. Since that tech isn’t going to be running at scale in the next 15-20 years, we have to stop using internal combustion to move ourselves around before it becomes a factor.

  • jon

    It’s flat out wrong to turn food into motor fuel. It’s bad physics, bad economics, bad land use policy, and bad foreign policy. Not only do we squeeze food production, but we also encourage the plowing of marginal, fragile, and environmentally sensitive lands, which can exacerbate flooding, soil erosion, extinction, pollution, and a few other things.

    Increased price of corn has doubled the price of tortillas in Mexico. Palm oil plantations are creating enormous problems in SE Asia.

    The kicker to all of this, is that it requires almost as much petroleum inputs to plow and harvest, make fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide and fungicides, and pump irrigation water, as you get from the pipe at the ethanol plant.

    • Palm oil plantations are an abomination.

      • jon

        Estuaries and ecotones are where the biological action is. And they’re the absolutely worst place for industrial monoculture.

  • DocAmazing

    As Bruce Sterling put it, we need to advance to the point where burning things to make energy is looked on the same way that conjuring spirits now is.

    • Don’t underestimate the share of the population that still believes in conjuring spirits. Start with the audiences for Ghost Hunter shows, John Edwards-style psychics, horoscope readers, exorcist believers (a shocking swath of the Republican party right there), “penny from heaven” saps….

  • JL

    What about algae? It’s not corn, it’s not normally a food crop, it can be grown in not-particularly-hospitable places. It does release carbon, but it also absorbs carbon.

    • jon

      Algae is interesting, but I think it has many fundamental problems. Many clever people are working a lot of the angles, so it may become quite interesting.

      The first issue is where do you grow it. Most ponds and lagoons already have ecological functions underway, and algae production may be environmentally degrading. Algae generally take a lot of space to produce appreciable mass, and they only thrive in upper layers of the water column, where they receive more light. Photosynthesis has about a one percent efficiency rate, which is pretty lossy. By contrast, photovoltaic panels are getting up around a twenty percent conversion rate.

      Once you’ve grown your algae, you have to harvest it, dewater it, and convert it into a fuel feedstock. All these things take effort, energy and investment. Much like many of the fascinating explorations of high rise farms, algae fuel production may run up upon the shoals of plant and labor cost, relative to the low density of production.

      • cpinva

        i just read an article recently, about a new method, that has nearly doubled that conversion rate. these are currently being produced for use by soldiers in the field, but i’ve no doubt they’ll soon be our for commerical applications.

        “By contrast, photovoltaic panels are getting up around a twenty percent conversion rate.”

        i am convinced solar is the way to go, even more so than wind; solar panels can be put on the roofs of pretty much every building in the country, planting a windmill in your back yard is a tad more problematic.

  • Thomas Ware

    The potential of a Dust Bowl rivaling that of the thirties in our lifetimes (and I doubt I have as much time left as you) is not at all unlikely.

  • DrDick

    It is also sucking the Oglala Aquifer dry.

    • jon

      C’mon, we’ll just frack our way to some other fossil water, laid down a little lower a few million years ago.

      • Linnaeus

        Moving back to the Great Lakes is looking like a not-so-bad option, although they’re suffering too. Lowest levels since the 1960s.

  • Steve

    The algae-based biodiesel and conversion of waste paper to butanol by bacteria seem somewhat more promising. At least we’re not turning food into fuel.

  • stickler

    Switchgrass, switchgrass, switchgrass. At the very least, you don’t have to till the soil very much or at all, so far as I know. Plus, growing crops from the grass family on grassland seems to me to be a lot less troublesome than growing maize on said same ground.

    But, as noted above, subsidies ain’t wired to switchgrass.


    • elk

      Converting grasslands to one crop instead of another does not address the problem of disappearing grasslands. Once you start haying it, it’s no longer grassland.

  • Bob Munck

    Note that the coal, oil, and gas that we find underground are also biofuel. It was all plant life originally, storing energy from the sun. Of course it grew over hundreds of millions of years and square miles, not a single growing season and a few thousand acres.

    The sun delivers about 8,000 times as much energy to the Earth’s surface as we use. If we could capture all of the energy falling on a square 150 miles on a side, it would meet all our needs. Obviously we have no way to gather energy that efficiently, not even close. Growing corn and soy seems to be particularly inefficient, but that shouldn’t rule out the approach of growing plants in general.

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