From the 19 May 2008 Lockport Union Sun and Journal (Lockport, NY)
 

ALTERNATIVES IN ALTERNATIVE ENERGY
BY BOB CONFER

Itís rare that the federal government will admit that it made a mistake. Usually, the Democrats will blame the Republicans for bad policy and vice versa. Thatís why itís so stunning to see the recent surge in criticism towards ethanol from members of Congress who reside on both sides of the aisle. Many are beginning to believe they jumped the gun with the promotion of this corn-based alternative fuel.

Itís not yet three years since the signing of the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the world is already topsy-turvy because of this legislation. The Act called for incremental increases in the amount of biofuels (mostly ethanol) sold in the United States with 7.5 billion gallons being the goal for 2012. Due to the popularity of the green movement and government-subsidized capitalism run amok, ethanol production exploded out of the gate and 6.5 billion gallons were produced in 2006 with 7.7 billion expected for 2008.

Because of the associated increase in demand for corn, its price has reached truly unfathomable levels. Up until two years ago corn sold for around $2.30 per bushel. Earlier this month it nearly reached $6.40 per bushel. This, in turn, has caused prices to rise at the grocery store. Consumers are shelling out much more for everything made of corn, from goods concocted from corn syrup to the pork and poultry which are raised on corn. Many economists believe that food inflation will exceed 8% this year.

This dire economic situation might only get worse: The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 demands 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022.

Other than cancelling all this legislation (unheard of in federal circles), the only way that the federal government can save face and correct this disaster is by working hand-in-hand with the private sector to develop other forms of biofuel technologies as soon as possible. Two such alternatives can exist in the form of cellulosic ethanol and algae ethanol and oils.

In the case of cellulosic ethanol the fuel is derived from fermentation and distillation of the cellulose (structural material) of plants such as switchgrass and corn. This process makes perfect sense because the corn is being grown anyways for ethanol and food and the five-to-six-foot tall stalks are put to waste. The stalks Ė just like the plants of all consumer fruits and vegetables - could be put to good use. Surprisingly, two-thirds of everything put into landfills could be used as a source of cellulosic ethanol.

This process is not very popular at this time because mass production is not achievable with current technologies. It requires the use of enzymes to break down the cellulose and, unfortunately, these enzymes have to be extracted from microorganisms. But, scientists are working on methods to create a new hassle-free microbe that will be incredibly efficient and can be "manufactured" at the rate needed for widespread use. This has become a very competitive endeavor in biological exploration, one for which British Petroleum alone has donated $500 million to two universities. It is hoped that the federal government follows suit and diverts its subsidization of corn ethanol to the research and development of these sciences at the university level. It could prove to be a real winner.

The other alternative - one that can be used for ethanol and biodiesel Ė is algae. It is currently looked at as a novelty, but nonetheless it has the potential to be the futureís ultimate fuel source. Algae is one of the simplest forms of life and can be grown in the best or worst of waters. In the warmest environments the crop can replicate itself to the point that it can be harvested daily. An acre of algae can produce enough biofuel oil (10,000 gallons per year) that it makes other more-popular choices looks insignificant: Soybean oil yield is 50 gallons per acre per year.

Once again, we are at the leading edge of the learning curve with algae. Many firms are investing countless millions into the development of technologies. The government has been slow to invest, but it may soon change its ways, for, at its own admission, algae is without peer: the Department of Energy says an area one-seventh the size of the USAís current corn crop will yield enough algae to replace all of our petroleum needs.

So, yes, while times are tough now - and probably will be for a decade Ė because of a bad policy decision with ethanol that was "too much too soon", there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Other alternatives exist in alternative fuels and with a little teamwork between the public and private sectors they can be unleashed.

 

 

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