Corn Ethanol Is Stupid: 13 Year Old Weighs in on Renewable Energy

Corn grain at a plant that can be made into ethanol or feed.

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Apparently we've reached some sort of tipping point on the issue of corn ethanol as our children are now writing letters to the editor on the subject... Though the nitpickers amongst us will undoubtedly find fault with 13 year old Madeleine Stewart's letter in the Concord Monitor on why "Ethanol is stupid" it certainly hits near the center of the target, if missing the bulls-eye itself.

Perhaps deconstruction of the writing of a barely-teenager is a bit much, but since the only comment on her letter was a quick introduction to the often less-than-civil world of blog commenting I feel the need to come to Madeleine's defense:

We have been polluting our world too much. Naturally, we have tried to do something about it. What we use to create energy is the big problem, so people have tried to come up with a new, renewable energy source that is easily obtained. We have already figured out several non-polluting techniques: wind, water and solar power. But another attempt is not working out so well: ethanol. The problems start at the very beginning.
Most ethanol is made from corn. However, that corn must be supplied in enormous quantities, and corn is used in much food for humans and animals. If we use corn for fuel, more will need to be grown, on huge farms receiving government subsidies. We are paying extra so that our food can be used for fuel.

Saying that most ethanol is made from corn may be overstating it if you include all the other places in the world that produce the biofuel from sugarcane, soybeans, etc., but the rest of the statement is close enough to the mark for a letter to the editor. (And from a middle schooler...)

Madeleine is entirely correct on the way in which corn is generally grown in the United States and on the fact that these farms receive serious government subsidies . She may gloss over the nuances of the food versus fuel debate, but when there is some seriously conflicting data about exactly how much increased biofuel mandates have led to higher food prices, again she's not wildly off the mark.

The corn is grown using chemical fertilizer, which is awful for the environment. Most pesticides are made from petroleum, exactly what ethanol is supposed to be preventing the use of. Also, the machinery on big farms needs massive quantities of gas.

It may be simplistic, but it's not wrong. Madeleine could have probably increased the strength of her argument here by mentioning that with increased the increased fertilizer and pesticide usage common on large industrial agriculture "farms" we're seeing increases in ocean dead zones as these chemicals wash down our rivers.

The next step is even worse. The corn, grown with petrochemicals, must be distilled in factories to become ethanol. These factories need to get their energy from somewhere, and that somewhere is fossil fuels. It takes about nine-tenths of a gallon of fossil fuel to make a gallon of ethanol. Ethanol pollutes the environment about the same amount as if we just used fossil fuel.

This is probably the most contentious paragraph: The argument that fossil fuels are required to make ethanol could be said of every source of renewable energy at the moment, as the infrastructure to do otherwise is currently non-existent because of our entire dependence on fossil fuels. Give it time and willpower and this will shift.

As far as ethanol polluting the environment as much as fossil fuels: This overstates the case. Ethanol has myriad problems, but if it were between corn ethanol and energy from coal, tar sands, or palm oil, I'd pick the corn; and redefine how it was grown and funded.

To add insult to injury, ethanol is not as efficient as fossil fuel. In short, ethanol is stupid. It just doesn't do what it's supposed to do - namely, reduce our carbon footprint. Our government needs to start focusing its attention elsewhere. Wind, water and solar energy could use some boosting.

Madeleine has the makings of a blogger with her proclamation that ethanol is stupid. A good inflammatory statement that catches the eye, if being sensational and simplistic. She's dead on though that US support of ethanol and Big Corn in general needs to be reconsidered. And while we're at it, some more support for more sound sources of renewable energy.

via: Concord Monitor
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