A review-discussion on biofuels. . .
Jefferiss, Paul, "The Energy Harvest," in Nucleus: the Magazine
of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Vol. 17, Number 4,
Corn-to-ethanol and other "power" crops are now claiming
attention for their "environmental" and "sustainable"
prospects. Is this credible? Is this fundamentally any
different from the firewood economy from ancient times?
Jefferis seems to think so. I'm not so sure.
His scenario first offers perennial grasses as well as
tree crops, costing less (management, inputs) than annuals
(corn, sorghum). He then offers micro-algae, grown in water,
as an oil-crop (for biodiesel) with lower cost and management
than soy or sunflowers. He also sees a role for the annual
crops. Converted to liquid or gaseous fuel (through heating,
fermentation, or digestion) these biofuels would yield about
twice the electricity (for example) that would result from
simply burning the dry biomass.
How much of the energy demand could be supplied with such
approaches? Here's Jefferiss:
... Power crops now have the potential to satisfy a
SIGNIFICANT portion of AMERICA'S energy needs, while at
the same time revitalizing RURAL economies, providing
ENERGY INDEPENDENCE and security, and achieving important
environmental benefits. Indeed, farming communities of
the future could very well be entirely self-sufficient
when it comes to energy, using LOCALLY-GROWN crops and
residues to make fuels for their cars and tractors and to
generate heat and electricity for their homes. (MY
Note that total replacement of fossil fuels is not
envisioned; that only America's needs are considered; and that
major impact is only on the rural (American) economy. In
other words, this is a VERY PARTIAL "solution" to global
So how much of the American energy pie can be supplied
with power crops? Jefferiss thinks 200 million acres of
unirrigated cropland could be put in power crops without
displacing food production, yielding biomass that could
satisfy half the US electricity or 2/3 the US gasoline demand.
Overall, counting other forms of energy, I suppose that means
half or less.
Still, this sounds pretty good, even if it applies only to
America. Is it credible? I don't know, but I am skeptical.
If it is not displacing food, is it displacing wilderness, or
Would this benefit American farmers? Jefferiss offers
cheerful optimism. Elsewhere, however, he points out that
"power crops could be grown on a very large scale." Indeed,
they could. Landowners would have no difficulty contracting
an annual harvest of perennial grass, or a tree harvest every
decade or two. But is this farming?
Here's Jefferiss again:
The versatility of power crops provides energy producers
with great flexibility in terms of when, where, and how
to use the resource, allowing them to tailor their
operations precisely to the power or transportation needs
of the local community. In some cases, farmers may even
choose to convert power crops to energy themselves....
Either way, because power crops create jobs locally in
every sector from agriculture to energy production, they
have the potential to boost the economies of whole
communities, especially in the rural areas.
Are we talking the same language? Is it "versatile"
and "flexible" to establish large plantations of trees and
other perennial "power-crops"? Once committed, the farmer has
little control over "where, when and how to use the resource."
Is Jefferiss serious about the prospect of energy
production for home use? He seems to doubt it himself. With
good reason, I think. A farmer seriously interested in
producing his own energy requirements at home is already heating
with wood, grazing, composting, and perhaps even using draft
The more typical farmer would plan to sell the power crop
in the market and buy energy from the gas station or utility
company. From his crop proceeds, this typical farmer/landowner
will end up paying a few temporary employes, seasonally, for
harvesting and, occasionally, for replanting. This typical
farmer, in short, will be an agribusinessman.
A balance in subsidies in favor of "food crops and fossil
fuels" is responsible for inhibiting the development of
biomass fuels, says Jefferiss.
Well, what shall we do, then? Shall we subsidize
development of biofuels, jack up the price of food, and tax
the fossil resources? Well, yes, but no and no! The last two
are politically unfeasible, so let's just do the first thing!
We can then say we are addressing the whole problem.
But we are not.
I think the biofuels discussion is a RED HERRING, a
smelly bait dragged across our path which diverts us from
pursuing the whole solution that is required. In this way,
croplands will pass from wilderness and food production to
fuel production. Unlike food, energy is what economists call
an "elastic" good; people will use more if it is cheap, but will
resist cutting back when its price goes up. Total fuel use will
spiral upward even as consumption is concentrated by a dwindling
percentage of increasingly rich and isolated global mega-
consumers. The people with money will readily out-bid ordinary
people. And among these future consumers, Americans will lose
their privileged place.
However high-minded and sincere, biofuels threaten
disaster in the world of business-as-usual.
That's my $.02. on the subject. JL
* * * *
This Friday, at noon, at WVU's Agricultural Sciences
Building Room 1011, the Agroecology Bag Lunch will address the
Energy from Biomass: how will crop production for energy
affect crop production for food.
John Lozier, Ph. D.
Adjunct Associate Professor of Agricultural Education
College of Agriculture and Forestry
West Virginia University
Morgantown, WV 26506-6108
***// / Harping for Harmony
\/// / John Lozier, Cultural Anthropologist
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