Saturday, April 26, 2008

Ethanol: The Answer or an Illusion?

With the price of oil now well over $100 per barrel and expected to surpass $150 per barrel by year's end, there's a lot of talk about Ethanol, which is most often made from corn. I've heard lots of comments about it, both pro and con. Generally I've been quite skeptical of it.

In favour of Ethanol are people like Robert Zubrin, who wrote Energy Victory, as well as this compelling letter to Mark Steyn. Zubrin seems like a very bright guy so I decided to investigate what it would actually take to convert the entire United States to using Ethanol.

I found this informative article by technology writer, Andrew Kantor. Out of it I pulled these figures:

  • A gallon of ethanol requires 26 pounds of corn.
  • An acre of land can yield 9,400 lbs. per year.
  • The U.S. would require 261 million gallons of Ethanol per day
Then I did the math:

1 sq mile / 640 acres x 1 acre / 9400 lbs x 26 lbs / gal x 261,000,000 gal / day x 365 days / year = 411,717 square miles per year [of required space to grow corn for Ethanol]

Rounding up, that's 412,000 square miles that would have to be entirely devoted to growing corn to meet America's energy needs. I immediately wondered what portion of the U.S. that would encompass. Focusing in on the central farming states, I found this table and compiled the numbers:

State Land Area 75% of Area
(sq. miles) (sq. miles)
Kansas 81,815 61,361
Nebraska 76,872 57,654
Missouri 68,886 51,664
Oklahoma 68,667 51,500
Iowa 55,869 41,902
Illinois 55,584 41,688
Arkansas 52,068 39,051
Tennessee 41,217 30,913
Kentucky 39,728 29,796
Indiana 35,867 26,900

Total: 576,574 432,430

Why only 75% of each state's area, you ask? It's an arbitrary number but I thought it to be a reasonable one to account for non-farming areas, such as cities, towns, and land otherwise unavailable. In some states the non-arable land may be even less but then one has to question whether the corn growing and ethanol conversion figures quoted by Kantor are absolute maximums? Given a dedicated focus on producing ethanol, I have little doubt that together, scientists, engineers, and farmers could come up with innovative ways to produce more Ethanol with less land.

So, if all of these states were to devote themselves to becoming the New Energy Source for the United States, this is what the country would look like:

Impossible, you say? I think not. In fact, given that there's a never ending demand for mobile energy (read "oil" at this time in our history), what on earth would be wrong with entrepreneurial farmers stepping up to the plate to supply that demand?! In fact, it might be just the thing to pull Americans together to work toward a unified cause that would help them both economically and defensively.

In his article, Kantor points out the side-effects of farming in general, but I firmly believe in the ingenuity of man-kind (especially engineers!) to resolve all problems before him. Where there's a will, there's a way. In fact, I rather like the metaphor of these states, in the center of the country, acting much like the heart in a human body, pushing out the industrial blood that is necessary for the country to survive and prosper.

One thing though: All subsidies to farmers should stop asap. While it's clear that producing ethanol is more expensive than the current cost of conventional oil, as the latter keeps on creeping up in price, eventually they will be on par. A forward thinking energy plan would be something akin to John Kennedy's Man on the Moon goal of the 1960's, giving farmers and communities the help they need over the next decade to make the conversion to producing ethanol. After that they'd be on their own, as the rest of us are.

The years ahead are sure to be interesting ones, but I'm optimistic!


Hillary said...

Nice idea, but the first thing that comes to mind is, um, what about all the FOOD these areas supply?

PelaLusa said...

Indeed, over time food production would have to be shifted elsewhere. I was just trying to put hard facts to all the talk about ethanol, so everyone would understand what we (well, the Americans) are truly up against. I think the map alone communicates more than a whole lot of talk does.