Strib editorial from today!
Editorial: Making biofuels from biodiversity
Minnesota researchers look well beyond corn ethanol.
Published: December 13, 2006
Imagine what the world might be like if petroleum had never become our motor fuel of choice -- if, instead, we powered our cars and trucks with plant-derived alcohols, as Henry Ford imagined, or vegetable oils, like those Rudolf Diesel used in his prototypes.
Poof! Gone are global alliances built upon, and distorted by, the flow of oil. Gone is the infrastructure, and expense, required to gather fuels from concentrated reserves and disperse them around the globe. Gone are the choking clouds of urban smog, as well as the globe-warming blanket of gases unleashed from millennia of fossilized carbon.
This kind of world is the ultimate promise of renewable energy, but the early stages have been confounded by their own problems. For example, corn-derived ethanol's potential is undermined by objections to production subsidies, the morality of burning grain in a hungry world, and the environmental impacts of extending today's agricultural practices across vast new acreage.
All of which makes new findings from the University of Minnesota's Cedar Creek research station so encouraging:
• Land planted with a mix of grasses and prairie plants that many an urbanite might mistake for random weeds, can yield as much as 238 percent more bioenergy per acre than land planted with a single species.
• Such plant mixes are well-suited to acreage whose poor soil quality or topography makes it useless for other agriculture -- and they require far less fertilizer, pesticides, irrigation water and labor than typical crops. Indeed, test plots at Cedar Creek required virtually none of these "inputs" after plant cover was established.
• Compared to today's main biofuel crops (corn, soybeans, sugar cane) or even the new "cellulosic ethanol" contenders (switchgrass) -- these "low-input, high-diversity" plantings also provide excellent wildlife habitat.
• Because of their deep root systems, these mixed plantings captured up to 14 times as much carbon below ground as would be released in burning fuels made from their aboveground biomass.
Cedar Creek is focused on ecological research, so this study's emphasis on the benefits of biodiversity is not surprising. But economic analysis also played a big role in the new study, and in some eye-popping projections.
For example, the researchers calculated that the world's degraded and abandoned farmlands, if managed along the lines of the Cedar Creek experiments, could stoke enough synthethic-fuel plants to provide about 13 percent of the world's motor fuels and 19 percent of its electricity.
By displacing fossil fuels, they calculated, those plants would eliminate about 15 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions -- in addition to carbon they capture.
Thinking beyond the current debates over renewable energy, which tend to a short-term focus on price and practicality, the researchers invite consideration of a future in which world demand for both food and fuel will double in the next 50 years.
Which makes you wonder: When those times arrive, will relying on corn seem much wiser than the long-ago decision to fill our tanks with petroleum products?
The Governor came out with a bold statement yesterday about MN leading the nation to energy independence. In many respects, it was the Governor getting ahead of the DFL swarm on the issues and plant himself at the doorstep of the issue, by going their first, positioning himself for greater future gains.
Embracing a holistic energy plan is needed. We simply cannot rely upon corn, coal, hyrdo, wind, nuclear, etc. We need the infrastructure in place to build upon. While the petroleum industry maintains a stranglehold on the energy industry and lobby, grassroots organizing on these issues will be vital to our future successes.