Bio Mass, still makes sense after all those years…

Even the few of you that actually know me probably didn’t know that at one point I was the Public Speaking winner at my state’s FFA (still Future Farmers of America, then) convention, back in the early, EARLY 80s. That contest is a “prepared speech” contest, and for that speech, I chose to talk about the two major crises facing our nation: parity for farmers, and the continuing energy crisis. It appeared to me, as a young high school kid, that a farmer’s cooperative could work towards a grain for oil deal. But beyond that, I wrote how a shift towards “biomass” energy would actually remove the oil-baron middlemen, and rather than “grow to trade”, this would allow the farmers to essentially “grow to fuel.”

The past few years have seen an increase in the attention given to biomass as a fuel source. You all may recognize this a little better as the “ethanol from corn” movement, among others. Of course, there is the first criticism–we need food for people, not to run automobiles. Or to put another way “are we Americans so self-absorbed that we want to take food off the plates of people, and burn it in our cars?” Somewhat inflammatory, but that is generally the way the argument is formulated. Of course, in his book “Omnivore’s Dilemma” Michael Pollan points out that corn really isn’t all that good for people, either.

Additionally, there have been ongoing debates over whether we actually get enough energy out of corn and other crops. In fact, a controversial Cornell University study determined:

Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

Did I mention it was controversial? Well, this week Scientific American reports that switchgrass is a better choice than corn for ethanol, and goes on to report that:

But yields from a grass that only needs to be planted once would deliver an average of 13.1 megajoules of energy as ethanol for every megajoule of petroleum consumed—in the form of nitrogen fertilizers or diesel for tractors—growing them […] This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.

So I am brought again to the views of my youth. We can take back our energy independence. We can have an affordable, cleaner-burner (although not “clean burning”) fuel source. And we can breath life once again into the backbone of America, the family farmer.