Growing Fuel

The development of alternative energy and biofuels in Central New York has garnered alot of attention lately. Of course anything to spark our lagging regional economy is met with excitement, but these trends obviously extend globally.

Bush’s Latin American tour for instance turned a spotlight on biofuels as a new ethanol development pact was made with Brazil on Friday.

Bush and Brazilian President said increasing alternative fuel use will lead to more jobs, a cleaner environment and greater independence from the oil market. (Bush to Sign Ethanol Fuel Pact in Brazil: Toronto Daily News)

The question becomes, what does this mean for domestic ethanol development?

The Economists has a good short article or some additional background on Brazil’s ethanol boom and Bush’s “Ethanol diplomacy”.

The United States, for its part, has several reasons to encourage ethanol production in Latin America….it will need seven times more of the stuff than it currently produces to meet Mr Bush’s 35 billion-gallon target. There simply is not enough spare land in America to grow adequate feedstock for such an amount, unless scientists find a way to make ethanol cheaply from abundant materials such as wood or grass. Although Mr Bush’s ultimate goal is energy independence, he would presumably prefer to be dependent on ethanol from friendly countries such as Brazil and Colombia than on oil from hostile places like Iran and Venezuela.

Of course not everyone is happy with this strategy. The National Farmers Union, for example, sees the ethanol pact as “the wrong step in the wrong direction at the wrong time” as a result of the negative impacts on farms involved with ethanol production here in the U.S.

The growing demand for ethanol will liekly have other agricultural impacts down the line as well.

There are many more issues here to discuss; but the basic economics of ethanol development is essential to understanding the problems. To this end I would strongly recommend listening to this audio story from the Economist:

You get about 14 times as much energy out as you put in, and you can grow trees on marginal land that is not agricultural land…There would be all sorts of benefits, both environmentally and from the energy-balance point of view.

This is driving force behind the research at SUNY-ESF.

But will the ESF Willows really be enough? As important as this research is, it will be a drop in the bucket of the US energy balance. And the drive to produce more ethanol globally may have far-reaching consequences that need to be considered carefully.

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