Corn Hole?

This week's paper version of Unfair Park examines the infatuation some Dallas entrepreneurs have with renewable fuels--go-go juices like corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel. It's a warm, fuzzy feel-good article; you know, fuels grown in the heartland by American farmers who by all accounts have much finer dispositions than either the Saudis and their rambunctious Wahhabis or that cuddly Hugo Chavez. Renewable fuels are allegedly "carbon neutral," meaning they don't load us up with those nasty atmospheric carbs that get pious greenies like Al Gore all worked up in a PowerPoint lather. President Bush, in his effort to help us curb our "oil addiction," has mandated 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuels be sluiced into the nation's gasoline supply by 2012.

But are renewables such as ethanol all they're cracked up to be? Maybe not. Ethanol from corn is a resource intensive process, one that yields relatively small energy gains compared to the energy used to produce it. Vehicles running on ethanol suffer a near 30 percent penalty in fuel mileage, which can mean the difference between 21 miles per gallon on gasoline and 15 miles per gallon on ethanol. Plus ethanol is more expensive than gasoline, hence the portfolio of subsidies and tax breaks it reins in.

But there's a more compelling drawback to the renewable fuel equation: land.

According to the National Resources Defense Council, to replace our projected vehicle fuel demands by 2050 would require 1.75 billion acres be planted to renewable fuel crops—that's against 1.9 billion acres in entire lower 48 states. That's why the NRDC proposes we make up the difference via huge advances in vehicle efficiency.

But this is another delusion divorced from reality. According to the Department of Energy, annual per capita energy consumption was actually slightly higher in 2005 than it was in 1970: 337 million Btu (British thermal units) versus 334 million Btu (per capita transportation sector petroleum consumption has actually increased markedly). The data show energy consumption levels have remained relatively constant over the past 35 years--this, despite enormous efficiency gains in everything from power generation to vehicle engines to home appliances and electronics.

The reason? Consumers apparently leverage efficiency gains not toward energy savings, but toward higher standards of living. More efficient engines translate into heavier vehicles traveling more miles with more power and safety and convenience features. More efficient aircraft and jet engine designs mean more people fly more often to more places at greater distances while demanding fresh sushi in Omaha. More efficient AC power supplies and batteries, and computer processors mean iPods, cell phones, digital cameras, massive televisions and computers proliferate in millions of homes--many plugged into the Internet, itself a vast network of computer server farms that each gobbles enough energy to feed a small city. In short, if we want to avert an alleged global warming cataclysm, we'll not only have to cut back on driving, we'll have to cut back on blogging too. Fill 'er up. --Mark Stuertz