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The Elbert Files: Cornography and ethanol


A recent blog by University of Iowa hydrologist Christopher S. Jones is titled: “Iowa is addicted to Cornography.”

The blog appeared days before the National Academy of Sciences published a new study that shows ethanol is not a clean fuel. “Production of corn-based ethanol in the United States has failed to meet … greenhouse gas emission targets and negatively affected water quality, … land used for conservation and other ecosystems,” the study said.

But Jones already knew that. He wrote that ethanol manufacturing “comes at a high environmental cost: soil erosion, nutrient pollution, degraded streams, lakes and drinking water, habitat loss. …”

Clearly, Jones is not a fan of ethanol. Who among us would be, if we fully understood the cost of producing the fuel and that those same resources could be put to better uses?

Ethanol, Jones wrote, has turned farmers into single-minded producers who are oblivious to the cost to Iowa’s soil and water quality. 

Ethanol, he continued, “is causing Iowa politicians, many of whom identify as farmers, to … start suggesting really, really stupid stuff,” such as forcing “all filling stations in Iowa to provide E-15, gasoline blended with ethanol at an 85:15 ratio, above the typical 90:10 blend.” 

The purpose of the proposed legislation is to boost ethanol sales by requiring Iowa filling stations to sell fuels with higher concentrations of corn-based alcohol.  

It’s a bad idea with bipartisan support, Jones noted.

“Lest you think I’m being partisan here, there are many moronic Democrats in the legislature only too eager to vote for this,” he wrote.

What really irritates the UI scientist is the futility of ethanol at this point in the fuel’s life cycle. 

Grain alcohol has been used as fuel since the invention of the automobile, although it fell out of favor in the early 1900s when producers discovered they could refine oil into gasoline that delivers far more energy.

Consumers gave grain-based fuels a second try after the Arab oil embargoes of the 1970s cut into supplies and produced long lines at gas pumps. 

With incentives from governments, ethanol gained market share through the 1980s and ’90s. By the turn of the century, ethanol was firmly planted in consumers’ minds as a cleaner, lower-cost alternative to gasoline, although we now learn it may not be as clean as we thought. 

In any case, both gasoline and ethanol are being overtaken by electric power as a more environmentally friendly source of power for cars and trucks. (Not to mention that electric engines have far fewer moving parts, making them more dependable and easier to fix than internal combustion engines.)

Electric vehicles were slow to catch on but are now cutting into the U.S. market with demand expected to grow. 

At this point, only a fool, or maybe a communist, would require that free-will consumers buy more ethanol in the form of E15.

Rather than continuing to prop up a failing market, Jones suggests Iowa farmers get into the electricity game with solar panels. 

“Solar power does not have to displace Iowa agriculture,” Jones wrote. “Solar can co-exist and comingle with all sorts of food production in ways that can and will make Iowa agriculture more prosperous.”

He noted that an acre of corn converted to ethanol produces 20 million BTUs of energy, but explained that the math behind a 21-acre solar farm near Dubuque is more impressive. The solar farm produces 200,000 kilowatt hours of energy per acre per year, which multiplied by 3,412 kilowatt hours per BTU amounts to 682 million BTUs per acre. 

In other words, the solar farm produces more than 34 times as much energy as a field of corn used to make ethanol. 

Jones concluded with a suggestion for older Iowa farmers.

Instead of sitting around “reading cornography put out by enablers that tell them they are victims of some grand conspiracy,” he said, farmers should make way for “young and creative people that want to farm and who want to make Iowa a better and cleaner place.” 

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