Ethanol fuels derived from corn do not provide a long-term solution to the energy dilemma we face today, a prominent energy author said recently at Westminster College.
“Corn-based ethanol is not the answer,” said Paul Roberts, author of The End of Oil, answering a question from the audience after delivering the lecture on Sept. 26.
Roberts said corn-based ethanol is too expensive to produce, takes more energy than it gives and drives the cost of food upward. He suggested that although ethanol produced from sugarcane is more economical, the United States does not produce enough of its own sugarcane. Therefore, America would have to import it, eliminating self-sufficiency. Ethanol derived from agricultural waste is also promising, but taking too much waste from the soil would rob it of nutrients necessary to produce future crops.
Roberts did not address the possibility of ethanol from crops grown solely for energy, such as switchgrass.
During his lecture, Roberts recounted an incident in which he tried to rent a car late one evening before a speech at an EPA-sponsored conference on energy efficiency. The only available vehicle was a Dodge Durango.
The irony of the situation was not lost on Roberts.
“When I asked if there was anything smaller, he gave me a look as if to say ‘Why do you hate freedom?’” Roberts said the incident reaffirmed the challenge involved in changing the way Americans think about and use energy.
Roberts said Americans have attached themselves to a “faith-based energy policy” rooted in past experience, believing that market forces will eventually solve the problem of high prices because they have always done so in the past. However, Roberts says this belief is unrealistic because of changes in the world economy and because cheap oil will not return anytime soon.
“As a culture, we have spent decades deluding ourselves about the energy problem,” he said. “Our solutions have been surface solutions. We need fundamentally different solutions.”
In the face of a finite oil supply, China’s industries are growing at lightning speed, competing for oil resources with the United States, Japan and Europe, so that “there is no slack in the system,” he said. At the same time most of the main suppliers of oil are politically unstable and recent events have made it clear the United States no longer has the power to maintain a stable flow of oil. It cannot count on countries such as Venezuela, Nigeria, Iraq or even Russia to maintain a constant supply.
“If civil war comes to Saudi Arabia, ‘the game is over,’” he said.
However, in spite of the difficulties facing Americans over energy supply and use, Roberts ended his lecture on a positive note, saying that people are beginning to see opportunity in the challenge.
“In rebuilding the energy economy, we can rebuild the entire economy,” he said. “And we can regain community, which we may have lost.”
The lecture, “Depletion and Denial,” was given under the auspices of the college’s annual IBM Lecture Series as part of a college symposium on environmental sustainability.