About $6 billion is spent yearly by the U.S. government to subsidize corn ethanol. Around 1700 gallons of water are consumed for every gallon of corn ethanol produced. Corn is the number one cause of soil erosion in the United States and its overdependence on nitrogenous fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides is the prime reason of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet, corn ethanol produces only 1.3 percent of nation’s total oil consumption, which, according to Prof. David Pimentel, entomology, defeats the purpose of energy sustainability.
Thirty years ago, when he was chairman of the Gasohol Panel of the Department of Energy, Pimentel published a study showing that ethanol was economically and environmentally unfeasible. This provoked two congressmen from the Corn Belt, and Pimentel was charged with dishonest interpretation of his research. Accordingly, 26 scientists from the Department of Energy and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) were summoned to verify Pimentel’s results and any possible conflict of interest, respectively. Two years later the GAO issued a report confirming the accuracy of his study.
Subsequently, Pimentel served in other national advisory boards in the life sciences, agriculture and energy. He published over 590 scientific papers and 23 books, many of which highlight his disdain for biofuel.
“All ethanol, I think, is a boondoggle,” Pimentel said, citing that biofuels account for only 1.3 percent of the total oil consumption in the United States, such that if the U.S. directed all of its corn production towards ethanol, it would only satisfy four percent of the nation’s total energy demand.
“Is 1.3 percent of our oil consumption making us oil independent? No way!” He said.
Still, it takes five times more cellulosic material or straw to produce ethanol from switchgrass, a plant whose main advantage, according to Pimentel, is the luxury of not planting seeds yearly. Yet, “there’s not a single [energy] plant in the world making ethanol from switch grass.”
Similarly, sugarcane is yet to be a viable alternative source of energy, he claimed. In Brazil, Pimentel said, oil consumption increased 42 percent in the last 10 years, despite the boom of sugarcane ethanol and the government subsidies that go along with it. Additionally, 100 percent of switchgrass will be needed to produce an equivalent amount of corn ethanol. In fact, for every pound of corn, five pounds of cellulose are needed to produce the same amount of ethanol by volume, he said.
Not only is corn an unreliable energy source, its use as biofuel has also led to scarcity of corn as food, and has raised the price of milk, meat and egg by about 50 percent. Bread prices, on the other hand, increased more than 100 percent since corn became adopted as a fuel source.
Pimentel expressed his strong opposition for using government subsidies to complement the otherwise unaffordable biofuel.
“All subsidies for diesel as well as ethanol should be eliminated,” he added. “It’s ridiculous to subsidize oil and gasoline to encourage you and [me] to drive more,” suggesting that a hypothetical increase in the price of oil from $8 to $10 will most likely reduce road traffic and result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
“Good science cannot compete with big money and politics,” he said. For the record, “politicians are slow learners.”
In 2007, President George Bush signed legislation that stated that by 2020, the U.S. will be using 1.6 billion tons of biomass to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel. According to Pimentel, the nation’s total biomass — food included — does not exceed 2 billion tons, and that utilizing 1.6 billion tons of biomass for energy could claim 80 percent of all crop production.
“This is literally using a lawn mower to go over all of the U.S. to collect [plant] material,” Pimentel said.
“[Obama] is a thousand times better than Bush,” he continued, although, he claimed, Obama’s administration clearly supports a “real loser” — ethanol.
Last week, during a food science graduate students seminar in Stocking Hall, Pimentel was asked if biofuel is neither a viable alternative to petroleum nor worthy of investment, what are the solutions to global climate change?
Conservation is the best approach to sustainability, Pimentel responded. Incidentally, the average American uses 8,000 liters of oil, gas and coal per year, which is twice the consumption rate of the average European.
Another member of the audience followed-up by arguing that government subsidies are meant to encourage scientists to further explore a topic of active research.
“This is the lubricant [that] encourages people to go into research,” he said. “You have to be careful. If you give up, you will fail!”
Robert Williams grad attended the seminar and suggested that the U.S. can only achieve energy independence if future plug-in hybrids are used in concert with biofuels. He added, “It is difficult to idealize complete energy independence in the next 50 years.”