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Frederick: Fuel for thought: Why ethanol should help power South Carolina

Monday, February 23, 2015 12:49 PM | Deleted user

Frederick: Fuel for thought: Why ethanol should help power South Carolina

Guest ColumnistFebruary 20, 2015

 — There are no oil wells in South Carolina. Nor are there any coal mines. So if we don’t want to reduce our energy dependence, we have to rely on hydroelectricity and wind and solar power and — imagine this — growing our own energy.

Biofuels can be an important piece of South Carolina’s energy future. But that won’t happen as long as critics obscure the facts to undermine public support. Bad information about the costs and worth of biofuels leads to bad decision-making that can impact the lives of South Carolinians who buy fuel to power their cars, their homes and their businesses. It’s also bad for our farmers, the environment and, in the long run, our food security.

Biofuels are made from plants grown for fuel, such as those raised for making ethanol, or else they are leftovers from crop and timber harvests. Yet even as technology advances are bringing down the costs and streamlining the process of converting plants into energy, biofuel is being downplayed, even dismissed, by critics. Recently, the World Resources Institute issued a report that says federal and state governments are misguided in their support for biofuels as an alternative energy source. As evidence, it reports that ethanol has replaced less than 10 percent of the gasoline consumed in the United States and says that the ethanol production has removed a food source for humans and livestock. Both claims are misleading.

By law, ethanol can be mixed with gasoline only up to a 10 percent blend (soon to be increased to 15 percent for newer cars). And there are no laws mandating that gasoline must be mixed with ethanol. Thus, it stands to reason that the maximum amount of gasoline that could be replaced with ethanol would be less than 10 percent. This is a good first step.

As for blaming high food prices on ethanol, while about 40 percent of the U.S. corn crop is grown to produce biofuels, only about a third of that amount is actually converted to ethanol. The rest ends up as a high-value feed for livestock and as carbon dioxide, which can be used for industrial purposes, such as carbonation for soft drinks. Clearly, a much smaller portion of the nation’s corn crop is converted to biofuels than critics would have us believe.

Critics also say using corn for ethanol increases the price of corn and thus the cost of food. In fact, the corn itself accounts for less than a fifth of the cost of food sold at grocery stores and restaurants. Most of the cost is due to the processing, packaging, transportation, distribution, retailing and marketing of the food product. Increasing biofuel production actually has the potential to lower food costs by providing less expensive energy for processing and distributing food.

Without the biofuel market for corn, there would be an oversupply that would drive corn prices down. The price that farmers are receiving for corn — about $3.60 per bushel as of this writing — is about half what it was two years ago and below the level the federal government has determined needed by farmers to profitably produce the crop.

Almost all professionals in the biofuel industry realize that using more corn to make biofuels will not be sustainable. Most agree making ethanol from vegetative material makes more economic and environmental sense than using corn grain. If done correctly, growing biofuel crops can also be better for the environment than producing many of our traditional crops.

Potential plant material for making biofuels includes leaves and stalks left on the ground after harvesting grain crops, waste wood from harvesting trees or from the lumber mills, or special trees and native grasses grown on marginal soils not suitable for food-crop production. Hence, there will not be widespread production of biofuel crops on fertile food-crop land, as critics contend. There are a lot of opportunities on the horizon with new biofuel technologies and production systems.

South Carolina’s future energy portfolio should be diverse to include all the opportunities associated with solar, biomass, offshore wind, water and nuclear energies. Diversity is a good strategy for spreading out risks by not depending on a single solution. Becoming an energy-wise state begins with having the facts that will guide — not misguide — us.

Dr. Frederick is a Clemson profession who has been researching food crop production for more than two decades and studying how to sustainably produce biofuel crops since 2007. He is stationed at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence; contact him at jfrdrck@clemson.edu.

Read more here: http://www.thestate.com/2015/02/20/3998175_frederick-fuel-for-thought-why.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

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