A Problematic Solution

Carolyn Whipple

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The world is being assaulted with mixed messages about biofuels, in particular, ethanol.  In our discussion, we talked about the pros and cons to ethanol production, and if they are actually a viable substitute for fossil fuels.  We looked at the facts: swaths of rainforest are being destroyed to grow crops for ethanol (often cutting down plants that absorb far more carbon dioxide than the crops that replaces them will); land that was once used for the growing of food (already a strained supply) are now being used for ethanol production; the production of ethanol emits huge amounts of carbon dioxide; production of ethanol is far more expensive, and the fuel that results is far less efficient than crude oil.  We concluded that biofuels are inappropriately named.  Ethanols from corn, sugarcane, soy, and switchgrass are not at all “clean energy.” 

            We discussed the newer technologies, and what merit that had, if any, and determined that until technology advances enough to make the production of ethanol cleaner and cheaper, then fuels like cellulosic ethanol are not “clean energy,” and even when/if these technologies come around, the result will be even more rainforest destruction and misuse of cropland.  We also talked about fuels made from algae, and determined that this could possibly be a viable solution if the technology became cheaper.  

We also discussed the reasons behind the ethanol boom.  Government subsidies, the current administration’s fervent support for it, and a lack of resistance (perhaps even support) from the public, and a lack of resistance from the peoples who live in the rainforests and other threatened areas (for economic reasons) have all contributed to the success of ethanol. 

            Brainstorming ways to inform the public of the evils of ethanol, we talked about better media coverage, more transparency in advertising, and more transparency about the basic facts about ethanol production.  We all came to a basic agreement that new types of fuels are not really the answer to our energy crisis, but that moderation (less driving, energy conservation) are the real solution.  Ethanol is a tech fix, and not even a better solution than fossil fuels. 



Barrionuevo, Alexei.  “Springtime for Ethanol”.  New York Times.  January 23, 2007.

Bourne, Joel K.  “Green Dreams: Making fuel from crops could be good for the planet – after a breakthrough or two”.  National Geographic Magazine. Washington D.C.  October 2007.

Bullis, Kevin. "Will Cellulosic Ethanol Take Off?" Technology Review. Massacusetts Institute of Technology.

Grunwald, Michael.  “The Clean Energy Scam”.  Time Magazine.  April 7, 2008.

Rosenthal, Elizabeth. “Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat”. New York Times. February 8, 2008.

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last updated 5/1/08