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A Band-Aid Solution?

A Band-Aid Solution?

It’s becoming quite difficult to make sense out of the hype surrounding ethanol.  Ethanol has been touted as the “clean energy of the future.”  But can it live up to this claim?

While the corn lobby groups in North America would like you to believe that this is in fact the case, deeper reflection reveals that ethanol presents significant challenges and concerns.


The Canadian Renewable Fuels Association wants us to believe that farmers and consumers will benefit greatly from crop-derived fuels.  On the surface this makes sense: farmers that grow grains and other crops that can be used to produce ethanol and biodiesel will (in theory) have a stable market and receive better prices for their crops, and consumers will feel better believing that they are contributing to the sustainability of rural economies, that they are purchasing a renewable, locally produced fuel and at the same time doing something beneficial for the environment.

Golly, if only it were that simple!  And, if only the evidence were there to support it.

I fundamentally question the use of the term ‘renewable.’  The definition of renewable is: “Relating to or being a commodity or resource, such as solar energy or firewood, that is inexhaustible or replaceable by new growth.” Yes, corn and other grains can be replaced by new growth, but they are certainly not inexhaustible.  Crop yields are heavily influenced by the weather and are not equal from year to year, and inputs such as fertilizer (which, ironically, is made from petroleum), water and chemicals are necessary.

How truly ‘renewable’ is this?

The above definition also does not take into account energy expenditure. It only holds true if we were to continue consuming the exact same amount of energy or consuming energy within our ‘renewable’ limits, which is something humans have proven incapable of doing.  That’s what got us into this mess in the first place. 

It just doesn’t make sense to me to replace one fuel with another.  No matter how many ethanol plants are built and if the entire North American corn crop is used to make ethanol each year, we’ll still need more than 70 per cent of our fuel to be derived from crude oil to meet our energy demand.

I also question the benefit of ethanol to farmers.  Certainly those producing livestock are at a disadvantage.  The ethanol boom promises to consume a primary feed ingredient and the byproducts – dried distillers grains (DDG) – are a less than suitable alternative and could mean reduced productivity and significantly higher feed costs, which also results in a more expensive product in the grocery store. 

With competition for grains affecting canola, wheat and other grains, it won’t just be meat prices that are affected. Having enjoyed one of the cheapest food supplies in the world, are North American consumers willing to pay the price for alternative fuel?

Searching for new and truly renewable energy sources is obviously necessary and there are many other non-fuel alternatives that have already shown great potential.  Let’s not be so quick to embrace an unproven technology and let’s focus on long-term, rather than band-aid, solutions.

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