Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias I must admit that from time to time I fail to consider that things can change dramatically over time.

To fully let you know exactly what I'm talking about, I have to back up a bit. And I warn you. We are about to enter a gray, fuzzy area.

Tucked somewhere back in my subconscious was this notion that ethanol isn't the answer to our energy/farm market/environment, etc. problems.

This opinion grabbed a foothold in my mind, I believe, after I read a magazine article years ago that claimed ethanol wasn't the answer to our energy woes because it takes more energy to produce, for example, a gallon of ethanol than the energy that, in turn, that gallon of ethanol will produce. Simply put, is more energy used to grow and process the raw material into ethanol than is contained in the ethanol itself?

I've been operating under the premise the past decade that ethanol isn't the boon that everyone � from farmers to politicians � claim it is.

After undergoing my weekly, regularly-scheduled shock treatment (filling my gas tank and emptying my wallet) I decided to do some research on the Internet.

Pass the crow and the ketchup. I'm forced to partake of this less than pleasant dining experience after discovering that I've been wrong all of these years.

I ran across a hefty piece of research written in 1995 by David Lorenz and David Morris. Their findings: we come out ahead, energy-wise, when we produce ethanol.

For example, if an average efficiency corn farm provided the feedstock for the most efficient ethanol plant, the entire process would use 27,134 BTUs in the growing of corn plus 37,883 BTUs for the processing into various products for a total of 65,017 BTUs.

I'll admit this research is a bit above my head. One of the elements factored into the calculations is a co-product credit. I have no idea what a co-product credit is, but in the example cited above, it totals 27,579 BTUs.

So to summarize this scenario, the total energy output would be 111,679 BTUs and the net energy increase is 46,662 BTUs.

In this case the energy output/input ratio comes to 1.72.

Other scenarios were explored by the researchers five years ago. They explored the energetics of ethanol based on the current energy efficiency of corn farming and ethanol production five years ago.

Assuming the national average for energy used in growing corn and for energy used in the manufacturing of ethanol, about 36,732 more BTUs, or 38 percent more energy is contained in the ethanol and other products produced in the corn processing facility than is used to grow the corn and make the products. In other words, the net energy ratio is 1.38:1.

The researchers then explored efficiencies involved based on the assumption that the corn is grown in a state with the most efficient corn farmers and the ethanol is made in the most energy efficient existing ethanol production facility. In this case, over two BTUs of energy are produced for every one BTU of energy used. The net energy ratio is 2.09:1.

The two men went one step further, and made calculations based on the assumption that corn farmers and ethanol facilities use state-of-the-art practices. This is a best-case and hypothetical scenario. If farmers and industry were to use all the best technologies and practices the net energy ratio would be 2.51:1.

I know this information is a bit out-of-date. But it clearly does appear to demonstrate that ethanol can be efficiently produced.

Other recent developments have lately indicated that farmers may be offered new opportunities to help reduce our dependence on the flow of oil from the Middle East.

For example, the 13-state Western Regional Biomass Energy Program is showing support for Dakota Ag Energy, Inc. of Sioux Falls. This isn't a done deal � a grant of $35,000 and matching funds of over $130,000 will be needed.

If those funds can be allocated, a project called Zero Pollution Feeders and Fuels would complete the preliminary design, engineering and financial analysis of a continuously integrated complex for the production of "clean beef," bio-methane/bio-fertilizers, ethanol and wet distillers' grains and solubles.

If this project becomes reality, it truly would mark the beginning of an exciting era in South Dakota. While each of the components of the project have widespread commercial use, they have never been united into a single continuous integration system on a commercial scale.

As conceived, the standard-sized project would consist of a 15 million gallon a year ethanol plant, a 25,000 per day cattle feedlot and an anaerobic digester.

Is ethanol the solution to all of our energy problems? Probably not. We seemed to have conveniently forgotten the lessons we first learned during the first energy "crisis" of the 1970s: Our fuel prices are determined largely by OPEC, which, when pressed for cash, can simply decrease oil production a notch or two.

We responded when OPEC first decreased production nearly three decades ago by finding ways to use energy more efficiently. We discovered that cars could be built that didn't drink gas. Home heating costs could be reduced with proper insulation.

Of course, some of the practices adopted at first weren't all that popular. Large sedans were replaced with tiny Toyotas. We could only drive 55 mph. Public service announcements constantly hammered at those of us who dared to turn the thermostat above 68 degrees in the winter.

Today we drive big SUVs at 75 mph and curse Big Oil at the gas pumps. Fuel supplies will be given a boost with ethanol production which should lower prices.

There's a catch though. We can't consume this alternative fuel faster than we can produce it.

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