Gunnin' for a greener Illinois

Remember the Burma Shave ads which once lined the bygone US highways? The signs with such catchy poetry as...

It has a tingle

And a tang

That starts

The day off

With a bang.

Apparently the Champaign County Rifle Association is all in favor of starting the day off with a bang. While in Illinois last week, I spotted the CCRA's "public awareness" campaign, Guns Save Life, which gives a nod to Burma Shave's gimmick. This...

Dialed 9-1-1

And I'm on hold

Sure wish I had

That gun I sold

...just doesn't evoke the same sense of warm fuzzy nostalgia. Regardless of the morass that is gun control, these rhymes were downright creepy. I spotted four separate series of these signs along the interstate highways of central Illinois.

More uplifting was another Burma Shavesque ad campaign from the Illinois Soybean Association which touted the virtues of biodiesel fuel. Not surprisingly, biodiesel fuels based on soybean oil and ethanol derived from corn are being hyped bigtime in Illinois. I recall a spurt of interest in alternative fuels in the Prairie State back in the late 1970's but after a brief moment in the limelight, the notion of corn as a major fuel source slipped back into the shadows. The interest seems a bit more serious now, and Governor Blagojevich recently pushed incentives for renewable sources of energy.

Another testament to Illinois' recent efforts in alternative energy sources are the wind farms which dot the state. A most impressive one, the Mendota Hills Wind Farm may be seen along I-39 near Paw Paw. I took a few photos but Jennifer Zimmerman's gallery far surpasses my photographic efforts. My late father, who avidly listened to my older brother's descriptions of germanium doped solar energy cells (big bro works in the solid state physics arena), contemplated harnassing wind energy beyond the scope of the old fashioned windmill which pumped water. He would be impressed by the graceful turbines of the Mendota wind farm. And unlike the controversy whirling around the proposed Cape Wind Farm which ostensibly will be located in Nantucket Sound, none of the simple farm folk from this part of flyover country complained about their views being sullied by the turbines.

These sights along the Illinois interstates provided quite the contrast. At one moment, I'm Burmaing off a reactionary "Ah need mah AK47 fer PROTECTION!" series of signs, and the next, I see evidence of a decidedly green movement toward renewable energy sources. Yep, that's the Sucker State for you.

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It seems to me that the ethanol and the biofuels are more of an economic tool than a long term energy solution. It's proposed because it's attractive to farmers and floats money around constituents, sounds better than petroleum to greens, and provides a greater amount of native energy independence to the those that desire it.

I'm wondering what will happen when the economy (energy, fuel, vehicles) is competing with humans for the output of arable land. Will free market drive farmers to grow energy over food as petroleum prices rise? And will the farmers (and big Agra) be good stewards to the land by not depleting the farmland in order to provide biofuels? I find it socially worrisome that food and fuel would compete on the marketplace directly.

Some readings from last year indicated that E85 was not as efficient (energy production wise it was around 75% as efficient as gas) -- to travel the same distance, you'd need more E85, and even if E85 starts out cheaper per gallon, by the time you reached your destination you used more gallons so it wouldn't be cheaper.

Yes, ethanol is less efficient, and wouldn't necessarily be less expensive. My take is that farmers chafe at the reliance on Big Oil which adds significantly to the cost of farming, and is subject to vagaries of the market place. Escalating petrol prices were among the contributing factors to the demise of the small farm (at least in the Midwest) in the late 70's/early 80's. Independence by means of biofuels, even if the costs are similar, may provide the appeal as you note. But then does Archer Daniels Midland become the next Exxon?

Keep in mind biofuels can be cooked up from plant refuse, too, not just food sources. I'm not sure what the energy in/energy out conversion for these processes is.

Inevitably, humans leave an imprint on the land, regardless of conventional or "greener" energy sources. Speaking of good stewards of the land, a former college classmate went back to the rural life and runs a successful, small organic farm. The horsepower he uses for tilling his fields comes from a pair of Clydesdales. Given the small acreage, it's probably more cost effective (and certainly quite organic) to use the horses in lieu of a big John Deere tractor. However, his farm is more of the pastoral type as described by Michael Pollan, and fills a groovy niche. It's not an operation capable of sustaining the masses.

Your friend sounds standup; growing enough for self and family is honorable and productive; I'd starve since I depend on others entirely for food.

In the NYT: Looks like others have the a similar concern on the efficiency of fuel alternatives and the competition for arable land.

Indeed, the study published by the National Academy of Sciences found that neither ethanol nor biodiesel can replace much petroleum without having an impact on food supply. If all American corn and soybean production were dedicated to biofuels, that fuel would replace only 12 percent of gas demand and 6 percent of diesel demand, the study notes.
But Mr. Basse said ethanol production is far more efficient, with some 420 gallons of ethanol produced per acre of corn versus only 60 gallons of biodiesel per acre of soybeans. If biodiesel use ever increased greatly, Mr. Basse said, the cost of soybean oil would rise significantly.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, based in Washington, agreed that biodiesel's potential was limited. "If you look at the amount of biodiesel you can produce, it is a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of cellulosic ethanol that could be produced one day," he said.

The Minnesota researchers write that with a projected doubling of global demand for food within 50 years and an even greater expected increase in demand for transportation fuels, "there is a great need for renewable energy supplies that do not cause significant harm and do not compete with food supply."