As of late, it seems everyone is seeking change. Change can certainly be a good thing, but there are times when change – for change sake – is not good. Research for our recent editorials on global warming and China have provoked thought in this area.

This takes me back to a course taken some years ago in manufacturing quality control. A process was demonstrated that was out of control. A “control knob” was offered to those who thought they wanted to “fix” the process. Without knowing how much to turn the knob or even in which direction to turn it, people made adjustments. Perhaps not surprisingly, the process control most often deteriorated rather than improved.

Our current energy policy – with the goal of improving the environment and/or reducing our dependence of foreign sources – seems to be this type of process. Many people want change, and lots of people are adjusting many “knobs” only to find that these changes are having unwanted consequences. The present push to develop ethanol (from corn) as an alternative fuel is one such change. This seems like a good thing, but right now the change has brought about suffering.

This suffering comes in the form of unanticipated consequences. Ethanol production is assisted by state and federal subsidies. This government involvement is encouraging farmers to grow corn for fuel rather than for food, resulting in a corn price increase. Government statistics say that ethanol makers will use 3.2 billion bushels of corn for ethanol this year – up 52% from last year when farmers used 15% of their corn crop for ethanol. A GAO report predicts this will rise to 30% by 2012.

As a result, land prices are rising across the Midwest. With the price of food and space for livestock increasing, the costs of meat, milk, eggs, etc. will go up or already have. As these prices go up, there is a trickledown to many other foodstuffs. Clearly, this has had an impact on other countries that rely on a stable world supply of corn for their basic needs. Mexico, for instance, is suffering increasing costs of the staple tortilla as a result of the increase in corn prices.

Is there a benefit associated with this impact on food costs? We are producing a product – ethanol – which we have no infrastructure to support, and you cannot utilize the product without the infrastructure. Ethanol cannot be shipped in existing pipelines because it would soak up the dirt from the lines. It also is impractical and inefficient to ship it by rail or trucks. What seems to make more sense is to develop regional distribution areas – such as areas of the Midwest near the bio-source – where ethanol-based fuels could have a positive impact without adding costs and other unwanted consequences. Also, if ethanol is to have a positive impact, let’s concentrate our efforts on making it from a non-food such as switchgrass.

Another debate about ethanol production is whether there is more energy used to produce it than what is contained in the product. The water use throughout the process is also significant. It appears the industry is answering these criticisms by the development of low-cost enzymes that enable the breakdown of the plant cellulose to alcohol more effectively. Technology has also lowered the industry’s energy and water use. In the last decade, energy usage has decreased by 20%, and the water consumption is down closer to 40%. New technologies continue to be developed that will further reduce the energy consumption of the ethanol-production process.

ORNL published a report early this year that indicated that we could get 30% of our liquid fuels from biomass without displacing any land for crop production or grazing. This should be our goal, and we would thereby avoid the negative consequences of our choice to produce ethanol from corn.

Once again, we can learn from the mistakes of the past. In a 1772 letter, John Wesley protested a similar diversion of (food) grain to distilleries and the raising of carriage horses. This drove the price of corn and oats higher, hurting England’s poor and middle class. As the saying goes, if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past, we are destined to repeat them. What an unfortunate consequence. IH