During their April 8 debate, Inglis and his Republican challenger, Union County native Charles Jeter, expressed misgivings about corn-based ethanol. Jeter was especially adamant in his opposition while Inglis, though “not a big fan” of the fuel, said it could still be an important step in developing the infrastructure - including flex-fuel vehicles - to take advantage of more environmentally-friendly forms of ethanol.
Inglis specifically pointed to what is known as “cellulosic ethanol” which is made from switchgrass and other plant matter that “you don't have to cultivate,” but simply plant, harvest and then convert into fuel. Proponents claim that cellulosic ethanol will require less water and energy and be more environmentally-friendly. The breakthrough that will make this possible hasn't been achieved yet, but proponents like Inglis feel it is worth the effort and that corn-based ethanol can pave the way for it.
Switchgrass, however, isn't the only possible source of ethanol in this country. Work is now underway to use the sugary sap in the stalk of sweet sorghum - which can grow up to 12 feet high - to make ethanol. Ethanol made from the stalk's juice has four times the energy yield of corn-based ethanol. In addition, sweet sorghum produces about eight units of energy for every unit of energy used in its production. That's roughly the same as sugar cane, but four times as much as corn.
The United States is the leading producer of sweet sorghum, harvesting some 10 million tons of grain from the tops of the plant's stalks. Sweet sorghum grows in dry conditions, tolerates heat well and can be grown as far north as Canada. In places like Florida and south Texas, growers can get two crops a year because of the weather and the second crop doesn't need to be planted as it sprouts from the first harvest.
If what their proponents claim is true, ethanol made from either switchgrass or sweet sorghum would be a big improvement over the corn-based variety. Both raise the possibility that the promise of ethanol - that America can grow its way to energy independence - might finally be realized. They would also allow us to go back to using corn for what it was meant to be used - food - and bring an end to the surging prices and other negative side effects of taking it off the world's plates to put into its cars.
Unfortunately, I can see sweet sorghum- and/or switchgrass-based ethanol causing the same problems as corn-based ethanol because of the staggering greed and stupidity of the American farmer and his counterparts around the world.
When corn-based ethanol began to take off, American farmers diverted more of their land to growing corn and more of that corn to ethanol production. Their counterparts around the world moved to cash in by either growing corn or growing crops no longer grown by American farmers. The result has been surging food prices, shortages, riots caused by a lack of corn and increased environmental degradation as rain forests unsuited for long-term tillage are cleared by farmers seeking additional land.
I can easily see that happening with sweet sorghum-based and/or switchgrass-based ethanol.
Does this mean we should stop making ethanol? No, I think we should continue to develop ethanol from sweet sorghum or switchgrass or other sources. I'd even be willing to allow continued experimentation with corn-based ethanol to see if it can be made more energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly.
Whatever form of alternative energy we develop we're going to have to be realistic about what it can do and be more cognizant of its impact on society and the environment. We're going to have to be a lot wiser in our use of alternative energy than we have in our use of fossil fuels. We're going to have see to it that the steps we take are toward a better future and not simply a repeat of the mistakes of the past.