The Magazine

Food Riots Made in the USA

There's a better solution to our energy problems than ethanol. It's called nuclear energy.

Apr 28, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 31 • By WILLIAM TUCKER
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In order to understand the steep rise in world food prices that set off food riots in Haiti last week and toppled the government, you need to travel to Iowa. Right now, we're trying to run our cars on corn ethanol instead of gasoline. As a result, we suddenly find ourselves taking food out of the mouths of children in developing nations. That may sound harsh, but it also happens to be true.

Environmentalists and farm state senators--the great biofuels coalition--of course object. After U.N. officials called for a biofuels moratorium last week, Senator Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, called the whole thing "a big joke." "You make ethanol out of corn," he told the New York Times. "I bet if I set a bushel of corn in front of any of those [U.N.] delegates, not one of them would eat it." In a position paper released only a few weeks ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the many environmental organizations that has preached biofuels for decades, continued to insist that, "done right," ethanol can not only replace all our oil by 2050 but also "mitigate dangerous climate change."

Nice try, folks. Maybe U.N. officials don't eat raw corn, but livestock do, and that land could easily be used to grow crops for human consumption. As for the notion that homegrown ethanol can replace more than a tiny fraction of our oil consumption--let alone do anything to ameliorate world carbon emissions--that is an environmental hallucination.

The conceit of biofuels has always been that agricultural resources in this country were unlimited. Haven't we been paying farmers since the 1930s to not grow crops? Why not employ some of that land to help us gain energy independence? If we run out of room, we can always move on to the tropics, right? Let's import ethanol from Brazil.

The Midwest has embraced this vision with a passion. One-third of the American corn crop will be converted to ethanol this year. Farmers are planting corn fencepost to fencepost and bringing new land under cultivation to cash in. The 51-cents-a-gallon federal tax credit assures a market. Ethanol distilleries are sprouting everywhere. Farm towns are revitalizing. The price of farmland is soaring. Presidential nominations turn on who supports ethanol in Iowa. Getting rid of this web of government intervention would now be just about as difficult as repealing farm subsidies in general.

So let's assess the damage. First, although biofuels have been anointed as clean, renewable, and sustainable, there has never been much evidence that they are producing any new energy. Growing crops consumes energy, and since only a small part of the plant--the seed--is distilled into alcohol, there's no guarantee of an energy gain. The most optimistic studies claim only a 25 percent energy profit, and some critics--David Pimentel of Cornell in particular--claim there is actually an energy loss. Suffice it to say, distilling one-third of our corn crop is replacing only 3 percent of our oil consumption.

When the energy independence theory started to falter, environmentalists settled on the notion that at least ethanol would reduce carbon emissions. President George W. Bush reiterated this last week in his address on climate change. If we burn this year's corn crop, so the logic went, we are only putting back atmospheric carbon that was taken out last year. But if we burn coal or oil, we're putting back carbon that has been underground for eons. Therefore biofuels are "carbon neutral."

There is just one question this line of reasoning doesn't answer. What was growing on that acreage before it was turned over to biofuels? If it was another field crop, then the carbon would have remained in the soil or the food supply or any other of the many "carbon sinks" for a long, long time. If it were a forest--particularly a tropical forest, a great natural sink for carbon--then the net addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere could be extraordinary.

This year somebody finally asked the question. In February, Science published an article by a team headed by Joseph Fargione of the Nature Conservancy showing that converting virgin land into ethanol cultivation multiplies carbon emissions by a factor of 93. "So for the next 93 years, you're making climate change worse," said Fargione. Another study in the same issue by environmental economist Timothy Searchinger of Princeton found that growing biofuels almost anywhere in the world will result in land being cleared somewhere else for food or fuel.

The Science articles have caused a biofuels meltdown. Time, which only two months ago was celebrating Richard Branson's conversion of one of his Virgin Atlantic jets to biofuels, ran an April cover story, "The Clean Energy Myth." It called biofuels "catastrophic" and "environmentally disastrous."

In fact, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization has been screaming the same thing for years, to no avail. World food prices have almost doubled since 2005. There have been "tortilla riots" in Mexico and identical disturbances in Morocco, Egypt, Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mauritania, Cameroon, Senegal, Uzbekistan, and Yemen. True, the rising cost of energy and the perennial defects of Third World food markets are partly to blame. But the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington says biofuel conversion accounts for at least a fourth of this increase. Even in the United States, milk prices have jumped 50 percent because so much corn is being diverted from cows to gas tanks. C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, two agricultural experts at the University of Minnesota, predict that by 2025 bio-fuels will be responsible for 600 million more chronically hungry people. Jean Ziegler, a U.N. food expert, labeled biofuels a "crime against humanity" and called for a five-year moratorium. The great ethanol boom is a classic case of putting First World luxuries ahead of Third World necessities.

So how did we get into this mess? It's a matter of energy storage. The world is awash with energy. It is everywhere around us, mostly in the form of that dread word radiation. Radiation is the way energy travels in the universe. The radiation from the sun warms the earth and lights the day in quantities that make people say, "If only we could capture a small portion of that .  .  ." It has been almost the sole source of energy throughout the planet's history (remember that "almost").

The problem is capturing and storing it. Although solar energy is ubiquitous and almost incalculably vast, it is also very dilute. The world, after all, is a very big place. The amount of sunlight landing on a card table that can be converted to electricity is roughly enough to power four 100-watt light bulbs. This means that, if we could capture all the usable solar energy on every rooftop in the country, we would probably have about enough to provide our indoor lighting--except at night, of course, when it's most needed. Still, there's something to be had there, and it is being pursued by the technology of photovoltaics--turning sunlight into electricity.

A better strategy, however, is to find or create stores of solar energy that can be concentrated and used at will. Wind is solar energy nestled in the atmosphere. The sun heats air and sets it in motion, producing kinetic energy that can be transformed into work. Windmills can run mechanical machinery or turn electric turbines--which is why whole mountain ranges are now being decorated with 30-story, propeller-driven structures that look as if they were left there by a race of giants. Hydroelectric dams also store solar energy. The sun evaporates water, which falls and runs downhill. If we back this water up behind a dam, we can access the stored energy at will.

Wood and biofuels are also vaults of stored solar energy. Photosynthetic cells use sunlight to transform carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into long organic molecules. When we burn wood or biofuels, we break these carbon chains and release their "chemical" energy. The same holds true for fossil fuels, which are the highly distilled remains of ancient organisms.

The problem is that, except in the more concentrated form of fossil fuels, stored solar energy remains extremely dilute. Wind, hydro, and all the "alternate" sources of energy have been dubbed "green" because they are supposedly clean, renewable, and sustainable. In fact, what being "green" really means is that they all require vast amounts of land. In the beginning, when "alternate" efforts were still fairly modest, none of this much mattered. As they move up to industrial scale, however, the land requirements become staggering. And land, after all, is also a limited resource.

In a 2007 paper--well on its way to becoming a classic--Jesse Ausubel, director of the program for the human environment at Rockefeller University, calculated the amount of wood it would take to run one standard 1,000-megawatt electrical plant, the kind that can power a city the size of Cincinnati. Feeding the furnace year-round would require a forest of one thousand square miles. We have 600 such coal plants around the country now--to burn wood instead would require a forest the size of Alaska.

Other forms of stored solar energy make comparable demands. Glen Canyon Dam, which can produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity, is backed up by a reservoir 250 miles square (Lake Powell, in Arizona and Utah). That's why we stopped building dams in the 1960s--because they were drowning scenic canyons and displacing populations. (The 16,000-megawatt Three Gorges in China, probably the last major dam that will ever be built in the world, uprooted more than a million people.)

So it is with all forms of solar energy. Those 30-story windmills produce 1.5 megawatts apiece--about 1/750th the power of a conventional generating station. Getting 1,000 megawatts would require a wind farm 75 miles square. In a January cover story for Scientific American, three leading solar researchers proposed meeting our electrical needs in 2050 by covering southwestern desert with solar collectors. The amount of land required would be 34,000 square miles, about one-quarter of New Mexico.

And that's where biofuels went awry. Nobody ever bothered to calculate how much land they would require.

Like many other "alternate" efforts, biofuels can be traced to soft-energy guru Amory Lovins's famous 1976 essay in Foreign Affairs, "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" (It is still the most reprinted article in the journal's history, surpassing even George Kennan's 1947 "Mr. X" article proposing the "containment" strategy of the Cold War.) In "The Road Not Taken?" Lovins offered the domestic beer and wine industries as models of how displacing gasoline with homegrown fuels might be practical. Noting that the beer and wine industries already produced 5 percent the liquid of the oil industry, Lovins concluded:

Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale .  .  . of U.S. cellars and breweries, .  .  . would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States. .  .  . The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable.

Lovins's article and his subsequent book Soft Energy Paths were enormously influential. When he visited the Oval Office in 1978 to advise Jimmy Carter on energy, Lovins found Soft Energy Paths sitting on the president's desk. Carter pushed an ethanol subsidy through Congress in the midst of the 1979 gas shortage, and we were on our way. Ethanol soon became a virtual franchise of Archer Daniels Midland, the powerful agricultural conglomerate, whose scores of distilleries around the Midwest now produce half our supply.

But notice that Lovins never bothered to calculate the amount of land that would be required. That's easy enough to estimate. Using Lovins's own figures, it comes to three times the land area of the United States, including Alaska, to produce one-third of our transportation energy needs in 1976.

Those numbers have barely changed. Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, two former enthusiasts of biofuels, James Jordan and James Powell of Brooklyn's Polytechnic University, noted:

It's difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addition. .  .  . [T]he entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of demand. .  .  . And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.

The extremely dilute nature of solar energy ensures that vast amounts of land will be necessary to capture and store it. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, may be bumping up against supply constraints and are creating environmental effects that will alter the earth's climate in unpredictable ways. So what other possibilities remain?

Some early enthusiasts of photovoltaics thought solar technology would be like computer technology with efficiencies and power doubling every 18 months--in a replay of the exponential growth in computing power first described by Intel founder Gordon Moore and now known as Moore's Law. After all, computer chips and photovoltaic cells are both made of silicon. But it doesn't work that way. Electrons have almost unlimited potential for storing information, but their ability to store energy is limited.

But electrons constitute only 0.001 percent of the mass of an atom. The remaining 99.999 percent is in the nucleus. The nucleus of the atom is the greatest storehouse of energy in the universe. The amount of energy released in the Hiroshima bomb was equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT. Yet the amount of matter transformed into energy at Hiroshima was about 3 grams. If we are ever going to access enough energy to run our industrial economy without overwhelming the environment in the process, we are going to have to find it in the nucleus of the atom.

The energy holding together the nucleus of an atom is called "binding energy." When an atom splits in two--which happens occasionally in nature and can be induced in a nuclear reactor--some binding energy is liberated. This energy release is two million times greater than any "chemical" releases that come in, say, an internal combustion engine or a coal-fired electrical generating plant. This 2-million differential explains why a 1,000-megawatt coal plant must be fed by a 110-car train loaded with 16,000 tons of coal arriving every day. Meanwhile a nuclear reactor of the same size is fed by a single flatbed truck that arrives with a new set of fuel rods once every 18 months. The energy stored in the nucleus of the atom is almost incomprehensibly larger than the energy stored in fossil fuels or the kinetic activity of wind, wave, or water.

Atomic energy occurs naturally in the earth with the breakdown of uranium and thorium atoms. It is enough to heat the core of the planet to 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit and is the only form of energy that does not come from the sun. We could call it "terrestrial energy," to differentiate it from solar energy.

Terrestrial energy is the answer to all the unpleasant questions raised by solar energy, which is why the nuclear industry in this country is poised for a comeback. Safety elements have been vastly improved, revamped plants are making enormous amounts of money, and the nuclear industry is chafing to start new construction. Although nuclear power cannot directly replace oil, it could become the basis of an expanded electrical grid that would support vehicles running on either electricity or hydrogen. It could end our energy odyssey. In light of last week's food riots and soaring world prices, it can't happen soon enough.

William Tucker's book, Terrestrial Energy, which will be published in August by Bartleby Press, can be previewed at www.terrestrialenergy.org.