General Question

elbanditoroso's avatar

Think back a couple of years, when corn was being touted as a "renewable energy source" and its plentiful supply would solve our energy problems forever. What happened?

Asked by elbanditoroso (13643 points ) August 9th, 2012

Now flash forward to this summer, when corn fields have been ruined because of global warming (which, of course, doesn’t really exist).

Suppose that we had gone full scale into corn-as-fuel production—what would this year’s weather have done to fuel prices? Would we be needing to ration gas supply?

The underlying question: is there really a viable, dependable substitute for oil at this time?

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10 Answers

mattbrowne's avatar

Biofuels are a good idea in rich countries with surplus production of food. Biofuels are a bad idea in poor countries where people struggle to be able to pay for their food. Using arable land for biofuel makes food more expensive.

Full-scale corn-as-fuel production in the US is not a full solution for the energy problem. The American Southwest should become a giant solar energy plant, mainly solar thermal, not photovoltaics. The Midwest could become a giant wind energy farm. And there’s also geothermal.

Plus energy efficiency. Better windows. Better insulation of buildings.

tedd's avatar

No one with any brains ever pushed corn and corn alone as the solution to our problems. I remember when all this talk was going on there were concerns that we would effect our food supply by pulling only from corn subsidies, and efforts of finding other viable plants were under way (for instance they use sugar cane in central/south america).

Your underlying question seems to ignore the fact that oil isn’t providing all of our energy right now, and its most definitely not dependable (see massively fluctuating prices). There is no one source at the moment that we could rely on for all of our energy, and even if there was we’d be foolish to use only one source in case something happened to that supply.

In the long term though, as oil availability drops off a cliff (which it is in the process of doing), we will have to replace it with other sources… preferably renewable ones. That’s where things like geothermal, biofuels, solar, wind, etc come into play.

Think about this, enough of the suns rays hit our planet in one day right now, that if we converted all of them into electricity… it would only take one hour to power the entire planet for an entire year. Now obviously we’ll never have a 100% conversion rate or 100% of our planet covered in solar panels. But what if we had 1% of our planet covered in panels, and a 50% conversion rate (which is well within our capabilities in the next 50 or so years).

Ron_C's avatar

It was a lie then and a lie now. Corn has never been an efficient energy producer. It takes too many resources to grow it and using it for fuel puts pressure on the food market that causes poor people to starve. If you want to make ethanol, you can use switch grass or hemp. They grow and put little strain on the environment and are cheap to convert. Hemp has other uses too so the entire plant can be used.

What we should be doing is using wind and solar energy to disassociate water to produce hydrogen. We could be a net exporter of hydrogen with very little environmental impact.

Qingu's avatar

Few scientists actually thought corn-based ethanol would help. Beyond the problem you pooint out, there’s also the issue of driving up food prices.

Maybe switchgrass and other non-edible crops.

Jaxk's avatar

Short answer is NO. We don’t use oil for electricity generation so wind, solar, and all that have no impact on our oil consumption. We use about 25% of the all the oil we use for industrial purposes, (asphalt, plastics, etc.) and the rest for transportation. We have massive reserves of oil if would would simply allow it to be harvested. Fracking has opened this for us but we still don’t want to allow it to be used. We will need oil for the foreseeable future and importing it from overseas is bankrupting the country. There may be viable alternatives for fuel but we don’t have any as yet. As for corn, we could convert every kernel we grow and there still wouldn’t be enough to replace our oil consumption. We’re a long ways off and we’re strangling ourselves with our hatred of oil. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Kayak8's avatar


ETpro's avatar

@Jaxk Fracking for oil sands and tar oils is a very low yield process. While sweet light crude yields about 50 times the energy required to bring it to the surface and refine it, the stuff in oil shales that requires fracking is down around 4/1 or 3/1. It’s not even feasible to use it unless oil prices are consistently well above $100 per barrel.

To answer @elbanditoroso OP, what happened is that instead of listening to environmental scientists and independent energy experts, Government responded, as it always seems to do, to the people bribing (oops, lobbying) it with the most money. In this case, big Agri-business sold the US taxpayer a bunch of BS and profited handsomely. Some people in the third world, mainly insignificant black and brown babies, got to starve to death because world grain prices went up. We put off solving energy independence and global warming for at least another two decades. But the CEOs of a few multinational Agri businesses got multimillion dollar bonuses so who cares? The big Corporations (people) are the only voters with enough money (speech) to matter, right?

psyonicpanda's avatar

they realized it was entirely too expensive to be feasable for the common use.

Response moderated (Spam)
Jaxk's avatar


Sounds like the same argument that was used for the Canadian Tar Sands. Of course that panned out quite differently. Canada is now a major exporter. The oil shale is not much different except that shale is higher quality. The oil companies seem to think they can harvest the shale profitably at less than $50/barrel. And we have more than a trillion barrels. The truth is even if we find an alternative to gasoline, we still need oil for industrial purposes. The government continues to push oil companies to drill where there is no oil. Open up the lands where we know we have oil and we can get this economy moving again. Even if it doesn’t lower the cost of oil, the money feeds our economy instead of Saudi Arabia’s. And lowers our trade deficit by half.

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