Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Flogging of Corn Cob Bob

I love this guy... Only Stephen Harper and his Conservative cabinet would take policy advice from a 7 foot cob of corn. Or so it would appear from a recent meeting on renewable fuels in Regina.

For the past week or so, Canadians hopeful that the federal government would take a strong stance against global climate change were treated to a series of messages that were ambiguous at best.

The good news is that after a leaked memo from the international climate conference in Germany indicated that Canada would oppose extensions to the Kyoto accord, it now looks like the Conservative government is willing to follow through with negotiations for phase two of the treaty.

Unfortunately, their 'Made in Canada' plan to meet CO2 reduction targets appears to involve naming Corn Cob Bob as the new Environment Minister and embracing ethanol fuel as our climate saviour.

In seriousness though, should this picture not frighten us all? Climate change is being shown time and time again to be the single greatest threat facing human survival, yet throughout the world, leaders and governments refuse to take action while actively promoting policies that will only make the situation worse.

Although the burning of corn based ethanol has the advantage of producing less CO2 than gasoline, there is a catch. The production of corn, as with all cereal grains, requires massive inputs of fossil fuels via the mechanized farming process and chemical fertilizers. In effect, we are subsidizing our agricultural yield with oil. The net result for ethanol is that it takes more fossil fuel energy to grow a single corn cob than we receive from it in ethanol fuel energy. That is true regardless of whether the cob is your garden variety 10 incher or your industry sponsored 7 footer.

The reason is simple, as anyone who has completed a grade 9 science can tell you. It is called the Law of Conservation of Energy, which stated plainly is "energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change forms". Back on the farm, this means that a good deal of the fossil fuel energy used in corn agriculture goes into things other than those little yellow kernels. Much of it is lost in the standard mechanical inefficiencies of farm equipment. A lot of the rest is eaten up through the plant's natural metabolic process and in growing parts (like leaves and stalks) other than the cob. So to manufacture a given energy unit of ethanol, you need to expend some amount greater than one energy unit during the growth and production process.

For Canada to meet its Kyoto obligations we are going to need to do a lot more than increase corn production. The Federal Government is going to need to successfully negotiate binding commitments for CO2 control from the oil and gas industry, sharply increase fuel efficiency standards for automobiles, and engage the nation in a meaningful energy conservation strategy. Otherwise, come next election, Mr. Harper is going to be calling up Corn Cob Bob for more than a PR stunt. He will be looking for a couch to crash on and a lead for a new job.

1 comment:

James Tiberious Bond said...

It's interesting how you bring about Canada and its reduction to its world CO2 contribution. Many socially conscious people are in favour of saving this world from the delitarious effects of humanity through its hunger for energy. However, their thoughts to the many alternatives often are not followed through to conclusion. Take for example a proposed James Bay hydro-electric projects a short while back. The proposal called for 100% clean energy source. Granted hydro-electric power on its own is 100% clean, but one major thing was not considered. By flooding the James Bay region, which is Tundra, the water's high thermal capacity will cause a rise in temperature to the ground beneath and inadvertantly release frozen methane gas into the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the amount released would nullify all the clean effects of the hyro-project as methane's Greenhouse effect factors 10X that of CO2. For the same amount of KWh's generated, Ontario/Quebec might as well fire up the equivalents of the most inefficient coal generators using the lowest grade coal possible. Another example is the electric vehicle (as opposed to its hybrid). It's taken a century for North America to establish the electrical grid which we are so dependent on. If we were all to switch over to electric cars, the amount of electricity required to power all those cars would be many fold of what our grid currently maximizes out at (Do you remember the power outages in Eastern Canada and in California?). How about wind generators? In order to turn the wind turbines, energy in the form of kinetic energy has to be taken directly from the atmosphere. What types of effects will this withdrawal of energy have on the laminar boundary layer which we depend so much upon for our survival? But then again, perhaps we need to remove excess energy as it is most likely physical the cause of climate change.

Where do we find the resources to generate the power without spin-off negative evironmental effects. Energy is important, and you have hit the nail on the coffin by mentioning the "law of conservation of energy" where we cannot create energy nor destroy it, just transform it. Please don't get me wrong. What I'm trying to say is that we do need to change our current approach to energy use. It's just that it's not as simple as the proposals that most of us are aware of. In time, we will find methods for alternative energy sources that have less repurcussions than our current level of knowledge dictates.

All in all, the key really is less energy use...each individual needs to make a smaller "ecological footprint". Unless our culture of consumerism and convenience changes its ways of thinking, this endeavor into finding alternate energy sources will be a futile one.