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ISSUE 120 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 10/6/2006

Ethanol greens Minnesota

By April Wright
Variety Editor

Friday, October 6, 2006

Contrary to popular belief, you just can't win with ethanol. Despite research showing that it is not a great fuel source, and that the environmental impact is not nearly as low as some claim, America's search for a domestic energy source that will curb its craving for crude oil has forced ethanol into the national spotlight. And Minnesota is leading the push for more and more ethanol use.

Ethanol can come from many sources. The source from which Minnesota obtains its ethanol is corn. According to research from the University of Minnesota, corn-grain ethanol gets about a 25 percent return on energy, meaning that for every unit of energy that goes into the process, 1.25 units are produced.

That doesn't sound bad, does it? Unfortunately, the return rate isn't the only consideration when looking at ethanol as a fuel. The amount of fertilizer that goes into the process also must be taken into account because run-off from agriculture fouls the water supply. And with all the fertilizer and pesticide involved in corn production, there is lots of run-off, a big drawback to its use.

On top of it all, University of Minnesota research also shows that even if all the corn grown in the United States was converted to ethanol, it would replace only 12 percent of all the oil used in the country.

Even though corn-grain ethanol has been exposed as a mediocre fuel source, the government, at both the state and the federal level, continues to tout its benefits. That's not so irrational; ethanol is an oxygenator, meaning it helps to burn gasoline cleaner. It can be used to replace an outdated, toxic fuel oxygenator called MBTE. And with the levels of oxygenators’ use, corn farmers could provide enough ethanol to meet this demand.

The problem is that ethanol isn't just being used as a small additive. Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a bill into law mandating that all gasoline sold in Minnesota must contain at least 20 percent ethanol (E20). Perhaps this requirement can be supported on a local level for a while, but it isn't a good long-term solution, and it isn't a solution that even comes close to being nationally applicable.

Even if corn-grain ethanol isn't green environmentally, politicians are looking at the other green effects of its use. The ethanol industry in Minnesota supported 5,300 jobs and spurred $1.5 billion in economic output last year

So that's why politicians like it so much. Instead of being blinded by dollar signs, the legislature should consider doing what is actually right for Minnesota. What they need to be doing is pouring funds into the research and development of ethanol sources besides corn.

They can do this while still supporting the economy and local farmers, too. Other sources of ethanol, such as switchgrass, show promise. Switchgrasses are also native to Minnesota and require less water and fertilizer to grow. By using non-corn crops, the state economy can still be stimulated, and farmers who currently grow corn for ethanol can still be employed. Furthermore, research and development will bring jobs and money to Minnesota scientists.

Other sources of ethanol, such as agricultural waste, should be considered as well, however, it is extremely unlikely that one fuel source will be able to meet all the demand in the state. Ethanol production from agricultural waste would not only create jobs, but require no farming beyond what already takes place; hence no additional use of pesticides.

While ethanol is an exciting prospect, it’s important to remember that the most important (and most ignored) solution to America's oil woes: conservation. Any alternative fuel solution needs to be accompanied by more extensive and efficient public transportation and better city planning. Without conserving fuel use, it is unlikely that any environmentally or economically friendly fuel will be able to meet all energy demands in Minnesota or in the rest of the nation.

Variety Editor April Wright is a junior from Eagan, Minn. She majors in biology and in English.

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