Separating Good Green Energy From Corporate Welfare
updated October 18th, 2009
Just because it's labeled "green" doesn't mean it's good for the environment
by Richard Markosian & Rebecca Edwards
Green energy has the potential to one day remove our dependence on foreign oil, clean the air and improve living conditions in cities all over the world. But are we jumping the gun on some technologies that might be "green" but also impractical?
Ethanol is now in your gasoline whether you like it or not. Ethanol is produced by microbial fermentation, similar to beer. But ethanol requires not just an enormous amount of corn, water, heat and electricity to produce a single gallon of usable gasoline, ethanol requires more energy to manufacture than the energy it produces. One of the biggest proponents of ethanol as a fuel source is The Archer Daniels Midlen Company (ADM). ADM has seen huge benefits from their lobbying efforts to convince the Department of Energy (DOE) to integrate ethanol into gasoline. ADM is also a huge contributor to Washington beltway politicians. When giant corporations are making huge donations it's always interesting to see the decisions that come down the pike that favor their businesses.
When there are billions of dollars at stake, and the federal government is in charge of who will be making that money, the best technologies are not always going to end up the winners. A few technologies that have been unfairly demonized, but which show great promise are: clean-burning coal technologies, which emit almost 0 emissions; and compressed natural gas, which is currently less than $1 per gallon in most stations.
One of the most promising sources of clean, renewable, cheap energy is plastic solar cells. For the past 30 years researchers have been working on ways to make plastics behave more like metals. The problem with silicon solar panels is silicon is extremely expensive to produce. Plastic solar cells would cost a fraction of the cost of silicon, making it possible to drape rooftops of all homes with plastic solar that could generate enough electricity for the entire home and perhaps an electric car.
The race is on to make plastic solar cells efficient enough to justify producing them on a mass scale. Currently the best silicon solar panels offer 30-40% efficiency--meaning that 30 percent of the light that hits the panel can be converted into electricity. The most efficient plastic solar cells can only reach 6% efficiency, but this number has been increasing quickly over the past five years. Once scientists can reach a level of 10% efficiency these plastic solar panels will be widely available and will completely change the energy industry.
The Corn Conspiracy
There are many who believe that our country runs on corn. The list of products on the Corn Products International website is nearly inexhaustible, and ranges from the usual suspects: corn starch, high fructose corn syrup and cooking oil, to new innovations like corn kernel boxes (think sandboxes) and corn silk herbal supplements.
The US, with the help of oddly rationed subsidies, helps farm corporations produce half of the world's entire corn output. As corn is pumped into nearly every product we consume (including our meat, since it's cheap to raise animals on corn), the proliferation of this starchy vegetable is causing myriad problems. There is a laundry list of health problems blamed on corn including blood disorders, internal organ issues and, of course, obesity.
Industrialized farming practices are another evil cited by corn conspiracy enthusiasts. For those that believe the hype, the additional farming needed to create energy from corn would more than cancel out an ecological benefit that is hoped for.
Corn Conspiracy Links
- The Informant: Matt Damon Goes Crazy for Corn Conspiracy
- Does High-Fructose Corn Syrup Have to Be in Everything?
- The Corn Conspiracy, or how Nixon made us Fat
- So Thirsty: Corn Ethanol Uses Up to 300% More Water than Previously Thought
Read the introduction to the October issue of Utah Stories Angels and Demons -- the demons that are protecting us and the angels who will kill you.
Read articles from our previous issue:
Rage Against Bad Food and TV: Meet Amy Thompson, the Progressive Pioneer