Alternative energy and biofuels issues

Diesel fuel is made from crude oil, a non-renewable resource. Biodiesel fuels are characterized as diesel substitutes, but not all biodiesel fuels are clean and renewable. Renewable biodiesel can be made relatively easily from used vegetable oil.

Other possible sources include locally grown cellulosic materials such as switchgrass, straw, hemp, and algae. The number B indicates how much biodiesel is in the mix. For example, B2 is 2 percent biodiesel, 98 percent petroleum; B100 is 100 percent pure biodiesel with no petroleum. Diesel trucks, cars, and farm equipment can run entirely on properly filtered vegetable oil in small, makeshift settings without petroleum-derived power sources. The potential also exists to heat buildings with biodiesel fuels.

the politics of ethanol

Ethanol is defined as an alcohol obtained from the fermentation of certain carbohydrates such as cereals, molasses, starches or sugars. US ethanol, whether made from corn or soy, is dependent on continued use of oil and reportedly uses more oil than is saved by the final product itself. In addition, conventional corn and soybeans are likely to be genetically modified and rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are also petroleum products. The energy source that creates, refines, and distributes biodiesel fuels must also be clean and renewable.

In 2004, Congress passed the Creating America’s Jobs Act, which included a subsidy to oil companies and agribusinesses (such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill) of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol. In 2005, oil companies received direct deductions from their taxes – more than two billion dollars – for blending around four billion gallons of ethanol.

Clean and renewable options

There are claims that Brazil has achieved self-sufficiency in clean energy with biodiesel fuel from homegrown sugarcane. However, ecologist and geneticist Dr. David Suzuki is skeptical of those characterizations. He argues that Brazil does use oil to produce its biodiesel, even though the oil is not imported. He also warns that Brazil could be destroying rainforests to plant more sugarcane. Therefore, biodiesel from sugarcane does not currently appear to be clean or renewable.

A history of renewable energy in the United States includes windmills, widespread use of passive solar power in Pasadena, California in the early 20th century, development of the electric automobile around 1913, extensive and efficient electric train and streetcar systems throughout the country (which could have been modified to run on more renewable energy sources), and methane captured from septic systems to generate electricity. The details of the dismantling of these technological innovations by competing corporate interests are daunting.

The government has a role

Congress continues to ignore conservation savings while subsidizing dirty, nonrenewable energy sources like oil and coal. Coal often depends on mining processes that destroy ecosystems, and coal-fired plants emit toxins like mercury. Supporters of nuclear power characterize it as clean and advocate huge government subsidies for nuclear plants. But opponents argue that any power source that can’t be safely placed in someone’s backyard, such as nuclear waste, is unacceptable.

Although the US Department of Energy and the US Environmental Protection Agency sponsor contests and presentations that highlight renewable energy, green buildings, and sustainable communities, these innovations receive little direct incentive from the federal government.

Significant economic benefits of clean, renewable energy include lower energy bills for homes, schools, and businesses; white and blue collar jobs; reduced health care and environmental cleanup costs; and increased revenue for state and local governments from these additional jobs and savings.

Technology alternatives deserving of government subsidies include clean mass transit systems, plug-in electric vehicles (parts of New York are using plug-in garbage trucks), passive solar, photovoltaic cells, geothermal heating and cooling, small-scale windmills, and Solid waste management. green roofs and locally raised biomass food and fuels on small organic farms (such as organically grown sorghum and corn for human consumption where only discarded stalks are used for biodiesel fuels).

The challenge is to educate the public about technologically and economically feasible options. Only honest debate that bypasses special interest politics will force sound political decisions from an environmental, scientific, and economic point of view.

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