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Corn+Soybean Digest

Can We Stop Wasting Energy?

I'm a little confused about what's ahead for renewable fuels. I'm hoping it's all rosy, but I'm not so sure it will be.

By now, we've all heard over and over about President Bush's call for 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017. That's nearly five times the 2012 target now in law. In 2017, this will displace 15% of projected annual gasoline use.

That's huge, really huge. And just where will all those fuel-producing crops come from? Can we produce enough corn, biomass crops and soybeans to meet that lofty goal?

Last year, for example, you produced 4.9 billion gallons of ethanol from your corn crop which averaged 149 bu./acre.

And this year, we'll use about 20% of the corn crop to feed ethanol plants that will in turn produce about 6 billion gallons of ethanol, according to Bob Wisner, Iowa State University Extension economist.

Sure, we'll see increases in total acres planted to corn — and higher yields. In a recent online survey of this magazine's readers, more than half said they were increasing their corn acreage this year. (See “Corn, Corn And More Corn,” January issue, pages 22-26.)

When it comes to corn production, on average corn yields have increased by about 3.5 bu./acre/year since the 1995-1996 crop years. Based on the 10-year historical trend, corn yield per acre could reach 180 bu. by 2015. With big advances in plant breeding, that yield could likely be higher. The result, of course, is more corn available to feed those hungry ethanol plants.

In my opinion, we should be working more diligently on other renewable fuel sources rather than just relying on the old standby, corn. Cellulosic sources, like the often touted switchgrass, appear to have some merit. But by researchers estimates, that's at least three to four years away.

Let's backup a minute, though, and put some creative effort into coming up with ways to lessen our fuel use. As a point of reference, in 1973 we imported 34.8% of our oil; today we import 60.3%. Our thirst keeps growing.

So shouldn't we be pressing the transportation industry to drastically improve its fuel-efficiency standards? Frankly, I'd like those auto gurus to surprise us with what they could engineer.

Even though it seems like some automakers are making progress to increase mileage stats, albeit baby steps, they're far from making startling strides. Moreover, why don't we — and our government — flat out demand more from them and from ourselves?

You're doing your part, and should be proud of it, by providing valuable renewable energy. I do sometimes wonder how much big-city folks are really doing?

It's just common sense, but we should use every means possible to reduce our gluttony for fuel, and our dependence on foreign oil.

It may seem too simple, but how much fuel could we save in the U.S. if all houses were required to be super insulated? I'm sure you could think of many other ways we could be better at being energy efficient.

But my guess is that U.S. consumers have pretty short memories and if crude oil prices drop and pump prices follow, we'll quickly forget about making any immediate efforts to be energy efficient, and thus cutting the cord to foreign oil.

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