David Brin: Joseph and the amazing technicolor dream-fuel

  • Published on March 20th, 2013
Joseph dreams of the perfect fuel
The Situation in 2013

As I updated this article (see part 1, here), studies have revealed that much of the shine is coming off of America’s love affair with ethanol.  (Well, the GOP’s love affair, as ethanol allowed the party to offer an “alternative” that both sounded plausible and poured billions toward their friends.)
Now, things are changing, and not just because scientific studies show ethanol fuels to be at-best a break-even proposition, doing nothing for energy independence or reduction of environmental damage.
Beyond that – according to a New York Times report, “Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s ethanol plants have stopped production over the past year, in part because the drought that has ravaged much of the nation’s crops pushed commodity prices so high that ethanol has become too expensive to produce. A dip in gasoline consumption has compounded the industry’s problem by reducing the demand for ethanol.”
Advanced biofuels from waste like corn stalks and wood chips have also yet to reach commercial-level production as some had predicted they would by now.

The Right Way to Apply Hard Liquor…
But now I plan to surprise you. I will speak up not only for government price intervention to help farmers, but also for subsidized biofuel alcohol!
Though not as it is being done today.
Perhaps it is time to take a look back at the Egyptians of old, and go back to the root of the problem, so to speak. Farmers (especially giant agribusinesses) do not deserve automatic subsidies as some kind of birthright. On the other hand, the ancients were onto something. We are all better off if farmers are cushioned from wild market swings and get the kind of predictability that can let them invest in what is, after all, a business vital to us all.
Back when the New Dealers and Great Society folks tried to balance the cycles by buying cheap-excess bumper crops and storing for lean days, they ran into a problem. A vast, continental nation can only store up so much grain and cheese. In part, the move to simple cash grants came out of despair over how to do the job effectively, the Egyptian way.
But here is where alcohol comes in! Because alcohol can be stored.
In fact, it can be stocked away indefinitely, cheaply and beautifully.What was done poorly under Lyndon Johnson… turning excess farm production into mountains of wasted cheese… can now be accomplished logically and efficiently…. if we make biofuel ethanol a seasonal or occasional way to absorb and store, and later use, surges in excess grain production.
What should we do?  Let the ethanol subsidy go away. It is an insane market interference, choosing a market winner and a dumb one, at that. The money could be far better used making up for years of deliberately-sabotaged research into energy independence. Stop the gasohol mandate now!  But don’t shut down the gasohol plants completely.
The-Politics-of-Food-Supply-Winders-Bill-9780300139242Instead, let the taxpayers buy excess corn whenever its price is worrisomely low, convert the surplus into storable form, and sell the alcohol later, when the price seems right. That is the exact equivalent of the Pharaoh’s storehouse. And let the government’s profit go to maintaining this reserve capacity, when it is un-needed. 
We need to stop thinking of ethanol as an alternative to imported oil. That’s just silly and a crutch for those diverting us from real solutions for energy independence. Nevertheless, ethanol can be viewed as a wonderful way to store the excess produce of America’s fertile fields, in a form that will be easily convertible, at some future date, into fuel or money… and thus even back into food.
And yes, chuckle at the image that is brought to mind.  Nearly all of the American founders – especially George Washington – distilled their own moonshine. It often served as cash and currency for farmers, when money was scarce. Alcohol flows through our national blood, in a sense.
And if we view it properly, it can answer the modernized Riddle of Joseph, offering a way to damp the waste of fat years and help us prepare for the lean one that will surely come.
(Originally apeared at Contrary Brin, Image via beliefnet.)

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