Stop Burning Food

Oak Ridge has the answer to nation's energy problems; let's support it

Frank Talk

by Frank Cagle

 

Who thinks burning food is a good idea? Unfortunately, it includes everyone who has run for president since 1976. That's when the Iowa caucus moved to the front of the line in national elections. Ethanol subsidies to keep Iowa farmers happy and $3 a gallon gasoline has jumped the price of corn to almost $4 a bushel.

Farmers will tell you it's about damn time.

When we have food riots in Mexico because of the price of tortillas and the flood of illegal immigrants turns into a deluge, maybe we won't think so. The price of corn this year will prompt farmers to plant from fencerow to fencerow, and marginal land will be pressed into service to bump the crop to even higher levels.

We certainly need to find alternative fuels to reduce our dependency on Middle Eastern oil, but the high production costs of corn to use as a fuel doesn't make moral or economic sense. We don't have to do it.

The nation's answer is in Oak Ridge. The state budget for this year includes $40 million for a pilot processing plant in Oak Ridge to convert switchgrass, wood chips and other plant material into ethanol and biodiesel. This is in addition to $18 million in state money for more research. The U.S. Department of Energy is also kicking in some money. This is to build on promising research that has been going on in Oak Ridge for some years.

If you plant corn it takes herbicides, insecticides and yearly application of tons of fertilizer. It requires expending about as much carbon-based fuel to produce corn as the corn yields. You have to do it every year. You plant switchgrass once, it comes back every year and it's easy to grow, compared to corn and other row crops. We have hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland in Tennessee. We also have hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, and our timber industry can produces tons of wood chips. Farmers have round bale equipment already, and they can bale this tall prairie plant and harvest it like hay. The only downside I can see is transporting bales is harder than transporting corn and soybeans.

It's not like switchgrass is foreign to Tennessee. It's the prairie grass that covered our open spaces and fed the elk and bison before the state was settled.

Brazil has achieved energy independence by using its abundant sugarcane crops. The sugar in cane and in corn burns easier and makes it a better fuel at present, despite its higher costs. The pilot plant in Oak Ridge will be figuring out the best production methods to bring switchgrass and wood chips to market as fuel.

Southern Company, a private utility that serves most of the non-TVA areas of the Southeast, has an experimental plant in Gadsden, Ala. It's based on Oak Ridge research that shows adding switchgrass to a coal-fired burner aids in combustion and thus reduces air pollution. TVA has a few bucks invested in the project, but given TVA's problems with air pollution you would think they would be on the cutting edge of experimenting with this process. Especially since Oak Ridge has pioneered the research.

Tennessee has thousands of acres of land suitable for growing switchgrass. We have thousands of acres of timber. We have the research capability in Oak Ridge to figure it all out. We have the headquarters of TVA, an agency that ought to be a national leader in alternative fuels and air pollution reduction.

Producing the fuel does no good unless we can get it to market. Knoxville-based Pilot Corp. has been trying to get legislation to promote ethanol at the retail level and it has truck stops all across America. If we can get the trucking industry converted to biodiesel it will vastly reduce demand for fuel, and gasoline prices ought to come down.

Tennessee has everything it needs to lead the nation into energy independence and reduce air pollution. It is the biggest story in the country, and I wonder if we are paying enough attention.

It is often said in the national press that this country ought to make alternative energy an emergency priority. How often have you heard that we â“need a Manhattan-styleâ” project to develop alternative energy sources? What better place to do it than at the home of the original Manhattan project, wherein Oak Ridge produced the fuel to make the atomic bombs that ended the war in the Pacific?

It's here, folks. Let's get behind it, push it and demand that our public officials and agencies get behind it, speed it up and make it successful. Much research remains to be done on the costs of production, distribution and making the process more efficient. But we need to keep the pressure on to ensure this project is a maximum priority.

Unless, of course, you don't mind $4 a gallon gasoline.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville magazine. You can reach him at frank@frankcagle.com .

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