The Emperor’s New Clothes

Sometimes the numbers don’t add up.

In a recent article the Times pointed out a little problem with a new bio-fuel plant about to open in the UK.

“Britain’s self-sufficiency in wheat will end next year, because a giant new bio-fuel refinery needs so much of the staple crop that home-grown supplies will be exhausted feeding both the factory and the nation…Britain could become a net importer of the crop for the first time in its history, (“Hunger for bio-fuels will gobble up wheat surplus,” the Times, Monday October 5 2009).

How this little detail escaped public notice or the careful eyes of the engineers at the plant is a mystery to me. Or, perhaps they knew about it from the beginning, but in their eagerness to develop the technology for this alternative fuel, simply ignored it?

My father-in-law has worked in the oil refining business all his life and is not shy with his opinions about alternative fuels. He also has the annoying habit of trying to work things out based on the numbers rather than his feelings. Engineers and accountants are like that.

“Anyone who’s worked with bio-fuels can tell you that the manufacturing process is totally inefficient. It takes three gallons of fossil fuel to make four gallons of bio-fuel. The ratio for oil is one gallon for four gallons. No one ever talks about the costs involved in developing and manufacturing alternative energies.”

Perhaps he is somewhat biased, but he raises good questions. “How much does it cost to build and maintain a wind turbine? How much energy is actually created by solar panels relative to the cost of manufacturing and retrofitting old buildings? How much coal do you have to burn to recharge an electric car?”

Yes, bio-fuels do produce fewer carbon emissions, but what is the carbon footprint of the tractors and combines used to plant and harvest all the extra wheat? How much diesel is burned just to produce the “bio” part of the fuel? What are the numbers here?

Even one of the greenies admits concerns about bio-fuels. “A spokesman for the Friends of the Earth said that the organization is opposed to the use of bio-fuels in petrol. ‘Using wheat for fuel involves the displacement of agricultural land used for food production. At the end of that replacement chain you need to create new farmland and that usually means cutting down forests.’”

Oh, I see.

What do the numbers tell us and why are those figures not shared with the public? Perhaps they are and I’m just missing them. What I can’t miss is the near constant complaining I hear about the damaging effects of our insatiable appetite for fossil fuels.

There is an image used by one of the charities over here. It’s a picture of an African woman raising a hoe to chop into the parched and hardened clay of her garden so she can plant a few seeds. The caption, “Four years of drought makes her harvest doubtful.”

It’s a good organization that has provided aid for countless souls. But, they are really into the “climate change” problem and the message of the ad is quite simple: “The drought is our fault and we’re making it worse by ignoring our contribution to global climate change.”

Their answer seems to be the development of more alternative fuels. But, wouldn’t it be easier just to send her some of our extra wheat instead of dumping it into the ovens needed to make bio-fuel?

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