Washington is in the throes of a senseless "ethanol euphoria," says Earth Policy Institute President Lester Brown.
U.S. President George Bush hasn't helped, calling for a quintupling of biofuel production, to 35 billion gallons, by 2017. Most of that likely will come from ethanol.
President Bush also struck a deal with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in March to boost research and production of ethanol. Earlier this year, BP awarded the University of California at Berkeley with $500 million to research biofuels. And the U.S. Department of Energy is pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into new ethanol projects from companies such as Range Fuels, Mascoma and Iogen, and hundreds of millions more into three bioenergy-research centers.
What's Brown's beef with ethanol? The fuel's competition with the food supply. The National Corn Growers Association claims there's enough corn to provide for both, and says food-price increases are likely to be minimal. But Brown says corn prices doubled in the last year, soybean futures grew by half and wheat futures are trading at a 10-year high.
Brown says the skyrocketing corn prices are triggering growth in prices for meat, milk and eggs in China and the United States, because cows also eat corn in the form of distillers grains, an ethanol byproduct.
"The stage is now set for direct competition between the 800 million people who own automobiles and the world's 2 billion poorest people," Brown wrote in a report released in March. Millions could starve as a result of higher food prices, he warned.
Brown wants Washington to shift its favors to plug-in hybrids, via a policy requiring cars with better fuel economy. Plug-in hybrids are gasoline-electric hybrids that owners can recharge for better mileage. Advocates say replacing some gasoline with electricity can push mileage beyond 100 MPG. Indeed, Toyota and Nissan - and even GM, the perpetrator of gas-guzzling Hummers and other road sows - are now working toward that goal.
While the grid already is strained in some places, a U.S. Department of Energy study released in December found the current system could accommodate 170 million plug-in hybrids. How's that? Most owners would charge at night, when electricity is in surplus.
Of course, the grid is hardly a mosaic of greenie goodness at the moment. It's mostly powered by natural gas and coal today. But Brown's vision is to power the plug-in hybrids with wind power, which peaks at night.
It's an attractive idea because plug-in hybrids would reduce fuel costs for drivers if they plug in, yet allow them to fuel up as usual if they don't. And wind power is a proven technology that's already cheaper than conventional electricity in some places.
But others say the scenario is unrealistic. First of all, wind isn't consistent, and Vinod Khosla, founder of Khosla Ventures (and a co-founder of Sun Microsystems), says utilities need to be able to supply customers with extra power when they want it. "They can't say, 'We can't supply power now because the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining'," he says. "Regulators would come down pretty damn hard on utilities that said that."
Brown counters that at large scales - if wind power were evenly distributed nationally, for example - wind power is as reliable as conventional electricity. Also, he says, the plug-in hybrids' batteries could act as backup storage to even the flow of electricity. Utilities could pull from those batteries to avoid an outage in a crisis, and drivers wouldn't be stranded because the cars work as regular hybrids if they aren't charged. (Two California utilities, Pacific Gas and Electric and San Diego Gas and Electric, have demonstrated plug-in hybrid technology in the last few months.)
Even so, plug-in hybrids are too expensive to reverse climate change, Khosla says. According to the DOE report, plug-in hybrids are expected to cost $6,000 to $10,000 more per vehicle than conventional cars. Even at just $20,000 a car, it would cost more than $4 trillion to switch over America's 220 million-plus cars. "A few trillion dollars, and sure, we can solve the problem," Khosla says.
It's true that cars have decade-long lifespans, meaning it would take years for the world's fleet to make the switch even if every new car sold were a plug-in hybrid - even assuming they were readily available. But if plug-in hybrids catch on, they could well play a role in reducing oil use - and possibly in boosting wind power.