In 1980, three young professionals decided to embark on creating an anthology of the early and modern dreamers of a sustainable biomass-based transportation system. Two reporters for legendary news muckraker Jack Anderson and an energy aide to Senator Javits (me) decided to pull together the disparate pieces of a long and complex history as well as the modern drivers of a road to sustainable energy.
I was the Senate staffer whom after the 1973 oil embargo oozed into energy — with one foot into the solar and environmental movement with colleagues Dennis Hayes and Byron Kennard on one hand — and the other foot with the sustainable agriculture movement with Al Mavis, Bill Holmberg and Ted Landers and the many others.
But aside from the two oil embargoes, courtesy of the Arab oil cartel, which cut U.S. petroleum by 3% driving gasoline prices to then unheard of levels, America received its first wake up call to the notion that the free energy ride could not last forever. Long gasoline lines, national security paranoia hit, solar panels went up on The White as President Jimmy Carter declared “a moral imperative of war” while he donned that infamous sweater. And oil, just like nuclear power, was no longer deemed “too cheap to meter.”
At the same time farm income was at its lowest and grains along with sugar were rotting in farm silos while contaminated grains such as the carcinogenic aflatoxin was at its highest. The family farm was already routed, but even the mid-sized farms owned by families for generations were under siege. And while we were organizing the first Earth Day and Sun Day, the new farm thought leaders were pushing organics, biorefineries and community outlets for local produce.
Visionaries from the 1800’s and 1900’s believed we could create a sustainable transportation fuel based on agriculture. In fact just like today, there was a whole movement of people including the likes of Henry Ford, called Chemurgists, who ardently believed our country could sustain itself from making materials and chemicals from agricultural-based products. And we were bent on bringing those early thought leaders into the consciousness of modern dilemma.
We three, while enthralled with the possibilities of this vision, we were not as wide-eyed as one would think. Even back in 1982, before the words “climate change” were commonly uttered, our book raised the issues of impacts on land, water and emissions (including carbon) that a booming biofuels development could pose.
But we were also not ready to buy into the Chicken Little mindset, and tried to capture the thinking of the modern pioneers in biofuels technology, sustainable agriculture, and national security on the global benefits such a sustainable fuels evolution could bring.
In 1982, the U.S. had less than 300 million gallons of ethanol which paled against the over 8 billion gallons we now produce — and pales further to the 36 billion gallons target that bipartisan public policy has set for this country. And so nearly 30 years later, our publisher and we three ‘older and wiser’ friends decided to dust off our seminal work, and add an update.
No longer are our skeptics saying biofuels will never amount to much — and, in fact, a community has developed saying biofuels have mounted themselves to a point of potential harm on a large scale. Not just by long time critics like Professor Pimental from Cornell University but also from the likes of my dear colleague Norman Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.
With the advent of advanced biofuels processes using algae and a myriad of cellulosic conversion processes, biofuels can be organic waste-based. We can turn our sewage, forest slash and thinnings that cannot be returned to the forest floor, biodegradable lawn and household wastes to vehicle fuels power the multi-fuel hybrid vehicles all within the near future. Non-food crops on semi-arid lands not only could produce biofuels but sequester carbon without fossil-based fertilizers, fossil-based pesticides and without lots of water.
But biofuels are just like any other technology — if done wrong, they can create harmful impacts — and if done right, they can have several largely valuable benefits to society.
So is the glass half full or half empty? That’s for you to find out, after you read the revised, The Forbidden Fuel: A History of Power Alcohol released by the University of Nebraska Press.