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Next-Generation Ethanol:
Have a Look But Don’t Get Excited

A year ago, we warned about the dangers of ethanol fever overtaking the land.

As Bay Country farmers planted more corn to take advantage of ethanol subsidies, we described what it would mean for Chesapeake Bay. Corn is a needy plant, demanding more than 100 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer per acre to grow.

And nitrogen, of course, is among the principal dangers to the Bay and its aquatic life, producing algae blooms that steal oxygen and create summer dead zones.

Boy, did we get angry letters — including one from a government official who accused us of “a poor excuse of journalism” and doing a disservice to the Bay.

Since then, of course, virtually every study not paid for by the ethanol industry has confirmed our fears about the environmental dangers of ethanol. The Chesapeake Bay Commission, hardly a radical bunch, warned months later that heavy corn planting could send five million pounds of nitrogen washing toward the Bay.

A year later, the world is looking much differently at what was once viewed as a cure-all for our energy woes.

Indeed, academics and even the United Nations have gone further than we would dare, blaming ethanol for deforestation in developing lands and soaring food prices around the world.

Now there’s a new discussion taking shape about second-generation ethanol. In the coming months, the Chesapeake Cellulosic Biofuels Panel intends to explore the potential of using plants other than corn to develop ethanol in our region.

Cellulosic technology aims to convert such materials as switchgrass and woodchips into alcohol fuels identical to ethanol from corn.

The problems are that it takes vastly more processing, and nobody has yet figured out how it can be done in an affordable way.

Unlike a year ago, we are not ready to issue a blanket warning about the dangers inherent in this technology. But we are skeptical for several reasons. First, Pennsylvania has taken the lead in the planning, while the Keystone State and its governor, Ed Rendell, are still promoting corn-based ethanol.

Second, we keep hearing and reading that it’s unlikely we’ll get to second-generation ethanol without further development of first-generation ethanol with its pollution and taxpayer subsidies.

Third, people around the world are working feverishly toward cellulosic ethanol production. As we write this, an email from General Motors popped up telling us about GM’s partnership with a high-flying Boston company in search of a workable cellulosic technology.

To be blunt, the likelihood of a breakthrough by this Chesapeake region panel is remote.

But who knows? Given what we paid for gas this morning on Rt. 2, everybody should be encouraged to seek the pot of gold of energy production.

But no tricks, okay? Don’t stint on investments in wind and solar, which work.

And in the name of ethanol, don’t pollute Chesapeake Bay with more nitrogen — or with false promises.

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