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Beyond Ethanol: Alternative Energy Strategies

Enterprise Rent-A-Car employee Antawon Randall fills up with E85 flex-fuel in Washington, D.C., in August 2007.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car employee Antawon Randall fills up with E85 flex-fuel in Washington, D.C., in August 2007.

Ethanol has been a cornerstone of U.S. energy strategy for decades, but the process of creating ethanol from corn is less energy-efficient than other possible sources, like switchgrass and other "woody" plants.

And ethanol is just one part of the alternative-energy mix, which also includes wind power and fuel cells, says Ira Flatow, host of NPR's Talk of the Nation Science Friday. Energy is one of the topics in Flatow's new book, Present at the Future.

One problem with using corn to make ethanol is that it is also a major food source. More corn going to ethanol means less going to food, which drives up food prices, Flatow tells Steve Inskeep.

"A lot of farmers who might be selling their corn to the food companies are now holding back and selling it to the ethanol companies," Flatow says. "There's so much corn you can grow, and in fact, corn is not the best thing you can use and not the best plant source to make ethanol. It's not very good at returning the bang for your buck and people say, 'Let's grow something else.'"

"Corn is very labor intensive ... but you also have to fertilize it. It takes energy to do that. You have to harvest it, you have to transport it," Flatow says. All that uses energy that "subtracts from the amount of energy you get out," he adds.

Scientists are researching genetically engineered crops that would be tailor-made for creating ethanol, "but it doesn't seem as corn is going to be it," Flatow says.

Switchgrass, willow trees and other "woody plants" are other possible sources. But scientists haven't developed ways to easily break down the cellulose inside these plants, Flatow says.

But ethanol is only one part of the solution to the problems of energy and climate change.

In the absence of a national energy policy, some states are looking for solutions on their own — Texas and California are among the states pushing ahead on wind power, for example. And wind-generated energy could end up being used to transfer energy to fuel cells that power automobiles, Flatow says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.