Monday, November 19, 2012


By Robyn Cornwell
I could tell you all about how to grow nitrogen-fixing plants during the winter season, like with Austrian field peas or clover. But, that is about all there is to it, and now there is a whole lot of space to fill on this page.
So instead, here is a review of a very interesting book: Alcohol Can Be a Gas! Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century, by David Blume. For all you doubters out there, here is a 1980s newspaper excerpt featuring an interview with Buckminster Fuller who also contributed a forward to David Blumes book:
If you were in charge of the energy program, what would be the first thing youd do? J.I., Anderson, S.C.
B.F.: The first thing to do to solve our energy and gasoline problems is to emulate the Germans in WW II. The Allies cut off the German petroleum supply. The German scientists immediately undertook to employ the natural-energy income from the sun as harvested photo-synthetically by the trees and all other vegetation. The German scientists then produced four kinds of alcohol, and from those alcohols they produced the synthetic rubber, all their high octane gas for their airplanes, all animal foods and plastics in general. Though full records are held by the American intelligence of this operation, none of this is being referred to in the present emergency.
David Blume is a qualified authority: In 1970 he taught his first ecology class; 1978-79 he taught 7,000 people how to produce and use low-cost alcohol fuel at home or on the farm; when KQED (San Francisco public radio) asked David to air a ten-part series Alcohol as Fuel, it was squashed by the oil companies who threatened to pull out their funding! Since 1993 Dave has led the permaculture-based International Institute for Ecological Agriculture that is establishing a biofuels station that offers alcohol fuel in a driver-owned cooperative. He has consulted all over the world and the USA.
Dave busts the myths (all the result of excellent propaganda): 

It takes more energy to produce alcohol than you get from it!
Fact: The most exhaustive study on the energy balance, by Isaias de Carvalho Macedo of Brazil), shows an alcohol energy return of more than eight units of output for every unit of input and this study accounts for everything right down to smelting the ore to make the steel for tractors.

There isnt enough land to grow crops for both food and fuel.

Fact: Upon considering the numerous ways David suggests making fuel from plants (from kelp to mesquite), the real question becomes, After we replace all the gasoline, diesel, and heating oil, do we sell our surplus alcohol to the rest of the world or do we use it to replace all the electricity coming from nuclear and coal plants? Lets do both.

Ethanols an ecological nightmare!

Fact: The major crop for ethanol fuel in the world is sugarcane. Unlike corn, which is an annual crop that must be planted each year, sugarcane is perennial, planted only once every five to ten years, and it can be harvested continually. Since Brazilian and Indian alcohol plants return most of the byproducts of alcohol production to the fields, little fertilizer is needed, and soil builds in fertility rather than loses vigor.

Its food versus fuel crops for food will compete with crops for fuel! We should be growing our crops for starving masses, not cars!

Fact: The first thing to realize is that there is no food shortage and none impending at this point. Anyone can look at world crop production and see that we produce around twice the calories we need to feed everyone. What we do have is a money shortage, since food is a commodity and not a right: Whoever can pay for it gets to buy it. And, note that 87% of the U.S. corn crop is fed to animals even when exported.

Big corporations get all those ethanol subsidies, and taxpayers get nothing in return!

Fact: Alcohol fuel subsidies actually increase government tax receipts, since fuel production is done by U.S. companies, not trans-national corporations with massive tax breaks. And, small-plant economics are especially attractive if the farmer can cut out the middlemen and sell the fuel directly to 500 1000 people locally in a community-supported energy CSE) system. 

Ethanol doesnt substantially improve global warming! In fact, it pollutes the air!

Fact: When using pure alcohol, the reductions in all three of the major pollutants carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides (NOx), and hydrocarbons (HC) are so great that, in many cases, the remaining emissions are unmeasurably small.

So if we use ethanol, we can still keep burning through fuel like the irresponsible consumers we are?!

Fact: The U.S. is consumes the most energy in the world and is one of the greatest users per capita. Even if we can produce all the alcohol we need, we still have to become more responsible with energy use [given the growth rates of India and China]. 

Much of Blumes book is devoted to describing the many crops that can produce much larger amounts of alcohol fuel than a monocultural crop such as corn. States Blume, A key to the success of the permaculture system is crop rotation, where different nutrients are used each season and nothing becomes depleted. Right now, the only common rotation in the Midwest consists of corn and soybeans. As long as much of the organic matter from production is returned to the soil as in permaculture an agricultural system will increase in fertility each year.

Once the level of organic matter in the soil reaches around 5% (much of Americas farmland is currently 2% organic matter which means the soil biology has collapsed), organic farmers need only about five tons of compost per acre per year to maintain fertility. Spread evenly over an acre, this would appear as a light dusting. With more organic matter than that, farmers would build topsoil depth and soil biological activity.
For example, if you were to grow relatively shallow-rooted corn one year, the next year you might grow fodder beets that will go several feet seed, using their huge system of roots to bring potassium and phosphorus up near to the surface. When you harvest the massive 15-pound beet, it is only the top of an inverted conical pyramid of roots that fan out to probably more than three feet in diameter at the soil surface, tapering to a point five feet down.
The part we harvest is less than half the weight of this entire root system. Fungi and earthworms can feed on the many pounds of smaller roots left behind throughout the soil, freeing the phosphorus and potassium for the next crop.
With rotation of crops grown for energy, todays corn farmers will begin to ask themselves, Why not grow 800- to 1000-gallon-per-acre crops like fodder beets, Jerusalem artichokes, or sweet sorghum and still be able to grow a cover crop like fava beans over the winter, to be turned in, providing fertilizer and organic matter to grow the next crop? Why not, when it not only is productive and profitable, but gives us a cleaner environment and healthy soil?
I have only addressed a small portion of this 600-page book that tells you in detail how to go about growing the plants you need, and building the distiller it requires to create your own ethanol, and how to turn the waste into profit. In addition, you can learn how to convert various vehicles to run on 100% ethanol, and he addresses the economic and legal considerations - and more. Perhaps the most interesting part is on creating community-supported energy using a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model something a Transition Town can use!

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