These ‘fuelish’ things: observations for Earth Day

CNS reporter Mark Pattison and photographer Bob Roller arrived in the Midwest this past weekend and are traveling through Iowa and Minnesota for a week for a series of stories on rural America.

ALONG INTERSTATE 35 — Less than six miles into northern Iowa stand dozens upon dozens of wind turbines. Trying to count as I drive to stay with traffic along I-35, I see what must be at least 60 on the east side of the freeway. There are dozens more on one or possibly two “wind farms” on the west side of the freeway.

Another slew of turbines greets motorists on I-35 in the vicinity of Charles City, Iowa. In fact, one of the great optical illusions of all time is the sensation that there’s a wind turbine in the freeway median. It’s not, but only when southbound motorists curve to the left, is it revealed that the turbine is on the right side of the interstate.

These are quite tall wind machines, each with three long blades, to capture the energy in the wind and transfer it to electrical power. They are far from the quaint Dutch windmills that inspired them.

Later, on Interstate 380, I pull off at a Phillips 66 gas station. Here, the big surprise for the non-Iowa native is that mid-grade gasoline is cheaper than regular. Why? Because it includes ethanol derived from corn. Lower price, higher octane says a sticker on the gas pump touting “cleaner air for Iowa” for those who fill up with the mid-grade stuff. I’m sold.

In truth, there has been criticism in some quarters that corn, one of Iowa’s major crops, is being used for fuel instead of for food. The jump in gas prices last year to more than $4 a gallon in many parts of the country made ethanol from corn seem like a viable alternative, even with government subsidies to make ethanol’s price competitive. Now, with gas prices half of what they were last summer, I wonder where corn growers will direct their crop this year.

While corn itself has been viewed as the mover and shaker in ethanol for decades, it’s only the kernels that provide the fuel. If science could find a way to use the cob and render it suitable for fuel, then energy production could achieve a significant breakthrough.

I am reminded of the one passage in the Gospel parable of the prodigal son where the wanton heir, now reduced to feeding pigs on an estate, “longed to fill his belly with the husks” of the corn he was feeding the pigs. An energy-insatiable America continues to strive to find new sources for energy resources. Are we akin to — or kin of — that prodigal son, who squandered his wealth (in our case, energy that could be better stewarded) without looking to the future?

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One Response to These ‘fuelish’ things: observations for Earth Day

  1. Welcome to the Midwest! To answer your question, yes, the farmers in the region will continue to sell to local ethanol refiners, who in turn sell the ethanol to fuel outlets for locals and visitors to use.

    In nearby Minnesota, ALL the gasoline sold at retail stations contains 10% ethanol (state requirement) and the diesel contains 2% biodiesel — a requirement that increases to 5% on May 1.

    Minnesota gets nearly 5% of its electricty from wind, at least 30% of its electricty comes from low or zero emission sources (primarily nukes, but also wind, natural gas and hydro).

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