Fueling the debate

President Bush touts hydrogen as the Holy Grail of alternative fuels, but investors are putting their money on ethanol and biodiesel. A new biodiesel plant will be built near Dexter, Mo., and ethanol facilities are popping up all over the state. One is scheduled for construction near Sikeston, Mo.

Questions remain about the cost of producing ethanol. The plants in operation and under construction make ethanol from corn, which requires the use of fuel and fertilizers to grow. Critics argue that without the huge government subsidies currently available, ethanol would not be an affordable fuel. They also point out that converting corn into ethanol uses more energy than it creates -- a negative energy balance.

Biodiesel is a fuel made from soybeans or other vegetable sources. It can be blended with diesel oil and used in diesel engines with little or no modifications.

Brazil is far ahead of the U.S. in using alternative fuels. About 40 percent of the cars in Brazil operate on 100 percent ethanol produced from sugar cane. The rest of the cars run on an ethanol-gasoline blend. Europeans have outstripped us in the use of biodiesel, a fuel that can reduce carbon dioxide exhaust emissions by up to 80 percent

Currently, both ethanol and biodiesel cost more than gasoline to produce. But as production of ethanol and biodiesel increase, economies of scale will decrease production and distribution costs and thus the price.

Last summer, the National Corn Growers Association organized a debate on the issue of net energy balance. Supporters of ethanol maintained that computing net energy balance makes no sense because all forms of energy aren't equal. Converting coal to electricity has a negative energy balance eight times greater than ethanol's, but that doesn't stop us from making electricity.

Unlike oil, corn and soybeans are renewable resources. Geopolitics has little to say about how much we grow. Developing ethanol and biodiesel can help us reduce our dependence on foreign petroleum to an extent. But their potential should not blind us to the fact that cutting energy consumption -- the average American consumes five times more energy than the average person living elsewhere on the earth -- is the only means that will free the U.S. from its dependence on fossil fuels.