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Calculating X Factors

News about biofuels breaks daily as businesses and governments worldwide rush to find energy alternatives to fossil fuels. "Land of Biofuels" in this issue examines natural resources concerns surrounding production of ethanol, heat, and electricity from plant materials.

Determining the full cost and benefit of new energy technologies will require deliberation over many variables. As our story suggests, we citizens will want to know who is doing the calculations and what X factors are being taken into account. After all, we're not only likely to be consuming the energy produced, but also to be subsidizing it through government programs. And some of us will be living near biomass operations and perhaps breathing the byproducts.

Current environmental and economic conditions make the need for new energy urgent. But in the race to meet consumer demand for energy, we risk bypassing one key component: Efficiency. We need public policies that encourage industries and individuals to conserve and use natural resources efficiently.

Consider cars. Following the worldwide energy crisis stemming from the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the U.S. government required new cars and light trucks to meet minimum fuel economy standards. From 1978 through 1982, manufacturers boosted fuel economy of cars by 34 percent. In the past 25 years, standards have barely changed; and average fuel economy has improved only 17 percent. Meanwhile, about half of the new passenger vehicle market has shifted to SUVs, vans, and pickups, which average fewer miles per gallon than cars do.

Minnesotans have been driving more -- 23 percent more miles per capita from 1990 to 2003, according to the World Resources Institute. As the state's population grows, the roads carry more vehicles. With more people driving more miles, greenhouse gases emitted by Minnesota drivers grew at a faster rate than any other Midwestern state -- even though vehicles in our state use more ethanol, a biofuel that contributes less greenhouse gas than gasoline does.

As the chart on page 17 shows, biofuels are one piece in the puzzle to reduce carbon emissions. Public policy must provide frameworks for large-scale improvements. Last year Minnesota passed several energy-related laws, including one requiring utilities to generate 25 percent of electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar, and biomass by 2025. Now the governors of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other nearby states have joined the Midwestern Regional Greenhouse Gas Reduction Accord to set reduction targets and develop a cap-and-trade system to help reach the targets.

A comprehensive national climate policy is also needed. Robert Repetto, economics professor at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, says carefully crafting the right policy is critical because it is likely to be long-lasting and, therefore, any mistakes will be costly. What X factors should policy-makers identify and count? If, for example, they figure in the full cost (including environmental) of producing and using various fuels, then renewable fuels will become more competitive with fossil fuels.

An effective climate policy will reduce vehicle miles traveled, replace fossil fuels with cleaner alternatives, and improve energy efficiency. It will spark the economy as well as stabilize the climate.

By stabilizing carbon emissions today, we enable future generations to continue cutting carbon, says Eban Goodstein, economics professor at Lewis and Clark College. With this imperative in mind, he is directing Focus the Nation National Teach-in on Jan. 31, a kind of town-hall forum on global-warming solutions. The aim is to engage thousands of students and other citizens in discussions with decision makers. With support from the National Wildlife Federation, the group will air an interactive webcast called 2% Solution the evening of Jan. 30. Teams from colleges, high schools, churches, and households will debate and vote on ideas for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2 percent annually during the next decade.

In the pursuit of a sustainable environment, human energy is another X factor. How much of our collective energy will we devote now -- and in the next generation -- to protecting our natural resources?

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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