Economic historian and author Neil Reynolds comments on the thinking of U.S. energy analyst Robert Bryce. In Energy is a second harvest we learn that Bryce regards the real environmentalists are those who promote the best use of the globe’s land to feed its growing population.


The real environmentalists, says U.S. energy analyst Robert Bryce, are farmers who use pesticides. Writing in the winter issue of City Journal, magazine of the Manhattan Institute, Mr. Bryce notes that global production of cereal crops doubled between 1968 and 2005 though agricultural acreage remained the same: 3.7 billion acres. Citing U.S. Department of the Interior research, he reports that – without chemically intensive agriculture – the world would have needed another 4.3 billion acres to feed itself in the same 40-year period. “Where in the world – literally – would we have found an extra 4.3 billion acres of land,” he asks, “an area just slightly smaller than South America?”

In his  latest essay  (Get Dense), he argues that the environmental assessment of any fuel must include its “power density” – the amount of energy that can be harnessed from any given amount of land. He says that corn ethanol, for example, produces only 0.05 watts per square metre of land. By contrast, a small natural-gas well (producing only 60,000 cubic feet of gas a day) has a power density of 28 watts per square metre.

Indeed, the power density of ethanol is so low that, in 2011, the U.S. corn-ethanol industry needed to convert “a mind-boggling 4.9 billion bushels of grain” to produce 0.6 per cent (in energy equivalent terms) of global oil production. The industry used more than 40 per cent of U.S. corn production for fuel. “That’s more corn,” Mr. Bryce says, “than the combined outputs of the European Union, Mexico, Argentina and India.”

Writing last year in Scientific American, Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, reported that heavily subsidized production of biofuels has almost doubled the demand for grain and sugar in the past seven years. “Our primary obligation is to feed the hungry,” he asserted. “Biofuels are undermining our ability to do so.”

Governments think differently. “We can break our dependence on oil,” President Barack Obama declared last year, “with biofuels.” Congress authorized $7-billion in subsidies to prove him right. The administration now favours celluloid (switchgrass) ethanol over corn ethanol – but gargantuan quantities would be required to make much of a difference. Mr. Bryce says you would need to harvest every square inch of Illinois (36.9 million acres) to replace 10 per cent of U.S. oil consumption.

From the same perspective, you would need to build 770 square miles of wind turbines to produce the electricity now supplied by the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which supplies the city of New York with 30 per cent of its electricity. Indian Point’s power density? Mr. Bryce puts it at 2,000 watts per square metre. But wind turbines use (and, some argue, despoil) more than large stretches of land. Each turbine weighs 200 tons and generates 0.02 megawatts of electricity per ton. By comparison, General Electric’s LM6000 natural gas-fired turbine weighs nine tons and generates 4.7 megawatts per ton (or 230 times as much).

Thus, the folk who drill natural-gas wells and who operate nuclear power plants are, for Mr. Bryce, real environmentalists, too. It’s an interesting perspective. Our air is obviously a precious thing. But so is our land. Mr. Bryce gives new meaning to an oft-claimed (but honestly elusive) iconic environmental designation: friends of the Earth.

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1 Comment on A Perpective on Energy and Efficient Land Use for Food Production

  1. Elroy Jetson says:

    Our energy problems won’t be resolved until we’ve effected some substantial repairs to our political systems. Political posturing and pandering wastes more time and resources than we can afford to throw away. The grim truth is that it is difficult to find a balanced perspective on these problems in any forum, this one being an exception. Tough times won’t be getting easier as this drags on.