I was cutting up through eastern North Dakota on I-29 one fine winter day on my way to my family’s farm. There wasn’t much to look at except miles of flat, snow-encrusted farm land, which made the fading billboard signs along the low-trafficked road stick out like neglected lunar flag poles. The blank backdrop of landscape drew my attention to the many promotions and advertisements for higher education, pro-volunteerism, pro-life, the Army, and of course, farming.
One billboard stuck out to me more than the rest. It read: “Be an American. Use Ethanol.”
I laughed. It struck me hilarious to associate fuel consumption with patriotism, and yet appropriate; a fitting command for our deeply consumerist, highly capitalistic nation.
However, the advertisement was effective. It captured my curiosity and made me think about the meaning behind its message for the remainder of the drive.
“Be an American. Use Ethanol.” The statement sunk in, most probably because my husband and I have been thinking about buying a new car. I have been torn between the fuel efficiency and green energy of a hybrid, and the dependability of an all-wheel drive vehicle in our treacherous Minnesota winters. How I wish these features could be combined! I even caught myself fantasizing about operating a hybrid tractor some day.
I realized that during my trip from Minneapolis that day, the farther I drove away from the city, the fewer hybrids littered the roads. And after some ruminating, conversing, and researching this topic, I have found this observation is not just a result of people opting for 4-wheel traction.
Biofuel Stakeholder Loyalty. In rural America, farmers produce the corn, soybeans, and other crops that are used to manufacture alternative ethanol and diesel fuels. And like any other stakeholder, it would be silly not to support and consume the products of the industry in which they are investing.
Diesel over Gasoline. Those big and loud diesel pickups are not just a farm boy stereotype. They actually get better gas mileage than gasoline- and ethanol-powered engines. Not only are diesel pickups popular on farms, but most farm machinery runs on diesel. Add to that diesel made from biomass and my previous point on stakeholder loyalty, and I dare you to ask why hybrid-vehicle demand is not growing in rural America.
Carbon Footprint Debunked. Farmers have such an intimate understanding of energy and what it costs to produce it. Afterall, how many of us know the number of gallons of diesel it takes just to grow food for the average person’s annual consumption? This is why I asked my father to share his thoughts on what kind of car my husband and I should drive. His response: it takes energy to make energy. Even if electric and hybrid vehicles get better gas mileage or give off fewer emissions than their liquid-fuel-guzzling counterparts, the electricity used to recharge those vehicles was most likely produced from petroleum.
He’s right. It takes 2.62* gallons of petroleum or 36.4* pounds of coal to produce just 1 gasoline gallon equivalent of electricity. Thirty-six pounds is about how much both my legs weigh. This really brings a new meaning to the phrase: “It costs an arm and a leg!”
In the future, it would be great if more sources of renewable energy were responsible for recharging our hybrid and electric vehicles, but as of 2011, petroleum supplied 93% of energy to the transportation sector in the United States, whereas renewable energy (hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, wind, and biomass) supplied only 4%.**
Given these statistics, I am surprised there is as much loyalty among farmers to the biofuel industry. But I hope their loyalty is a sign that renewable energy production will soon be on the rise. Clearly, there is still room for improvement when it comes to renewable energy and motor vehicle technologies.
I’m disappointed about these findings. Since the hybrid was introduced, I have wanted to drive one. It feels like the right thing to do for those of us who are environmentally conscious, but the statistics show a small difference between hybrid and traditional-vehicle petroleum consumption. The only real difference is that hybrid drivers are a step away from the actual consumption—the petroleum is consumed at a power plant, not in their Chevy Volt. As someone who grew up on a farm, I’d rather get my own hands dirty.
Since the hybrid-versus-fuel debate appears to be a wash, I think we’ll hold out on buying a new car for the time being, no matter how unAmerican it may be.
Photo credit: sayanythingblog.com