Twas likely a week of family gatherings for many, and I'd imagine many spent a fair bit filling up their tanks to make it to said gatherings. Indeed fuel prices have risen high compared to a slouch of a year when fewer people were driving anywhere under what was then a 9-month-old pandemic. To a degree, this story plays out for every generation — my own father used to tell stories of filling up his motorcycle, buying a candy bar at the counter, paying with a five and getting change back — but it's hard to deny there's a little more wincing these days as we watch the numbers tick by on the pump.
And just as the Thanksgristmas rush was about to begin, President Biden tries to give us some relief on that front by calling for some of the Strategic Oil Reserves to be used. On the one hand, I'm pleased he's trying to do something. On the other, I'm perplexed by his method. Granted, officials in the current administration have essentially called the reserve's release a band-aid solution, but it just seems an odd thing to do given the president's earlier intentions to transition federal fleets to electric vehicles.
And frankly, I had some issues with that move myself.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all for renewable fuels. The way I figure, some day — maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow but someday and for the rest of our lives — there won't be any more fossil fuels left on the planet for us to drill or mine, and we'll have to make some kind of switch whether we believe in the renewable cause or not. So there's no reason to not take a serious look at alternative energy in its many forms. That said, I think our president's aiming a little bit off-target in this case — tried to jump up to the top of the ladder rather than take one or two rungs at a time.
His push toward electric vehicles gets at the visible outcome of change, but not the substance.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration says the United States only got about 17 percent of its electricity from renewables in 2019 — that's wind, solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and biomass combined. More than half our electricity that year was generated by fossil fuels, specifically coal and natural gas. Of course, electric cars are appealing for environmental policy changes, since they don't actually create greenhouse emissions in and of themselves. But — so far as I know — coal and natural gas sure do, and that's what's generating the electricity that charges those electric cars.
While it sounds like a good idea to combat climate change by transitioning to electric vehicles, it's akin to changing your shirt because you need to take a shower — it's a necessary part of the equation, but it's only effective when it's done at the right time.
Our infrastructure, and for that matter large portions of our economy, is still based on burning coal and gas. Until that changes, electric vehicles are still going to be relying on the very fossil fuels they're supposed to be weaning us off of in the first place. We just won't have to think about that fact quite as much.
But, there are some bright spots, especially here in Iowa.
Our state's got a leg up in many ways in the renewables game. The Energy Information Administration said we made 34 percent of our electricity from wind power in 2018 — just 11 percent behind coal that year. That's a much easier gap to stride than the national average. Plus, we're also the leading producer of ethanol and biodiesel in the country — granted there's a difference between cleaner emissions and no emissions when it comes to fuels, but like I said, one or two risers at a time, Joe. And while many of us remember how frozen wind turbines were blamed for the power outages in Texas earlier this year, let's just remember that Iowa — which we're all aware has freezing temps far more often than our friends down south do in any given year — somehow managed to produce a greater percentage of its electricity from wind than the Lone Star State, despite being the smaller state and having fewer turbines. The percentage of Iowa's power that was generated from wind was more than twice that of Texas, according to the government's stats, but Texas has about three times as many wind turbines in place.
That says to me that the Hawkeye State is already poised to be one of the largest producers of renewable wind power, and other renewable sources have potential for growth here too. Even here in the Lakes Area, it's not hard to fire off a short list of businesses that have installed solar panels on their roofs to offset costs — even some local homeowners have successfully gone that route. So, long story short, Iowa could very well become the horse that pulls the energy industry cart in the future and puts meaning behind those electric cars Biden is so keen on — or at least was at one point.
But that's going to mean change — likely some major change.
Ethanol isn't quite so valuable a product if cars aren't burning anything but stiff winds and sunbeams. We've put a lot of our eggs in the corn and ethanol baskets both here and abroad. Iowa produced more than five times as many bushels of corn in 2019 than we did soybeans, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture — to the tune of about 2.58 billion bushels of the golden grain. So it's not all that surprising how many statements our federal legislators have made in the past year, criticizing the Biden administration for leaving Iowa's ethanol industry on the platform — of a totally solar powered commuter train, of course. But they've got a point. I've done the math before, and that year's corn production would fill more than 36,000 Olympic swimming pools with corn kernels. So needless to say, swapping out our state's flagship product from the tall corn to the tall turbine would mean a lot of changes for a lot of Iowans.
But we've done it before.
Iowa's farm scene wasn't always the monoculture it is now. My dad — the same one who rode a motorcycle while eating a candy bar before I came along — used to tell me stories about how the rolling hills of northeast Iowa once looked like a patchwork quilt with various crops planted next to one another. Even I remember being able to walk through crop rows about a shoulder's width wide in my younger days. Not so much any more on either count. At some point, many Iowa farmers put pen to paper, did the math for their own operation and decided corn was the best option.
It might not always be that way, and our current situation seems to shine at least a sliver of light on that possibility.
Today, new markets are dawning. New products are selling. The country and the world needed our corn in years past and they'll still need it in the future, but they may not always need it quite as badly. Our lawmakers are right in that Iowa's ethanol can potentially take some notable pressure off rising gasoline prices. And they're right that so far the president's largely let ethanol sit on the bench. Ethanol may not be the end solution to our energy crisis, but I'd agree it very much can be a sturdy step on the ladder. So I'd say — and mind you I'm no expert — it might behoove us to begin adjusting our habits, retraining our industry workers and preparing for what lies ahead. Best to do it now before opportunity gets here and finds Iowa less than ready to take the lead in a sprouting industry.
I've heard many an economic authority speak on how to best attract people to Iowa. Just a few weeks ago, Iowa Economic Development Authority Director Debi Durham was right here in Arnolds Park, and she said one of the reasons businesses should be enticed toward Iowa is our ability to help them meet their carbon reduction goals. Again, whether you believe in the cause or not, businesses are moving in that direction, and Iowa can position itself to offer what few other states can.
At the moment anyway.
So, yes, it's easy to scoff at Biden's intention to transition entirely to electric vehicles — especially when he decides to open some 50 million barrels of oil the way some of us toss out our New Year's resolution about diet and exercise. But once upon a time, it was also pretty easy to scoff at generating more than a third of our state's power from the wind.
Sometimes it's easy to dismiss at an opportunity before it's ripe. Fortunately, Iowans don't always do the easy thing.