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Ireland and Kentucky: Contrasting Biofuel and Energy Plans

Ireland: Dublin at night (top); Irish whiskey, drystone wall, potato field (bottom)

Ireland and Kentucky have a surprising amount in common, but they’re charting very different courses for their energy future. Ireland is a moderate energy consumer with a plan to reduce its energy use. Kentucky is a profligate energy user planning to increase its consumption. Biofuels play a big part in the energy plans for both, but will likely have different impacts.

Ireland and Kentucky both have just over 4 million inhabitants and about 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of farmland. Kentucky is about 50% bigger than Ireland, but more of it is forested.

Kentucky: Bourbon whiskey, drystone wall, tobacco field (top); Louisville at night (bottom)

Both have two large cities, with most people living in small towns and villages. Ireland has Dublin and Cork (metro pop. 1.6 and 0.3 million, respectively); Kentucky has Louisville and Lexington (metro pop. 1.2 and 0.5 million, respectively).

Ireland and Kentucky have a similar population and amount of farmland.

Both have a lot of farms, relative to most of the USA. Ireland has about 130,000 farms; Kentucky has about 80,000. For purposes of comparison, the USA has seven farms per thousand people, Kentucky has 20, and Ireland has 30.

Both Ireland and Kentucky have old fields delineated by dry stone fences. This isn’t coincidence: Irish immigrants built many of the fences that criss-cross Kentucky today.

Both take their fermentation and distillation seriously. Irish whiskey and Kentucky Bourbon have long histories, and are prized by connoisseurs the world over. Again, Kentucky’s Irish immigrants are partly responsible for this shared characteristic.

Ireland, with a per capita GDP of $44,000, is wealthier than Kentucky, where the per capita GDP is $32,000. Kentucky has a larger proportion of it’s population living below the poverty line (16% vs. 10% in Ireland). Both struggle with unemployment, which is pushing 11% in Kentucky and 13% in Ireland.

Kentucky uses much more energy than Ireland, and emits more greenhouse gas.

Ireland and Kentucky both have highly industrialized economies that make them vulnerable to energy supply disruptions or shortages. Both plan to use biofuels to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and offset a portion of their future fossil fuel consumption. This is where Ireland and Kentucky start to look pretty different.

Ireland currently uses just one-third as much energy as Kentucky, and emits half as much greenhouse gas. An energy white paper released by the Irish government in 2007 announced a plan to reduce energy use by another 20% by 2020. A similar document released by Kentucky’s governor in 2008 announced a plan to increase energy consumption by 15% by 2025. Using logic from an Andy Capp comic strip, the governor reasoned that Kentucky’s energy consumption would increase by 40% without his plan, so a 15% increase actually represents an efficiency gain.

Kentucky's energy use, 1990-2005, with governor's plan to 2025. Figure from governor's energy plan released in 2008.

According to a paper published last week in the new open-access journal Sustainability, Ireland can grow enough biofuel feedstock on 16% of its farmland to meet 19% of its 2020 energy demand, if it accomplishes its energy reduction goals. This compares with an analysis I presented at the Kentucky Academy of Science meeting last Saturday, concluding that 17% of Kentucky’s farmland will grow enough feedstock to meet less than 2% of Kentucky’s 2025 energy demand, if Kentucky follows through with its plan.

The Irish paper acknowledges tradeoffs associated with increasing Ireland’s biofuel feedstock production. Comparatively low-value biofuel feedstock crops will have to be produced with less labor than traditional Irish crops, requiring Irish farmers to use more farm machinery and increase the size of their fields. That will mean tearing down some of those ancient stone walls, which provide undisturbed habitat for a diverse array or organisms, and help sequester carbon in the soil. The authors warn that increasing Ireland’s average field size from its current 3.8 hectares to a more labor efficient 5 hectares (9 to 12 acres) will eliminate 20,000 hectares (49,000 acres) of habitat and release 171,000 metric tons of sequestered carbon from the soil. The new feedstock crops will displace much of the grazing land that has long dominated Ireland’s landscape.

In conducting their analysis, the authors of the Irish paper assume that canola will be grown no more than one year in four, to maintain a crop rotation that prevents disease build-up. This contrasts with Kentucky’s plan for a double-cropped rotation of canola and sunflower, which are both susceptible to stem rot caused by the fungus Sclerotinia sclerotiorum. Kentucky’s plan will get more biodiesel feedstock out of each acre in the short term, while Ireland’s plan is more likely to be sustainable over the long term.

Kentucky’s plan focuses on production of ethanol and biodiesel for liquid transportation fuel, while Ireland intends to devote only one-quarter of its feedstock acreage to liquid fuel and the rest to heat and electricity. Ireland will get much more energy bang from each acre by adopting this approach, but Kentucky plans to continue to rely on coal and natural gas for its heat and electricity.

Kentucky energy use, 1960-2007, with several forecasts to 2025. Data to 2007 from US Department of Energy.

I am convinced that Kentucky’s plan is unrealistic and unsustainable. Kentucky cannot continue to use more and more energy each year, regardless of its best-laid plans. My analysis of Kentucky’s energy use since 1960 shows that the state’s consumption is actually levelling off, and is probably more likely to fall than rise if current trends continue. Like the rest of the country, Kentucky promptly cut its energy consumption in response to the 1973 and 1979 energy price shocks, and didn’t resume growth in energy consumption until 1986. Since the 2008 price shock, the USA has already reduced its energy consumption by a remarkable 9%, and Kentucky likely played its part.

If Kentucky is serious about ramping up its biofuel production, it will get far more from its efforts if it can dramatically reduce its energy demand. Kentucky has learned a lot from Ireland in the past. Perhaps the Bluegrass state needs to take another lesson from the Emerald Isle.

The opinions expressed in this post are mine alone, and do not reflect those of my employer, Kentucky State University. Apart from the figure from the governor’s energy plan, all figures are by me and are available for use as part of the Creative Commons.

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