Corn stoves (really)

These are backordered all over Minnesota. At current wholesale prices, corn (that’s kernels, not the whole plant) and natural gas cost about the same per unit of available energy as fuel. These stoves have automatic auger feeds and can be left alone for a long time, unlike wood stoves, and can burn pelletized fuel like wood as well.

For some reason, I was appalled to learn about this idea when I first heard it. I have no problem with growing trees as combustion fuel for well-designed equipment that doesn’t pollute the air, indeed I have put many cords of nice hardwood up chimneys. I have no problem growing corn as fuel for people, or as fuel for cows grown as fuel for people. I’m slightly uncomfortable, but only slightly, brewing corn into motor fuel, but it never bothered me that corn (and other grains) go into bourbon and beer.

On reflection, I can’t articulate a rational objection to dumping edible corn into a stove if the price is right, but it still seems vaguely immoral, sort of like Rodolfo and Marcello trying to decide whether to burn Rodolfo’s manuscript or Marcello’s painting to keep warm. Am I having an atavistic refugee-mentality attack?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Corn stoves (really)”

  1. A calorie's a calorie. Does the idea of burning ethanol bother you too?

  2. What's wrong is that this is only economical owing to distortionary agricultural subsidies. That guilt you feel is the guilt of burning your fellow citizen's taxes while oppressing farmers in other countries.
    And if it has corn in it, it's not beer…

  3. "I have no problem with growing trees as combustion fuel for well-designed equipment that doesn't pollute the air…"
    Are you serious? Particulate loads in your fireplace smoke are way, way higher than anything a coal power plant, even an old one, puts out. Burning wood (at least in any normal home fireplace) is vastly worse for air quality than burning any 'higher' form of carbon like coal or oil.

  4. you are falling for the "lump of food" fallacy: there is not a fixed amount of food in the world. If burning corn increases the demand, people will grow more, or feed less of it to cows and more of it to people.

  5. Corn grown for livestock feed is not the same as the corn grown for human consumption.
    Regarding subsidies, I am reminded of a brouhaha in eastern North Dakota in, roughly, the 80s. A diversion of Missouri River water to the area had been promised. The increased water would have allowed the farmers to not grow corn more profitably than they were currently not growing wheat.
    The diversion never happened, so I guess they have had to survive by not growing wheat.

  6. > Are you serious? Particulate loads in your
    > fireplace smoke are way, way higher than
    . anything a coal power plant, even an old
    > one, puts out.
    Are you including enclosed wood stoves with catalytic converters in your list? Those units are fairly clean, although they usually _don't receive the manufacturer's specificed maintenance (unlike a well-designed and maintained coal plant).

  7. Trust me, not all corn is edible. I should know, I actually was a farm boy from Minnesota, until I became a victim of the failed war on drugs. Thanks Kleiman……

  8. People raised on the west coast think corn is cuddly, sweet, and, if cooked promptly, the best thing to eat.
    Then you go east and someone says to you "That's not corn, that's maize" when you admire the 8-foot crop filling the fields. O well, you could never eat that much corn anyway.

  9. Corn (Zea mays) has, not surprisingly, been bred into several varieties, roughly divided into sweet corn (what you rush from the garden to the boiling water with to eat off the cob) and field corn (what goes into ethanol and animals and stoves). But field corn also feeds people directly in the form of corn muffins, tortillas, and Indian Pudding–anything made with corn meal or corn flour–and after more processing, as corn syrup and cornstarch.
    Dairy farmers frequently munch up the whole (field corn) plant and store it in silos over the winter for the cows to eat during the winter. By the spring, it's fermented enough for the ladies to have quite a buzz on after lunch.

  10. Outside the US, the word "corn" refers to any grain and the plant we denote by it is called "maize", spelled variously in different languages. The "corn laws" that drove so many Irish here had nothing to do with maize.

  11. …and while I'm on language: any fermented grain is beer, and some commercial beers, especially in Mexico, contain maize; distilled beer is generically whiskey; if more than half maize, it's bourbon. Fermented fruit is wine, distilled wine is brandy. Sake is a (flat) beer. Rum, pulque, and tequila (from neither fruit nor grain)confound this classification, just more evidence that Columbus was nothing but a troublemaker, and in so many ways…

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