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Ireland and Kentucky: Contrasting Biofuel and Energy Plans

November 17, 2009

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

Thanks to Anna Galovich for a Spanish translation of this article.

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

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.

Ireland and Kentucky Energy Use

Ireland uses a third as much energy as Kentucky and emits half as much 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.

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.

These impacts cannot be taken lightly, but if a region is willing to dedicate 16% of its farmland to feedstock production, I would far rather see its efforts result in a 19% reduction in fossil fuel use than a 2% reduction.

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, 1960-2008, with several forecasts to 2025.

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, its efforts will have far greater impact if it can dramatically reduce its energy demand. Kentucky has learned a lot from Ireland in the past. Perhaps the Bluegrass state can 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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 8, 2014 7:02 pm

    So, include it in your green lifestyle mottos. An increase in soil fertility
    is also another benefit of organic farming which is essential to farmers and gardeners alike.
    He’s also worked for Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.
    Organic farming practices help prevent the loss of topsoil through erosion. The
    most widespread use of biopesticides is in the US.

  2. February 11, 2011 4:24 pm

    The concept is fine and everyone is theoretically favorable,
    but this proposal never was realistic and especially now, post economic meltdown in Southern Ireland, this is impossible.

  3. April 20, 2010 6:03 am

    I like the idea of Biofuel. But the problem I have is how is this going to affect the other areas of agriculture. If we are going to use the existing farmlands to grow seeds which are used to create biofuels, I afraid what affect it will create on the food problem we have even today.

    Requirement for food is going to increase with the increased population. Land is going to shrink with the population growth too. If we are going to use this already shrunk lands to produce biofuels what will be the effect to the world?

  4. March 24, 2010 4:07 pm

    To get the Irish farmers on board for something like this will take more than a whitepaper, sound statistics and sound logic. The Irish farmer has been used to the molly coddling of the Irish government for far too long. I see a lot of subsidies, grants and financial encouragements needed. With the state of the Irish economy at the moment, this aint going to happen for a long time. Their precious stone walls will be safe.

  5. December 19, 2009 7:57 am

    It’s quite strange that there is no debate about whether efficiency improvement generally save resources or multiply our leverage to use more things and result in growing resource uses. The latter is 150 year old well demonstrated economic science. The direct cause and effect is rather clear and the data even clearer.

    The reason we improve the efficiencies of things is nearly always to let us do more with less, after all. The numbers say that saving 1 gallon of gas by making our energy use more efficient lets the economy build 2.5 times as many new uses for gas. Look over and follow links from

  6. rorourke permalink
    November 22, 2009 12:39 pm

    Nice post Michael, TOD are interested in these kinds of articles if you’re not already publishing there. May I post a copy on the ASPO Ireland website?
    Regards, Richard
    ASPO Ireland

  7. Steve Smity permalink
    November 20, 2009 9:36 am

    This article goes along with everything else that we do in KY. We are the last and worst in everything that we do why should we be different in our energy use.

    • November 20, 2009 12:59 pm

      Why so defeatist? Kentucky has produced some of the greatest writers and thinkers on sustainability (Wendell Berry, Barbara Kingsolver, Thomas Merton); musical genres that have spread worldwide (Old Time and Bluegrass); world-famous distilleries; the best boxer of all time (Muhammad Ali); its share of celebrities (Johnny Depp, George Clooney, Loretta Lynn, Wynonna Judd); and one of the most notable presidents of the USA (Abraham Lincoln). The state is seeing a renaissance in sustainable agriculture, with farmers markets, CSAs, and organic farms sprouting and thriving. Kentucky comes closer to maintaining a genuine small farm culture than most of the rest of the country. My comparison between Kentucky and Ireland isn’t intended to make Kentucky look bad, so much as to point out where we could be, if we point ourselves in a more sustainable direction. There are plenty of people in Kentucky with the vision, drive, and knowledge to get us there.


  1. Energy: Driving less, using more for food « Bluegrass reVISIONS

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