Industrial Biofuels Not the Answer

Exponentially growing conventional energy demands can not met by harvesting biomass which is not in surplus. The benefits of corn based ethanol are marginal given energy necessary for production, oil palm [search] and soy [search] biofuel plantations are devastating rainforests, cellulosic ethanol will be yet one more massive drain upon already ravaged global forests and the productive land base available to natural ecosystems and food agriculture, and even at this early stage of adoption the use of food crops for biofuels is resulting in agricultural price increases [more | more2]. When harvests are bad as they will be shall we eat or drive? There are several simultaneous ecological crises occuring including climate change, terrestrial habitat loss, soil loss and degradation and water scarcity. Biofuels have marginal positive impacts on the former while intensifying all of the latter. Solar energy is best harvested through photovoltaics, as we can not feed ourselves, maintain life giving ecosystems and fuel the world from plant materials. Climate change will only be solved through reductions in population [search] and consumption [search], much increased energy efficiency and conservation, massive renewable energy investment, and dramatically cutting greenhouse gas emissions ASAP including leaving coal in the ground. Lets get past the easy feel good do nothing fixes and move to sustainability solutions.

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16 Responses

  1. ewoc says:

    Accurate observations, Glen.
    Biofuels will present a viable alternative to petroleum based fuels only in limited circumstances, in my view (and that of many other analysts concerned w/global heating). The most recent figures I've seen cited showed that switching US soybean production to make biodiesel (as in 100% of current acreage!) would produce only about 6% of US diesel fuel needs for transport (ignoring heating oil consumption), while conversion of ALL US acreage in corn (maize) to ethanol would replace only about 12% of US gasoline consumption at current levels. So using food crops to achieve so-called “energy independence” represents an illusory goal at best.
    The above largely ignores the embedded energy cost of producing biofuels, which are of course subject to considerable debate. But we know that growing food crops for fuel needs requires significant fossil fuels inputs at every stage, from farming to processing to transportation of fuel supplies. The only likely source of feedstock that is both climate and net-energy friendly might be cellulosic ethanol, but this approach is still in the research stage.
    Unfortunately, a large % of VC money is going into conventional ethanol production (witness the major interest by several Silicon Valley bigwigs, and even by Warren Buffett; they can smell profit without being concerned with the ultimate impact on our climate system or on food production trends) and as long as there are subsidies to be gleaned, this area will be quite profitable.
    Hopefully we will realize the downside of conventional biofuels before too much money and attention goes in this ultimately diversionary direction.

  2. Steve Savage says:

    Although Glen is right to be skeptical about biofuels from food crops, one should not dismiss cellulosic biofuels so quickly. Yes of course conservation is critical, but in addition we can produce a great deal of our energy needs with perennial grasses – dedicated energy crops that can be grown in environmentally friendly ways. Conservation and population stabilization alone won't get us where we need to be.

  3. Almuth Ernsting says:

    I agree with everything else said, but would question whether biofuels have 'marginal positive impacts' on climate change emissions.
    Everything I have read suggests that biofuels are likely to significantly accelerate global warming. Even at today's early stages, we see accelerated deforestation, peat drainage in the tropics, massive N2O emissions as more fertilisers are used, particularly in the tropics (N2O emissions per hectare are 10-100 times high in the tropics and this is 310 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO2), soil carbon emissions from more extensive and intensive agriculture, etc. There's a good newsletter about this here: http://www.wrm.org.uy/ (bulletin – November).

  4. Dick Russell says:

    Glen, there a holes in your argument. I'm not saying you are wrong, but I am saying that you are not totally right. I currently run my truck (2006 Dodge 2500 w/cummings diesel engine) my tractor (1988 Satoh) and my sailboat (1983 Catalina 27) on biodiesel. Why, you ask, is a sailboat burning diesel? I've been called dangerous (some say totally incompetent) with a tiller in my hand and a breeze in my sails. I use the auxiliary in and out of port. I make the biodiesel in a shed out behind the house from used coking oil that a trio of restauranteers are delighted to have me haul away. The process ain't rocket science. But it does mean that I'm not beholden to Exxon-Mobil.
    On a grand scale. like most of you live, biofuel from the conglomerates is probably not a viable solution. The conglomerates are not going to go away from petro, where they have major investments, until they have sucked all the dollars out of the system. And, where and when they do produce biofuels, they're going to keep the price artifically high. It's called maximizing profits.
    But, for those of us who neither bitch, whine, cry or complain, but rather live the good life that comes from doing things for ourselves, biodiesel is an answer. For me, it's a 78 cent per gallon answer. Eat your heart out.
    As to the food or fuel issue, it's a non-starter. First most of the soy and maize grown in this country and that which is exported, doesn't go to feed humans. It's feed for livestock. Excluding pigs and chickens, the livestock are all herbivores. They don't need grain at all. The only reason for feeding herbivores grain is to fatten then quicker. My flock of sheep, which I have because I like the taste of lamb, have never eaten other than mother's milk, grass and winter hay. My lamb burgers taste waaaayyy better than anything you'll ever buy at Mickey D's. Point is, we are not going to cut into food production by converting oil grains from the food chain.
    And, even if we insisted that we still needed to feed grain to herbivores, the meal left from oil production is still a viable animal feed as is the spent mash from ethanol production.
    If you'll look more closely at the food vs fuel issue, you'll find that it is a bogus issue.
    A side issue to the above. I do feed my hens grain. But I do it for my pleasure. I like to watch them scratching and pecking around me. Several years back, I cut out all feed to the flock for several months. Egg production fell just a tad less than 20%. On the scale that I raise chickens (a home flock), two more hens put total egg production right back where it was.
    As to your concerns regarding CO2 production. Biofuels do emit greenhouse gasses. These, however, are current greenhouse gasses. CO2 released from burning fuels made from biomass is mearly releasing CO2 that the biomass absorbed. It's the same CO2 going around and around and around again. No gain, no loss.
    And finally, the ridiculous argument that we would still be burning petrofuels to produce biofuels. Farmers really don't think like that. My grandfather was a tobacco farmer. He smoked cigarettes all his (shortened) life even though he knew they were killing him. “American Tobacco supports me. I'm gonna support American Tobacco.” The farmer whose beans are going to the biodiesel plant is going to burn biodiesel in his tractor.
    Other than that, though, you write some pretty good stuff. Systems are collapsing. Lots of folks aren't going to make it through. But my guess is that it's going to be them that are the problem who are going to become extinct. City folks, I have in mind. Those with soft lifestyles and soft bellies. Those who consume much but produce little if anything. Those who have no idea how to produce their food or even where it comes from. They are going to be Gaia's safety valve. They are going to die. And good ridance.
    But those who know just where in the hay loft the hen hides her egg or who can dig a juicy turnip out of sheep manured ground or who canned a mess of blackeyed peas before he cut the haulms for winter fodder, those folks are going to do just fine. Be happy. Don't worry. But, change your trashy lifestyle before it's too late.
    RESPONSE: Thanks Dick. I fully support locally produced biofuels. It is the industrial product which I worry will further undermine ecosystems without doing much to change our energy habits.

  5. ewoc says:

    Hi Dick,
    Tractors built before the year 2000 generally cannot be run w/biodiesel – their rubber seals will rot away pretty quickly. I have seven tractors for my farm operation – we run all the newer tractor on biodiesel made locally, but not the older ones – we've seen others have major problems.
    As to the survivability of rural vs. urban folks, I wouldn't want to bet on that one. Lots of rural folks in my area (Pacific NW) could not survive w/out a Safeway for their “food products.” And while some farmers here are quite adaptable, others are addicted to the system just like city folks. But your point is well taken overall.

  6. Reading these comments on biofuels the impression one receives is that that they are of only limited value in halting global warming. The other message if that global warming is unstoppable and inevitable. Those are the beliefs a petroleum sales man would want you to have. Is that just a coincident?
    My book PRIORITY ONE Together We Can Beat Global Warming and the compact summary of the book titled STRAIGHT TALKING, clearly demonstrate that global warming and climate change chaos can indeed be stopped and fixed. Both these publications have been made available and can be read on line or down loaded from http://www.yeomansplow.com.au
    For the oil, gas, coal and agrochemical industries to continue to exist, and even possibly expand, it is a prerequisite that global warming be allowed to continue unencumbered. Their sculptured public relations message on biofuels is “all very nice but—“.
    The first PR claim is that biofuels consume as much fossil fuels and oil derived agrochemicals in their production, as the useful fuel they produce. This argument is based on, and depends on, a mishmash of well structured misinformation. Their arguments are simply not true.
    To fix global warming we should sequester the excess carbon dioxide out of the air and convert it into valuable soil humus. Organic type agricultural practices do this very effectively. ( Go to PRIORITY ONE and read Chapter 8.) This way our sugarcane and ethanol grain crops don't use any agrochemicals whatever.
    The other argument is based on the presumption that the tractor, the harvesters, the delivery vehicles and everything else in the system, all have to run on petroleum derived fuels. Not so. They too should run on biofuels. This all means that no fossil carbon based product is needed or required in the production of biofuels.
    We can accept the use of the relatively tiny quantity of lubricating oils, but that's all.
    The United States imports most of its petroleum fuels. If there is a change to ethanol, why is it so strenuously argued that this ethanol has to be produced from home grown corn?
    With grain ethanol we harvest the plant's seeds. With sugar cane we harvest the much more plentiful sap. All things being considered, sugar cane is the logical source.
    From a well-managed sugarcane farm, we can produce 7,500 litres of ethanol per hectare, per year. Every year.
    From a well-managed oil palm plantation we can produce 4,500 litres of oil per hectare, per year. Every year.
    Both biodiesel and ethanol can be produced for around 40 to 50 cents per litre here in Australia. South American prices are similar. With oil at say US$65 a barrel, just the raw material for the production of petrol is 45 cents per litre. And it still has to be distilled into useable fuel. And it's not yet delivered. It's sitting in a storage facility in some port in the Middle East.
    Now, today, tropical countries could grow and distill all the transport fuel the whole world uses, and all with a cost structure much the same as petroleum based fuels.
    Brazil's Amazon Basin could supply the whole world's requirement for transport fuels by growing sugarcane and African palm oil. The arithmetic is clear-cut. For the oil industry, isn't that a good reason to “protect” the fictional lungs of the world.
    Grow biofuels on one-twentieth of the worlds land and we could close down every oil well on the planet. Up the fertility of just those biofuel soils by 10% and we could normalize atmospheric carbon dioxide levels simultaneously.
    So, by utilizing just some of the tropical Amazon Basin, Brazil could easily supply the fuel requirements for both North and South America, probably forever. The wet tropical countries of central Africa could easily supply the rest of the world's fuel transport needs. And we haven't added in South East Asia's potential.
    We grow sugarcane in Australia. To grow enough biofuels to power all Australian self-contained motor transport systems we would utilize a land area about 135 miles square.
    Ethanol blended petrol was produced and sold in Queensland from 1929 through to 1957. The Queensland Motor Spirit Vendors Act of 1933 actually made a 10% blend mandatory in all petrol sold in the State. In 1957 the requirement was quietly rescinded.
    Boeing B 17 Flying Fortresses flew on ethanol fuels out of Queensland basses during WWII.
    OPEC (Organisation Petroleum Exporting Countries) and the oil industry can and obviously has many times, and will undoubtedly continue to juggle and fluctuate world oil prices to both inflate their income and also to sabotage the establishment of any significant world biofuel industry. To them long periods of high prices are risky. It is also natural and obvious oil industry policy to manipulate governments to frustrate any meaningful legally enforceable requirement to switch to biofuels.
    LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and CNG (compressed natural gas) powered vehicles are not “clean machines” as is constantly promoted. In use they produce approximately the same quantity of greenhouse gasses as is produced in petrol or diesel fueled vehicles. High and unavoidable gas losses bleed to the air when handling both LPG and CNG. Methane is a major constituent of these gasses. Methane is twenty times worse a greenhouse gas than is carbon dioxide. Motor transport systems based on LPG and CNG fuels are thus worse than systems based on petrol or diesel. Do the sums – it's not rocket science.
    Biofuels could easily and economically eliminate all petroleum fuels. And they know it.
    If you are a student, or if you are under, say 25 years of age, global warming and climate change chaos is your inheritance. You are being burdened with a legacy, the like of which has never before been bequeathed from one generation to the next.
    So do something about it. And the first thing, the most important thing you can do right now is it make sure as many people as possible understand that global warming can be stopped. Simply refer them to our home page and let them decide. Allan Yeomans

  7. Dick Russell says:

    Hi Ewoc, You are soooo right about tractors built before ca 2000. Actually, not just tractors but anything being pushed by a diesel engine. My experience – everything rubber rotted on the tractor and the boat. Had to replace it all with viton (sp?). It holds up to biodiesel and everybody, imo, ought to keep a bit of it around just to sniff on. Wonderful cinnamon smell.
    Almost as bad a problem as seals, etc, falling apart was fuel filters plugging. Lots of gunk had been laid down in the fuel tank from years of burning petrodiesel. Biodiesel dissolves the stuff and it flows nicely to a filter where it stops, then stops fuel flow and finally stops the engine. If you don't mind replacing filters for a while, things work themselves out.

  8. Mr. Mojo Risin' says:

    It's the needed scale that is the problem. You have to look at replacing something like 50 million barrels per day of oil consumption. It is interesting to see this debate still going on in the climate change arena when the energy people have long known, biofuels will not save the day. The major hurdle for most of them is the very low EROEI on biofuels. The best grades of oil have energy returned on investment of 10:1 or more, in the old days it was 100:1 they say. Biofuels are lucky to obtain 3:1. If you understand how to do basic energy accounting you realize that the difference between 10:1 and 3:1 and a fifty percent reduction in scale means essentially the collapse of western civilization. Check out peakoil.com and peakoil.net for discussions on those lines. Also try contacting the House Peak Oil Caucus, formed by Representatives Roscoe Bartlett and Tom Udall. If you want to feel all warm inside contact CERA and ask them why we don't need to switch from buring as much oil as we want for as long as we want.

  9. Matt Burge says:

    Allan; Good arguments but you forget the impact on other species from mowing down tropical forests for bio-fuel crops;
    http://environmentdebate.wordpress.com/2006/12/24/are-bio-fuels-the-new-gmo/#comment-50

  10. Ethanol says:

    *wonders how cold it's going to get today*

  11. Ethanol says:

    Hmm, i would like to add that there is a process for creating ethanol (cellosic ethanol to be precise) from trash, yep, garbage. Waste managment services has teamed up with BlueFire Ethanol (stock ticker BFRE.PK) to create biorefineries using said process. No need to mow down the rainforest folks, and we have more than enough trash to go around lol.

  12. nic says:

    …the answer is to consume less! Isn't it obvious? The reason for global warming and the depletion of natural resources is the industrialized world's insatiable appetite for consumer goods. The best defense to preventing things from getting worse is consuming less. We don't need new clothes every change of season and we don't need to drive a car to get to places. Our patterns need to change.

  13. jay zee says:

    Actually, the answer is to use the correct inputs. In order to maximize the efficiency of using biofuels one must use the most efficient crop. Better yet, one that provides not only oils for fuel, but other useful products as well. Cannabis hemp is the fastest growing plant on the planet, and provides not only food rich in healthy oils and proteins, but also fuel and fiber. Why has the world been so deadset against growing this nearly forgetten resource from the past? One has to wonder.

    We agree that growing corn (awash in petrochemical fertizers and pesticides) GMO or not – is not an answer.. Not only is corn not the answer, but it's future is uncertain, as it is not a sustainable crop. Sure our amazing farmers may be getting over 200-250 bushels / acre this year, we'll see – but they are aware that the corn production has peaked (along with petroleum as the two are intertwined). Once again we see a parallel in the story; cannabis hemp, when grown for biomass production is completely organic, needs no pesticides or fertilizers, and provides these multitudes of raw materials.

    The inventor of the Diesel engine designed the device over 100 years ago to run on plant oils; it was the petrol-chemists who had to synthesize & refine out of their goop a replacement fuel for the original diesel fuel – Biodiesel.

    "Congress and the Treasury Department were assured through secret testimony given by DuPont in 1935-37 directly to Herman Oliphant, Chief Counsel for the Treasury Dept., that hempseed oil could be replaced with synthetic petrochemical oils made principally by DuPont.&quot
    Hempseed oil for lamps was replaced by petroleum, kerosene, etc., after the 1859 Pennsylvania oil discovery and John D. Rockefeller's 1870-on national petroleum stewardship. In fact, the celebrated botanist Luther Burbank stated, "The seed [of cannabis] is prized in other countries for its oil, and its neglect here illustrates the same wasteful use of our agricultural resources."
    (source: http://www.jackherer.com/chapter02.html

    Hopefully the lunacy of the past will soon be just that and we can once again tap one of the most useful natural resources on this planet. Taking greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere to make food fuel and fiber via cannabis hemp and solar energy of photosynthesis is an answer to this planet's energy / climate dilemmas.

  14. making biodiesel

    However, consider the very small niche in the biofuel economy which plans to use non- food raw materials to generate energy, even though that by itself can never solve our energy needs. False A lot of these videos are full of green goodness but let thi…

  15. You know so many interesting infomation. You might be very wise. I like such people. Don't top writing.

  16. Chris Taus says:

    Almost all current biofuels are produced from agricultural crops on massive intensive scale, on industrial agricultural plantations by agri-business. We call these “industrial biofuels”. This is an important distinction as thesse are produced unsustainably, can push poor people off their land and contribute to climate change.

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