Biofuels: A Long Detour on the Road to Sustainability?

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by: Michael Hoexter

I have watched the development of the biofuels debate from something of a remove but also with a generally positive, well-wishing attitude towards the use of renewable biofuels to substitute for the use of fossil fuel energy. What is not to like about a solution to our energy woes that involves helping farmers and growing green plants?

There are however signs that we may very well be setting ourselves up for the type of marketing whiplash that I discussed in relationship to hydrogen. In fact, biofuels, even more than hydrogen, may become an incredibly divisive issue with very large unintended consequences if eco-standards and ethical standards for their cultivation are not set up by international bodies. Let me back up a little and then explain what has changed my thinking recently about biofuels.

Let me first distinguish between what I will call “unproductive” and “productive” biofuels. Late last year and earlier this year, there was a debate about the energy balance of corn-based ethanol between a group of scientists around Daniel Kammen of the University of California at Berkeley and a group around David Pimentel and Tad Patzek, also of Berkeley. There was and is a difference of opinion between these two groups about whether corn actually yields net energy after the energy inputs are balanced against the energy output. Whatever the differences between the groups, there was agreement that corn-based ethanol is a not particularly productive biofuel, only yielding, most optimistically 25% more energy than was put in. By contrast, other ethanol sources, most notably sugar cane in the tropics, yield a much higher energy yield. Butanol and longer-chain alcohols are also thought to be better biofuels due to a higher energy content than ethanol the second shortest alcohol molecule (2 carbons).

In the area of biodiesel there are similar contrasts though in general the energy balances are even greater, as biodiesel is made from plant oils. Growing oil palms in tropical locations can yield 6 to 8 (600 to 800% yields) times as much energy as was put into the growth of the trees. Lesser balances are found with canola/rapeseed and soybean cultivation in temperate and northern climates.

Furthermore, on the horizon there are two different technologies that will potentially raise the productivity of biofuel production further: bio-alcohols from the cellulose(wood and stalks) portions of plants and biodiesel/bioalcohols from fast growing algae in manmade ponds. Neither of these have yet been put into production nor have there been working prototypes produced. Using landfill and sanitation waste to produce biofuels has been discussed but not yet fully made operational.

So, for arguments sake, earlier in 2006, there were, in my view at least, the establishment of two different types of biofuel production: “productive” biofuels that generate at least around 90% more energy than what is put into their making and “unproductive” biofuels that yield only slightly more if not any more energy than what is put into their making (i.e. simply transform petroleum energy into bio-compound energy which is then burned).

Corn ethanol is unfortunately one of the “unproductive” biofuels and has functioned as another agricultural subsidy for ecologically (and nutritionally) unsound agricultural practicies. This has in part been borne out by the performance of ethanol stocks in the stock market: they are now on the rocks…in part a reflection on the many problems with ethanol production and distribution. However the other biofuels seem(ed) at least more promising.

The investment rush into biofuels has not stopped though, for what in all probability is a combination of reasons. Billionaire George Soros, who has done great philanthropic work with his millions, has recently invested $300 million in Argentine biofuel plantations. Bill Gates and Sun co-founder Vinod Khosla both invested in ethanol. It seems as though biofuels have captured the attention of some of the business and philanthropic leaders of our time.

There is now a confluence of factors that look like the takeoff of the sustainable energy industry. Multimillionaires and billionaires, farmers and environmentalists all seem to be working on the same side, motivated by a combination of business savvy (at least with regard to the long haul expectations of higher biofuel productivity and higher petroleum prices), enlightenment and environmental concern.

But wait… a rising storm of criticism is raining down on the biofuel movement from a wide variety of unexpected quarters including environmentalists. While the interesting but always somewhat jaded sounding Tad Patzek has always been a biofuel sceptic, Lester Brown, one of the biggest-picture thinkers in the US environmental movement, recently has issued a word of warning about biofuel production with the observation that one year’s supply of food for a person can fill an 25-gallon SUV’s tank with ethanol. In his December 2005 column “Worse than Fossil Fuel”, George Monbiot, a columnist for the London Guardian, has painted a still more alarming picture that is echoed by a number of prominent British environmentalists that a confluence of factors now exists that will make biofuels seem like one of the worst ideas ever:

  1. Continuing high demand for liquid fuel by wealthy people with huge energy requirements (to drive large metal cars, SUVs and planes)
  2. Higher prices can now be paid by these people for biofuel crops than for food crops
  3. Highest productivity in biofuel production to be found in the economically poorer tropics (sugar cane and palm plantations)
  4. Oil palm and sugar cane plantations (really any cultivated landscape) have a lower carbon content than tropical forest eco-systems.
  5. Leading to a net carbon release when these areas are first planted and rain forest is destroyed
  6. Farmers both rich and poor have an incentive to produce biofuels and not produce food, which will become still more expensive, priced out of the range of large portion of the population of poorer countries.
  7. Investors still can enjoy the sheen of virtue accorded to biofuels

This seems like a perfect trap for well-intentioned biofuel advocates or maybe the alarm is just misplaced discontent from people unused to finding things that are actually working in this world. But which is it?

I am an optimist when it comes to windmills and solar panels but biofuels unfortunately seem to be very much the trap that these gentlemen outline. They will never be as productive per unit land as windmills or solar panels which are 30 times more energy dense than typical energy crops currently. More intensely productive energy crops may exhaust the soil. Biofuel production, where it is most productive will release more carbon into the atmosphere and make food more expensive.

Biofuels in and of themselves are not wrong and are potential special use energy sources. But there should be very strong international mandates, almost biblical in nature about where and how to produce biofuels. The book of Leviticus, the book of ancient Hebrew rules for living, was written a long time ago, but it might have mandated if written more recently “Thou shalt not pour the fruit of the land into thy SUV. Thou shalt use only the turn of the windmill or the product of the photovoltaic array to fuel sustainable conveyances”.

Here is my proposal for sustainable biofuel production, perhaps the outline for an eco-certification.

  1. Biofuel production must occur on lands that are unsuitable for or not traditionally used for food cultivation
  2. Biofuel production must not impinge upon or become the incentive for destruction of higher biomass ecosystems like forests.
  3. Biofuel production is to be encouraged if it utilizes wastes that pollute or those wastes that are not useful to return fertility to the soil
  4. Biofuel production is to be encouraged with native species that do not require inputs and do not drain the soil of nutrients.

What do you think? A set of rules like these would allow the benefits of biofuels, the hype so to speak, to be realized. Otherwise, there one has a fuzzy environmentalism and a fuzzy but very dangerous business that does not deliver on its promises.

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