Thursday, January 10, 2008

Is Biofuel Overrated?

There's a lot of hype lately about "biofuels", which are liquid fuels extracted from plants. There are two really good things about biofuels as opposed to fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal.

1) Unlike fossil fuels, plants can be re-grown after you harvest them. So, as long as you don't use biofuel from plants faster than you can regrow the plants, you will have an endless supply.

2) When plants grow, they suck up CO2 from the atmosphere- the exact same amount of CO2 that they release when they get turned into biofuel and burned. So, at least in theory, if you used exclusively biofuel for energy, your net input of CO2 to the atmosphere would be zero; no global warming.

Unfortunately, there are some serious problems with the US' current approach to biofuel production, which is intensive agriculture of grain crops like corn, and conversion of those grains to ethanol.

1) Even if we converted all our agricultural lands to corn for ethanol, we would only be able to supply a tiny fraction of the energy we now get from fossil fuels. Plus, we would starve.

2) Corn is inefficient. The energy required to grow corn and turn it into ethanol is often greater than the energy you get back from the ethanol itself. (See picture.)


3) Intensive farming of corn and other traditional crops has some nasty environmental side-effects: A) When forests or jungles are turned to farmland, more carbon is released as CO2 than is re-absorbed by the crops. B) Fertilizer production and biofuels processing release greenhouse gases besides just CO2; gases which, unlike CO2, are not re-absorbed in the next crop cycle. c) Intensive farming causes erosion of the land, and pollution of rivers, lakes, groundwater, and the ocean.

Thus, corn and other traditional crops are unlikely to meet our energy needs in the future without causing serious damage to the environment. Fortunately, corn ain't the only game in town. There are better alternatives under development, including harvesting of natural prairie grasses, algae farming, and conversion of cellulosic material (stems and leaves) to ethanol. In combination with better energy conservation, more efficient transportation, a diet with less meat, and a stabilized global population, these biofuels should keep the wheels of civilization turning in a post-petroleum world.

These issues are discussed in more intelligent detail in today's press release from the Ecological Society of America (below).

For Immediate Release: 10 January 2008

Biofuels Sustainability
Nation's ecological scientists weigh in on biofuels

The Ecological Society of America, the nation's professional organization of 10,000 ecological scientists, today released a position statement that offers the ecological principles necessary for biofuels to help decrease dependence
on fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global climate change. The Society warns that the current mode of biofuels production will degrade the nation's natural resources and will keep biofuels from becoming a viable energy option.

"Current grain-based ethanol production systems damage soil and water resources in the U.S. and are only profitable in the context of tax breaks and tariffs," says ESA. "Future systems based on a combination of cellulosic materials and grain could be equally degrading to the environment, with potentially little carbon savings, unless steps are taken now that incorporate principles of ecological sustainability."

Three ecological principles are necessary:

1) SYSTEMS THINKING: Looking at the complete picture of how much energy is produced versus how much is consumed by extracting and transporting the crops used for biofuels. A systems approach seeks to avoid or minimize undesirable production side effects such as soil erosion and contamination of groundwater. Consistent monitoring is critical to ensure that biofuel production is sustainable.

2) CONSERVATION OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES: Maximizing crop yield without regard to negative side effects is easy. On the other hand, growing crops and retaining the other services provided by the land is far more challenging, but very much worth the effort. For example, lower yields from an unfertilized native prairie may be acceptable in light of the other benefits, such as minimized flooding, fewer pests,
groundwater recharge, and improved water quality because no fertilizer is needed.

3) SCALE ALIGNMENT: How agriculture is managed matters at the individual farm, regional, and global level. Policies must provide incentives for managing land in a sustainable way. They should also encourage the development of biofuels from various sources.

"The current focus on ethanol from corn illustrates the risks of exploiting a single source of biomass for biofuel production," says ESA.

Continuously-grown corn leads to heavy use of fertilizers, early return of land in conservation programs to production, and the conversion of marginal lands to high-intensity cropping. All of these bring with them well-known environmental problems associated with intensive farming: persistent pest insects and weeds, pollution of groundwater, greater irrigation demands, less wildlife diversity, and the release of more carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global climate change. Ironically, one of the touted benefits of biofuels is to help alleviate global climate change, a benefit that is considerably diluted under a high-intensity agriculture scenario.

The Ecological Society of America will contribute more to this timely issue in a few months when it convenes a conference devoted to the ecological dimensions of biofuels. The conference, which will be held on March 10, 2008 in Washington, DC, will bring together a wide variety of experts in the biofuels arena. The conference will cover the various sources of biofuels-agriculture
and grasslands, rangelands, and forests-and will encompass the private sector and socioeconomic perspectives. Jose Goldemberg, Global Energy Assessment Council & Universidade de Sao Paulo, Brazil, will give the keynote address.

Like other organizations, ESA is also concerned about the hardship on the nation's poor communities as higher crop prices drive up the cost of food.

It has been said that biofuels have achieved cult-like status and in the rush it is only too easy to overlook the big picture of environmental implications. Iowa alone has planted more than a third of its land surface with corn and, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, the federal government has some 20 laws and incentives to boost ethanol use.

A biofuels infrastructure that incorporates systems thinking, conserves ecosystem services, and encompasses multiple scales can best serve U.S. citizens, the economy, and the environment.


The Ecological Society of America is the country's primary professional organization of ecologists, representing 10,000 scientists in the United States and around the world. Since its founding in 1915, ESA has pursued the promotion of the responsible application of ecological principles to the solution of environmental problems through ESA reports, journals, research, and expert testimony to Congress. For more
information about the Society and its activities, visit the ESA website.


McG said...

The supposed controversy surrounding bio-fuels is very complicated. One of the big problems is the prevalence of corn ethanol. While it is true that corn ethanol is inefficient, expensive and harmful to the o-zone, cellulosic ethanol, made from plants like switchgrass, is an efficient energy source that would have no bearing on our food source (the price of corn has risen 44% in the last year), not to mention that cellulosic ethanol also doesn't emit carbon dioxide.

The Issue recently did a feature on the corn ethanol controversy that is both objective and insightful. Definitely worth reading if you are at all interested in alternative fuel.

Editor The Issue

James Douglass said...

mcg- Thanks for the link! I found several good articles on your site by running searches for "corn ethanol" and "biofuel".

I would also like to point readers to the lastest offering from "The Natural Patriot", discussing algae as biofuel.

cammar said...

Thanks for the useful info.

I don't know about the efficiency of biofuel, but I like the fact that at least we're finally thinking about alternatives.
The main challange the human race has to face though, imo, is to reduce the number of individuals... we're just too many.
Which has just become my official excuse for not having kids! ;-)

Bunty said...

Here in Malta (Europe) we have Biofuel which is being made from all the 'chip pan' oil. It is collected from hotels and restaurants and turned into biofuel. A local company here got an award for this project a few years ago and now this biofuel is available from quite a few petrol stations on the island. I have a diesel car and it runs on a mix of 50% Bio and 50% diesel. Not quite sure why I cant use 100% bio but thats what the station owner told me to do. I guess I should ask him. Surely with all the fast food places the States have this is feasible to do out there. You can read about the company here that makes the stuff on

Catapulting Aaron said...

Interesting stuff...

I'll brag a little to you and tell you that I just got back from Bonaire. There was a HUGE windmill right near the windsurfing area. Apparently that was the first of 13 windmills being installed there. These windmills will supply half of the island's power. The other half will be from biodiesel created from naturally occurring algae in their salt-harvest plants (which consequently is also where they desalinate their tasty drinking water).

there is a little info on this link, but I'm having trouble finding full info:

James Douglass said...

Aaron- Cool, thanks for the link. Sounds like Bonaire has some really innovative programs going. I reckon making an island sustainable is a good demonstration of how we could make the whole world sustainable. Let me know if you find any more info on the algae-biodiesel project.

Bonaire is technically part of the Netherlands, right? Maybe that's one of the reasons they're getting these progressive environmental programs.

Catapulting Aaron said...

You're right, they are Dutch. Most of the links and info I'm finding are in Dutch or the local Papiamentu, and none terribly detailed. I believe a German company is providing the technology for the new system.

Here's a local newspaper's report in English:
(on page 3)

Also, here's a Dutch blog all about algae and biofuel can translate the Dutch stuff.

While goofing around on there, I found a Texas company's press release about an algae biodiesel program. Obviously, self promotional, but some interesting info in here:

Notable quote in relation to your blog: "As a comparative, food crop such as soy bean will typically produce some 48 gallons oil per acre per year and palm will produce approximately 630 gallons oil per acre per year."

On a more humorous note, I'm not sure how I feel about bunty's mention of using restaurant oil to fuel cars. The last thing America needs is to feel like eating fried food is good for the ecosystem! =P

The Natural Patriot said...

Yo James,

Thanks for the links to the Natural Patriot. And keep up the good work!


Sophia said...

Another link:

Sorry for all the links from the NYT-- I'm not a spammer although I did incorrectly enter one of those word verification thingies.

Again, not against finding alternative forms for fuel but biofuel may not be the panacea to all our woes.

I appreciate that you see (at least it seems) being an environmentalist isn't about buying/using the right things but more about not buying (i.e. conserving, re-using, re-cycling).