Can we please nix the biofuels fetish?

Many years ago, when biofuels first hit it big, most people thought they were an amazing idea. I was skeptical yet optimistic. But over time, as biofuels have reached increased prominence, it’s become very clear that they are an incredibly bad idea. So why do so many people still view them favorably?

Burning your food as fuel for your car is simply a dumb idea. In a world where over a billion people regularly go hungry, how can anyone justify burning an entire year’s worth of food to fill up your gas tank once? In the United States, biofuels have been subsidized in giant political vote-buying schemes. The subsidies are largely going towards growing corn for biofuel production, which is nonsensical, since other plants like switchgrass and sugarcane are many times more efficient. Meanwhile, corn prices have gone up a lot in just the past year, and it’s had a knock-on effect on other basic cereals because many farmers are switching to growing the more profitable corn.

But the real clincher is that biofuels aren’t even good for fighting global warming. Growing your fuel requires lots of land, and so in places like Brazil and Indonesia, vast swaths of forest are being cut down to provide more farm land. The forests that are being cut down contain so much carbon in them that it will take hundreds of years of growing biofuels on the land to make up for it. Burning petroleum from the ground still makes more sense than cutting down forests. Does anyone even think we’ll be using biofuels in 100 years’ time? We incur such a large carbon debt by cutting down forests, and we wouldn’t use biofuels for long enough to repay it. And never mind all of the petroleum products (especially fertilizer) you need to use in the production of biofuels.

So the next time you hear someone harping on about biofuels, be sure to educate them that biofuels aren’t a solution to carbon dioxide emissions, that they’re driving food prices up sharply, and that growing your carbon-emitting fuel isn’t any better than pumping it from the ground. Biofuels aren’t a transformative source of energy. For that, we need to look towards truly renewable ways of generating energy that do not lay waste to forests such as wind and solar. We would use this energy to power electric cars, which are already good enough to satisfy the needs of 90% of commuters (drive 30 miles each way, then charge up at night). There’s our real solution. Too bad we’re so focused on this stupid biofuels craze.

13 Responses to “Can we please nix the biofuels fetish?”

  1. Therac-25 Says:

    s/biofuel/ethanol/, please.

    Corn/ethanol biofuels are a subset of the entire class of biofuels. There are countless ways to use lifeforms to generate fuel, not all of which are made from subsidized corn.

    One data point was given in one of the SALT talks, in which the speaker discussed bacterial lifeforms that could manufacture fuel (octane, iirc) from CO2 feedstocks were under development. These are, by definition, biofuels.

    One of the expressed concerns was that this ethanol disaster is going to sour people on the concept of biofuels for when worthwhile biotech comes along.

  2. Cyde Weys Says:

    I understand that it’s theoretically possible to generate biofuels in an efficient manner using genetically modified (or outright artificially constructed) lifeforms, but is that really where we’re heading? I just see using photovoltaics to charge up electric vehicles as a more pragmatic solution. We’re still too stuck on this concept that we need a liquid fuel (whether from petroleum, corn, or bacteria), when all we really need is a source of energy to power vehicles. Why not electricity?

  3. drinian Says:

    Electricity is probably going to wind up being the solution, but I don’t know if it’ll be PVs or not that power it.

    (Especially since charging batteries at night is hard to do with PV, and the maximum theoretical efficiency isn’t that great anyway). My money’s on nuclear, although I also have a friend at MIT who is working on developing catalysts that could enable the electrolysis of water at much higher efficiencies than we see today.

    Photovoltaics are great, but you’ll notice that a lot of really big solar installations, like the one going up outside of Phoenix right now, are concentrator/boiler designs that Archimedes could have built. The efficiency still isn’t there.

    Oh, and another big push towards electric power will come, I think, from mass transit. There’s a lot of densely populated, urban areas in the US that have nearly zero rail infrastructure and have automobile-traffic nightmares as a result. It’s a lot easier to build electric trains and, I would argue from experience in Japan, often more convenient for actual residents.

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    The problem with going nuclear is limited fuel. We have less reserves of nuclear fuel than coal (something like 200 years versus 800 years, if I remember correctly). Then again, in 200 years, I do imagine we’d be able to come up with fusion power or something.

    And this is off-topic, but I just saw the season premiere of Doctor Who. It was … eh. I definitely like Martha Jones better than this one. And the baddie of the week wasn’t particularly interesting.

  5. drinian Says:

    Actually, if you start reprocessing spent fuel (which the US hasn’t done very much since Jimmy Carter blocked it to attempt to prevent weapons proliferation), you get 1,000 years or more. Build a practical breeder reactor, and you could extend that number even further. Duke Energy is actually working on an American reprocessing plant right now (cf. Wikipedia).

    And, quite honestly, the wholesale switch from wood to coal only happened about 200 years ago. If we don’t have anything better than fission in another 200 years, we’ve done something wrong.

    Just finished up the DW premiere myself. It reminded me a bit too much of the pilot episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but there’s certainly potential there. Catherine Tate is best known as a comedian, and she’s also a bit older than the usual companion, which is nice. More to the point, I am curious to see Rose’s return, even if she wasn’t my favorite companion ever.

  6. Greg Maxwell Says:

    We have less reserves of nuclear fuel than coal

    Lies Lies Lies. Most frustrating of all: I’m reasonably confident that I’ve corrected you on this point in private conversation in the past.

    The truth that underlies this often repeated untruth is that given the astonishingly wasteful way that the United States currently uses nuclear fuel there really isn’t much of it available.

    As the nuclear fuel is used in a typical power generation reactor there is a gradual build up of atomic species which interfere with maintaining critical mass. Once enough of these waste products have accumulated the fuel rod is no longer useful. These ‘spent’ fuel rods still contain an enormous amount of fissable material which can be recovered through a process called nuclear reprocessing. Roughly 90% of a spent fuel rods mass is still usable, and modern recovery procedures recover about 95% of that.

    Unfortunately, the US has a currently prohibition on reprocessing, due to concerns about nuclear proliferation. Some other countries do not.

    Don’t just take my word for it, this is a subject which has been extensively studied by others. That previously linked paper estimates that with proper recycling the available nuclear fuel is roughly 155,520 exajoules. Proven world wide oil reserves are only 6,400 exajoules (narrowly beating out nuclear power without reprocessing).

    Besides, we need oil for things other than power. A world with expensive plastics would be a miserable one indeed (think health care costs). Reprocessing is necessary in any case… without it the waste products from power reactors are highly radioactive for many tens of thousands of years. Processed wastes are far more safe and far smaller in volume. The way the United States handles nuclear wastes has no future, just like oil… but used intelligently atomic power still has an important role to play in our world.

  7. Greg Maxwell Says:

    Feh, you said coal not oil. I should read more carefully before posting. Doesn’t matter. World coal reserves are estimate at 21,000 exajoules, so coal is also 0wned by the atom. ;)

  8. Kelly Martin Says:

    I ran some numbers on this issue a while ago. Even if you turned over every single arable acre of land in the United States to producing even the most productive biofuel crops, you can only barely meet the US diesel demand. And that says nothing of gasoline or heating oil demands. Note also that this requires turning every single arable acre of land over — not merely every acre under till today. Also keep in mind that farming is a major consumer of diesel itself. All current biofuels have negative EROEIs; that is, it takes more energy to create the biofuel than can be extracted from it. There are a few that offer the potential of positive EROEIs, but not as of yet. The main value of ethanol as a biofuel is that it’s a relatively inexpensive oxygenator, which makes it attractive as a pollution-control measure, not as a raw source of fuel.

    Ben’s right: biofuels are not a solution. We simply have no choice but to reduce consumption if we want to push back peak oil. Uranium isn’t much better: peak uranium is probably somewhere around 2040. Peak oil may have already happened, and peak coal is probably somewhere between 2150 and 2200. We need to stop using oil now, reserving what production we can get as an industrial feedstock in places where it cannot be replaced. That means going to electric everything because electric can be centrally generated using coal and distributed relatively efficiently. Nuclear power is of no real use as the fuel supply is just too limited, and should not be a major focus of attention. Even reprocessing spent fuel doesn’t gain that much (because the energy required to reprocess the fuel is close to or exceeds the energy that can be extracted from the reprocessed fuel). The only way to get past 2100 is either radical deindustrialization or the development of viable fusion power. It’s unlikely, in my opinion, that we can develop enough power solely from renewable sources to meet our current demands without fusion power.

  9. William Says:

    Aw, damn my lack of a ‘Net connection. Since I moved to Japan, I still haven’t got an Internet connection, as it takes a month, apparently.
    Anyway, I don’t think anybody has mentioned yet the garbage-munching bacteria that generate biofuels. Those are currently in small-scale production, and have already been shown to work pretty well, from what I’ve read. I mean, you obviously can’t generate enough fuel for the whole nation that way, but it seems like a pretty valid recycling strategy and overall pollution control, as well.

  10. Larry Pieniazek Says:

    Cyde is wrong to throw out all biofuels because of how bad corn ethanol is. Cyde is right that the coming corn ethanol debacle (and I predict it is going to be really bad, I wish I could figure out what to short) will likely sour people on all biofuels… capturing the methane from landfills that would otherwise go into the atmosphere seems an incredibly good idea to me.

    I don’t know the nuances of fission nuclear but I thought that breeder reactors had a net positive energy balance… Fusion? Great, if it happens. But it’s always soon, never here.

    But still, personally, I am given the most hope by outfits like http://www.solarcity.com/ Solar City… they seem to solve the whole problem (if their hype is to be believed) of grid connected photovoltaics.

    I agree with Kelly that burning valuable LEGO feedstock in our cars is foolish. :)

  11. Kelly Martin Says:

    Larry, last I checked very few photovoltaic approaches yielded a positive EROEI over the life of the device, because of the high energy costs of making photovoltaic cells. Most PV cells rely on relatively rare minerals that take a lot of energy to mine, isolate, and purify. There is some research in simpler designs that are less efficient but do not require nearly as much energy to make, that might give a positive EROEI over the life of the device, but I do not believe these efforts have reach fruition.

  12. Cyde Weys Says:

    Last I checked PV cells repaid their EROEI over something like the course of 3-7 years (depending on sunlight conditions), and that reports to the contrary were nothing more than oil company propaganda trying to muddy the issue. I’d like to see a recent article in a mainstream scientific journal (i.e. not some think-tank with vested interests) on the topic of PV EROEI, because neither of us may know what we’re talking about :-P

  13. Biofuels: not just a bad idea, but pure evil | Cyde Weys Musings Says:

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