The Answer, My Friend, Is Certainly Not Blowing in the Wind—or the Corn
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agribusiness (with the possible exception of algae-based biofuels, if they can be made to work). I could end it there, but I will keep blathering. There are two categories of biofuels. Ethanol is essentially alcohol produced from corn, wheat, sugar cane, and sometimes even biomass such as corn stalks and produce waste. When combined with gasoline, ethanol increases octane levels while also promoting cleaner combustion. Then there’s biodiesel—a renewable fuel for diesel engines made from natural oils like soybean oil.
The issues with biofuels are straightforward: it’s hard to scale up their production, they aren’t great for the environment, and they put pressure on the agriculture system by raising commodity prices, hurting the most vulnerable.
Now, as unbelievable as it may sound to the people who responded to my previous articles by calling me a Bush-loving fascist, I am actually a rather liberal Democrat. Right after I finished school I worked as an aide to two Clinton Administration cabinet secretaries, including Dan Glickman at USDA. I also come from a family of farmers, and I know that farming is all about resources, the environment, the elements, and tradeoffs presented by them.
First off, there isn ‘t enough biomass in the country to replace 30 percent of the petroleum we use, as our politicians are calling for. As Berkeley Professor Tad Patzek noted in a recent study, the energy in the fossil fuels we consume every year in the United States comes out to about 105 exajoules. If you burned every living plant within our borders, including its roots, you’d get 94 exajoules of energy—and much of that plant material goes to other things we need, like food, feed crops, paper, and building materials. An acre of good land can yield about 139 bushels of corn, which can be converted into 250 gallons of ethanol, according to USDA studies. This means that using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of the demand.
One alternative is to squeeze ethanol out of cellulose from switch grass, cornhusks and other biomass sources. But cellulosic ethanol remains quite experimental. Huge breakthroughs in enzyme biochemistry would be required to make its production cost-effective on an industrial scale.
Using these “waste” materials from crops also raises some environmental issues. Two words for you: soil depletion. The material that is removed to make cellulosic ethanol is actually the same stuff that replenishes the soil for next year’s crops. In other words, it’s not really waste. To keep land farmable for even a short time without plowing non-food biomass back into the soil, you would need GMO seeds and lots more fertilizers and water. And outside of America’s heartland, in places like Brazil, they’re leveling the rainforest to grow crops for biodiesel. A Princeton study points out that clearing previously virgin soil to grow biofuel crops releases long held carbon into the atmosphere. The Nature Conservancy adds: “Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.”
As if that wasn’t enough, ethanol may be directly linked to the Gulf of Mexico dead zone—a region off the coast of Louisiana where oxygen levels are so low that the water can’t support carbon-fixing aquatic life. If farmers produced enough corn to meet Congress’s goal of producing 15 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, nitrogen runoff into the Gulf would increase by 10 to 19 percent, according to University of Wisconsin researchers. At that point, shrinking the dead zone would be “practically impossible.”
The unpredictable nature of drought, bad weather, and crop disease is another major issue with biofuels. Add to that the need for new biorefineries construction and the dangers of bailing and storing hay before it’s processed into ethanol. Yes, farming neophytes, hay can be dangerous—it can (and does) spontaneously combust, and once on fire, can’t be extinguished, leading to fire loss and increased fire insurance costs, not to mention carbon emissions. Somehow the bales have to be kept from combusting during the several months it takes to dry them from 50 to 15 percent moisture. A large, well drained, covered area is needed to vent fumes and dissipate heat. Finally, biofuels must be delivered by fossil-fuel-powered trucks, ships, and trains, as pipelines seem to be a poor solution for transporting it.
So, for the most part, biofuels are pretty crappy, whether they are made from corn, switchgrass, soybeans or any other agricultural commodity. They lead to environmental problems and higher commodity prices, potentially raising the threat of starvation for the world’s poorest. Wind is also unattractive for anyone but the heavily-subsidized wind operators. It’s unfortunate that some folks in the environmental movement have taken the short-sighted stand in favor of “anything but petro or nuclear.” Worse still, many financiers are reenforcing this erroneous position with their investment dollars.
My point with these pieces is really to ask hard questions and avoid letting our desire for a cleantech revolution press us into making bad assumptions and hasty decisions. Showing the warts on these technologies doesn’t make them irredeemable, it just means that the costs and benefits need to be fully explored. Next time, I’ll write about energy technologies that actually make economic and environmental sense. I promise.
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