Growing Fuel is Not a Happy Prospect

The United States is still the world’s most powerful nation. In per capita terms it consumes the most and in per capita terms is probably directly and indirectly responsible for more environmental degradation than any other nation. Under the law of the United States of America 40% of food grown has to be used for biofuels. The theory behind this law is that growing your own fuel is better, for America, than importing fuel from places like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and other places with which the Americans do not see eye to eye. Continue reading

Biofuel Madness

Biofuels are unfortunately an important part of European Union and United Kingdom policy. At the moment the United Kingdom sources about 3% of its vehicle fuel from plants, which have starchy or woody cellulose content, which is fermented to create ethanol. In the United States a great deal of ethanol is made from corn. Biofuels are used in transport and in heating.

Growing fuel instead of digging for it or drilling for it may sound sustainable and environmentally friendly, but things are not always as they appear. The theory behind biofuels is that they are renewable; instead of depleting a fossil fuel source humanity may grow as much fuel as it needs. The carbon dioxide emitted by burning biofuels will be taken from the atmosphere by more biofuel plants, which will photosynthesise it thus removing it from the air and create more biofuels with the carbon dioxide.

That is a simplistic view of biofuels, and it fails to look at the whole life cycle impact of biofuel production. The simplistic theory might be for practical purposes workable if we had unlimited land resources and a small world population. However, people are populous and land is finite – as Mark Twain remarked “they stopped making it”.

The growth of biofuels has led to some unintended consequences. Good land used for food is now used for energy; food prices have risen. Many forests particularly in the tropics have been cut down for biofuel plantations; much of the wood has been burnt, and the soil disturbed creating a large spike of emissions; biodiversity has been lost and rows of palm oil trees now replace what was an important alveoli and air conditioner for the planet.

There are biofuels that can be sustainably grown in places where the land is not fit for anything else, and which can be cropped with no significant adverse environmental impact. At the moment about a third of the United Kingdom’s biofuel falls into this category and unfortunately local law and EU regulations do not distinguish between good biofuel and bad biofuel. It is about time we did.

Certification of biofuels and biomass

I have written a number of times about the problems with biofuels and biomass. Most governments seem to accept that these are “renewable” fuels and because of that associate them with low carbon fuels. They fail to understand that not all the carbon dioxide is taken up with new growth and in some cases, like ethanol made from corn, the net carbon dioxide emissions are higher than those created by burning oil. For that reason I have classified biofuels and biomass as “dirty” renewables.

The message is beginning to sink in. The European Union is now encouraging (but not mandating) member states to set up certification programs for biofuels, including wood and wood chip. I do not know yet how the certification system would work – no one does – but we can only hope that the standards would be stringent and genuinely address the problems that certain biofuels create, by banning them, or at least withdrawing all energy subsidies for them. Continue reading

Biofuels are bad for the planet

I have been trying to understand biofuels, which are hailed by many as a means of producing sustainable fuel which is carbon neutral and can replace the oil based fuels that we use particularly for transport. It is a difficult subject and quite complex, but I will not attempt to take you through all the complexities but refer you to the best source on the subject I have found – Tad W Patzek, who is at the University of Berkeley’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and has written a detailed study on biofuels which you can find at http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/patzek/CRPS416-Patzek-Web.pdf . Continue reading