Monday, February 13, 2006

Biofuels: bridge to independence from oil or too energy intensive?

I'd like to get your opinion (based on solid, well-sourced information) about how realistic it is that rapid development of America's biofuels infrastructure (ethanol, biodiesel, etc.) can have a significant positive impact on helping to free us from dependence on foreign oil as soon as possible.

Even if just as a transitional energy source.

Folks like David Pimentel at Cornell say biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol, take more energy to produce than they will save us. Is this true and is there a way around this problem? Are any particular crops, or perhaps some kind of weedy, low-input grass, better candidates than corn or soy for mass production of biofuels?

Another criticism of biofuels is that reliance on them will be a threat to our food supply, as valuable food crops will be diverted to meet our energy needs. How accurate is this?

I'm looking forward to whatever information you can provide about whether and how biofuels can simultaneously help us quickly (over the next decade) achieve freedom from foreign oil, boost our national security, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and save consumers and businesses money.


  1. Anonymous8:01 AM

    It is a specious question IMHO.

    The problem isn't that biofuel tech is wrong to pursue; it is why are we pursuing it in the least effective manner?;_ylt=Av22x9PUIRYZrD6H2H3AKVr737YB;_ylu=X3oDMTA3MzV0MTdmBHNlYwM3NTM-'using%20biomass%20waste%20for%20biofuels'

    Human populations generate biomass waste regardless of whether used for productive ends or polluting landfill. The extent of biomass isn't measured as just sewage but paper, food and even lawn clippings. The better logic is that an integrated waste processing system would yield a net win/win gain by generating energy, usable fuels output. reduce dumping, save land fill and create less toxic, or controlled toxicity end products. By this kind of measure the cost per erg of usable fuel created can be offset by a significant improvement in integrated waste management cost not merely the invested cost of infrastructure and raw material. Farmland should not be seen as a primary source of material for biomass co-generation and fuel production. Much of the economies of scale indicate it is far more efficient for example to direct some biomass production to large scale cleaner to operate electricity and other industrial scale use like plastics, than to use individually.

    Once in a more stable form, or as electricity the energy might be used more cleanly and efficiently individually. At an industrial scale even the CO2 generated might be recycled into a more stable less dangerous Greenhouse gas form.

    None of this addresses the efficiency question either. The idea that whatever fuel alternatives are achieved is simply to be seen as a pretext for business as usual is really at the heart of the dilemma. What we have a is an unsustainable *cultural mind set.* Can today's humanity intentionally invoke constructive change without a catastrophic impetus?

    How we see the problem has a great influence over how we resolve the problem. Humanity needs to frame the question differently than the above question does. I consider the question a false dichotomy.

  2. Good points, Lazarus. Specious question and false dichotomy--would not surprise me.

    But those seem to be the talking points against use of biofuels, and the way the biofuels issue is often framed, that I all-too-often hear on the major media networks. Especially the one about them being too energy intensive to produce to be worth the while.

    And I certainly don't feel comfortable with that based on the balance of information that I am familiar with.

    Your points about better integrating biofuels production with societal waste management systems are outstanding ideas (addressing multiple major challenges at once--waste management/landfill space/reduced toxic pollution from waste end products, and energy independence) that I'm absolutely going to pursue further. Good stuff!

  3. Anonymous5:35 PM

    Pimentel and Patzek have been taking a lot of heat lately for their criticisms of biofuels, with lots of others saying they're leaving out key outputs from the production process. The debate rages on, see The Mother of All Biofuels Debates:

    However, whether the EROI of biofuels is sufficiently high (or even just positive), or whether we can achieve x or y offset from oil using biofuels, may be a moot question. We're going to develop as much biofuel as possible, because we simply have no other good choices for liquid fuels (other than ones made from fossil fuels). We will do it even if the EROI is negative, because we'll be backed into a corner.

    I'm long bioethanol, esp. cellulosic bioethanol.