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Andy Tully

Andy Tully

Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com

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New Report Destroys Biofuel Claims

New Report Destroys Biofuel Claims

Despite their promise over the past decade or so, biofuels have been found to be a very inefficient way to generate energy, are bad for the environment and even contribute to world hunger, according to a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

In fact none of these conclusions is new. Research into biofuels for years has focused on making them more potent. And no one has ever thought cutting down trees, for example, is good for the environment, even if more trees can be grown. And as for nutrition, who benefits more from corn: a hungry child or an automobile?

Certainly, natural waste products can contribute to bioenergy, but dedicating broad acreage to raising crops not for food but for energy creates unfair competition with a more important enterprise of growing crops and providing grazing land for livestock, according to the WRI, a global research organization based in Washington. Related: Ethanol Producers Poised To Gain From Oil Price Drop

And denuding forests may help create a clean-burning fuel, but it also deprives local waterways of protection they need, leaves wildlife without habitat and even leaves the Earth without its natural air cleansers that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Perhaps most important from an energy standpoint, the report says, is that biofuels are inefficient. For example, it says, sugar cane seems like an ideal renewable source of energy because it grows quickly, but it “converts only around 0.5 percent of solar radiation into sugar, and only around 0.2 percent ultimately into ethanol.” Much the same is true for maize, or corn as it is known in the United States.

The upshot? “Such low conversion efficiencies explain why it takes a large amount of productive land to yield a small amount of bioenergy, and why bioenergy can so greatly increase global competition for land,” the WRI report concludes. If you want clean energy, it says, go solar, which it says can outperform biofuels per hectare by a factor of more than 100.

Nutritionally, biofuels also create more problems – serious problems – than they solve. The WRI report anticipates what it calls a “70 percent food gap” between the calories available in the food grown around the world in 2006 and the foods that will be needed to feed the planet’s population by 2050.

If governments managed to phase out crop-based biofuels by 2050, they could reduce that gap to 60 percent – not much, but an improvement. But if the leaders of large economies pressed ahead with developing crop-based biofuels, that gap would inflate to as high as 90 percent.

Creating enough bioenergy to fill just 20 percent of world’s demand by 2050 would mean doubling the annual global harvest of all plant life. That would be in addition to the huge crop yield needed to feed and house the planet’s mid-century population. That, the report says, is unsustainable and unrealistic. Related: OPEC Decision Hits Renewables

Then there are greenhouse gases. There’s a “misplaced belief” that more use of biofuels would mean a decrease in toxic energy emissions, the WRI report says. For example, when maize is burned, it emits carbon dioxide. But many believe that this emission is balanced out by other plants that absorb CO2.

“Yet if those plants were going to grow anyway (e.g., for food), simply diverting them to bioenergy does not remove any more carbon from the atmosphere and therefore does not offset emissions from burning that biomass,” the report says. “In effect, these analyses ‘double count’ plant growth and thus ‘double count’ carbon, leading to overly optimistic estimates of emissions reductions.”

So how wrong did we get it? “I would say that many of the claims for biofuels have been dramatically exaggerated,” WRI President Andrew Steer told The New York Times. “There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.”


By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com

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  • John Scior on February 01 2015 said:
    I wonder if their report takes into account new methods of producing ethanol such as what is being done by POET producing ethanol from not corn itself but rather parts of the corn plant that otherwise might degrade away. Or Algenol that plans on making ethanol with algae. One limiting factor of world population is food supply. When the world runs short of food supply, the price goes up and makes it costlier to raise a large family and therefore a natural population control exists.
  • John Scior on February 01 2015 said:
    One other comment I'd like tosee if higher amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere lead to grater yield of grain harvest ? Or for that matter, more vegetative growth. In computer modeling I don't think these factors are being considered. For example say the world temperature rises 2 degrees. Would this also open up new fields to grow crops on which might otherwise be unproductive in a colder climate.
  • R Jensen on February 02 2015 said:
    It is correct that biofuel production is inefficient, and probably would not even be feasible without government subsidies. It is also stinky, as anyone who lives near a biofuel plant can attest. All the corn used in biofuel is not lost however. The mash can be used as a high protein feed. A more serious problem is that most of the corn is GMO or genetically modified, making it unsuitable for consumption by humans or animals. You should never eat a plant that is its own pesticide factory. Further, the spraying of glyphosate on fields is a real environmental disaster.
  • ThermalEd on February 02 2015 said:
    Biofuel doesn't scale well enough, and even if it did, it can't compete with PV for output. That is, an acre of corn in Iowa will get you about 500 gallons (of fuel which has 70% of the energy content of gasoline) which, at 25 miles per gallon mean you get 12,500 miles per acre per year. (It's more like 10,000 miles because of the 30% energy discount.)

    An acre of PV in Nevada, on the other hand (150 kW per acre x 2,000 hours -- and in some places it's more like 3,000 hours), gives you 300,000 kWh which means more than a million miles per acre per year.

    Biofuel is a rounding error. One place it makes sense, though, is around the Pacific NW or in Scandinavian countries where hog fuel, ie, wood chips, can feed boilers that heat existing district heating systems for cities. Some of the piping has been in place since the late 1800s and this may still be cost-effective.
  • Lee James on February 02 2015 said:
    Synthesizing biofuels is a tough row to hoe. Makes us realize the important of using remaining fossil fuels very wisely. Petroleum is an amazing resources. If we think of it as medicine, plastics feedstock, and roads, perhaps we will burn it up with a thought that the stuff is, "a limited-time-offer."

    We need to redouble our efforts: price on carbon, low-carbon technology, every-day conservation.
  • vns990 on February 06 2015 said:
    Blah Blah Blah yet another ill thought and fully funded report by the WTI in who's favour ?

    Certainly not the renewable/alternative energy industry.

    I fail to see how people are starving due to "biofuels" production.

    They would be starving regardless in most cases.

    Furthermore the industry shouldn't be judged by the actions of those for example in the palm oil game as most of that and other oilseed crops are the primary sale points of the food industry so that's a bit rich.

    No thought or enquiry has been made into technologies using wastelands for producing biofuels or waste resources as prior mentioned just the typical blah blah about bagasse and such.

    Oh but it produces CO2 when burnt !

    No say it isn't so well considering hydrogen is to dangerous for the average person to play with you might aswell be one of the nuclear nutters saying that things you can't see which irradiate you is "Far safer".

    Meanwhile you ignore the hard work done by the US D.O.E and even the Airforce and commercial industry trials of oilseed crops being used to blend with existing fossil fuels.

    No all we are to hear about renewables is bad news.

    Meanwhile your encouraged to consume more of everything which tends to be more fossil fuel reliant.

    I won't blame big oil for the caged mindsets displayed by those who should know better.

    Most would argue they have vested interests and therefore can not express an unbiased neutral view.

    Whilst people can barely afford their electricity you can see here alone why so many went solar.

    And it wasn't just because of the govt incentive scheme.

    People in most cases had no choice as they watched their bills skyrocket by upto 200%.

  • Noel Douglas on February 12 2015 said:
    Why not think ahead and use the electricity produced from large wind mills or Solar farms for another use. This is called producing Hydrogen (H2O), from Purified water. As well Oxygen is also produced. It could be done using Great lakes fresh water run through a large purification, R.O. system, (reverse osmosis membrane), applying electricity to a special plate , capture the separate fuels on each side of the plate. Storing the fuels in large containment tanks and using existing Pipe lines to feed large cities for both Oxygen and Hydrogen. If my mind serves me correctly, Dr. Scott from the University of Toronto, (Canada, made a statement many years ago , that I never forgot. This is that 2" of water in Burlington Bay , (Great lakes), would be all that is required to heat the city of Toronto for 1 year. This fuel produces no contaminants , as we made a small system for my daughter when in grade 8 for her science project.

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