Biofuels: good, bad, and ugly

We’re hearing more and more about biofuels because they’re an alternative fuel (i.e. “good”), because they don’t increase carbon dioxide in the air (“good”), because they can be produced any time any where (“good”), they can be used in current cars (best of all), and are generally the solution to a zillion looming problems.

If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.

The first problem with biofuels is figuring out what people are talking about. Ethanol from corn? Crop waste used in power plant cogeneration? Methane gas from landfills? Or composting toilets? Alcohol from cellulose? Fryer oil biodiesel?

The second problem is that “bio” doesn’t equal “good,” no matter how green it sounds. Some of these technologies are shaping up to be worse than our current oil-based one. The worst problems are at the production end, not during consumption, which makes it much easier to bamboozle rich-country consumers into thinking they’re helping the planet. We need to be aware of what different biofuels really mean before rushing into alternative energy “solutions” that are anything but.

Burning biofuel
All biofuels have some similarities. They can fit into the existing fuel infrastructure for liquid or gas delivery. This is a big deal, since any short term application of alternative energy is easier if it uses existing facilties. So that really is good. However, they all have to be burned to release energy, so they pollute the air, and they lock us into the same oily, greasy, smelly crud as petroleum (for lubricant, if nothing else). Sure, the details are different, but these are not eat-your-dinner-off-them technologies like electric cars (at the point of use). Chalk one up in the “ugly” and “bad” columns.

One big selling point for biofuels is that they don’t contribute to global warming. It’s true that the carbon they release is what they took from the atmosphere not long before. They’re not releasing new carbon which was buried under ground and doing nobody any harm down there. In other words, they’re “carbon neutral.” They don’t hurt the situation, but they don’t help it either. They may or may not, depending on the fuel, contribute less than petroleum products, but that’s not the point I’m making. The carbon they fix is the same carbon they release when burned.

There are also plenty of differences among biofuels. Alcohols, like ethanol or methanol, are quite clean-burning, as are gases, like methane. (Natural gas is mostly methane, but it’s fossil methane, so it releases carbon into the air instead of keeping it underground.) Even though alcohol doesn’t pollute as much as gas (i. e. petrol), if every car on the road used it, a place like Los Angeles would still have plenty of photochemical smog just from the inevitable incomplete combustion products.

Biodiesel is not as bad as “real” diesel in some ways, but it tends to have higher nitrous oxide emissions. So much so that it can have trouble passing California smog checks, for instance. (People are trying to find fixes for the NO issue.)

Then there’s the really smoky stuff, like burning crop wastes in a power plant for co-generation. That sounds grim, but it’s a point source, and an industrial one at that. That means all those emissions can be scrubbed down to almost nothing. They may not be, but they can be.

The entire energy cycle has to be considered, right down to what happens to any waste generated in production or residue left after burning. A dirty point source that can be controlled may be a better choice than a rather clean but diffuse source that can’t be. That has direct implications for the whole electric versus biofuels argument. All that nice clean electricity has to come from a dirty old power plant. But if the dirty plant has excellent scrubbers, that may be a cleaner solution than even the best methane-burning cars.

Producing biofuel
All that, though, is looking at it from the point of view of the consumer. The production end turns out to have a huge impact of its own. We need to pay way more attention to that. The situation can be so bad that some of the supposedly green technology turns out to be blacker than coal.

The first point is whether the raw material is already lying around, or whether it has to be produced. Is it waste? Or is grown, processed, and shipped? There’s a huge difference.

When biofuels first started, it was all about using waste: burning garbage for cogeneration, capturing methane from landfills or composting toilets, and that kind of thing. This is where biofuels got their environmental street cred. The raw material was already there. Money was going to be spent getting rid of it. It caused pollution. However, using it as a fuel reduced the pollution (usually!), and produced value instead of spending it.

All that is wonderful, and all that is definitely the way to go. Needless to say, that’s not the way people are going.

Producing biofuel from anything that isn’t waste is where the really bad and ugly parts come in. Alternative energy use has barely begun to take off, and already, the powers-that-be are turning this into another tale of sick-making exploitation and destruction. There are some horrifying trends taking shape. We have to do everything we can to stop them before they go any further. (The points below come from: UN Energy, Sustainable Bioenergy Report (pdf), BBC report of the charity Grain, and e. g. other BBC reports)

  • Rich countries pay more for grain to use as fuel than poor countries can afford to pay for it as food. Result: price of food grains has risen beyond the ability of people to pay for it. (This has already happened in some places, hence “has risen” rather than “will rise.”) Starvation looms for some so that others can drive clean(er)-burning cars. That’s awful. .
  • Agribusinesses want a piece of all that cash, so there’s talk of devoting vast tracts of farm land to producing grain for ehtnaol fuel or oil palms for biodiesel. That’s more land poor people can’t use to grow what they need, and more land other farmers won’t be using to grow crops for local consumption, and yet another reason why local food prices will go even higher. That’s doubly awful.
  • There will also be environmental impacts. Agribusinesses have already clearcut land to grow plants for fuel, and there’s talk of clearing vast areas of forest. It’s hardly surprising, I guess, since they’ve clearcut rain forest to make stupid hamburgers, and the profit on grain-for-ethanol will likely be higher. (No need for the intermediate step of all those messy cattle.)
  • In perhaps the ultimate irony, the amount of fossil carbon pooted into the atmosphere to grow all that grain could make it an even dirtier technology than our current, straight oil-based one. And all the trees that are clearcut will be releasing their carbon and won’t be fixing any more from the atmosphere.
  • And then, since there’s money to be made, there are human rights abuses. “Slave laborers freed in Brazil.” “An ethanol-producing company which owns the plantation has denied allegations of abusing the workers.” It’s all directly related. If the land wasn’t tied up in alcohol production, more people would have enough to eat and could avoid debt slavery traps.

Now, if there was a way to make ethanol from waste, the production-side problems could go away. God knows there’s enough crop waste polluting the planet. The problem (there’s always a problem) is that crop waste is basically cellulose. Wood, straw, paper, cloth, are all mainly cellulose, and none of them rot easily. That’s because there’s almost nothing that can break cellulose down (which is why plants use it for their cell walls, of course).

Using yeasts to ferment grain and produce ethanol has been thoroughly worked out over the millenia. But we don’t have anything equivalent for the digestion of cellulose. The bacteria and fungi that can do it are tricky to grow in vats, unlike yeast. This is a problem that can be solved with enough bioengineering, but we’re not there yet in terms of mass production and cheapness. (See, eg here for a bit more on cellulases, the enzymes that digest cellulose.)

Currently, the largest producers of cellulosic ethanol use chemical or heat treatment to break down the cellulose into its component sugars which can then be fermented the usual way. Needless to say, all that pre-treatment uses a good bit of energy, as well as being quite polluting in some cases, and turns this whole potentially green technology rather turd-colored.

There are three take home messages. One is that if people want to run their cars on ethanol, the best choice is to pour resources into bioengineering a good cellulose digesting microorganism. If we can’t get some fungus to do it for us, it’s not worth doing. Two is that biofuels from waste are okay in industry, such as power plants with excellent scrubbers, but they’re not all that ready for prime time as a transportation fuel. Even if they do use existing infrastructure. And three is that biofuel made not from waste is blacker than the Darth Cheney’s heart.

The push for biofuels in rich countries is largely based on the desire to use existing infrastructure. (In poor countries, it may simply be the only option.) But what we’re trying to achieve is sustainable energy, not infrastructure. If the infrastructure actually interferes with the real goal, maybe it’s time to rethink the infrastructure. If it’s part of the problem, maybe it’s time to give up on dead-ends and spend what it takes to go electric. Or maybe there’s some other, more elegant solution.

What do you think?



Filed under 13_quixote

21 responses to “Biofuels: good, bad, and ugly

  1. This is an excellent summary of the complexities involving the use of ethanol as a replacement for gasoline. To your list of problems, I’ll add that corn production requires tremendous amounts of fertilizer (and probably pesticides). The runoff from excess fertilizer is a major threat to watersheds and contributes to the formation of dead zones in our estuaries. That in turn is a secondary threat to our food supply since it kills off fish and shellfish.

  2. This has already come up for the Chesapeake.

  3. Evelyn

    It also takes a lot of fuel to grow corn on an industrial basis.

  4. I’ve never understood the thought processes behind growing food for fuel–it just makes no sense, especially when we’re faced with starvation in many parts of the world. But I’m glad for the extra information, especially regarding biodiesel, because I’d bought into the early hype on it as well. I’m glad to know of the problems.

    In the end, I think, straight electric vehicles that are powered by renewable, clean energy sources like solar or wind are the long term answer. Everything else is simply delaying the inevitable.

  5. In the medium term, we might want to look at pyrolising wood and converting the off gasses into methanol and other fuels instead of using cellulose digesters. What about imposing European fuel efficiency on US car makers? By using biofuels in inefficient cars we are only keeping expensive oil underground.

  6. I think making fuel from corn only works for corporations because of government subsidies. That’s why the livestock industry feeds ruminants only corn and the drugs that make it possible for livestock to live on corn long enough to reach slaughter weight. It’s why high fructose corn syrup is used as a sweetener (and its stability), why even regular corn syrup is used instead of sugar, why everything is corn, corn, corn.

    In a sane world we’d end corn subsidies and give farmers grants to help them change their operations over to other crops, preferably crops that don’t actually harm us.

  7. Thanks for the explanation.

    Can’t say I was expecting a lesson in alternative fuels before breakfast today…gotta love the Internet.

  8. In a nutshell: As fossil fuels become harder to extract, if we want to keep driving motor vehicles and power electrical appliances like this PC on which I am typing this, we have to make choices. None of the options is ideal, but sane societies not ruled by corporations examine the consequences and choose the best option, or the best combination of options based on regional or other considerations.

    I was so jazzed, on my recent visit to Oregon, to discover that the state and local governments are powering their buses and public works vehicle with biodiesel. It’s probably not all used french fry oil, and it still has NOx emissions on a par with regular diesel, but it’s much cleaner on both the production and consumption ends. If you’ve ever been on a bike behind a regular diesel Metro bus in Houston, you know how nasty the particulate emissions can be. It’s much nicer behind a Portland TriMetro bus.

  9. Most of the responses to this board remind me of the debate between spending on the space program in the 60’s and feeding the poor. Technology development and its beneficial effects on the human race are not a zero sum game. How many people today alive in the sixties would argue that the space program or the militarys development of the internet has not helped the productivity of mankind. Had we simply spent all those resources on food for the poor would mankind have the same net return? The current ethanol industry is a step on a long stairway toward a new future. Getting the refineries built and capable of handling celuosic ethanol when the technology permits moves this nation away from fossil fuels. On the issue of food prices, the price of raw corn as it relates to most food prices is a minor portion of what consumers pay. It is packaging, transportation, legal, marketing advertising and production costs that dominate food costs. /Garth

  10. Yeah, making fuel from corn is a poor idea unless you’re Monsanto or ADM, in which case it’s fuckin’ great. The energy density per hectare is pretty low, especially compared to sugar cane.

    One possible solution to the cellulosic ethanol problem is to use solar ovens for the heat source. It’s not as reliable as heating with liquid propane gas, but it’s free after the setup costs and has zero emissions.

    Corn ethanol is a scam. William Saletan seems to think it’s a good idea, which doesn’t actually help the case for biofuels a whole lot.

    There are better solutions to these problems. Concentrating emissions at one point and using electric cars was mentioned, and is a very good idea. Reducing the use of large generators in favor of neighborhood-sized LPG-fired generators will save on transmission loss. Long-distance transmission could be reserved for cleaner technologies like wind. In some climates, local solar/photovoltaic production could work. Coal should be phased out entirely.

  11. christine

    Also, ethanol production uses tons of water. That’s why you’ll never see an ethanol plant in Arizona.

    One thing you didn’t really touch on was biodiesel made from used cooking oil. There are several ‘co-ops’ forming around here that are making this in their barns and machine sheds.

  12. Thank you for providing such a helpful overview – and especially for making the point about the _production_ of these products. (It’s like talking about nuclear power – unless you factor in both the manufacture and the disposal of the relevant fuels, you’re missing an important larger picture.)

    One thing, you’ll note, that is almost never brought up in these discussions about alternative fuels is that the biggest effect, is the best alternative – reducing consumption.

    All of these alternatives are basically sticking fingers in a very leaky dike, claiming that we can go on having our cake and eating it too (or, put in a more modern idiom, we can keep on driving our big cars, living in our large houses, commuting to our jobs, and importing goods and foods from China and elsewhere overseas).

    Our current lifestyle simply is not sustainable – we have _maybe_ 30-50 years in the country before it collapses; poorer nations have less. Our human energy would be far better used to focus on reduction and altering our cultural expectations regarding “the good life” than to find ways to stretch out “business as usual” as long as possible.

  13. Yeah, the fertilizer, pesticide, and indirect petroleum costs of growing food-for-fuel are also horrible.

    I think some of the commenters have a good point saying that there may be a place for some of these technologies as an interim *local* solution. Problem is, people tend to get invested in their interim solutions and they become not so interim. Still, you have to do what you can, and some solution is better than no solution. And I have to admit that biking behind a natural gas bus (like we have where I live) felt like a peak experience the first time it happened.

    Efficiency is absolutely the first answer. Without it we’re totally screwed no matter what we try. I just saw a statistic that energy use in California has remained flat over the last 30 years because of energy efficiency laws. I haven’t noticed the Californians suffering particularly.

  14. Jewel

    A science geek-y friend of mine says that the way ethanol is produced now requires burning so much coal that it pretty much cancels out whatever greenness the ethanol was supposed to provide in the first place. Quixote, do you know if that’s accurate? If so, it’s damn depressing – why bother?

  15. There is a push to grow algae that can fix carbon into fat that we can then convert into a liquid fuel, which may be a whole lot cleaner. They’ve also got a second generation printable solar panel in the works that would be very cheap to produce.
    I think we waste a lot of power by having a grid in the first place, and if we could put solar on every roof, we’d be alot better off.

  16. Excellent piece, Quixote. And great discussion!

  17. Linnaeus

    Rana brings up a good point about consumption.

    I’ve seen in other discussions about alternative energy sources a sense that fossil fuels can be entirely – or even substantially – replaced, and we can continue our lives as we live them now in terms of what we can consume.

    Petroleum has a number of advantages as an energy source: it’s relatively stable, easily transportable, and most of all, the energy density of petroleum is high compared to most other sources. We simply won’t even come close to matching the energy output from burning petroleum by using biodiesel, solar, or wind. The scale would just be too large.

    These sources can play a role, and a very important role. We will not be able to sustain the life we have in the petroleum era, however, and it’s time to start preparing for that.

  18. Jewel: yup. Some of the ways of producing biofuels use so much fossil fuel in production they’re D.U.M.B. Like my Granny used to say (and she lived through a revolution, two world wars, and being a refugee several times over, so she knew) if there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way, people will go for the wrong way every time. 😦

    The same problems surround the current methods of producing hydrogen, by the way. Which is also depressing as hell. Used in a fuel cell electrical system (not as a combustible) hydrogen seems perfect, if technologically out there right now. But since there’s a wrong way to do it ….

  19. I hardly think the quixote and those of us commenting here are arguing what Garth thinks. At least, my own perspective is that we need to break free from the powerful interests that seek to continue our dependence upon old technology and inefficient – though profitable – methods and materials.

    The internal combustion engine is how old? We’ve spent how long merely refining the technology? I know that in sci-fi novels, at least, a society that stops innovating and spends its time merely working on old technology is doomed. So Linnaeus is right: we can’t think that we’ll just find some other way to fuel all of our old technology that’s going to work as well as petroleum. We need new technology.

  20. Em

    Something that hasn’t been mentioned yet is that cellolosic ethanol strips the plant waste from the fields. This is biomass that would normally degrade and return to the soil as nutrients. If it’s not there, the next year’s crop will need more fertilizer than it would normally.

  21. CPD

    This is interesting..
    It tells some of the history of the electric car and it’s developments over time.
    Everything has been develpoed according to this article, although I have to admit I have not checked on the facts of it.

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