Does biofuel have a future? I cover the many different angles of alternative energy, pollution, and climate here in the blog and you probably remember that in the last few years I have soured on most of the biofuel industry – especially grain ethanol.
I have nothing against the actual people who work in the industry or the farmers that grow the crops. It just isn’t turning out to be a productive activity for the economy and society as a whole. From an environmental perspective, even under the most ideal set-ups, grain ethanol here in the U.S. has an EROI barely over 1. Using up 40% of the corn crop (food) and barely getting anything for it, doesn’t seem like the best way to go. Food prices are already surging this Fall. Can you imagine if another dry period strikes the U.S. next growing season? U.S. grain exports to the rest of the world are falling dramatically because we are burning so much of the food in our cars (as ethanol). Wouldn’t it better if the corn was shipped around the world for people to eat?
From an economic perspective, most new biofuel companies haven’t been able scale their processes up and make a profit. If there wasn’t a mandate and subsidies for grain ethanol – those types of producers would mostly fail as well. I have reported on quite a few biofuel companies through the years and an increasing number of them are now going bankrupt. Even oil giant BP is giving up on their large biofuel investment, saying that withhout government support, is will not be economically feasible for them. Another sign that biofuel companies are having major trouble is that many of them are now turning to natural gas instead of other feedstock material. Natural gas is so cheap that it is easier for them to make heavy liquid fuels out of nat gas than say corn, or wood chips, or other plants material. That’s fine from a technical perspective, but it makes no sense from an environmental perspective. Biofuels were supposed to be CARBON NEUTRAL! By using nat gas, they are just pumping more carbon into the air. Making biofuel from waste material is at least more rational from an economic perspective. Joule and Cool Planet Biofuels have been working on the waste-stream angle which is good. If the material is going to waste then why not turn it into fuel (as long as it can be done at a profit). One of the concerns I have is about the amount of waste material that is available. There are only so many wood chips and agricultural waste to go around. Most of these companies say they will be profitable when they are producing millions of gallons per year. If they are all trying to use waste material, then they might find ”shortages” or that the price of “waste materials” will go up. A second concern is that if the material was going to be recycled anyway (perhaps as compost or landscaping material) then why make fuel out of it? Making fuel out of it requires that the waste material be shipped to the biofuel plant, converted to liquid hydrocarbon fuel and then shipped out again. Sapphire Energy has one of the best demostrations of biofuel thus far. They use algae and carbon from the air to create oil. This is probably the most neutral out of all the carbon “neutral” biofuel schemes, but Sapphire is still producing liquid hydrocarbons supporting a liquid hydrocarbon economy. (Aside: Cool Planet Biofuel’s process is not really carbon negative because they plan on using/selling the biochar by-product. It would only potentially be carbon negative if they buried/sequestered the biochar).
Also, hanging over all of this is an efficiency question. Why convert various carbon sources into liquid fuel when we could be transitioning more over to electric. Electricity can be produced in situ (solar panels, wind, and geothermal) and delivered more efficiently. Yes, liquids currently pack a lot more energy into a particular volume (than batteries), but there are many other advantages of using electricity, and batteries get better every year. Solar panels get more efficient and cheaper every year. Besides solar, thorium nuclear power is another possible safe source of electric energy in the future. India looks like it is finally getting around to building a thorium nuclear power plant. Good for them. The world needs a demonstration of the technology and the U.S. is apparently uninterested.
Of course, the reason for all the focus on alternative fuels and carbon sources is the theory that the earth will be destroyed by anthropogenic global warming (AGW). Whether you accept the theory/sceince or not, an electrified economy still seems like the way to go in the short to medium term (say…the next couple decades). Not only is electricity more efficient, it fits better with our evolving information revolution. Our most important tools in the modern day are now electronic tools. Cell phones, computers, and the Internet are driving the bus now. The information economy is less reliant on “moving mass” and “building things”. It is becoming more valuable to move bits and ideas, and build algorithms. Besides fitting better with our information society, electricity (from solar power or developing nuclear technologies) is just more futuristic. We used to dream big about the future in America. We used to dream about traveling to the stars. The internal combustion engine is so “last century”. Wind mills/turbines are so “the century before last”. Hydrocarbons are so “last millenium”.
Have a nice Wednesday! Meteorologist Justin Loew
This post was written by jloew on November 14, 2012