Suzuki and others back away from biofuels

Although biofuels have been hyped as the alternative to fossil fuels that will save the world, there has always been the negative opinion that the amount of fossil fuel energy used to produce biofuels is almost equal to what is actually produced, making it an inefficient process at best.

That may be optimistic as this 2005 article from Cornell University points out.

“There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. “These strategies are not sustainable.”

Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

It took him a while, but now it seems that even environmentalist David Suzuki has figured out that biofuels may not be the answer to our problems.

Proponents of biofuels, which are often made from plants such as corn or sugar cane, often point to their many advantages over fossil fuels like gasoline. Biofuels are less toxic or non-toxic in comparison to fossil fuels. They are a renewable resource, whereas once fossil fuels are gone, they’re gone. And biofuels can be grown just about anywhere you can grow crops, reducing the need for giant pipelines or oil tankers, and potentially helping to reduce conflicts in areas like the Middle East.

So far so good. But things start to get complicated when you look more closely. Much has already been debated about the energy requirements to produce some biofuels, especially corn-based ethanol. Ethanol made from corn only contains marginally more energy than what is needed to produce it. In fact, we use about a litre’s worth of fossil fuels to grow, harvest, process, and transport a litre of corn-based ethanol. Many people argue that making corn-based ethanol is more of an agricultural subsidy for farmers than it is a sound environmental policy.

Things get even dodgier for biofuels when you look at the land area that would be needed to grow fuel crops. We use a lot of fossil fuels. Switching to biofuels would not reduce the demand for fuel, just change the way we get it. And that would require a lot of land. In fact, substituting just 10 per cent of fossil fuels to biofuels for all our vehicles would require about 40 per cent of the entire cropland in Europe and North America. That is simply not sustainable.

But Dr. Suzuki’s figures are more optimistic that those produced by the Cornell study. In fact, according the Cornell research it would seem that with reference to biofuels we may be going entirely in the wrong direction.

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

* corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
* switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
* wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.
In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:* soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
* sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

 What we are now doing in our rush to embrace the ethanol fad is growing food to make fuel. It’s a bonanza for many farmers as the demand for their crops to make biofuels is driving up grain prices, but it is already starting to drive up food prices to the consumer.

China has apparently already figured this out but it may take a lot more to derail the biofuel train in North America.

China’s communist rulers announced a moratorium on the production of ethanol from corn and other food crops yesterday at the very time that Western leaders are rushing to embrace alternative food-based fuel technology.

Beijing’s move underlines concerns that ethanol production is driving up rapidly the costs of corn and grain. It appears to reflect a growing reality about food-based alternative fuel: it is far more expensive both economically and environmentally, than Western politicians are likely to admit.

Calls for biofuels are politically attractive for European and US politicians, amid rising petrol prices and concerns about global warming and an overreliance on Middle Eastern oil.

Communist officials in Beijing, however, who do not have the political concerns of democratically elected leaders in the West, have reacted to a rapid rise in food prices and an intense demand on farm land that threatens to make ethanol production unsustainable.

President Bush, who with Britain wants to see a huge increase in corn-based ethanol, called in January for the annual production of 35 billion gallons of corn-based ethanol in the US.

Although that is a hugely popular rhetoric in the Mid-west wheat belt states — the heart of America’s political battleground — environmentalists soon pointed out that such a goal would require an additional 129,000 square miles of farmland, an area the size of Kansas and Iowa combined.

The rush to corn-based ethanol is causing food-price inflation in the US, as it increases the cost of corn grain feedstock and the availability of the crop for such staples as cereal and corn syrup. The ethanol boom has created mass planting of corn at the expense of other crops, which helps to drive up prices, too. Futures prices for corn in the US have nearly doubled in eight months.

There are never simple answers. Just more questions.

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