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New Study Finds Biofuels Not as Green as Previously Thought

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Biofuels require how much land?
Biofuels require how much land?

For decades, the US and other countries have looked to biofuels to reduce emissions and petroleum imports, but is it a sustainable practice?

Biofuels, according to some, could be the next best choice when it comes to fuels that our current conventional transportation system can use. Unlike petroleum, a fossil fuel that comes out of the ground and emits carbon dioxide, biofuels are based on crops that recover the carbon dioxide emitted when they are burned. The result is nearly carbon neutral, if you include emissions during planting and harvesting. In the US and other countries, the addition of ethanol to gasoline, for example, results in somewhat fewer emissions, as well as reduced dependency on foreign petroleum imports, but is it all good news?

Interestingly, biofuels aren’t new at all, even the Germans were making potato-based rocket fuel back in WWII, and the Ford Model T ran on corn-based ethanol, but can biofuels replace an entire fossil-fuel-based infrastructure? Can biofuels replace coal-, oil- and natural-gas-fired power plants? Can biofuels replace gasoline, diesel, and aviation fuels? The short answer is “Yes, but…” because there is always a “but.” In this case, presented by Ike Kiefer, a US Air Force Journal writer, biofuel “cons” outweigh the “pros” by a significant margin.

Keifer asserts that biofuels have a power density* of “only 0.3 W/m2 (Watts per square meter)” while modern photovoltaic solar panels have a power density of around 6 W/m2. An oil well generates about 27 W/m2, and a nuclear power plant generates better than 50 W/m2. The result is that biofuels require vast amounts of land area to offset other fuel supplies. For example, to replace all oil used in the US for transportation with corn-based ethanol, it would require some 700 million acres of croplands, triple the amount of currently-harvested croplands. This doesn’t include all the other uses for fossil fuels we have in the US, which would require perhaps billions of acres that we just don’t have.

What do you think? Are biofuels a dead end?

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5 COMMENTS

  1. LoneWolffe beepee  You’re 100% correct i.e. The Reclamation Act of 1902.  But realizing that those where vastly different men, who’s ultimate goal was to do “whatever was in the best interest of the people”, we are faced with the truth that todays “regulators and politicians”, whether they know it or not, support the business interest that put them into their positions.

    It’s taken me a while to understand that “vision” is not a gift, be a curse.  When a juggler needs both hands to juggle one ball, it should be easy for us (you and me) to understand how juggling 4, 3, or woefully even 2 balls can be intimidating and outside of their collective realm (or scope of understanding).

  2. beepee LoneWolffe  small steps, that’s what i’m thinking. need to get regulators’ and politicians’ heads out of their respective orifices and attack the problem without regard to cost, popularity, or whatever else drives their egos.
    the solution isn’t a single idea, but a mix of ideas that complement each other.

  3. LoneWolffe beepee  Diesels that are run on 100% veggie fuels is not a solution for all
    times.  John David (J.D. to his friends)
    was a billionaire when gasoline was 19.9 cents p/gal.  As a kid, I remember working on electric motor
    projects, generators and concepts (like a one legged man, in an a** kicking contest),
    with everybody whispering, “what a nut, we’ll never need that stuff, gas is 19
    cents per gallon and it’s based on an inexhaustible supply of oil”.
    LoneWolffe’s math notwithstanding, global energy consumption will begin go
    down, and eventually plummet, as our definition of energy itself, becomes
    redefined.  Today’s concept of energy
    relates to heat, but to digitally encode the Encyclopedia Britannica, to be
    transmitted three times p/second, through a single fiber optic strand, is “not
    your father’s Oldsmobile”.  Today’s worldwide
    energy policies have been both useful and effective, but not so much when
    compared to how conceptually “wasteful” they have been.  Again, “the Sun is an inexhaustible supply of
    energy”.  So they say, why use it when we have nuclear.
    Your math is fine, though it gives me a headache, but veggie planting will
    never get to the point where we need 1 trillion acres.   As
    mankind evolves, the battle against emissions will be won, remembering that we
    were “full steam ahead” in gasoline consumption before the word “emissions” was casted upon the
    landscape, let alone our being in denial once “some outsider” told us we have,
    or will soon have, a problem.

  4. beepee again, i think we’re talking interim steps to an emissions-free future. according to the EIA, http://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.cfm?id=12251 was something like 153,569 TWh (153.6 x 10^15 Wh) from all sources of energy. biofuels, at 1.2 MWh/acre, would require 126.5 trillion acres, or >3,000x more land surface area of the world? (i hope my math is correct) PV solar panels, on the other hand, would still require 170x, which explains either one of two things. a) the lonewolffe shouldn’t attempt math before 10am, or b) mankind vs emissions is a battle that cannot be won

  5. Not to beat a dead horse, but Rudolph Diesel’s concept engine could never attempt to replace all fossil fuel production, particularly because of “all the other uses for fossil fuels we have in the US”.  Second, NOTHING can be implemented in “one fell swoop” without some devastating critical path concerns.  The Diesel engine is the absolute heart of the domestic “veggie fuel” industry, targeted only at gasoline replacement but certainly not ever attempting to replace aviation fuels.  On the other hand, industrially speaking, anything that is coal, oil, or natural gas-fired, already has a Diesel-fired counterpart that is currently run on fossil fuel based diesel.
    To “include emissions during planting and harvesting” centrally defeats the purpose of veggie diesel altogether, as planting, harvesting, replanting as well as the refinery and distribution phases should be accomplished by veggie fueled diesel power throughout.
    Finally, from the standpoint of “replacing all oil used in the US for transportation”.  Remember a very large share of commercial transportation is already diesel – just not veggie diesel.  This, of course means, no transition woes.  From the standpoint of “tripling the amount of currently-harvested croplands”, no problem, I invoke the Weyerhaeuser example – they plant more trees than they actually harvest, usually in agriculturally strong, but partially abandoned croplands.  The Weyerhaeuser model can be put into place on a Nation-wide basis (requiring irrigation in the West) because “tripling” the amount of veggies harvested, that are dedicated to domestic transportation, is completely feasible and should not impact domestic croplands or food supplies.  If we can put a man on the moon, . . . . . .etc, etc, etc,

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