I got a call this week from David Hyde, assistant producer of an excellent local public radio (KUOW) talk show called Weekday. He was doing research for a show (it ran last Thursday) titled “Biofuels: Hope or Hype?” I was able to call in for a quick question about how the pollution from biodiesel cars compare to gasoline cars (with all of their modern air-pollution controls). The gist was missed and the guest ended up comparing biodiesel to regular diesel instead, as usual. Oddly enough, nobody appears to have done the gasoline/biodiesel comparison yet … except me. Maybe I planted a seed though.

It was an interesting show. Click here to hear it on RealAudio.

To kick it off they sent someone over to a local biodiesel distributor to interview customers at the pumps. They found a young woman filling up a Hummer of all things. Needless to say, her insights were not particularly earth-shattering.

I was shocked to learn that the biggest biodiesel refinery in the country is being built over at Grays Harbor, and that they are planning to import palm oil to make it. More on that later.

For once, food-crop biofuel skeptics outnumbered the enthusiasts. One of the guests was Washington State’s energy policy advisor. He dutifully articulated the governor’s game plan: First, you mandate biofuel use, thus forcing a market for it. Next, you provide state-funded assistance to farmers to grow the biofuel crops for the fuel being forced onto consumers. The hoped-for result is that we will get to keep the money normally paid to others for diesel fuel right here in our state, creating jobs and wealth and votes. Personally, I don’t see why this idea can’t be extended to other products. We could build our own cars for example, and computers, and tires, and televisions, keeping all of that money we normally send out of state in our state. I am being facetious (obnoxious) of course. One question e-mailed in to the show hit the nail on the head:

It is easy to see that biofuels won’t do much in the long run … it just seems so obviously silly that I can’t help but think it’s all pork. What am I missing?

One of the guests felt that the most responsible way to look at biofuels for now is as additives, not as fuels. I can see how this perspective might cool the hype. It is hard to get excited about a fuel additive.

Another mentioned that the market for a byproduct of biodiesel production, glycerin, is already saturated. When that happens, a byproduct becomes a waste product. Not mentioned was the fact that distiller’s grain (the stuff leftover from making corn mash alcohol … ethanol) will eventually saturate the market as well. Feeding that stuff to cows is how they were finally able to show ethanol energy positive. By feeding cows corn mash instead of growing corn for them, you can count the energy saved. But as soon as you saturate that market and begin to quietly plow that mash into the fields, you go energy negative again. That’s right: The debate over whether ethanol uses more energy than it produces is not a done deal.