Critique is a good thing
I read the Worldwatch/CAP Report on Renewable Energy (PDF) last night and agree with Dave that it is a good document. The biofuels section raised my eyebrows more than it should have. I critique it below.
Here is the bottom line on crop-based biofuels, and I am not alone in this assessment (for once) — Monbiot and Brown share my concerns. You have to replace on the world market every grain or bean you stop exporting and instead feed to an American car. Regardless of what others were using that grain for, the only way for other farmers on the planet to fill that hole is to grow more crops and the only way to grow more crops is to clear more land and the only land left to clear are rainforest carbon sinks and other assorted ecosystems.
Growing our own just forces others to grow their own. You cannot put the same bean into both your stomach and gas tank. When a biofuel profit taker tells you that biofuels do not compete for food, they are lying through their teeth. 70% of a corn kernel is lost to the human food chain when you use it to make ethanol.
The assessment is way too bullish on crop-based fuels, corn ethanol in particular:
A typical 40 million gallon per-year ethanol plant can provide a onetime boost of $140 million to the local economy. Once built, the plant increases annual direct spending in the community while providing jobs throughout the economy.
U.S. ethanol production doubled between 2000 and 2005, reaching nearly four billion gallons annually. Currently, most U.S. fuel ethanol is made from corn, the country’s largest crop, ensuring a strong basis of support among U.S. farmers and agricultural processors.
Ethanol is also used in higher concentrations up to E85 in a new generation of “flexible-fuel” vehicles that have slight engine modifications.
International Energy Agency (IEA), ethanol from corn is cost-competitive with gasoline in the United States (even without subsidies, and accounting for ethanol’s lower energy density) when the price of oil is above $45 per barrel–well below oil’s price in mid-2006.
One of the weakest links in this section is the way they use the term “biofuels” instead of clearly stating that they are talking about corn-based ethanol, or switchgrass-based ethanol. By not being specific, they create a kind of fuzzy picture and you are often not sure which fuel they are talking about. The ramifications of corn-based ethanol are way different than cellulosic. The same can be said for soy-based diesel vs. algae- and palm-based. In an attempt to be fair and balanced, they offer this criticism of “biofuels”:
Biofuels have the potential to reduce many environmental problems associated with transportation, but they can exacerbate others if not developed carefully. The fuels are essentially a means for converting the sun’s energy into liquid form through photosynthesis. Yet one of the major concerns raised about them is their net energy balance — i.e., whether the energy contained in these biofuels exceeds the energy (particularly from fossil fuels) required to make them.
The report uses the term biofuels above, but it is talking about corn ethanol. Not only is this “not” a major concern of most environmentalists, but they quickly brush it aside:
Thanks to technological advances throughout the production process, all of today’s biofuels have a positive fossil energy balance.
Then they make this statement which is just plain mathematically wrong:
If bioenergy is increasingly used for feedstock processing and refining as well, the balance sheet tips further in biofuels’ favor.
If you use 10 gallons of your soy oil to harvest what would have been 50 gallons, you net 40 gallons and when you go through all of the math, you find that the energy balance in the end comes out the same as if you had used ten gallons of petroleum to net 50 gallons of soy oil instead of 40.
Finally, they discuss negatives of “biofuels” but do so in a manner that suggests these negatives are only a future potential instead of today’s reality:
There is also concern that, depending on the feedstock used [corn and soybeans] and how it is grown and processed, biofuels can negatively affect soil and water quality, local ecosystems, and even the global climate. For example, if [if?] biofuels are produced from low-yielding crops [corn and soybeans], grown with heavy inputs of fossil energy on previously wild grasslands or forests, and/or processed into fuel using fossil energy, they have the potential to generate as much greenhouse gas emissions as petroleum fuels do, or more.
They then brush these realities that exist today aside. Below they keep using the term “biofuel,” making readers think they are still talking about corn, when they are actually talking about switchgrass and cellulosic alcohol:
However, if sustainable feedstock is used [corn is not sustainable] and it is cultivated in the right way [which it isn’t], biofuel crops can actually sequester carbon in the soil, helping to reduce the amount in the atmosphere while also reducing soil erosion and runoff and providing valuable habitat for wildlife.
They finally do concede that corn- and soy-based biofuels cannot do much to make us energy independent (after telling us in the section that raves about the benefits of corn ethanol about how they will, “And, more than any other renewable energy source, ‘biofuels’ can reduce dependence on imported oil …”):
Conventional biofuels will be limited by their land requirements: producing half of U.S. automotive fuel from corn-based ethanol, for example, would require 80 percent of the country’s crop land. Thus, large-scale reliance on ethanol fuel will require new conversion technologies and feedstock.
In conclusion, they are simultaneously promoting crop-based biofuels and acknowledging that they have to be replaced with new technology that will make them less environmentally destructive. They show a map of 131 existing biorefineries and 34 more coming on line. But none of them can be used to make cellulosic ethanol, should it ever become economically viable. This whole section strikes me as being schizophrenic and contradictory.
Had I written this section it would have been one paragraph long:
Massive funding for research into algae-based biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol is needed to make these technologies economically competitive as soon as possible. The environmentally destructive use of food crops (palm oil — Orangutan habitat, soybeans — destruction of the Amazon, and corn — dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico) by giant agribusiness has to be nipped in the bud before more damage is done and before they grow too invested and too politically powerful to dismantle.