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What Place in Our Energy Future?

(Released April 2009)

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  by Ethan Goffman  


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In the past few years biofuels, or at least corn ethanol, have gone from saviour to Satan in the American media. Touted as a cheap and abundant source of fuel that would boost the rural economy, free us from foreign oil dependency, and alleviate global warming, ethanol is now widely viewed as a boondoggle, a giveaway to agribusiness that has inflated food prices around the world while supplying precious little fuel. Which picture of biofuels is the true one? The answer to this question is that there is no answer, at least so far. Assessing biofuels is more complicated than assessing other renewables, such as wind or solar energy. A life cycle analysis is needed, encompassing every aspect of the fuels, including energy input, production, transportation, and the final burning as fuel. While all forms of energy require such an analysis, with biofuels it is more complex due to the many factors involved in growing and processing organic matter. Indirect costs that depend on what could have been grown in place of the biofuel crops and what other land is cleared to make up for lost agriculture make the assessment process even more difficult.

Global biofuel production tripled between 2000 and 2007
Global Biofuel Production

But what exactly are biofuels? defines them as fuels "produced from renewable biological resources such as plant biomass and treated municipal and industrial waste." Ethanol, the most common biofuel, "can be made from any source of fermentable sugars" (Bryner). However a simple definition of biofuels does not tell us much; the devil is in the details, the diversity of biofuel sources and how they're grown and processed. To understand what biofuel or combination of biofuels might be most effective in solving energy problems and reducing environmental impact requires studying a bewildering variety of products.

For contemporary ethanol in the developed world, the biofuels most easily produced on a mass scale, such as corn ethanol, have high life cycle costs. Sugar cane, widely used in Brazil, is far more efficient than corn at producing energy, yet even it is controversial. Cellose ethanol is touted as part of the "second generation" of biofuels, employing agricultural "waste" as well as vegetation that can be grown on less-than-prime agricultural land. However, cellulose material resists breakdown to be used for fuel.

fields & ethanol plant
Lincolnway Energy ethanol plant in Nevada, Iowa

Finally biofuel from algae, perhaps the "generation after next" biofuel, seems to take one of the most common forms of plant life, and convert it into a potent source of energy. Yet getting the right strains of algae to grow in the quanties needed is difficult.

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