WILLIAM TUCKER: Biofuels – Still Searching for a Benefit
By William Tucker
When Amory Lovins first proposed biofuels in 1976, he did so by comparing our oil consumption to the output of the beer and wine industry. We already processed 1/20th of our oil consumption for these alcoholic beverages.
Gasoline has 1.5 to 2 times the fuel value of alcohol per gallon. Thus a conversion industry roughly ten to fourteen times the physical scale (in gallons of fluid output per year) of U.S. cellars and breweries, albeit using different processes, would produce roughly one-third of the present gasohol requirements of the United States . . .. The scale of effort required does not seem unreasonable…
It was only unreasonable if you didn’t calculate the amount of land that would be required to grow the crops. Lovins never did but it’s easy enough. The hops and vineyard industries occupy about 40 million acres. Using Lovins’ estimate of “roughly ten to fourteen times the scale” of the beer and wine industries, we can multiply by 12, giving us 480 million acres – about half the cropland in the United States. That would be to produce one-third of our gasoline consumption in 1976. (That figure has since increased 50 percent.)
These numbers have hardly changed. Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, James Jordan and James Powell, two research professors and former biofuels enthusiasts at the Polytechnic University of New York, noted:
It’s difficult to understand how advocates of biofuels can believe they are a real solution to kicking our oil addition. . . . [T]he entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of demand. . . . And the effects on land and agriculture would be devastating.
The original intent of all this was to replace foreign oil. Yet the amazing thing is that no one has ever been able to prove convincingly that growing crops for fuel saves any energy at all. We now divert more than 40 percent of corn output – our largest crop – into replacing 3 percent of our oil consumption. But growing corn is highly energy intensive. David Pimental, a Cornell agronomist, has long argued that substituting corn for oil actually loses energy – most of it in the form of oil for tractors and transportation and natural gas for fertilizer. The Department of Energy has made a valiant effort to prove that something is being accomplished but the best studies have found an energy gain of only 30 percent. A 2000 DOE study concluded, “The production of ethanol from corn is a mature technology that is not likely to see significant reductions in production costs.”
The holy grail of biofuels has always been cellulosic ethanol. This would allow the conversion of all manner of stalks, stems and crop wastes to ethanol instead of just the sugars in corn seeds, sugar beets and sugar cane. But industrial techniques for breaking down cellulose molecules require huge amounts of heat – i.e., energy. The only practical route would be to domesticate the microorganisms that digest cellulose in the gut of termites or the stomach of cows. This has been done in the laboratory but never successfully expanded to an industrial scale. In 2007, after George Bush, Jr. persuaded Congress to mandate 250 million gallons of cellulosic alcohol by 2011, a company named Range Fuels claimed to have mastered the process. The Department of Energy sunk $50 million into the project and the Department of Agriculture added another $80 in loan guarantees. Range built a plant in Georgia but found the process didn’t work and closed its doors in 2011 without ever producing a single gallon of ethanol.
The biofuels effort probably would have been abandoned long ago if it hadn’t picked up the rational that it is somehow reducing carbon emissions. The idea is that biofuels represent “young carbon” – carbon taken out of the atmosphere only recently, while fossil fuels represent “old carbon” – carbon buried in the earth for geological ages. Burning wood and crops may produce more carbon emissions in the short run, since the molecules contain less hydrogen, but it is “carbon neutral.”
But the real comparison should be between growing a field of corn to put in gas tanks and growing the same field for food consumption or leaving it to lie fallow. In February 2008, Science published two papers showing the practice was anything but “carbon neutral.” One showed that diverting agricultural land to biofuels almost anywhere in the world would lead to further deforestation. The other showed that it would take 93 years before the impact of converting grasslands to biofuels was neutralized by any reduction in fossil fuel consumption. All this has been borne out by the increase in carbon emissions that have occurred by clearing land for biofuels in the tropics.
In short, there is no rationale for biofuels whatsoever, except for a dreamy sense that it is more “natural” than burning fossil fuels. And it pales when compared to the best source of carbon-free energy – nuclear power.
The biofuels effort is reminiscent of the hapless Civil War general Jubilation T. Cornpone whose legendary career was celebrated in the Li’l Abner cartoon. As the song in the Broadway show recounted:
With our ammunition gone and faced with utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing to eat?
Someday someone should erect a statue of General Cornpone in front of the Department of Energy to celebrate America’s adventures in biofuels.