More biofuels musings

I wrote up a little piece a bit ago on the complexities of the food-or-fuelchoice implied in the manufacture of biofuels.


Richard Jones at wrote about biofuels a while back (Driving on sunshine). He has returned to the matter more recently. “It seems that some of the drawbacks were more easy to anticipate than others. What’s sobering about the whole episode, though, is that it does show how complicated things can get when science, politics and economics get closely coupled in situations needing urgent action in the face of major uncertainties.”

I love biofuels in principle. The idea that we could use the agricultural technology of the whole of human history to power the most modern inventions seems appropriate. But the economics are complicated. There is always switchgrass which promises to make use of otherwise useless land. And there’s algae on which I did my high school science project. There you can use huge regions of the ocean to produce energy. That won’t have unintended consequences.

In any case, I think there could be a future in biofuels. If it raises the value of agriculture, then we can see more agriculture. I think that could be a good thing for people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Traditionally, agriculture was how cultures developed themselves. That seems like a worthy subject for development. I’m not sure right now, though. Corn ethanol, for instance, barely breaks even on the energy balance.

What that means (in simplified terms) is that you burn a gallon of gasoline to grow, process, and transport a gallon of corn ethanol. Ethanol is “green” except if you burned a gallon of petrol to get it. In that case it is utterly useless in energy terms. It makes a job or two, but you might as well pay people to not grow corn. Some of you might remember the discussion of the lucrative possibilities in getting paid to not grow corn in Catch 22. More recently: “Acreage Reduction Programs (ARP) paid farmers to set aside an amount of land on which they would not grow corn.”

Anyhoo, I have a dissertation to write and a second job to pay the bills. I wish I could believe that greenwashed fuels were the solution to the energy crisis.