The United Nations has produced a comprehensive report into the future of biofuels which, despite being the result of much research and consultation with all 30 of its agencies, doesn't come to a conclusion about whether biofuels will be a good thing or not. A few sample quotes from the 64-page document (pdf): "Critical …
That's the 64,000 barrel question
"Or to put it another way, if the world's swarming poor folk are ever going to live like wealthy Westerners, we're going to be using a lot more energy, not less. The UN isn't alone in wondering if that can actually happen - and if so, where all the juice is going to come from."
Global oil production has been stuck at 85M barrels /day for 2 years now.
Biofuels add about 0.5M barrels a day at present. I very much doubt
global production of all liquid fuels will ever exceed 90 M barrels of
oil equivalent, and we may already be at peak oil production (and peak
net energy production) even as I type. Demand destruction (read
energy shortages) has already set in in the poorest 3rd world countries.
The only way we can expand energy usage in the developed world
now is if some poor b***stard in a poor country goes without even their
meagre ration. One SUV's tank of bioethanol uses enough grain to feed
someone for a year.
The Red Queen, Mother of All Bitches, said, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."
In the simple terms I understand the situation, the biosphere holds the overall biomass and a given biomass exists in co-evolutionary ecological niches. A species evolves to maintain itself while deforming it's ecological landscape and, in turn, being deformed by it. A dominant species will deform the landscape to a degree that the landscape can no longer support larger numbers of the species and the species will plateau or die off in large numbers.
Then along came the outlaw ape, a generalize omnivore with an over large prefrontal cortex and the quirky ability to manipulate it's environment symbolically. The outlaw ape lives outside the laws of nature. When it deforms it's ecology to a degree that it threatens sustainability the outlaw ape deforms the deformation. The biosphere becomes the domain of the Red Queen and everything must run faster in evolutionary terms in an attempt to stay in the same place. Only, ridiculously, the same place can't ever be the same place.
In this foot race, in last place, are the world's poor who are left with primitive coping strategies like over breeding, in the middle are the masses who want their entitlement to live like kings, and, out front, are the super rich who live like kings. Perhaps our species should have as it's coat of arms an outlaw ape rampant over a world despoiled.
Rich vs Poor
Indeed - that scenario is already being played out, as Mexico is gradually being priced out of the corn market, on which it depends for staple foods, by booming US demand for corn for the bioethanol industry.
Nice one Dubya, nice one. Who really gives a f..k if a bunch of Mexicans go without their Burritos anyway as long as God fearing folks in the US can still fill the tanks of their fuel-hungry vehicles so they can drive to the corner store.
biofuels are not the answer alone
Biofuels can do use up production surpluses in the western world as a way of prolonging the longevity of oil and reducing the overall carbon footprint. As part of a renewables policy that includes massive amounts of wind and hydro power, as well as more limited amounts of solar (solar is currently the most expensive option), they can provide a welcome boost.
But it simply shouldn't be thought of alone as it can't do enough.
As regards the actual use of these fuels, the most efficient is in CHP plants of <50MW, as larger than this hits transport inefficiencies (you end up using too high a proportion of the energy gained actually transporting it to the plant). Short term these are likely to be basic Combustion plants, with a long-term shift most likely to IGCC (Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle) plants as they have the highest efficiencies by a long way.
It's not an either/or
Bio fuels produce several outputs. Just like with oil extraction, where steep liquor and steep feed go to feed livestock and other uses, the byproducts of ethanol production are used. In fact, bio-fuel byproducts are improved -- as an example, corn (maize) used in ethanol production can be substantially inferior to that used for oil production, and the resulting mash has a consistent feed quality, and significantly higher protein content than raw corn. It's a good fit, improving corn used for animal feed, reducing the need for tankage (reduces the chance for BSE to propagate into the food chain) to improve protein content, and producing usable fuel into the bargain.
The problem is, every time someting like this comes up, some knothead starts b*tching about SUV's. Usually, it's some jerk that is sitting on top of their own enormous pyramid of consumption (hello pot, meet kettle), purchasing some sort of fool's pardon by buying a brand-new, 'efficient' electric or hybrid vehicle that uses some thousands of tons of coal to produce so they can feel smug about themselves, not to mention the coal, uranium, and fossil fuel they need to propel it down the road. When I see them actually make a sacrifice, then maybe I'll start thinking they've got something to say that isn't something smug and self-righteous.
I wish these people, if they want the moral high ground, would forgo their own consumption pyramid before they point out the error of everybody else's ways. Maybe do more walking, and less b*tching.
Everybody that trots out the tired arguments about the poor omits a lot of things in an effort to absolve themselves. Here's just a couple:
1) Poor people live in poor areas need to improve their lives. No handout can replace the desire to improve their own situation. It may or may not be their fault, but as long as they do what they've always done, they'll get what they've always got.
2) Grains don't export all that well, unless the recipient has the means to pay for shipping. Making ethanol and using products close to their source is just a good use of natural resources. I know it's frustrating to see abundance in one part of the world and need in another, but bashing people for their successes will not fix the failures.
I see no difference between a warlord keeping his people in extreme poverty so the aid checks keep coming and a do-gooder that wants to tell the rest of the world that their SUV's are the cause of world hunger. Both exploit the poor in support of their own twisted agendas. Neither truly has any interest in actually alleviating any of this poverty. Both just want into the pockets of the better-off for their own reasons. Neither has any chance of providing a world without hunger, in fact, it's their means of support. The only thing they are capable of is just a lot of photo-ops, jet-setting and collective misery, and the world can certainly do without that.
If people are seriously interested in helping the poor, instead of just exploiting them for their own agendas, then see to it they have:
a) a good economy
b) access to a good education
c) the ability to find work at better than starvation wages
d) better knowledge of how to grow their own food
e) better government
f) better medical care
You cannot do any of this with socialism or a dictatorship, and a healthy market economy is probably the only way to get it going. The solution to bad government and inept social organisations is not more bad government and more inept social organisations. (Not inept? How many trillions have been spent, and how many millions are still starving?) If you want to help from the comforts of home, then give to the micro loan providers -- they stand a decent chance of doing all of that, as unfashionable as they may be in Hollywood and elsewhere...