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back to article Biofuels are the 'next environmental danger'

Far from being the salvation of an oil-hungry society, biofuels could actually trigger increases in food prices and deforestation, according to a report. The Co-operative Insurance Company, part of the UK's Co-op Group, has published a study that warns that the fuels might never live up to their promise, and could have a …

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Biofuel = monoculture

There's a big problem with biofuels. To supply our cars with petrol we'd have to grow field and fields of whatever crop we pick to turn into a biofuel.

Huge monocultures are bad for the soil and the environment generally, for lots of reasons.

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Duh!

It isn't exactly rocket science to understand that arable land is a limited and insufficient resource for meeting the energy demands of all the cars in the world, and that relying upon it for our energy demands is therefore even dumber than relying upon oil/coal/gas.

There isn't enough land to grow enough biofuel to meet our demands. It's either a big hoax or the result of wishful thinking from people who can't think.

We can use solar power, wind power, wave power, tidal power, hydro power and nuclear power (preferable fusion) for long-term energy sources. Biofuel is at best a stalling tactic while we get our sh*t together to do the right thing.

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And this study was proudly brought to you by...

Shell, BP and Texaco :P

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Divert livestock grain

Around half the grain produced in the world is for animal feed, and that used for feeding cows is an order of magnitude less efficient (in terms of weight of meat produced) that using it for poultry.

Cutting beef subsidies (approx £300 per cow in EU) so beef is sold at it's true cost would soon change consumer food spending, and free up a lot of existing arable land for biofuels.

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... the Co-op

WarrenG: maybe you should have read the article? The study was by the Co-operative Insurance Company, who don't have links to oil companies and adopt a generally ethical approach to company behaviour and investment.

Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn't mean there's a huge conspiracy going on.

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Anonymous Coward

Duh yourself

It may be true that there isn't enough land to use biofuel like we now do oil derivatives. That shouldn't a surprise. But the other renewables arn't enough by themselves either. And in addition the other renewables produce electricity, rather than something you can easily store, and use on the move.

Sure, you can generate hydrogen by electrolysis, then perhaps step up to larger molecules which are easily stored. It just isn't efficient. I'd bet it is easier to get hydrocarbons from plants than via that route.

In any case, the developed countries generally produce a large surplus of food. They might as well produce something useful instead. And going from n food-crops to n+m food plus fuel crops is an increase in diversity (provided that the area used is the same).

What the report says is (presumably) true, but it is more a case of "We can't keep on using energy at this rate" rather than "Biofuels are evil". Theres lots of scope for transport to get more fuel-efficient.

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Biofuels and Transport

The problem (as declared in this report) seems to be that so much arable land will be taken up for producing biofuels. Of course, the obvious thing to do is to adjust our lifestyles so that we limit the necessary amount of travel as much as possible. It seems that one of the most wasteful uses of energy is in transporting people and goods around the planet.

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Bronze badge

Over stretched?

Blair: The North Sea's empty. There's no more power. We're destitute.

Nation: Ohhhhh.

Blair: I'm afraid I have no choice but to sell you all for medical experiments.

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nuclear, anyone?

Shurely, this is the way forward? Fission and fusion?

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Silver badge

Nuclear fission, no thanks

Andrew:

Fusion doesn't yet work and probably still has many years of research and a lot of money before it does.

Fission just leaves an expensive mess for the future to sort out.

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A trade off...

Two interesting yet disturbing statistics:

1. In 6 of the last 7 years the world foodgrain reserves have declined in total volume -> We are eating more than we are producing.

2. The amount of grain required to produce fuel for one fill up in a Hummer would feed an adult for a year.

Therefore 1 ethanol based road trip = one dead human.

Why don't we cover marginal lands and deserts with solar panels and produce more energy than we will ever get from ethanol - save the farmland for farming and scarce oil for mobility requirements until a REAL hydrogen economy comes our way?

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Space

Read "The High Frontier" (not that Reagan era space war book) for an idea on how to produce bountiful energy.

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biofuels have never been 'Green'

To set the record straight, Biofuels were never meant to be a 'Green' alternative to fossil fuels. Biofuel is a 'replenishable' fuel source. Unlike oil and coal that have finite reserves, biofuels can be produced indefinitely.

However, biofuels are still hydrocarbons. Hydrocarbons, of any sort, produce greenhouse gases and carbon based pollutants. Even burning firewood produces these pollutants.

The most promising 'Green' fuel is Hydrogen. NOT hydrocarbon based ethanol 'fuel-cells', but raw hydrogen. Think Hindenburg! Removing hydrogen from water produces oxygen, and burning it turns it back into water. No carbon dioxide! No greenhouse gases! and you help to purify a little water as a bonus.

Hydrogen is sadly misrepresented as being to dangerous for general use, and yes it can explode into a space shuttle shattering fireball. Most of us, however, don't need to carry enough fuel to get into outerspace and back, and, let's face it, you wouldn't want your tank full of fossil fuel to catch on fire either.

Trucks and trains transport hydrogen on public transit systems every day and I have not heard of any massive hydrogen explosions as a result. In fact, existing freight systems (ships and rail), would be the ideal starting point for hydrogen power adoption.

Above all, the people who are working on the problem, need to focus more on finding a solution that works, and less on finding a solution that is unique enough to patent, or complicated enough to create a lock-in monopoly.

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Planting seeds in dirt...

Surely with some development an algae could be found/engineered to form the basis of an efficient bio-fuel? Once developed this material could be farmed without using any arable land.

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Seaquest DSV

Many of you who remember that we know more about space than we do about our own oceans! 90% of the worlds surface is covered with water, so all we need to do is start building giant domes under he sea, and extract all the rich minerals from the ocean floor.

Obviously these plants would not be sunlight gathering types, but something else...

and about Sequest DSV, how cool would it be to have a talking dolphin :D

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Tortilla riots

Isn't there already unrest in Mexico over the rising price of corn, a result of Dubya's Ethanol-From-Corn initiative? It's a real comfort, George, to knw we can run our Suburban Assault Vehicles on the backs of our neighbors to the south.

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Newton has already invented energy free transportation...

Using vacume tubes going down at start and then up before destination ( - for slowing down) can deliver capsules with air suply for passengers with allmost no energy to add... like pendulum... - The stations - are simply towers of 150 meter height - enought for 200 km/h speed at ground level .

Those who have knees problems - for sure will use elevators ...

Putting those tubes underground can save the cost of towers but add a cost of long tunels - and towers are much cheaper..

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And this study was proudly brought to you by...

> Shell, BP and Texaco

The one who's been banging the anti-biofuel drum loudest in recent weeks has been Fidel Castro, and for the same reasons as the Co-Op - it diverts land from food production and does nothing to wean the US off its hydrocarbon addiction.

The oil companies couldn't give a monkey's, I suspect. If the profit moves to ethanol and biodiesel, they'll just buy up the midwest and sell us that.

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Algae

Widescale Biodiesel Production from Algae

http://www.unh.edu/p2/biodiesel/article_alge.html

Algae is the only way, we have known for atleast 5 years that using planted crops is a none starter, that the energy inputs are more than the outputs and that the volume of biodiesel from them is far too low, the report above was published 3 years ago, so now we have the Co-op, who obviously havent done their research produce a report that restates what we know about planted crop biodiesel and ignores algae biodiesel, I'm just an interested observer and not paid to know about the biodiesel industry but even I know these facts, so why don't they?

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Tom
Bronze badge

Be careful for what you wish for...

...you may get it.

Easy come, easy go.

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Anonymous Coward

Forget the Algae

Forget Algae. That ain't happening anytime soon.

http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2531

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biofuels are carbon-neutral and hydrogen isn't a fuel

Hey John Gross,

There isn't any unbound hydrogen -- you have to break water or hydrocarbons to get it -- and you get out less energy than you put in to break it. That means you have to generate that energy using renewables if you want to be carbon neutral. So having a good carbon-neutral power source is a necessary input to a proper hydrogen system. A better way to think of hydrogen is as a battery. Let's stop thinking about hydrogen as a panacea and focus on reasonable ways to produce electricity, which would be needed for water hydrolysis. There are only a few ways we know how to make electricity without carbon emissions: 1) solar, 2) wind, 3) hydro (damming rivers), and 3) nuclear.

What's wrong with these? There's too little energy per square meter in solar. The wind doesn't blow fast or steady enough near the ground and you need a lot of space. Dams kill river ecosystems. And nuclear reactors make a lot of nasty waste that we don't know what to do with, although France does a pretty good job of minimizing that with breeder reactors, but then you have that weapons-grade plutonium to deal with...

Biofuels are theoretically carbon-neutral because growing the plants absorbs the same amount of carbon dioxide that is released when they are processed and burned. But the land use issue still remains.

All options are bad, unfortunately. I like nuclear because the negative results can theoretically be contained, and it's the only option that can pretty easily replace our existing petroleum system with existing technology. Everything else requires too many other changes throughout the economy.

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Solar is quite plentiful

Andrew,

All estimates I've seen indicate that the earth receives more surface incident solar energy in one hour than the entire world consumes in fossil fuels per year. If you work out the numbers, and conservatively assume photovoltaic efficiency of 10% (satellites use 28% efficient cells, and 40% efficient cells have been developed in labs), then placing solar cells over just 7% of the continental US would completely replace the *world's* demand for fossil fuels.

Nuclear power plants on average only output 1GW. The world consumption of fossil fuels is currently equivalent to 13TW. To replace fossil fuels with nuclear would require us to build one nuclear plant per day for the next 30 years.

I agree with previous posters that biodiesel as a fossil fuel replacement is a sham. It is indeed carbon-neutral, but it's a very inefficient way to harness the sun.

Phat

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Almost right . . .

To Andrew:

Biofuels would be carbon neutral if we didn't consume any hydrocarbons to grow them. But when you factor in running the farm machinery, supplying petrochemical fertilizer, processing the plants into ethanol, and transporting it, you find that you're consuming very roughly the same amount of petroleum as you're getting ethanol equivalent. At least this seems to be true for current widely-deployed technology, when the plant is corn.

Answers vary a bit depending on whose balance sheet you look at (there are some people who argue that you actually end up behind where you would have been just burning the gasoline in the first place), but even in the best case scenario the whole corn-to-ethanol thing can't possibly do as much good as simply making slightly more efficient cars.

That's not to say that a future more efficient biofuel technology on a well-chosen plant species might not do us a bit of net good, but this business of going whole hog into the corn-to-ethanol trade before solving the most fundamental problem is quite silly.

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Re:Forget the Algae

The analysis at http://www.theoildrum.com/node/2531 is largely correct, the only point I take issue with is the 50% lipid content, some algae have as much as 60%, but that is minor. The main point is that the closed methods being used are expensive, which is true, open methods, while lower yielding are much less expensive, while the link I posted assumes open ponds I would expect that large algae farms in the oceans is the way to go, probably sucking up the algae with wind / wave / deep current powered pumps and seeding the farms with iron, which increases algae production. Please do not make the mistake of dismissing a technology because of one poor implementation.

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Carbon neutrality of biofuels

As long as the production of biofuels requires less energy input than it outputs, disregarding the solar energy needed for photosynthesis, then we can divert a portion of the output back into the production process and be carbon neutral. Theoretically. But the whole thing is just so inefficient at harnessing the sun (the ultimate source of energy in all schemes except nuclear) compared to photovoltaic or wind that it doesn't make sense to even consider it.

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Re. abundant solar

You may want to revisit your calculations regarding the area requirements to meet global energy demand via solar panels. My back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates you would need to panel an area the size of Iowa just to meet New York City's anual energy demand circa 1991. That's assuming:

1. 20% efficiency from all panels

2. a yearly average of 5.5 hours of direct sunlight per day (which is the average for Los Angeles)

3. 0% energy loss from the power distribution method selected.

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This post has been deleted by its author

Solar calculations

Allen,

Over the surface of the continental US, solar power density averages 198 MW per square km over a full year cycle. Assuming a run-of-the-mill 10% photovoltaic efficiency (as opposed to the 40% efficient bleeding edge stuff), we would only need 660,000 square km of solar cells to supply the entire world's 13 TW fossil fuel power needs. That's only 7% of the land area of the continental US.

Perhaps my numbers are off. I'd like to know which one(s) since my own research corroborates those numbers.

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