Why biofuels make no sense

There’s been so much hype about biofuels which are a technology that cannot at present make even a dent in our fossil fuel usage and put enormous pressure on both the ecosystem and food prices. It’s time to inject a dose of realism by demonstrating the scale of the issue, so here are some facts and figures all of which are freely available.

The numbers around biofuels are easy to calculate and clearly show that they are not a replacement for fossil fuels. Let’s look at jet fuel in the US to start. Biological Jet fuel comes mostly from oilseeds like Rapeseed (aka Canola), Peanuts, and Soy as well as other plants like palm and coconut. Although palm and coconut have higher yields per acre than oilseeds they cannot be grown in quantity in the US so this example will use Rapeseed which has the highest yield of oil seed crops at 102 gallons per acre. According to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics the US uses about 13 billion gallons of jet fuel per year, and at 102 gallons per acre that means we would use about 130,000,000 acres of cropland to supply Jet fuel from biological sources. The US has 406,000,000 acres of cropland so it would take a whopping %31 of all US cropland to supply Jet-fuel needs alone! In 2007 the US used 44 billion gallons of Diesel which uses the same feedstock plants as Jet fuel, so using the same yield figures that would take 431,000,000 acres of cropland to supply, that’s 106% of US cropland.

So in order to supply Jet and Diesel fuels from domestic farming in the US would take %37 more cropland than the US posesses, and that’s before we even touch Gasoline and Avgas use which by the way is 136 billion gallons per year. Since Ethanol only has 80% of the energy density of gasoline we will need to grow enough corn for 170 billion gallons of Ethanol to replace gasoline. Corn yields 390 gallons of Ethanol per acre, so we will need 436,000,000 acres of land to grow enough ethanol to replace gasoline, which is 107% of US cropland.

In other words we would need 2 and a half times more cropland than we actually have to grow enough biomass to replace our transportation fuel use. Even if we turned over every single acre of cropland we have to biofuel production we would only supply 40% of our transportation fuel needs and we wouldn’t have anything to eat!

The ecological concerns of biofuel productions are worth mentioning as well. Indications are that the US is already overfarming available land, and the result is topsoil loss and more critically in many areas water resources are becoming exhausted. This means that in the mid to long term the US will have to farm LESS, not more to be sustainable.

If we push biofuels as a solution to fuel imports we will drive up our food prices dramatically, and also reduce the surplus food that is used to help feed the world’s hungry. As the world’s population continues to grow there will be more and more pressure on farming to keep food on the table, and I for one am not willing to have kids starve so I can have supposedly “green” fuel!

We cannot supply our transportation fuel needs using biofuels as there simply isn’t enough land and fresh water to grow the biomass needed to supply fuel and feed the population, in fact we can’t even make a dent in our fossil fuel use. I’m not anti-biofuels, there should be a place for them in our fuel economy, however we need to do so in such a way that they will not take food from hungry mouths and drive up food prices. Like it or not the reality of the situation is that we will be putting fossil fuels in our airplanes for a good while yet until substantial research and development produces viable green energy solutions. Food first, fuel second!

5 thoughts on “Why biofuels make no sense”

  1. Baloney – your facts are wrong. I’m not saying your formulas are wrong – just the facts that yopu base them on.

    The US pays farms to NOT make food. This is stupid. It squashes US jobs and drives the price of food higher. The US can produce much much more if it put it’s mind to it with EXISTIJNG technologies, let alone new technologies.

    The case against biofuel is simple – it is a threata to big oil, and moves money away from that protected industry. It’s not about feeding people. We’ve proven we can do that 10 time sover if we have to.

    1. @Bill – Mexico had a food shortage recently because Mexican farmers were selling their corn to biofuel manufacturers rather than local people and as a result people went hungry. This is a FACT.

      Agricultural subsidies are exist because US farmers can’t compete with other producers of food, they are a way to prop up a politically important industry. They are a bad idea, but that’s off-topic. Biofuels aren’t a threat to big oil for the same reasons listen in my blog article, ie we can’t produce enough of them, and cheaply enough, to compete. Without government subsidies the biofuel industry would die out very quickly. Why support an industry that can’t support itself and puts a strain on food prices and the environment?

  2. The subsidies for petroleum fuels are the highest of all – upwards of a trillion dollars for wars to ensure a huge supply of oil. That’s definitely supporting an industry that can’t support itself. Biofuels, particularly algae-based fuels are cheap by comparison.

  3. I’m not sure why you even need to bring food or subsidies or whatever into the discussion, when the numbers clearly show that it is PHYSICALLY impossible to grow enough biomass to replace all fossil oil. No amount of money or politics can physically increase the area of available farmland by 250%. It is not a matter of opinion or political stance.

    Algae are not a viable source of biomass either. The yield per area is much lower than for land-based crops, and additionally most algae farming techniques require injection of carbon dioxide into the water to make the algae grow faster.

    1. You have got the main point of my post completely, there is definitely not enough farmland on the planet. There is lots of marginal land where some biomass could be grown without impacting the water table and impacting food crops, we could get some fuel out of that if it can be done economically. I have to disagree with you on algae though as it is an order of magnitude more productive than anything else. Have a look at this page. Algae is 5 times more productive than sugarcane at a minimum. As you point out it needs CO2 to be productive, the answer it to bubble waste gasses from CO2 sources like powerplants through, and to use carbon sequestration technology which is already in place. MIT has been making biodiesel by bubbling power plant gasses through an algae farm for years with a lot of success. Taken to a much bigger scale significant amounts of biofuels could be done this way – and it also provides habitat for fish as well.

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