Biofuels vs. electrification? Why treat them as competing options?

I’m getting tired of the doomsday views being spouted about biofuels lately, as much as there’s an element of truth to them. Yes, biofuels from food or dedicated crops aren’t a sustainable strategy, and yes, biofuels from cellulosic ethanol may be years away before they become economical, but is this reason to completely abandon the idea? To call it a scam? I’m also a little perplexed that people talk about biofuel like we’re pinning the climate’s hopes on it, rather than as part of a much larger solution.

Yes, we’re seeing the hunt for palm oil sources devastating the rainforests of Indonesian. Bad. Bad. Bad. Makes for a great headline, eh? Does this suggest biofuels per se are bad or that we need to pay greater attention to how and where we get them? Is it not the government of Indonesia that’s responsible for strictly regulating this domestic market? It’s like saying we shouldn’t use solar power because factories in China are using child labour. Solar isn’t the problem — it’s the factory owners. Perhaps OECD countries should impose trade sanctions on any country that doesn’t comply with strict environmental standards, as a recent BBC article suggests. A New York Times editorial at least sees the potential for biofuels, pointing out that it can be done if done responsibly.

The same reasoning goes for the energy balance of biofuels. We’ve seen report after report saying that producing ethanol from corn takes more energy than what you get out of it, and that changing lands to biofuel crops releases carbon into the air. This might be the case in some circumstances, but there are some huge assumptions here about irrigation (water use), fertilizer use, transportation, and they are often analyzed out of context — that is, not compared apples-to-apples to the way we go about exploring, producing, refinining and transporting oil. Again, regulation can deal with these issues.

You think there isn’t an army of scientists out there not trying to catalogue the best raw materials for producing biofuels, the best enzymes and bacteria for breaking them down, the best methods of transporting them, ways of growing on depleted lands, etc…? These are early days in the middle of a dramatic transition, and there are going to be some mistakes — and much trial and error along the way. To suggest this isn’t going to happen, and never happened in the early days of oil and coal, is simply naive.

So let’s stop demonizing biofuels. It’s at times like these that I’m ashamed of my own industry for oversimplifying the debate with sensational headlines. But I digress.

On a related note, I’d like to say I’m happy to see Richard Branson — media stunts aside — trying biofuels in airplanes. Virgin Fuels launched the world’s first commercial flight powered by biofuel today and the company appears serious about studying the benefits and, based on that outcome, pursuing the biofuel option. Virgin contends biofuels could be a commercial reality in the airline industry within five years. Personally, I think this is an area we must aggressively pursue. In fact, I think we should devote most of our research and development on biofuels to their use in the airline sector.

Here’s my reason: We can’t run planes on batteries, so electric planes aren’t in the cards. We can run vehicles on electricity, starting with plug-in hybrids as a transition, and there is great momentum at the moment toward this goal. It’s my belief that a biofuel industry devoted strictly to fuelling air travel could be done sustainably without having an impact on food prices and, as cellulosic approaches become more affordable, by depending heavily on agricultural and forest waste.

Maybe I’m oversimplifying things, but it seems to me it makes more sense to target particular approaches to particular problems rather than have all approaches try to be all things to all industries.

On a side note, I’ll point you to a feature I wrote in the Toronto Star on Saturday looking at Canada’s hesitation — refusal? — to legalize the use of low-speed electric vehicles on city streets. It’s a ridiculous situation, bordering on embarrasing, and shows how governments are not prepared (intellectually, or via political will) to move beyond rhetoric to real action when it comes to climate change.

13 thoughts on “Biofuels vs. electrification? Why treat them as competing options?”

  1. In a post carbon age, short range air travel is likely to go away. High speed electrical trains are quite competitive with air traval for distances of up to 1000 miles.

  2. Before you totally trash bio fuels – and promote hydrogen powered hypersonic airplanes – remember that the most common Greenhouse Gas that is in the atmosphere is water vapour – and that is exactly what that plane emits – in huge quantities – and at altitudes that have never had much water… Anything that has skin temperatures that high will burn a huge amount of fuel – if only to generate the heat.

    I am interested in the technology – but not so sure that is is all that cool…

    Bravo to Branson for at least stepping out of the pack – and trying something that has not been done. I do note that they flew an Airbus 380 recently with a fuel blended that included methane – guaranteed to reduce emissions.

  3. In an interview Branson said that future aircraft biofuel will probably be produced from algae rather than food crops. He is saying the right things and positioning his businesses to prosper.

  4. yep, think

    big business seeing the light

    Andy Grove

    Vinod Khosla

    Shai Agassi

    Elizabeth Debold

    Micheal Porter

    Ad van Wijk

    Ask them to team up with big picture and the elders to get a taste of a Manhattan Project II

    This time it’s our space ship itself. So some priority would be expedient.

    A proposed sequence:

    EV’s for the masses

    RES for the masses

    water for the masses

    livable cities [and here]

    To find ourselves..

    Emil M

  5. If high speed train systems are a competitive alternative in short haul distances, then a biofuel airline industry is moot. As well, like Tyler mentioned, if personal transportation is heading towards electrification, then all remaining petroleum reserves should be regulated for use only in the airline industry. Efficient fuel use (Dreamliner) and limiting travel to only long haul flights would keep the GHG count low at no expense to global mobility. An energy rule of thumb: match the quality of energy to the quality of service for that energy. Biofuels are of poor quality to sustain a high quality service like flying.


  6. “all remaining petroleum reserves”


    Umm… that’s a lot of petroleum. The danger isn’t that we’ll run out of petroleum, it’s that we’ll run out of economical, sweet, light crud (which we will).

    The amount of money that it costs to buy oil is directly linked to the amount of energy you can extract from it. Different types of oil take different amounts of energy to extract. Here’s a comparison:

    1) Sweet, Light Crud from Saudi Arabia gives 30 times as much energy as it takes to extract it.

    2) The Tar Sands in Alberta give 1.5 times as much energy as it takes to extract it.

    That means not only do you have to charge 20 times as much money per unit of energy extracted from the Tar Sands, but that unit of energy also used 20 times as many units of energy to be extracted (greatly diminished energy returns on that stuff).

    We’ll have to (slowly) convert to using heavy crud, more sour crud, and tar sands type stuff. Once that happens oil prices will jump so high that you’ll see basic things like food (which is grown, shipped, and stored using oil) jump in price by orders of magnitude.

    I don’t know about you, but if they start charging 50 bucks for a loaf of bread I’ll starve to death. If that happened we’d see the world economy collapse. No one could afford to ship things from china to the North America, or even from city to city. And since the fuel for our power plants is shipped from halfway around the world… well, it’d be hard to fuel them. And stuff like cars.

    But actually running out of oil? Not for a long long time. If we were willing to pay any price whatsoever and we were willing to extract the really tough stuff at an energy deficit we’d have something like a 500 year supply at current usage levels. (My dad works for a company that does R&D for submersible pumps that are used in deep water wells and high pressure extreme condition oil wells (lots of sulphur and stuff), and I’ve seen the information they’ve collected on optimistic, likely, and pessimistic remaining reserves. Not much easy stuff left, but lots of hard to extract oil).

    The danger is that, since our entire economy RELIES on really cheap oil, we’ll be unable to sustain our civilization. It’s happened to others in the past and it could happen to us. It’s not a matter of running out of a resource, it’s a matter of uneconomical extraction. And that is a real, but not necessarily insurmountable, danger.

  7. I think Tyler hit it bang on. Biofuels are an embryonic WIP and there’s going to be lots of twists and turns its development. Stay tuned!

    I generally find that those who bash biofuels are really talking about corn ethanol, which admittedly gets a lot of the headlines.

    However with hydrocarbons increasingly more expensive, we’ll need some viable form of biofuels or a breakthrough battery technology (and we first heard about EEStor on this great blog), for tomorrow’s transportation.

    One area that I think has potential: algae. The world’s oldest plant can reproduce itself in 24 hours, doesn’t need land to grow and sequesters CO2 in the process. Add sunlight, stir in water and away we go…well kind of.

    Two companies I’ve come across have some interesting approaches. Valcent produces algae in their closed loop “bioreactors” — initial test runs were at 33,000 gallons an acre — on semi-arid land in Texas that can’t be used for food cultivation. To put that in perspective, soy, used to make biodiesel, only gets 20 to 40 gallons an acre.

    They claim that if 1/10 of the state of New Mexico were used for algae production, they could meet the energy demands for the entire United States.

    Go here for a great video interview:

    Also intriguing is SF-based Solyzyme. They’re a bit more secretive, but they claim not to even need sunlight to make algae. If that’s true, they just solved one of the major obstacles to industrial production of biodiesel from algae.

    Chevron seems to be impressed. America’s number 2 oil producer just signed an agreement with the (unfortunately) private company.

    They claim they their “oil” can be used to make anything that currently comes from a convention hydrocarbons. After all, they remind us, oil itself is essentially fossilized algae.


  8. I am surprised that there has been no talk of using the Great Salt Lake as an algae farm. There is very little that can live in the lake right now, so farming algae there would have minimial impact on existing ecosystems, and the water is already there.

  9. Before biofuels, all the farms on the planet were busy growing food for animals and people. Unless you’re using algae, you have to increase the “total arable farmland” in the world *somehow*. And however you do it, whether it’s irrigating with our limited fresh water, using oil-derived nitrogen fertilizers, or chopping down trees, it’s bad, bad, bad for the environment.

    “Land-Grown” biofuels are bad. No matter where they are grown. Maybe some algae thing might work… buy my bet is it would kill off ocean ecosystems if done on a planetwide scale.

    Now compare that to solar power, which can truly provide sustainable energy for the planet… and biofuels were not only a waste of time, but they diverted precious activist and investment resources away from legitimate renewables at a time when we desperately need them to be invested correctly.

  10. Biofuels are not a waste of time. they are simply a bridge to gap the widening gap of Oil. Biofuels are very important for this reason until even better technologies come about for impletation of Solar, Wind, etc…..

    Also people seem to be very narrow minded about how Biofuels can be made.

    In fact on company, Amyris is claiming that they may have found a way to make a cleaner gasoline. By creating bugs. They are secretive about the process for now, but said it works. All I know is that these guys are using sugarcane and E. colyi and and unknown process. Anyways this year they are doing test in a test pilot facility and they’ve got 70 million dollars for research and things. They claim that within three years there Biodiesel will hit the market followed by their Jet fuel and Gasoline all derived from bugs and sugercane. This is one option in the way to make Biofuels even more efficent.

    I do not understand the doomerism of this problem we face. People who hold pessimistic views never changed the world. Those with optimisim have changed our world. I hold hope. And as Oil begins to decline, hopefully Biofuels will be ready to take a big chunk away from shortages.

  11. “…my bet is it would kill off ocean ecosystems if done on a planetwide scale.”

    Actually, most of what I’m hearing is that the algae would NOT be grown on water. With at least 60,000 species, it’s too easy for cross contamination — important if you’re growing a specific species for say jet fuel. Also as algae grow so fast, that they quickly cover the surface, blocking out sunlight further down than say an 1 1/2 inches or so.

    Valcent grows algae on semi-arid land with water. Solyzyme even eliminates sunlight in a process they’re pretty ‘mum’ about.

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