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.