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Why I Love Biofuels and Hate Ethanol

Neither ethanol nor electric vehicles address the real problems. We have two main "solutions" for curbing the...

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Neither ethanol nor electric vehicles address the real problems.
We have two main "solutions" for curbing the unintended consequences of our use of fossil fuels: first generation biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) and electric vehicles. I am unapologetic in my belief that both are very flawed solutions. At best, they make only a marginally positive contribution; at worst, they represent a situation where the patient's medicine can actually make him sicker.

It may seem like heresy for a self-righteous Prius-driving vegetarian environmentalist to claim that electric vehicles and first generation biofuels are almost as evil as oil, but they are. Let me preface by saying that I love the idea of "zero emission" vehicles. However, we also need to ask ourselves a fundamental question: What will be the source of the electricity that fuels these vehicles? According to the Department of Energy, 50 percent of all electricity generated in the United States comes from coal, while only 10 percent is derived from renewable sources (solar, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, wind, etc). Thus, if we think we are actually making a meaningful impact on reducing GHG emissions from switching our transportation energy source from oil to coal, then we have read Don Quixote one too many times and absorbed his delusions of grandeur. Electric vehicles also have such arcane battery technology (the $100,000 Tesla Roadster uses laptop batteries after all) that you are more likely to see a "Back to the Future" hovercraft in your lifetime than fly to Bratislava in an EasyJet electric airplane.

Our other current "solution" to displace petroleum is first generation biofuels. In other words: ethanol and biodiesel. Ethanol is a gasoline alternative made from the starch or sugars of plants like corn or sugarcane. About 80 percent of the world's biofuels are ethanol and the United States is the largest market (9 billion gallons produced in 2008) followed by Brazil (7 billion gallons). Biodiesel comprises the remaining 20 percent of biofuels. It is made from feedstocks like canola, soybeans, and palm plants. The European Union-due to its preference for diesel over gasoline engines-accounts for half of the world's biodiesel production, though the United States, Argentina, Malaysia, and Indonesia also produce significant quantities.

Now let's get to the meat and potatoes. Or in this case corn. Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel that has been used as a fuel source since Henry Ford's Model T. Currently, ethanol is blended into up to 10 percent of the U.S. gasoline supply, but higher percentages of ethanol-without engine modification-will cause your car to die a painful death. On a per gallon comparison to oil, ethanol carries two-thirds the amount of energy. It also cannot be transferred via pre-existing petroleum pipelines.

There are many other problems I have with corn ethanol but for the sake of brevity, I will only touch on the big one. According to the USDA, the United States will produce 12.8 billion bushels of corn in 2009, 4.2 billion of which will be used to produce corn ethanol production. That's one-third of our corn supply to produce a fuel that will displace only 5 percent of our gasoline? All the while, according to the United Nations, 1 billion people will go to bed hungry tonight. As long as there are people starving on this planet, fuel sources that directly compete with food supplies are morally flawed.

According to Greentech Media, 76 percent of all federal renewable energy subsidies went to corn ethanol in 2007. Under mandates directed under the Energy Independence and Security Act, 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol is required to be blended into the U.S. gasoline supply by 2015. Assuming similar corn yield levels, we will soon be dedicating almost 50 percent of our corn crop to produce a fuel with debatable energy and carbon savings.

But hope is not lost. There are non-food crops that can be used for biofuel. The federal government has awoken to this and is heavily promoting "second generation" cellulosic biofuels. Cellulosic refers to the "non-food" component of a plant or tree-like the husk of the corn or tree trimmings-that contain lots of energy in the form of carbohydrates called polysaccharides that can, in turn, be processed into biofuels. The next installment in this series discusses what is cellulosic ethanol, why you need to know about it, why you are not wrong if you find it ironic that cutting down trees is a carbon mitigation strategy, and how algae is really the future of biofuels.

Guest writer Joshua Kagan is an analyst with Atlas Capital, a fellow with the Prometheus Institute for Sustainable Technologies, and an all-around expert in the world of clean technology. This is the second in a four-part series exploring a possible transition from fossil fuels to biofuels, and how algae might supplant oil as the dominant energy currency.

From Petroleum to Algae illustrations by Jennifer Daniel.

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