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This is the starting place for the Biofuels debate Expand / Collapse
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Posted Wednesday, January 16, 2008 8:55 AM


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Hi Jonas. I won't reply to all of your comments, but I must say I was surprised by your invoking a common criticism of solar and wind power (unless your point was to support bio-energy use for electricity). I agree that, because of their intermittentcy, adding solar- and wind-powered plants to a grid often necessitates maintaining more electricity-generating capacity than would be required were biomass-fired plants added instead, and that the extra capacity may come from a dirtier energy source, often a fossil fuel. You conclude, "[I]n principle you can generate clean electricity from solar and wind in a distributed way. The problem is: this is being done nowhere. In practice, these sources drive up the use of fossil fuels."

But, surely, a similar argument could be made about current policies favouring liquid biofuels. To paraphrase, "In principle you can provide clean motive power from biofuels. The problem is, in practice, these fuels drive up the use of fossil fuels." Biofuels are in almost all cases being blended with petroleum fuels. While that blending may reduce the use of petroleum fuels, whether it reduces fossil fuel use in any particular case depends very much on the feedstock, how it is produced, and how it is processed (as we know from life-cycle analyses).

But more important in the long run is that policies that favour biofuel use also, implicitly, skew the market towards the internal combustion engine (ICE). Yes, biofuels could be used in highly efficient hybrid-electric (or hybrid-air) vehicles, but current policies are not very discriminatory. In many countries, they support production and purchase of any kind of flex-fuel vehicle, no matter how large the engine (most in North America are SUVs or pick-up trucks with engines of 4.0 litres or greater), nor whether the vehicle actually is run on ethanol.

Indeed, the very characteristic of liquid biofuels that makes them attractive to policy makers -- that they can easily be incorporated into the existing road-transport fleet and fueling infrastructure -- is also the characteristic that will help them perpetuate that fleet and infrastructure. Why else are so many big automobile manufacturers be so gung-ho on E85?

Post #52
Posted Wednesday, February 20, 2008 8:57 PM


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Contributions to the web debate so far show that the future of biofuels is clearly getting more controversial, not only because of the effect on food prices.

The paper by Searchinger et al http://www.sciencemag.org/sciencexpress/recent.dtl a few weeks ago in Science magazine highlights a concern that has been building in the science community for the last year or so -- that the GHG emissions of biofuels are much higher than presumed by the many lifecycle analyses that have been published over the years. There is strengthening scientific evidence that the indirect GHG land use effect of biofuels is huge. The issue is as follows. The expansion of biofuel production means that additional land must be intensively cultivated – somewhere in the world. Thus, if more corn is grown in Iowa for ethanol, then somewhere in the world more land needs to be cultivated to replace the displaced corn production. By definition, that additional land will be diverted from some other use into intensive cultivation.

Because soils sequester huge amounts of carbon – worldwide they hold about twice as much carbon as the entire atmosphere – caution must be exercised in engaging in any activity that causes releases of carbon from soil. Searchinger et al estimate that the releases associated with diversion of land to corn production could result in carbon releases far greater than released from petroleum fuel production and use. The US EPA has been doing its own analysis and is arriving at a more conservative estimate, but still large.

It may turn out that for GHG reasons alone, never mind concerns about food prices and ecological and social sustainability, that biofuel production should be limited to waste materials (plus, as David Tillman has shown, crops on damaged lands where crops could be used to replenish the carbon). These waste materials include crop residues, forestry thinnings, and municipal solid waste. The quantity of the waste stream is still huge, but the amount of biofuels that could be produced would be far less than if intensively farmed bio-crops were included.

What does this mean for policy? First, it reminds us that policy should be flexible and performance-based. Something like a low carbon fuel standard is far preferable to mandates where government is picking winners and locking itself into specific choices. Second, it is urgent to accelerate scientific efforts to understand the carbon impacts of land use. And third, the rush to biofuels probably needs to slow down while the many unintended and unexpected consequences are sorted out. And third, once again we see that energy efficiency is the safest and best bet for large reductions in fuel use and GHGs.  

Post #54
Posted Thursday, February 21, 2008 11:42 AM
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This is a very interesting article :
Biofuels make climate change worse, scientific study concludes.
http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/climate-change/biofuels-make-climate-change-worse-scientific-study-concludes-779811.html
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