Such is the moniker applied to biofuel by none other than a commentator for the BBC, in an opinion piece posted today entitled “Biofuels: Green Energy or Grim Reaper?”
We have always been optimistic about the potential of biofuel with a couple of big qualifiers: They do not always offer a positive economic or energy payback, even though in some places – palm oil in Africa, sugar cane in Brazil, their payback in both senses is quite positive. They also are not going to replace petroleum, or even come close.
As we prove in our post “Biofuel vs. Photovoltaics,” the best biofuel crops produce about 6,000 barrels of fuel per square mile per year. This equates to about 55 million Btu’s of energy per square mile per year. To produce enough fuel to fulfill energy requirements of the human race (400 quadrillion Btu’s per year) we would need to devote 10.8 million square miles to growing biofuel. There are only about 5.5 million square miles of arable farmland on the entire planet.
Returning to today’s commentary on the BBC website, it isn’t some petro-puppet coming up with this scorching criticism of biofuels, it is Jeffrey McNeely, the Chief Scientist of the World Conservation Union. He makes several sobering points, including the following:
Because biofuel is a profitable business in many parts of the world, deforestation is now accelerating to feed demand for biofuel crops. This in turn is causing habitat destruction. This practice as well puts fragile topsoils that should never have been taken out from under a forest canopy on track to eventually become desertified.
Biofuel as a cash crop is coming into direct competition for land with crops needed for food, often driving up food prices in regions where there are significant areas where people live in poverty and are already malnourished.
Biotechnology holds the promise to greatly increase biofuel yields, but also holds risk. What if, for example, bioengineered trees with weaker lignin fiber (allowing easier commercialization of processes to extract ethanol from cellulose), crossbreed with wild trees, undermining the strength of their trunks and limbs?
We agree with every one of Dr. McNeely’s cautionary points. It may be the best future for biofuels will be through factory growth of biomass, such as algae, where the processes are contained and yields are far, far higher. Read about factory farmed ethanol from algae in our post “Ethanol from CO2 & Algae.”