Thursday, February 14, 2008


Industrial Biofuels: A Dog Chasing Its Tail

Lately there’s been a lot of bad news about biofuels. We are seeing increasing signs that biofuels have problems that were never anticipated at the beginning. Still people are not giving up. Let me say that personally, I think biofuels can be useful on a small, localized scale, when produced by local people who know how much liquid fuel they need, and how much biomass they can spare to make it. But I see no future in industrial biofuels.

There is a lot of talk about using all kinds of organic “waste” as feedstock for industrial biofuel production. Of course all that stuff going into landfills now should not be discarded, but plans to use that as biofuel feedstock are overlooking some problems.

Take this article, for instance. It suggests using not only cellulosic waste going into landfills, but also crop residue like corn stover, and timber harvest remnants. Biofuels are supposed to replace fossil fuels because the latter are getting too expensive, but at the same time, industrial biofuel operations need to transport feedstock from far and wide to their plants. And that requires fossil fuels (if they used their biofuels to do this, their operations would collapse overnight). As fossil fuels rise in price, there is more incentive to brew biofuels, but costs of fossil fuel inputs continue to escalate. Think of a dog chasing its tail.

Now what about this idea of using crop residue? In their thinking, they are going to gather crop residue from fields, or logging residue from forests, and truck it to their plants. Are they thinking about how much energy it will take to do that? And there is another problem in the offing: As the price of fertilizers continues to rise, there will come a point at which farmers won’t part with their crop residue or livestock waste because they’ll want it to fertilize their fields. It’s an age-old practice that was interrupted by the bonanza of fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers (fossil fuels are used to make and transport chemical fertilizers), but soon it will make a comeback. In fact, when that time comes, farmers and backyard gardeners (there will be many of them) will be looking for any organic inputs they can get their hands on. Since food will trump fuel, guess who will win the contest?

So, my sincere advice to industrial biofuel producers is: Get ready to kiss your feedstocks goodbye.

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