Biofuels: A solution or a curse?

Biofuels were once seen as a key solution in mitigating climate change because of the many benefits the could provide. But new research about the production and impacts of biofuels has raised many questions on whether this energy source can be sustainable. Supporters of biofuels present many convincing points and facts about the positive effects that biofuels can have. While it is hard to argue against using this clean source of energy, if one dives deeper into the data, doubts start emerging about the true potential of biofuels.

agri_for_biofuel_teaser_image

Advocates of biofuels usually start out by pointing to the benefits because they seem obvious. I will discuss some of these next. Biofuels are a clean burning and renewable source for fuel. Supporters claim that using biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions because CO2 released from biodiesel combustion is offset by the CO2 absorbed while growing the crops for this fuel. Compared with petroleum diesel, Argonne National Laboratory found that B100 use reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 74%. Biofuels are said to create more energy security and balance because countries will depend less on foreign imports of petroleum and substitute it with biofuels produced domestically. Biofuels also are considered safer because they cause far less damage than petroleum diesel if spilled or released to the environment. It is safer than petroleum diesel because it is less combustible. When compared to using fossil fuels, biodiesel is a cleaner alternative but have many costs that many people do not know about.

 

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Courtesy of Altprofits

 

There is a long list of potential risks that comes along with using biofuels such as food, water, forest, species, and carbon impacts. There is a strong relation between biofuels and increased food prices because it jeopardizes food supplies. In 2012, roughly 40 percent of the entire U.S. corn crop was diverted into ethanol production. Put simply, if the supply of crops for food consumption is decreased because more of it is being devoted to ethanol production, then the price will increase. This will hurt people in developing countries the most because they simple cannot afford it. The next concern of using biofuels is the impact it has on water because many biofuel crops require large amounts of water for their cultivation. We are seeing extreme droughts across the United States and at the same time underground water tables are becoming depleted. Biofuel crops are creating stress on our fresh water supplies and we must deicide if using water on biofuel crops is worth it. The last point I will talk about is the impact of land use. From 2006 to 2011, global biofuels production doubled to 600 million barrels per year, or about 1.64 million barrels per day. With the increased demand for biofuels, companies and farmers are looking for new land to cultivate biofuel crops. This results in either the conversion of agricultural land used for food crops or the destruction of forests to free up land, possibly offsetting any reduction in carbon emissions from the use of biofuels. Supporters claim that we could power a large portion of our country off of biofuels, but they forget about the large area needed to grow these crops which the United States simply does not have. There needs to be better understanding as well as further research about biofuels before we praise this ‘clean’ source of energy.

 

biofuel-and-food-cartoon

Courtesy of The Azolla Foundation

Even though biofuels do have a potential for mitigating climate change, there are many economic and environmental impacts that come along with it. We must be careful moving forward because we do not know the full range of impacts that accompany biofuels. There needs to be standards and regulations put in place as well as further research because without careful oversight, this ‘clean’ source of energy could become a problem rather than a solution to mitigating climate change. The true potential of biofuels may never be realized if we do not take a step back and understand the impacts and effectively regulate their use.

 

Sources:

http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/cel10_ottinger_2.pdf

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/energy/10716756/Biofuels-do-more-harm-than-good-UN-warns.html

http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/GlobalWarming/story?id=4257226&page=1

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/jun/01/biofuels-driving-food-prices-higher

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2014-05-08/biofuels-are-a-bad-idea

http://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/biodiesel_benefits.html

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “Biofuels: A solution or a curse?

  1. amyquandt

    Interesting topic! Most of your discussion is about biofuels in the USA. Are there biofuels being grown in other countries? Which crops?

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    • alecjordan7721

      From what I understand, the top biofuel producers in the world are the U.S., Brazil, and China. However, many countries are aiming to increase their biofuel production such as India, Israel, Mexico, as well as South Korea just to name a few. I also found it interesting that each country does not use the same crop for producing biofuel, but rather they use a crop that is native to their country.

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  2. clint1829

    I think that you brought up a lot of good points, this blog post compels me look more into biofuels myself. You said that in 2012, roughly 40% of the U.S. corn crop was converted into biofuels. Are they data that shows how much of the crop we convert today? Have we increased our support of biofuel production in the U.S. or decreased it?

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    • alecjordan7721

      I tried to look into data to see how much corn crop is used for biofuel production in 2016 compared to 2012 but I was unable to find any accurate data. All I found was our overall biofuel production has increased in recent years mainly due to government incentives.

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  3. pjconti

    What kind of policy measures do you think would help negate some of these downsides to bio fuels? Since you focus on the U.S in your post, do you think that we should pass measures to limit the amount of cropland used for biofuel-bound crops? Or is that too drastic?

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    • alecjordan7721

      I think decreasing the amount of government incentives for biofuel production might help but I honestly am not sure. I just think that we need to focus on conducting more research on all the side effects of growing crops for biofuels before we are fully committed to this fuel option.

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  4. walkernewton

    Biofuels are a way to introduce a better fuel option for industries who have a difficult time transitioning to renewables. For example airliners need a high energy to weight ratio to be able to fly, so the industry has seen a huge influx of biofuels because it is a more sustainable fuel that can provide that. So, given the economic effects of these fuels, do you see a way for these industries to get around the push for more sustainable fuel that doesn’t include biofuels?

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  5. alecjordan7721

    I think you bring up a good point that biofuels are a more efficient source of energy for certain industries and it is hard for them to use alternative fuels that are considered renewable. I bet there will be a way for these industries to get around the push for more sustainable fuel sources besides biofuels, but I think it will come at a cost. Fore example, their public reputation could be damaged which would drive down their overall profits because individuals might boycott or avoid using their services. However, I think that biofuels are a promising fuel source to an extent and should be researched more in depth.

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