Leading Bioenergy Crops Bad for the Environment, Says Science

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The environmentalist website, Mongabay, is reporting an analysis in Science of a Swiss government-funded study that finds the environmental effects of leading bioenergy crops including corn, soy and palm oil may be worse than those of fossil fuels. The scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute also note that the Swiss study does not take into account the effects of biofuels on food prices which could make their effects even worse than reported. According to Mongabay:

Biofuels made from world's dominant energy crops—including corn, soy, and oil palm—may have worse environment impacts than conventional fossil fuels, reports a study published in the journal Science.

Analyzing recent findings from a Swiss government study on 26 types of transport biofuels, Jorn P. W. Scharlemann and William F. Laurance say that arguments in favor of some large-scale biofuels often fail to fully account for the environmental costs of production, including destruction of forests, emissions of trace greenhouse gases, and air pollution. Fuels derived from "residual products, such as biowaste or recycled cooking oil, as well as ethanol from grass or wood" may offer lower environmental costs, according to the authors.

One cautionary note: Biofuels Digest notes the Swiss government study was done by the Institute for Energy Research which has received funding from fossil fuel companies.

Instead of turning food into fuel, one technically elegant possibility is using algae to produce biodiesel by feeding it pollutants from sewage and power plants. One problem: at current estimates algae biodiesel costs $20 per gallon to produce.

reason coverage of some aspects of the biofuels debacle here, here and here.

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  1. They should move the first caucus to MA, then we’d see billions of dollars in government spending on how to power cars with delicious clam chowder

  2. No disclosure statement?

  3. Back in the day, I would point out how biofuels where not a workable alternative to fossil fuels, and the lefty enviornmentalists would cry bloody murder.

    Then, Bush started pushing for a biofuel program, and now it is politically correct to be against biofuels… now it is the bushite conservatives calling me a lefty enviornmentalist.

    It is amazing the effect the cult of personality (or anti-personality) can have on peoples beliefs.

    Back to the topic. Yeah, this research was funded in part by oil companies… but then again, so is Greenpeace. Oil companies use enviornmentalists as a foil against nuclear power mostly.

  4. One cautionary note: Biofuels Digest notes the Swiss government study was done by the Institute for Energy Research which has received funding from fossil fuel companies.

    Am I reading Hit-and-Run? What is with this ad hominem statement? Any particular reason to believe the science might be flawed?

  5. Rex-

    Do you have a source for your statement about oil companies funding Greenpeace?

  6. crimethink: Oh right, I still own 50 shares of ExxonMobil and as far as I know I have not made the mistake of investing in any bioenergy companies.

  7. Leading Bioenergy Crops Bad for the Environment, Says Science

    Has anybody here at the venerable Hit & Run ever argued otherwise?
    Seriously, anyone?

  8. Graphite: No reason that I know of to believe that the science is flawed (otherwise I would have reported it), but I just wanted to forestall some frequent commenters (and they know who they are) from doing their usual “gotcha” when it comes to critiquing environmentlist issues. My hope that by preemptively tagging the post with that caution that the discussion can revolve around actual economic and scientific evidence for and against biofuels. We’ll see.

  9. One cautionary note: Biofuels Digest notes the Swiss government study was done by the Institute for Energy Research which has received funding from fossil fuel companies.

    Maybe this makes me naive, but when I read this kind of thing it makes me think that whoever is being attacked is probably right, or at the very least has a damn good point. After all it’s a lot easier to dismiss someone as a shill for the evil oil companies than it is to debate the science behind the findings.

  10. All one has to examine is the caloric value of the biofuels vs. petrol. Per unit volume the human-enginneered bio stuff, like ethanol, has much less energy available per gallon than pure gasoline.

    Still not seeing what is so bad about distilling naturally occuring hydrocarbons instead of going through all of these hoops to make “fresh” ones. Actually, hydrocarbons are like wine or Scotch in one sense. I like my octane natural and aged, none of that fresh stuff.

    Leave the ethyl alcohol for drinkin’ and the wood alcohol for racein’

    Maybe solyent diesel, or sea diesel (from train oil, not algae) have some promise, but right now natural hydrocarbons, straight from mother earth, are the thing to use.

    When are they going to add 1/4 mile times to sales stickers on cars like they do with the fictional MPG info?

    Ron, please check your e-mail 🙂

    mediageek | January 4, 2008, 11:23am | #

    Rex-

    Do you have a source for your statement about oil companies funding Greenpeace Greenpiece?

    fixed that for you mediageek

  11. Hmm. Biofuels seem like a mess to me. You have to grow them, harvest them, and process them instead of pumping them out of the ground and processing them. They take a tremendous amount of acreage, and affect food prices.

    The rage for biofuels seems fueled (hah) by two things: 1) we can grow our own oil! Fuck the Saudis! and 2) it’s GREEN! However, I think these perceptions are both incorrect, and will be proven so in time. But the corn/ethanol producers are milking it for all it’s worth, and that’s where the real push is coming from.

  12. MIT’s Technology Review has an article “The price of Biofuels”in this months issue. Also, available on-line http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/19842/

  13. E,

    There might be that f-the-mideast element in there, but that seems to be an enviro-Leftie addition for appeal to folks who don’t find energy firms “evil”. Seems to me it began with the “big oil” whining.

  14. My hope that by preemptively tagging the post with that caution that the discussion can revolve around actual economic and scientific evidence for and against biofuels. We’ll see.

    I’m holding my breath.

  15. As a response to the enviroLefties, how is this:

    Why do you want to kill for fuel? Organic hydrocarbons from the earth don’t kill plants, they feed plants. Ethenol factories kill plants and rob food from people as well as candy from little children (sugar cane)!

    Earth-born hydrocarbons saved the whales too.

  16. Once again, we see that Bailey is in the pocket of Big Disclosure.

  17. Ron Bailey,

    You own 50 shares? That’s creepy in and of itself. I thought you had to buy them by the hundred.

  18. As a response to the enviroLefties, how is this:

    Why do you want to kill for fuel? Organic hydrocarbons from the earth don’t kill plants, they feed plants. Ethenol factories kill plants and rob food from people as well as candy from little children (sugar cane)!

    Who has every argued against killing farmed plants? You’re responding to the enviroLefties in your head.

  19. ever, that is

  20. AP,

    [shakes head]

  21. Oh, farmed animals deserve to be protected but a holocost of farmed plants is just fine?

    I see where you stand . . .

  22. I read in the latest New Scientist that an oil company is starting to invest in algae. Perhaps they see a possibility for reducing costs.

    As to this:
    One problem: at current estimates algae biodiesel costs $20 per gallon to produce.

    We just have to invade another oil-producing country. Then the price will go so high that algae biodiesel will be competitive.

  23. Why do we use our food (corn) for auto fuel and never consider a perfectly good fuel (hemp)?

    Oh, I know why, the drug dogs can’t smell the difference between hemp and cannabis.

  24. zzm,

    Nothing at all stopping you from growing several varieties of hemp. Actually, hardly anything stopping you from growing cannabis either and it could make an excellent career. Just ask Willie.

  25. Oh, farmed animals deserve to be protected but a holocost of farmed plants is just fine?

    I see where you stand . . .

    Jeezuz! There’s no way you could possibly know where I stand, because I never stated a position. I was just saying that you were arguing against a straw man.

  26. The positive note on biofuel from algae is that we’ll never have to worry about panderings and pork-barrelling from the senators of the “algae belt” states.

  27. Rather than go through all the intermediate rigamarole of using coal (-fired powerplants) to produce ethanol, why not just liquify the coal?

  28. I was just saying that you were arguing against a straw man.

    A straw man!

    Stop the wheat holocaust!

  29. Yea, now he is going at the bloody grasses of the fields!

  30. I’m outstanding in my field.

  31. P Brooks,

    One of my ideas to hookup with enviro-chicks was to convert a car to steam power and use natural coal to heat the water.

  32. Just a side comment: Ethanol can be more efficiently produced from sugar crops because they are more efficient than corn at photosynthesis. However, thanks to sugar and ethanol tariffs which keep us from importing from places like Brazil (where biofuel is actually commercially viable) passed at the behest of farmers, this option is largely closed to us. Just puttin’ it out there

  33. thanks to sugar and ethanol tariffs which keep us from importing from places like Brazil (where biofuel is actually commercially viable) passed at the behest of farmers

    I’m not betting on you to win the Illinois primary.

  34. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but couldn’t they just run the oil producing algae through a blender and into thermal depolymerization plant?

  35. Isn’t algae already pureed?

    Speaking of TDP, anyone hear anything about the large-scale experiments with those yet? Last I heard, there was one handling turkey offal in Kentucky or Tennessee or some such state and another in Philly handling the toxic morass of Trenton topsoil*.

    It sounded promising, but initial energy inputs seemed very high.

    * – may not actually be true

  36. P Brooks,
    I also would tank in the Louisiana primaries. That’s where all the sugar farmers are. One thing I have to say is: All other systems may be worse, but Democracy sucks ass.

  37. “Instead of turning food into fuel, one technically elegant possibility is using algae to produce biodiesel by feeding it pollutants from sewage and power plants.”

    I remain enthusiastic about the possibilities of algae (I’ve actually mentioned algae here in the comments for a long time, but who’s counting?)

    Growing it in sewage plants isn’t bad, but growing it in bioreactors might work at the right price too. The aqualculture industry has been growing algae that way for decades.

    My understanding is that if you grow it in bioreactors, you don’t need the acreage. I’ve seen bioreactors (online) that consist of series of tubes. …algae doesn’t require much sunlight–you could grow it in a warehouse.

    Yes, there are limitations having to do with lipid content and how much oil you can get out of a species versus how quickly the algae will grow, but you avoid some of the downsided Bailey’s post mentions too.

    As someone pointed out above, it may be that it will always be more expensive in real terms to grow something and then process it versus pumping something out of the ground and then processing it, but I think the margin between them may shrink significantly if what you’re growing is something that requires an extraordinary effort to stop it from growing. Ever tried to get algae out of a pond?

    …it also may be that algae, once grown, could be less expensive to process into biodiesel too, as compared to, say, processing anything other than sweet crude into gasoline.

  38. that consist of series of tubes

    The internet is made of algae?

  39. Sugar beets are a great source for butanol. BP is working on refining it n the U.K. Butanol has to be mixed with gasoline due to cool weather gelling but requires only a 10% increase in the richness of the fuel air mix as opposed to a 40% increase for ethanol. The U.S. produces 25 million metric tons of sugar beets per year. They are a cold weather crop and are grown in California as a winter crop.
    The energy level of butanol fuel is the same as with ethanol.

  40. Maurkov | January 4, 2008, 1:10pm | #

    I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but couldn’t they just run the oil producing algae through a blender and into thermal depolymerization plant?

    How about just drying the stuff out and feeding it into the fire box of a boiler for a steam powered vehicle?

  41. Isn’t the whole reason for every form of biodiesel real time R&D for options after peak oil, Canadian shale mining and deep water drilling having run their course?

    Has anyone come up with an inorganic method to making Tupperware and Hefty Bags yet? Time’s a’ wastin.

  42. Butanol has to be mixed with gasoline due to cool weather gelling

    That’s interesting, because they’ve recently turned to beet juice as part of the de-icing/ice prevention plan on NE Ohio’s roads because, to paraphrase the researchers who stumbled upon this use, found that it “never froze”.

    Of course “gelling” and “freezing” aren’t the same, and the alcohol that results isn’t the same as beet juice, but I just thought it odd that beet-derived products have apparently very divergent abilities to reach solid state.

  43. “The internet is made of algae?”

    No the bioreactors are made of tubes. I’ve only seen them online and not in person–that’s what I was trying to say.

    This isn’t a great example, but I found it quick:

    http://biopro1.step.in-systeme.net/en/region/stern/magazin/01402/index.html

  44. Has anyone come up with an inorganic method to making Tupperware and Hefty Bags yet? Time’s a’ wastin.

    Um, are you borrowing my organic hydrocarbon phrasing? AWSOME!

    Actually, there is a miracle storage material called “wax paper”. There is also “Aluminum foil”. Mason makes storage containers too, just don’t tell the Illuminati.

  45. Hell will be littered with perishable foods and tupperware lids that don’t match the available bowls.


  46. Has anyone come up with an inorganic method to making Tupperware and Hefty Bags yet? Time’s a’ wastin.

    Corn based polymer

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corn_construction

  47. The positive note on biofuel from algae is that we’ll never have to worry about panderings and pork-barrelling from the senators of the “algae belt” states.

    Just wait until half the US is underwater due to global warming.

  48. Just wait until half the US is underwater due to global warming.

    I believe the drag-boat constituancy will increase in that scenario.

  49. Is there anything that doesnt harm the environment? I’m waiting for the moment when people start wearing hoses connecting their assholes to their stoves so as to not waste the methane when they pass gas. thats when i kill myself, and no not by putting my head into that stove.

    I jsut wish they’d shut the hell up already, reminds me of going to my mother’s house and there’s nothing to eat that isn’t labeled “whole grain” or “organic”. In fucking Kentucky! since when do hillbillys give a shit about whole grain?

    oh, good article, biofuels suck.

  50. I guess to me it is more a question of whether we should pursue energy sources capable of sustaining our incredible gluttony of natural resources. Or maybe we can be a little more Animal minded and try to be happy with little more than what we need.
    It’s the super natural free will that is the turd in the punchbowl.

  51. “I’m waiting for the moment when people start wearing hoses connecting their assholes to their stoves so as to not waste the methane when they pass gas. thats when i kill myself, and no not by putting my head into that stove.”

    I understand something like that is already in widespread use in China. They run sewers into something that makes electricity for the town…

    Why not turn all that fuel into energy?

  52. One problem: at current estimates algae biodiesel costs $20 per gallon to produce.

    This sounds like a job for [bugle blows] Genetic Engineering Woman. Seriously, there’s gold in that thar discipline.

  53. J sub D,
    I don’t know this Bugle of whom you spoke, but I feel you owe them an apology.

  54. “One problem: at current estimates algae biodiesel costs $20 per gallon to produce.”

    I read the article, and you can color me slightly skeptical on that number.

  55. Who run Bartertown?

  56. “I read the article, and you can color me slightly skeptical on that number.”

    That number comes unsourced from the Defense Dept. Actual researchers aim to produce $2-$3 gallons of oil from algae, just no real idea when.

  57. Instead of turning food into fuel, one technically elegant possibility is using algae to produce biodiesel by feeding it pollutants from sewage and power plants. One problem: at current estimates algae biodiesel costs $20 per gallon to produce.

    I agree with others; you can also color me skeptical about this number. How can it be so high? With corn-derived ethanol, one has:

    1) Cost of the land for the fuel,

    2) Costs of fertilizer and water inputs,

    3) Labor to plant and harvest the corn,

    4) Costs to convert the corn to ethanol.

    For oil from algae, the first 2.5 out of those four costs are essentially zero…or at least much lower than for ethanol from corn.

    So how can the cost for biodiesel from algae be $20 per gallon? What is driving that cost to be so high?

  58. “So how can the cost for biodiesel from algae be $20 per gallon? What is driving that cost to be so high?”

    IIRC, avoiding contamination from competing wild algae, and defending it from anything that eats otherwise defenseless algae adds costs. It’s also on a scientific production requirements, meaning it has ‘Prove It or u don’t get mah VC $!’ costs. Proven mature production methods don’t have that extra requirement.

  59. Eventually algae will be grown at sewage plants, where the, ah, nutrient supply is free, and where there is plenty of incentive to have open land around, but the production amounts will be trivial, worthwhile but trivial, just as the amount of energy gotten from landfill methane is trivial.

    Algae may be efficient, but in the end it turns the energy of sunlight into stored energy, so it needs land.

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