Biofuels from corn seem to have been in vogue lately. This is especially true in the United States, where the Navy just paid $12 million for a Pacific fleet this summer, reopening at the same time the debate. But are biofuels really a sustainable and practical solution to our energy problem? Is it responsible to continue in that direction, especially with cars, while other possibilities could be and are being developed to avoid using fuel or biofuel?
The concept of biofuels is not a new one and it is not just in the last decade that it came to the mind of some car producers to use ethanol to run their machines. In fact, Henry Ford planned to have his Model T running on ethanol, which is a type of biofuel, already back in 1906. Ethanol is a key word when one discusses biofuels. It is now quite well-known that almost all cars can run with biofuels with very little or no adjustment.
Let’s first have a look at the main thing that weighs most heavily on a consumer’s mind, namely the price. The effects on population have to be considered and investigated carefully when any serious environmental projects affecting ordinary people are developed. Let’s take the United States’ attempts as an example, variations of which could be exported to several other countries. In their March/April edition of National Average Prices, the U.S. Department of Energy showed that biodiesel is around 10 per cent more expensive than normal fuel. Some would say that it is not much but this would mean that, for an average American household, an increase of almost 1,000 dollars per year if they were to change to using biodiesel. However, biofuel’s price is reduced by grants offered to ethanol producers by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), which already make biofuels cheaper than they should be. Through their Commodity Credit Corporation program, the USDA paid in the fiscal years 2004 to 2006 between $1.45 and $1.47 per gallon for soybean oil biodiesel. This money invested comes from the taxes paid by those same households and could go to other environmental projects which could have far less serious ramifications. Those projects – like cars powered by solar fuel – show promise and would be much more efficient on the long run, giving better environmental as well as economical results. Finally, biofuels’ high price does not even bring high benefits to the American economy.
Another study proves that, depending on the source of the fuel, biofuels’ production can have a negative impact on food production and some even predict more perverse effects. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, called it a “Crime against Humanity”. In fact, the demand for corn-based ethanol has seen a dizzying increase of corn’s prices in Mexico, with dramatic repercussions, and this could become the reality of several African countries. Those countries are already selling their fields to rich countries for them to produce food. The food is then exported to the countries that are paying for the land. This phenomenon could also take place if other countries began to buy land in those poor countries in order to produce resources for biofuels, leaving thousands of people starving. We’ve seen this happen already, when traders invested in rice. Matthew Brown, who is a famous energy consultant in the United States, and a former energy program director at the NCSL (National Conference of State Legislatures), said that “replacing only five percent of the nation’s diesel consumption with biodiesel would require diverting approximately 60 percent of today’s soy crops to biodiesel production”.
Some predict that biofuel will soon be cheaper than petrol, and not only in Brazil. This is however often due to the fact that in several countries petrol is strongly taxed while biofuels are subsidized. By the time biofuels are going to be really cheaper than petrol, there are probably going to be other solutions. Technological advances and researchers promise to have ecological cars pretty soon. For example, electrical cars can already be more ecological than any other vehicles. Technology is also improving and new motors are designed. Compressed air cars and cars powered by solar fuel are already being developed to potentially replace petrol cars.
Another question about biofuels is whether their production requires more energy than they produce. David Pimental from Cornell University showed in his study that corn’s production requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel that will come out of it. If you take wood biomass, then this percentage soars up to 57 percent. He also showed that sunflower plants require more than the double fossil energy than the fuel they will generate, proving it is nowadays illogical to develop certain biofuels in order to be more ecological just because they have the word “bio” in front of them.
For all those reasons and certainly for many others, to pin all our hopes on this kind of carburant nowadays, even if it appears at first sight more ecological, seems nonsensical. What may have seemed like a good idea to Henry Ford at the time requires a bit of introspection because, as the popular saying has it, the devil is in the details. And where we are getting this biofuel from, and what its impacts are, are the important questions. Putting the biological label on fuels doesn’t make it 100% ecological. Let’s then focus on technological improvements that have more to offer than being only an acceptable alternative to petrol. The solution is often not the one that is immediately before our eyes; sometimes, a good solution is yet to be discovered.
As always with hot stories, there are two different sides to them. If you are interested in the other side of this story, read this blog by Adam Wong.