The hope of biofuels has been around for a while, but it’s looking that at least in some respects, it’s a bit overblown. Greatly overblown, in the case of seed oils. This is not to say that it’s a dead end– far from it, but the idea that you can just grow something, chuck it into a refinery and get fuel out of the other end is vastly overstated. There are questions about the nature of the source of your biofuels that impact the long term viability of the entire biofuel model.
The Rand study however doesn’t say that they’re a dead end, but that right now, the benefits are not there, at least for the military, and there are a lot of questions– and possibly the most important question can be stated here:
It is highly uncertain whether seed oils can be affordably grown in appreciable
quantities in the United States without causing land-use changes (direct or indirect)
that result in large releases of greenhouse gases.
There is very little experience in the commercial cultivation of oil-bearing plants
on degraded lands or in a manner that does not displace food production. In particular,
claims that jatropha or camelina oils can be sustainably produced in the United
States have yet to be proven. Further research into sustainable cultivation practices is
required to resolve this issue.
This is a big one– as biofuels become more important, especially if they are based on seed oils, then more and more land will have to be allocated to their production–and that land will not easily be diverted to other uses. Most importantly, in terms of enviromental impact, you have to be certain that the materials you put into your growth– fertilizer, transport, etc, don’t themselves end up producing more in the way of releasing greenhouse gases. In the long run, it’s almost certain that the various algae processes would be more effective-– and less likely to produce negative long term impacts on the environment.
But there are some very powerful forces wanting to go the other route- and this is something we have to be careful of. Most especially consider this sentence:
The Spokane County Conservation District is working to help establish the oil seed and biodiesel industries in Eastern Washington. Key elements in establishing these industries include the production of agricultural feedstocks, building oilseed processing facilities, establishing markets for oils seed meal, and developing biodiesel processing plants.
In the United States, soy beans provide the primary feedstock for biodiesel production. Here in the Northwest, however, soy beans are not a viable option for our farmers. Instead, the brassica crops (canola, mustard and rape) are the targeted options. These crops can be integrated into current crop rotations with little or no change to the cropping systems, and provide high yields without irrigation. Further, these crops can be direct-seeded or no-till farmed, providing valuable soil erosion protection.
Hmmm…. Okay, there’s a few problems with this– first of all, it’s creating an economic incentive to pursue a course of action that may, or may not be useful or even safe. Remember the Rand study– as yet, we don’t know the full impact on the enviroment of the sort of intensive farming that would be needed for extensive use of seed based biofuels.
More importantly, the more extensive the use of biofuels, the more impetus there will be to farm them, even on land formerly used for other crops, or over farm marginal land. It’s happened before:
And, contrary to popular belief in many circles, it wasn’t that there was no food in Ireland– but that cash crops, those crops worth more than potatoes, continued to be exported. If a farmer, or a company finds itself deciding between an high profit and low profit crop, it’ll almost certainly chose the high profit crop, both in terms of what to plant and where to sell it. That’s not a major problem yet– and likely not for a while, but it’s something to keep in mind when thinking about seed based bi0fuels.
The second problem is that we can’t control the weather. Not even Bruce Willis and his plucky band of oil men could control the weather:
Now, today we can say that they should have seen the dust bowel coming– but even if they had, what could have been done? That’s especially true if seed based biofuels become a large enough part of our energy sources that shutting them down could impact the national economy.
In other words, seed based biofuels create a situation in which both our agricultural food supplies, and a certain amount of our fuel oil supplies may be vulnerable to the same dangers– so you could see a spike in food prices at the same time as a spike in gas prices, in fact the two could feed on each other.
The Alternative: Algae
So, the solution, at least one of the solutions is to go for algae based biofuels. There’s a few reasons for this. First of all, Algae isn’t competing with food supplies. Secondly, while this demands a bigger up front investment, the primary plans for algae production are industrial plans, where your algae supplies resemble a factory more than a farm:
Wind and weather don’t matter– and neither does competition with other plant based crops– and best, it’s easy to expand this– and doesn’t require moving into other regions and potentially impacting the native ecology. There are currently a large number of concepts on how to get this from the algae tank to your car, and the future looks quite promising.
But remember this– of all the human activities, farming is in some respects the most environmentally damaging to the ecology– both in terms of direct impact (continual farming, soil exhaustion, etc) and the secondary aspects (the gradual loss of bio diversity as farms work to weed out competing plants and such). Biofuels, if they are to replace even a tiny part of our daily usage of fossil fuels, would require a literally unimaginable amount of cropland– land which would have to produce, day in day out. The Rand study opens questions for its military use– but let’s be honest– in the long run, crop based biofuels are a bad idea, for any use, civilian or military and need to be discarded in favor of systems such as algae conversion, which will have far less of an impact on the environment, and be far less problematic in questions of sustainability.