The October edition of National Geographic Magazine includes a very interesting article on biofuels. I always have to insert a disclaimer when referencing NGM. Several years ago its editor openly stated that they were giving up on attempting objectivity when it comes to environmental issues because “the stakes are too high.” So, while we can’t expect objective reporting in NGM, we can at least derive value by seeing it for what it is.
The article’s author, NGM staffer Joel K. Bourne, Jr. does a very good job of exploring the various possibilities of using biofuels to reduce or replace our dependence on fossil fuels. He examines corn ethanol, sugarcane ethanol, biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol, and even algae ethanol. The illustrated chart side panels accompanying the print article help you wrap your mind around and compare the feasibility of each of the fuels explored.
While corn ethanol is enjoying great popularity in the U.S. at the moment, Bourne says that “even if we turned our entire corn and soybean crops into biofuels, they would replace just 12 percent of our gasoline and a paltry 6 percent of our diesel, while squeezing supplies of corn- and soy-fattened beef, pork, and poultry. Not to mention Corn Flakes.” The problem is that you only get an output ratio of 1.3 to 1 for corn ethanol. You expend almost as much energy producing the ethanol as you get out of it. Also, the production process turns out to be less than environmentally friendly.
Brazil has enjoyed substantial success with sugarcane ethanol, which has an output ratio of 8 to 1. But the U.S. can’t grow sugarcane like Brazil does. The production of cane ethanol in Brazil takes both an environmental and human toll; mainly it seems from the article, due to archaic harvesting methods and expanding croplands. One public official in Brazil is quoted as saying, “If alcohol is now considered a 'clean' fuel, the process of making it is very dirty.” Not to mention the fact that Brazil was only able to develop an ethanol production and distribution system under the heavy hand of its former dictator.
Biodiesel comes from soybeans in the U.S. and from canola in Germany. Biodiesel is derived from a chemical process rather than a distilling process. It has an output ratio of 2.5 to 1, so it’s better than corn by double. But it’s awfully expensive.
What we could grow in the U.S. that might produce well are perennial prairie grasses like switchgrass. These grasses can grow on marginal lands and could be used to improve soil health. Production methodology is still developing. The most common methodologies have a 2 to 1 output ratio, but developing processes promise a ratio as high as 36 to 1. It “could produce as much ethanol per acre as sugarcane.” But, like most other biofuels, they still have to learn to make it a lot cheaper for it to work.
The big pie-in-the-sky resource that the article discusses is algae. They’ve been able to use algae for smokestack carbon dioxide scrubbers, but nobody has quite figured out how to feasibly produce ethanol from it. Oh, they’ve produce algae ethanol, but Bourne doesn’t list the output ratio and he suggests that the process is currently just too expensive. But some keep working on it because the potential is massive. Algae can be grown in any U.S. climate, and unlike annual crops, can be harvested continuously.
Even with all of these possibilities, Bourne says, “There is no magic-bullet fuel crop that can solve our energy woes without harming the environment.” He also quotes one scientist that is a critic of biofuels as saying, “Biofuels are a total waste and misleading us from getting at what we really need to do: conservation.”
Bourne is more careful on environmental evangelizing than many other NGM authors. He carefully weaves it into his writing rather than bashing you over the head with it. He writes more like a reporter than an editorialist. Bourne concludes the article by noting that “the United Arab Emirates has launched a 250-million-dollar renewable energy initiative that includes biofuels,” and then he opines that this is “perhaps a sign that even the sheikhs now realize that the oil age won't last forever.”
Our fossil fuel industry enjoys massive government subsidies, ostensibly because our national economy relies on fossil fuels. But this type of protectionism raises the barriers for entry into the market. Subsidies stymie competition, so they are ultimately counterproductive. The same holds true for the subsidies currently being thrown at corn ethanol production.
Government has a role in encouraging competition rather than discouraging it. Alternative fuels seeking to compete with fossil fuels already face huge barriers to market entry, including a deeply entrenched and ubiquitous distribution system. Rather than trying to improve the chances of alternatives through subsidies, government should discontinue its programs that artificially stymie competition and promote monopolies in the fuel industry. We might be amazed at what kind of presently unanticipated developments would result from this freedom.