The case for Biofuels

Posted on December 17, 2009

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Another one in the "I just learn't something important" line…

So biofuels then. Widely vilified in th environmental community – sometimes I feel almost pathologically so. And i would say justly so: palm oil is probably a worse environmental disaster than crude, adding massive deforestation and increasing food prices to the problems of burning fuel.

But in the case in favour of them is compelling and simple: Installed Capacity.
There are millions of cars on the road designed to run on diesel and petrol. Many of these cars will last around 10 years before they are scrapped. That means that these cars will be burning fuel for another ten years no matter how much green car technology advances. Even worse, fuel and gas heaters in homes can last 20 or 30 years.

This is why using biofuels as a way to reduce emissions from transport is so compelling: it can be effective immediately and not have to wait for electric or hydrogen technology to permeate the market.

This does of course have its caveats. So called "first generation" biofuels which are generally derived from food crops are pretty much a disaster across the board. However we are already seeing the introduction of "second generation" systems. These are, admittedly, still largely at the demonstration plant stage and will take some time to become a major factor – the number that would have to be built to even start to put a dent in fossil fuel consumption is staggering.

However the systems do work, and have the advantage that they can use the ideal feedstock: waste. Industrial scale digestors can turn sewage into gas for heating, and new industrial processes can turn inedible parts of plants such as straw or even the waste products from paper manufacturing and turn them into a variety of fuels. Waste is really one of the few really viable materials to make biofuels – any purpose grown crop will be using up land and water which really reduces its carbon reduction potential.

One last important point. I was thinking about a couple of UK projects to build biofuel-powered plants, and how that related to the above. I was always a bit dubious about both sides of the argument – on the one hand biofuels and their current lack of sustainability, on the other hand the need for relatively clean CHP. But on reflection I've come up with a convincing argument for myself. Building new power that depends on traditional energy vectors (essentially burnable fuels) is generally counterproductive. It keeps us dependant on an outdated technology.

Our capacity to produce sustainable biofuels now and in the near future is so limited that it must be reserved for the applications where these is no alternative, mainly cars and planes. While we may be able to produce enough one day (and there is promise in algae based biofuels make no mistake), to make a bet on that now would be foolish.

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