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The problems with biofuels

September 22
00:58 2010

Dr. Vandana Shiva

Industrial biofuels are being promoted as a source of re ewable energy and as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are two ecological reasons why converting crops like soy, corn and palm into liquid fuels can actually aggravate the CO2 burden and worsen the climate crisis while also contributing to the erosion of biodiversity and the depletion of water resources.

David Pimentel and Ted Patzek, professors at Cornell and Berkeley, respectively, have shown that all crops have a negative energy balance when converted to biofuels – it takes more fossil fuel energy input to produce biofuels than the resultant biofuels can generate. It takes 1.5 gallons of gasoline to produce one gallon of ethanol.

For each fossil fuel unit of energy spent producing corn ethanol, the return is 0.778 units of energy, 0.688 units for switch grass ethanol, and 0.534 for soybean diesel. Pimentel and Patzek were criticized by the US government for including the energy used for building new refineries.

However, these are new energy investments that do generate emissions, and Pimentel and Patzek are right to include them when calculating the overall energy balance.

In 2006, the US used 20 percent of its corn crop to produce 5 billion gallons of ethanol, which only substituted for 1 percent of its oil use. If 100 percent of the corn crop were used to make ethanol, it would be able to substitute for 7 percent of the total oil used.

Even if all US soy and corn were converted to fuel it would only substitute for 12 percent of the gasoline and six percent of the diesel.

To satisfy the entire current oil demand of the US with biofuels would take 1.4 million square miles of corn for ethanol or 8.8 million square miles of soy for biodiesel, which is more than all the agricultural land in the U.S. All the solar energy collected by every green plant in the U.S in 2006 – including agriculture, forests, and lawns – is only half as much as the fossil fuel energy consumed in that year. This is clearly not a solution to either peak oil or climate chaos.

In fact, ethanol is another source of crisis when you look at all the resources it demands. It takes 1700 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol. Corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more insecticides, and more herbicides than any other crop. 

Ethanol constitutes 99 percent of all biofuel production in the U.S. In 2004, there were 3.4 billion gallons of ethanol produced and blended into gasoline, amounts to about 2 percent of the nation’s gas consumption.

There has been a flood of subsidies in the west for the production of biofuels. The cost of support of ethanol varies from $0.29 to $0.36 per liter in the US and $1 per liter in the EU. Support for biodiesel varies between $0.20 per liter in Canada and $1 in Switzerland.  In 2007 US taxpayers provided $6 billion to ethanol producers through subsidies.

In 2008, the government introduced a tax credit of $0.51 per gallon on ethanol and mandated a doubling of the amount of ethanol to be used in gasoline by 2012, to 7.5 billion gallons. The total cost to the consumer of subsidizing corn ethanol is $8.4 billion per year.

Subsidization of biofuels is creating a deep impact on demand for foodstuffs from the United States. In 2007, for example, the increase in ethanol production will account for more than half of the global increase in demand for corn. Much the same is true in the US and EU for soybeans and rapeseed used in biodiesel.

The rising price of food is good for producers. It is dreadful, however, for consumers, particularly for those in poor, food importing countries. Increased production of biofuels also adds stress on existing land and water supplies.

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist, ecologist, activist, editor, author. She founded the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology (1982) in Dehra Dun dedicated to high quality and independent research and Navdanya (1991), a national seed movement to protect the diversity and integrity of living resources, promote organic farming and fair trade.

Vandana Shiva

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