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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Just Say No to Corn-Fed Cars

It is great to see our President delivering a specific action plan to begin to address climate change. While there are may aspects to praise, one that should perhaps not be on the list is "supporting the renewable fuels standard and investing in research and development to help bring next generation biofuels online."

Biofuels are a challenge because, at least for the case of corn-based biofuel (ethanol), land, water and fertilizer that could be used for growing food are instead used for fueling cars.  But more importantly, biofuels don't really reduce energy consumption or greenhouse gas emissions. 

'Are biofuels a good idea?' was one of the main questions that drove me to create Footprint USA.  Based on the "What If?" model, a doubling in biofuel production lowers the "Scenario Score" from 100 down to 89.  You can try it in the app yourself, as well as exploring other levels of biofuel production.

What are the overall effects of biofuels?  As the image below shows
  • Fossil fuel use decreases, as biofuels replace fossil fuels
  • Acres of crops increase, to grow the corn or other crops from which the biofuel is made
  • Water use increases, to irrigate the crops
  • Electricity use increases, because it takes a lot of electricity to make fertilizer  9.5 megawatt-hours per ton, which is 4.7 KWh per pound.  That means for every pound of fertilizer spread on crops, the equivalent of running a 60 Watt light bulb for 78 hours.  And most electricity generation is contributing to CO2, as well as other atmospheric gasses.
  • Heath decreases to the extent that pesticides are used on crops grown for biofuels.
There are a number of other approaches to biofuels, including non-food crops such as switchgrass, algae, and genetically modified bacteria, but these presently use even more energy that corn biofuel.  Investments in these technologies have not been panning out.

I will end this post on a positive not - there the action plan does address decreases in fuel consumption and increased renewable energy sources.  Those are the key to improving the future, as long as we don't fall prey to Jevon's Paradox.  But that is a topic for another post...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for great explanation of ecological impact about the climate change.