After winning the White House, Barack Obama chose scientist Steven Chu to be our new Secretary of Energy. At that time Chu was leading a biofuel research project at U.C. Berkeley, funded by a 500 million dollar grant from the giant oil company, BP, the same corporation responsible for the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Obama picked Chu in hopes of saving his biofuel plan, which many scientists and newspaper editorials around the world had already branded a disaster for the human food supply. Inexplicably, Chu could never understand the basic mathematical fact that you cannot use fresh plant growth to replace the enormous energy reservoir of fossil fuels, which took millions of years worth of ancient plant growth to create. Our attempts to harvest crops to produce liquid fuels is seriously harming the environment and skyrocketing food prices, while providing us very little net energy gain in return.
Growing switchgrass to produce ethanol from lignocellulose has most of the same drawbacks as making ethanol from corn. We will use land, water, fertilizer, farm equipment, and labor to grow switchgrass that will be diverted from food production, with soaring food prices the result. If we grow switchgrass on land currently used to graze cattle, we will reduce beef and milk production. If we grow switchgrass on unused "marginal" prairie lands, we will soon turn those marginal lands into a new dust bowl, which they may turn into anyway due to global warming. Computer models for the progression of global warming show the America Midwest and Southwest getting hotter and dryer, with much of our farm and grazing land turning into desert. We know that biofuel production will speed up greenhouse gas release, so if the global warming theory is true, we soon won't be able to produce enough biofuels to run our cars, or enough food to fill our bellies.
Switchgrass and other biofuel weeds will be grown by ordinary, profit motive driven farmers, not by environmentally trained scientists. Farmers will grow switchgrass on land that could be used to grow corn, wheat, or soybeans, and farmers will want to maximize yield so they will use lots of fertilizer to increase output. The plans biofuel idealists are trying to sell the American public will never produce the kind of "green," food friendly energy resource they promise. The next great scandal will be how to get rid of all the millions of acres of invasive, deep rooted biofuel weeds once society inevitably realizes that even growing second generation biofuel crops is a tragic mistake.
In practical terms, there is not enough usable land area to grow a sufficient quantity of biofuel plants to meet the world's energy demands. According to professors James Jordan and James Powell, "Allowing a net positive energy output of 30,000 British thermal units (Btu) per gallon, it would still take four gallons of ethanol from corn to equal one gallon of gasoline. The United States has 73 million acres of corn cropland. At 350 gallons per acre, the entire U.S. corn crop would make 25.5 billion gallons, equivalent to about 6.3 billion gallons of gasoline. The United States consumes 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually. Thus the entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7% of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15% of the demand." [See The False Hope of Biofuels]
Growing algae to make biodiesel is being touted as a cure-all for all our biofuel problems, but we are still stuck with the fact that algae need solar energy to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. To make biodiesel, algae are used as organic solar panels which output oil instead of electricity. Researchers brag that algae can produce 15 times more fuel per acre of land than growing corn for ethanol, but that still means we would need an impossibly large number of acres (about 133 million acres) of concrete lined open-air algae ponds to meet our highway energy demands. Those schemes that grow algae in closed reactor vessels, without sunlight, necessitate the algae being fed sugars or starches as a source of chemical energy. The sugars or starches must then be made from corn, wheat, beets, or other crop, so you are simply trading ethanol potential to make oil instead of vodka. If we construct genetically engineered super-algae that are capable of out-competing native algae strains that contaminate open air algae ponds, the new gene-modified algae will be immediately carried to lakes, reservoirs, and oceans all over the world in the feathers of migrating birds, with unknown and possibly catastrophic results.
If we try to guard algae from contamination by growing them in sealed containers under glass or in plastic tubes, the construction costs for building large enough areas to collect sufficient sunlight would be prohibitive. Even then the containers are still subject to contamination over time, and must be periodically flushed and rinsed with chlorine or other caustic agent. The current cost of biodiesel made from algae is about $14.00 a gallon.
Using "agricultural waste" to make biofuels has its own problems. [See soil report] Removing unused portions of plants that are normally plowed under increases the need for nitrogen fertilizers, which release the most potent greenhouse gas of all, nitrous oxide. Residual post-harvest crop biomass must be returned to the soil to maintain topsoil integrity, otherwise the rate of topsoil erosion increases dramatically. If we mine our topsoil for energy we will end up committing slow agricultural suicide like the Mayan Empire. [See Food Versus Biofuels: Environmental and Economic Costs, by Professor David Pimentel]
Using wood chips to make ethanol or biodiesel sounds like a good idea until you remember that we currently use wood chips to make fuel pellets for stoves, paper, particle board, and a thousand and one building products. The idea of sending teams of manual laborers into forests to salvage underbrush for fuel would be prohibitively expensive. Our forests are already stressed just producing lumber without tasking them with producing liquid biofuels for automobiles. Such schemes would inevitably drive up the price of everything made from wood, creating yet another resource crisis. Making fuel from true garbage, such as used cooking oil and winery waste, is environmentally harmless, but is it really worth the large infrastructure and vehicle maintenance costs required to sell ethanol and biodiesel as fuels? Our usable true waste resources are very limited in quantity, and not a major energy solution for a nation that uses over 8 billion barrels of crude oil every year.
"Given currently available technologies, it is difficult to see the net contribution of biofuels rising above 1% of our current fossil fuel energy consumption – for either Oregon or the U.S." - Agricultural economist William Jaeger [see PDF]
On biofuel advocates: “You have money and media access, and now everybody believes that two plus two equals twenty-two.” - Tad W. Patzek, professor of geoengineering at the University of Texas in Austin, and formerly of UC Berkeley
"Every day more than 16,000 children die from hunger-related causes -- one child every five seconds. The situation will only get worse. It would be morally wrong to divert cropland needed for human food supply to powering automobiles. It would also deplete soil fertility and the long-term capability to maintain food production. We would destroy the farmland that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will need to live." - Professors James Jordan and James Powell, Maglev Research Center at Polytechnic University of New York