Scientists at loggerheads: What are the true value of biofuels?
A blend of green, plant based fuels could help limit the forthcoming energy crisis. But populations are growing. Amid arguments over scarcity of land for food crops and debate over the real benefits, Giles Crosse seeks the truth.
It’s a perfect scenario: a renewable fuel source that doesn’t run out and minimises harmful emissions. Sadly, the reality is far more complex. Is this a dream fix?
“Bioenergy will never meet all the needs for a sustainable future,” says Dr. Gerraint Evans, Fuels and Energy Manager at the National Non Foods Crops Centre (NNFCC). “It will be very tricky to make enough for things like diesel.”
Moreover, there are concerns about how growing such crops may impact in other ways. A recent report, ‘Indirect Emissions from Biofuels: How Important?’, raises the dangers concerned. ‘A global biofuels program will lead to intense pressures on land supply and can increase greenhouse gas emissions from land use changes.’ it argues.
But there are plenty of exciting possibilities too. “Things like systems to develop ethanol from rubbish,” reveals Evans. “We can remove everything that’s recyclable, add in things like tree cuttings from forestry. There are other potential energy crops like Miscanthus.”
There are other considerations. In terms of crop scarcity, there’s no sense pointing the finger at biofuels if acres of land are already lying dormant through mismanagement. Equally, there can be environmental and profit advantages to recent trends for buying overseas acreage for production.
“Look at bendy cucumbers which get thrown away,” says Evans. “We can make agriculture more efficient, we can make biofuel and we can throw less food away. We can improve the logistics for a far more sustainable economy and make money.”
Evans explains farmers are often tempted by EU payment systems for out of use land, and once the land has been taken out of use, it stays that way. “We have a dense population in the UK,” he explains. “It’s far worse to import biomass, to convert into fuels here, than it is to convert the crops to fuel in Canada or Australia and then import the fuel; it’s denser so the travel impacts are less.
There are also a host of add on benefits. “We can make lots of new materials and chemicals from these plants too,” says Evans. And these are all sustainable. The new families of bioplastic resins, being used by manufacturers like Toyota, are often developed for dual use in biofuels and sustainable plastics. Toyota even plans to make a car out of seaweed in this way.
In order to make sure growing biofuels doesn’t impact on food scarcity, Evans points to correct auditing procedures; checking on how much is grown and how it’s being done. “It’s critical to have controls in place. If we use the correct sustainability metrics, we can make sure things are done right. Biofuels are subsidised, if you don’t meet the rules, you don’t get the subsidy.”
Evans also reckons it’s unfair to blame biofuels exclusively for world hunger. He says we have to address things in the right way; some don’t complain about how deforestation wastes valuable land for crop usage. Yet many are willing to blame biofuel in this way.
Fuelling the future
“Ultimately we will need smart cities, electric vehicles, alongside massive consumption reductions,” he concludes. “We will even need electric jet aircraft and heavy lifting machinery. We are looking to algae technologies to see if we can develop fuels from these. Various pillars of sustainability must combine.”
It’s worth considering that biofuels are not necessarily today’s news. The Renewable Energy Association (REA) reckons the first ‘Model T Ford’ cars produced in America were designed to run on ethanol produced from corn. But biofuelsnow.co.uk explains ‘transport continues to contribute disproportionally to Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions.’ So we haven’t yet learned our lessons.
Equally, REA estimates biodiesel can produce 97 per cent energy savings compared with normal diesel, as long as you use the right techniques. The United Nations Environment Programme’s October 2009 research suggests the benefits are there, saying ‘first generation biofuels such as ethanol from sugar cane can have positive impacts in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.’
Yet unsurprisingly, it continues to explain ‘the way in which biofuels are produced matters in determining whether they are leading to more or less greenhouse gas emissions.’ On balance it looks like biofuels are positive, as long as they’re grown in a certain way.
Biofuel Scenario Modeling