Britain starting to examine the law of unintended consequences

I would dearly love to see us stop funding Islamists by buying oil from the Middle East. To me, that means two things: examining our own oil sources (ANWAR, anyone?) and/or developing alternative energies. As everyone who visits this blog knows, though, I’ve been extremely hostile to biofuels, which I believe will cause food shortages amongst the most vulnerable. Apparently I’m not the only one who is starting to figure out that biofuels may not be as magic as promised:

Controversial plans to make cars greener by using fuel made from crops and animal fat will be thrown into doubt this week when MPs are expected to question whether they will do more harm than good.

Biofuels have been hailed as a green alternative to oil by some, but in the US, where there are massive plants converting maize (corn), it has been criticised for making food more expensive and being environmentally unfriendly.

From April, petrol and diesel sold in the UK must have 2.5 per cent biofuels, drawn from sources such as tallow, rapeseed and sugar beet, rising to 5 per cent in two years’ time. The EU wants to increase this to 10 per cent by 2020.

But the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee is likely to call tomorrow for the schemes to be delayed because of fears that biofuels can have negative consequences. Criticisms include claims that producing some biofuels emits more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels and that habitats such as tropical rainforests are being destroyed to plant the new crops. The report, ‘Are Biofuels Sustainable?’, is also thought to predict that rising food prices pushed up by competition for land could restrict growth in the industry.

The committee’s report follows a separate study last week by the Royal Society calling for strict controls on how biofuels are grown. Stavros Dimas, the EU Environment Commissioner, has also admitted that it might have been premature to press ahead with biofuels, which were fiercely debated at the United Nation’s Bali conference on climate change in December.

UPDATE: I urge anyone reading this post to take the time to read the comments too. They are very well informed and help round out the limited point I made by focusing on scientific data (which I didn’t know) and the profound differences between American and European agriculture (which I also didn’t know).


14 Responses

    This story, At Last: GM investing to produce economically viable cellulosic Ethanol, is posted at Motor Trend.
    “The greater-Chicago-based company simultaneously announced that it has developed a proprietary process for converting renewable carbon-rich materials ranging from cornstalks and woodchips to old tires and city trash into clean-burning ethanol at a cost of roughly $1/gallon. ”
    Maybe this will push the ethanol movement away from foodstuffs.

  2. Corn is an energy waster and a water hog. Making biofuel out of corn is an energy loss of 40%. That means for every 100 units of energy that you are putting into corn, you are getting 60 units back. The new crop could be switchgrass. On average for every 100 unit of energy that’s put into switchgrass 640 units of energy are produced. Switchgrass is a native plant in the U.S.A. and doesn’t need nearly the amount of water corn does. One acre can produce about 6 55-gallon barrels (the same size barrels oil is measured in). It takes 2 barrels of oil to make 1 barrel of gasoline. A barrel of ethonol is already converted to a useable fuel source.

    The U.S. uses about 7 billion barrels of oil a year. The world consumes about 55 million barrel of oil a day. and the UK uses about 100 million barrels a year.

    Switchgrass also has added benifits. If there is an ethonol glut, it can be used for livestock feed. It also puts nutrients into the soil so it’s ideal for crop rotation. In South America where slash and burn is used to fertilize the ground, I imagine switchgrass could be used to keep the farm fertile soil instead of moving further into the forest.

    Clipings from mowed lawn and dead leaves could also be turned into ethenol. My city already collects those types of clippings the way trash is collected, but they are using it for fertilizer instead of ethenol.

    Although it would have to mix with other energy sources such as geothermal, solar and wind. At least there won’t be complete anarchy when the world’s oil supplies dries up in less than 200 years.

  3. The problem has always been that the AGW folks have always been looking for a moral salvation to the detriment of rational thought. They like the ideas that bring the most pain for the smallest effect , and they disount negative effects. There will be technical solutions to achieve long-term sustainable energy independence, but they won’t happen within the timespan of this latest temper tantrum. The EU is now warning that ambitious carbon goals will have disastrous effects on the economy. In the attempt to move from dirty coal to clean gas, envionmentalists have placed Europeans at the mercy of Putin (who just wrapped up a deal with Bulgaria to secure the southern pipelines for gas). Monster windmills are breaking down much faster than estimated, according to Der Spiegel. Bubbles are bursting faster than we can count, while serious people have plodded on with their work on celllosic ethanol, nanosolar films, flex fuel cars and efficient batteries.

  4. Having worked in this area, I will have to politely disagree with Book and everyone’s comments here. Britain’s (and Europe’s) case is special because it does not have enough land to feed its own people, hence their biofuels initiatives rely upon imported grain, which IS nuts! However, North America has plenty of land with which to produce biomass for fuels (have you ever driven across the northern prairies?). Most of the run-up in commodity prices has been export driven (mostly for animal feeds as emerging economies consume more meat products), not biofuels driven.

    Also, Gregory’s data is way out of date – biofuels technology currently produces about 50-100% net gain in fuel over that consumed. Yes, water availability is a major issue, which only means that it will prove more economical to produce biofuels in the water-rich Midwest than in the arid Southwest.

    The most important point is that current corn-based biofuels production is building the necessary infrastructure for when cellulosic biofuels technology comes on-line in five years or so. Gregory is absolutely right about switchgrass, however it grows mostly in arid areas that are short of water. However, there is no lack of cellulose biomass (corn stalks, sawdust, waste paper products, dead trees, etc.) and it will likely take care of many of our recycling issues as well.

    Finally, the target of generating 10-15% of our liquid fuel needs from biofuels may seem small potatoes, but it just happens to be about the quantity of fuel that we import from the Middle East. We can’t have it both ways, folks – we either pursue energy independence or we forever hold our peace.

    The unsaid developments in many of these discussions is what new vehicle hybrid technologies will accomplish when they come on-line (soon). Combine flex-fuel (biofuels and petroleum) with new hybrid vehicle technologies, and our liquid fuel energy dependence on Middle East oil will simply fade away together with, hopefully, many of the problems it entails.

    And, if in the interim, farmers and small rural communities get rich in the process and start growing again…all I can say is, “Finally, and good for them!”

  5. Danny,

    Europeans are also getting some of their biofuel from palm oil, which means that tropical forests are being sacrificed and cooking oil prices are going up in Asia.. So yes, there is a big diff between Europe and America.

    My argument is not against biofuels. It is against politically motivated jumping on the latest feel-good bandwagon, as most European greenies do. Bush mentioned the promise of cellosic biofuels several years ago, but the demonizing greenies didn’t hear him. Anyone who suggests that the dream du jour may have a downside is a denier. It’s their way or none. I am all for testing different ideas.

  6. Expat – it’s interesting to cut through the rhetoric of the Democrats and Republicans on this. Some time ago, I looked up the relative investments made into alternative energy research (through DOE) made the Clinton Administration (“we need to commit to alternative energy”) and the two “in the pocket of the oil industry” Bush administrations.

    Yep, sure enough….funding increased markedly in the first Bush administration, plunged during the Clinton Administration, and surged again in the GW Bush era. Yet, I am sure that most Americans think that the Republicans are the ones standing in the way of progress on developing energy independence.

    Today, our Clintonista Congressman Rahm Emanuel had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune calling for a Democrat-led “New Deal” for Americans, a big part of which was government research into alternate energy development. What twaddle!

  7. […] [Discuss This Topic with Bookworm at Bookworm Room] Share Article Islamists, Middle East, ANWAR, biofuels    Sphere: Related Content Trackback URL […]

  8. When the Left breaks your leg, they immediately say that they will fix it by popping your kneecap, Book.

  9. Today, our Clintonista Congressman Rahm Emanuel had an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune calling for a Democrat-led “New Deal” for Americans, a big part of which was government research into alternate energy development. What twaddle!

    It’s not going to draw in the campaign contributions if you fund alternative energy sources. The big money comes from large corporations, and the Democrats know this. That is why the Democrats are for regulations, which kill competition, and which big businesses can absorb easier than small businesses. More money for Democrats and a little bit more sustainability for large corporations in the profit scheme.

    If people want a concrete example of this, please read this short link.


  10. Conservatives have a deep-seated antagonism to mass-transit. I believe this is because it appears to be violation of individual freedom. And yet, can’t we bend our minds toward solutions of mass-transit to replace the obvious inefficiencies of the automobile?

    I’m not much of a scientist, but I envision this: A massive growth in the nuclear power industry to fuel electrical energy. This can power all manner of electrical devices for the home, business, and communication. It can be used for refrigeration, microwaving, stove and oven, and even air conditioning and heating.

    But as to the question of mass transit. Spoke and hub systems, or grid coordinate systems: between them would run large trains powered on electricity, transporting large numbers of people from point to point. From these points, many smaller tracks extend into neighborhoods. On these smaller tracks run a large number of smaller vehicles that each seat no more than twenty people. A LARGE number of these SMALL vehicles run everywhere, to transport people around their neighborhoods, and also to those grid points where the larger trains run.

    And all powered by nuclear energy, converted to electrical energy. Not an ounce of gas or oil or coal in the mix.

    The one problem to be solved is the generation of atomic waste. Solve that, and the sole large problem, I think,disappears.

    We seem, as an American culture, to have a hatred of atomic energy as somehow evil, or beyond our meager capabilities. When did that happen to us Americans?

    I think the capture and use of alternative energy sources is perfectly fine as well. All possible efficient use of hydroelectric, geothermal, biofuel, windmill, etc should occur. Yet the scale of our economy demands that we think beyond just these. We should use them, absolutely! But we should continue to think grandly!

  11. When did that happen to us Americans?

    When the Soviets figured out that you could eliminate America’s first strike and response ability by sending a message that nuclear energy is bad. Even though it was Chernobyl that went up in a critical reaction, not Long Island. Long Island’s reaction was stopped before it leaked out over everywhere. Chernobyl leaked. So the Soviets figured “hey, why not pull a New York Times” and use one of our mistakes to put pressure and blame on the Americans.

  12. This is hear-say since I don’t remember the details but it seems to me I recall a local “green” campaign against using waste bio-mass for fuel. I think they were afraid that if we started to shove brush into incinerators (and turning brush into liquid fuel and *then* burning it is still burning it) that people would start clearing brush for that purpose and wreck the environment.

    Maybe growing something like corn just feels less upsetting to the environment because it’s grown for that purpose. The fields need to be cleared of brush and trees *anyway* but it’s less immediate.

    re: mass transit, my husband hasn’t had a job where even car pooling made sense. (And mass transit to the grocery store with small children is some additional circle of hell.) In order to have a system to take a whole lot of people from one place to another all at the same time a whole lot of people need to *need* to go from one place to another at the same time.

  13. At least part of the problem with “mass transit” in our cities is government interference in the market…..monopolies are granted and enforced, often to protect the municipal bus or trolley companies.

    If entrepeneurial types could offer jitney service of various kinds, with minimal regulation, a LOT of people would refrain from owning cars within larger cities. But, a lot of small operators are less likely to be a source of money to politicians, or so the cynic inside me diagnoses the problem.

  14. I don’t know about the embedded energy costs of ethanol, but what is certain is the heat of combustion.

    Ethanol has two thirds of the available energy of gasoline, Obviously burn rate plays a part, but I don’t think anyone has made the case that ethanol gives a greater power density.

    I know it sounds “sexy,” if you will, but it is a thermodynamic system after all. I believe that this is one of the chief problems we face. Not what to do, but rather what can be sold.

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