16 April 2008

Attacks on Biofuels Poorly Conceived

The future of bio-energy involves the use of biomass to fuels, not food to fuels. Current demonisation of biofuels as the cause of current high food prices and future famine, is a wasteful diversion of attention from the productive solution of both energy and food price problems. Current higher costs of food is caused by a variety of factors:
  1. High energy prices (which affects production and shipping costs).
  2. Increase in demand from developing countries: “going from 1 meal a day to 2 meals a day” leads to an increase in the amount of food needed.
  3. More meat in diets in developing countries.
  4. Droughts in important growing regions, including Australia and Europe.
  5. Reduced food stocks.
  6. Commodities trading/futures trading: food being used as a financial instrument.
  7. Increased production of biofuels.
_source_[editorial reassortment by order of importance AF]
It is important to understand that all of these factors--in varying degrees--impact upon food prices. Other unlisted factors are even more important to particular regions, such as food being used as a weapon against the people by vindictive governments and officials, civil wars, and other local political factors. Food prices--like all global commodity prices--are subject to multi-factorial fluctuations. When an analyst selects one factor out of many to blame, he is engaging in irrational scapegoating. (This mis-attribution of causes is common among financial analyst commentators in the media. In an attempt to appear omniscient, they instead come across as clueless.)

The use of food crops to make fuel will not last beyond the next few years--so even this minor effect on food prices will be removed.
Now Choren wants to mark the dawn of a new age. The plant in Freiberg uses non-food biomass instead of traditional crops and is the first of its kind to cross the threshold from theoretical research into industrial production. This advanced refinery was designed to furnish proof that the new fuels are feasible - and can be produced on a much larger scale.

Instead of sugar beets and rapeseed, the new plant processes wood as its raw material. In a pinch, it can also use straw. Using these materials significantly increases the yields from cultivated areas. According to estimates provided by the German Agency for Renewable Resources (FNR), the annual energy yields using the Choren process, based on a Central European climate, are 4,000 liters of fuel per hectare (1,057 US gallons), which is up to three times as much as previous biofuel production methods. What’s more, in contrast to production methods using rapeseed oil and ethanol, this technique does not produce fuel of inferior quality. Choren manufactures extremely pure diesel with virtually no sulfur. Moreover, these second generation biofuels do not harm particle filters or engines and meet top emissions standards. __Spiegel__viaCheckBiotech
It appears that the inordinate focus on biofuels--the scapegoating of biofuels--is a terrible distraction and waste of time, when the real problems are crying out for attention.

Intelligent people look for local and regional solutions to both energy scarcity and food scarcity. The misguided tendency to fixate on global solutions to all problems--even if they are local and regional problems--is at the root of many of the disasters caused when the developed world tries to help the undeveloped world. We need a more intelligent approach than most bureaucrats, academics, and journalists are capable of conceiving.

PDF document of images showing available land for crops globally via NewEnergyandFuel

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Blogger Ugh said...

Food crops should not be used for bio-fuels. Besides as you have cited here on this web site that corn in particular is a poor base for a bio-fuel infrastructure. Corn is just too important as a food stuff for both humans and livestock to justify putting it into our gas tanks especially when oil is so plentiful.

I am guilty of decrying the current ethanol frenzy and all the subsidies going toward corn-based ethanol. Mine is a purely emotional response to prices at grocery store, but I don't think my visceral reaction is necessarily wrong. What I am against is government funding farmers in a poorly thought out scheme all the while they erect trade barriers to (non corn based)imported ethanol.

Wednesday, 16 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Yes, I've been criticising maize ethanol for years now, but the production of biofuels is not what is driving the price of oil up. But the high price of oil is certainly the main driver of the high price of food. (the US could feed the world on all the acreage that is not being planted every year under government subsidies to farmers)

If a person's cursory analysis of the issue is mixing up those two separate issues, then the recommended course of action will not necessarily help either problem--the price of oil or the price of food.

The quickest route to lower oil costs is plentiful and reliable alternatives to oil.

Most oil comes from nationalised oil companies in countries run by tinpot dictators in the middle east, Africa, Russia and the former USSR, and Latin America. They want the prices to go up. They don't explore for new oil and they don't keep up the maintenance on their equipment. Why worry about efficiency or production when you are making so much money?

The US Congress is determined to prevent regional drilling in the US, and new energy sources such as tar sands, shale oil, cheap coal, nuclear power, etc. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are allergic to energy production, apparently.

So we are rapidly getting pinched between the dictators abroad and the dictators in Washington DC, and if the US does not create something new and plentiful in the way of energy, the US will not be able to pay for the defense of the free world and world trade routes, and world disaster relief etc.

Wednesday, 16 April, 2008  
Blogger Bruce Hall said...

While the BTL sounds intriguing, just what would be source, for example, of the waste wood. In Alaska, logs have to be imported from Canada for milling even though the state is basically one large forest. This is due to governmental/environmentalist restrictions on logging.

If you can't even use renewable resources such as forests, it looks as if the government/environmentalists would restrict the bio-source to grass clippings. Perhaps we need a household BTL device to convert garbage, grass clipping and leaves along with plug in recharging hybrid vehicles [lithium-ion]. Then we eliminate the cost of fuel distribution.

Thursday, 17 April, 2008  
Blogger al fin said...

Excellent points, Bruce.

1. The government (particularly the current congress) makes it almost impossible to develop energy sources--even plentiful ones.

2. Solutions to these problems need to be focused on the local--even the household--level.

Big government solutions and big inter-governmental solutions tend not to work very well.

That is why market economies -- which can match local needs with local solutions -- work better than central command economies where all economic activity is dictated from above.

Gasification BTL, the thermochemical approach to bio-energy, holds the most promise for liquid fuels. Obviously the governments that devise the best sustainable approach to the turnover of cellulosic material to energy will be the governments that most empower their farmers, loggers, and small businesses.

Thursday, 17 April, 2008  

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