Perception vs reality: The 8 most common biofuels myths

| June 8, 2012

What are the most-told myths for biofuels, and what does science actually tell us?

The Digest separates the fact from the fiction.

The EU and the United States are preparing for what appears to be an extended debate on the merits and structure of biofuels mandates. Especially in the US, where the Renewable Fuel Standard is coming under blistering attack from the coalition of oil, food and environmental groups that successfully sold the myth of “food vs fuel”.

Attacks from the usual opponents are generally in the form of statements that sound vaguely scientific, or fact-based. Often with a scientist in tow. Beware. Not every person in the business of meat or breakfast cereal production has your (consumer) interests at heart.

Now, that doesn’t mean that every biofuels technology or “wonder feedstock” that comes down the pikeway is a winner. There’s hype and distortion on both sides of the equation – as we looked at in articles like “Jatropha, the Blunder Crop”, or the debacle at Range Fuels.

But today, let’s look at the myths you’ll be hearing a lot more about over the next 12 months from forces wishing to dismantle the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Myth #1. Meeting biofuels mandates would cause the US to radically lower food production, causing worldwide price increases as well as food riots around the world.

Reality. The Billion Ton Study from the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been issued twice now, (most recently, in the Son of Billion Ton update, here) and conclusively has demonstrated that the US can produce as much as three times the biofuels targets set under the Renewable Fuel Standard, without disturbing current food production. Even by the most conservative estimates, there are 500 million tons of available biomass (additional, that is, beyond that used for food), enough to easily achieve the RFS2 goals.

You may have seen a study from University of Montana post-doc Kolby Smith and colleagues, published in the ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology, that advocated doubt on the outcomes of the Billion Ton Study.

Here at the Digest, we think it is absurd for the ACS to seriously assert, as it has – and moreover, hyped the assertion in podcast form and press releases – that that it could take 325 million acres of prime US cropland to grow 36 billion gallons of biofuels. That’s 110 gallons per acre, less than a quarter of what the US will achieve with corn this year. We also believe it’s unhelpful to run a study on how much corn it would take to produce 36 billion gallons of biofuels, when the Renewable Fuel Standard caps corn ethanol at 15 billion gallons.

On food production, take this year’s corn harvest forecast from the USDA as an example. Typically, public concerns over “food vs fuel” in the US turns on the use of corn for ethanol production. According to the USDA, the US is expected to supply 900 million additional bushels of corn this years for animal feed, 200 million bushels for additional exports, and still add 900 million bushels to its year-end corn stocks – all this, while, maintaining their deliveries to the US ethanol producers.

As anyone knows when you start to think about it, a crop is not a food until you apply some energy to it. For example, there is just 8 cents worth of corn in a box of corn flakes that will run you almost $4 at the store. There’s actually more fossil fuel than corn in the cost of that product – milling, cooking, drying packaging, transport, and so on.

Even in developing countries that do not generally buy a lot of packaged foods, there is all that energy consumed in growing crops, and processing crops into grains, shipping, and then cooking too. Fertilizer, diesel for tractors and trucks, energy to run grain mills, and so on.

It’s easier for companies in fossil energy to misdirect your attention through a PR blitz than to get hammered in Congress and in the court of public opinion over energy prices, when they are properly linked to food prices. But they are linked: don’t be fooled.

Myth #2. Biofuels cause higher carbon emissions, instead of lowering them.

Reality: According the EPA, corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, compared to the use of fossil fuels, and every other biofuel in use in the United States (which required qualifying for the advanced, or non-corn, pool) results in, at least, a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels. Does this include both direct land-use change, and even a component for the controversial indirect land-use change? You bet it does.

On indirect land-use change – we have said it before, and repeatedly. What causes land use change is not changes in crop prices, but changes in land prices, and changes in land-zoning policy. You can’t have unwanted land-use change, for example, where you have enforced zoning laws in place. You can read all about it here, in chapter 16 of Citizen Cane,  “A common-sense theory of indirect land use change“. The 100 years of underlying hard data that stands behind that chapter is here.

Myth #3. Biofuels use more energy in their production than they provide as a transport fuel.

Reality. Generally, the consensus energy return for corn ethanol is 1.3 to 1, sugarcane ethanol (primarily from Brazil) is at 8:1, biodiesel is at the 2.5:1 mark, and the range for cellulosic biofuels runs from 2:1 to 36:1.

Also worth noting that biofuels processors are continuously improving yields and reducing energy use.

Myth #4. All biofuels have lower fuel economy than comparable fossil fuels.

Reality. On mileage. Bio-based gasoline and renewable diesel, as identical fuel molecules, have exactly the same fuel economy as their counterparts. Due to the way that particulates found in fossil fuels behave in jet engines, bio-based aviation fuels generate 2-7 percent better fuel economy than their counterparts. Ethanol is generally in the 70 percent range in terms of mileage per gallon, compared to gasoline – the energy density is a little lower than that, but the impact is mitigated by some other favorable properties of ethanol, including higher octane levels.

In Brazil, flex-fuel drivers generally buy gasoline when the price of ethanol is more than 70% of gasoline, and buy ethanol when the comparable price is lower. In the US, the price of wholesale ethanol is generally right at that 70 percent mark, too. So, while fuel economy is lower on a car-for-car basis – cost per mile is just about the same.

Myth #5. Cellulosic biofuels will be five years away, forever.

Reality: The first commercial-scale cellulosic biofuels planet are opening this year in the US and Europe, and more will be opening each year because the Renewable Fuel Standard and the EU biofuels targets had their intended effect. As BP Biofuels chief Phil New put it, passage of the 2007 RFS “galvanized us in to action.”

As it happened, it was almost exactly five years from the passage of RFS2 to the opening of the first cellulosic biofuels plants at commercial scale – despite the 30-month disappearance of project finance to build such plants, int he 2008-2010 credit crunch.

So the five years part was right, but the “forever” part, that’s myth. Cellulosic biofuels are affordable and available.

Myth #6. President Obama wants everyone to use algae-based biofuels that cost $26 per gallon.

Reality. Well, it may be little known, but the commencement of development of algal biofuels is an initiative of the Reagan Administration, continued under first Bush Administration, cancelled under the Clinton Administration due to low oil prices prevalent in the 1990s, and revived under George W. Bush. It is decidedly a Republican renewable fuels program. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Basically, if there’s a President Algae, it’s conservative icon Ronald Reagan. If there’s a party that should get credit on algal fuels, it’s the GOP.

The $26 per gallon figure was circulated after the Navy paid that amount for testing and certification quantities of algal-based biofuels. However, the Navy is on record saying that they are intent on deploying such fuels only after they reach commercial scale, and comparable cost with conventional jet fuel.

Let’s look at exactly how and why President Obama got himself embroiled in the controversy. First of all, he’s a former farm state senator, and a strong believer in addressing climate change and doing game-changing things to address the US situation in the Middle East – accordingly, not surprising that he is strong biofuels supporter.

But there’s a lot of political opportunism in all this.

As Dan Morgan wrote in The Globalist, it was “former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, then still a plausible candidate for the Republican nomination for president, [who] mocked President Barack Obama’s support for algae-based fuels. He called it “cloud cuckoo land”.” Gingrich went on to label Obama as “President Algae”.

But Morgan adds, “a senior American politician noted that by the end of the decade “you could be fueling 12 airplanes, 20 airplanes, 30 airplanes” with algae-based fuels. That was none other than Newt Gingrich, addressing an audience of California Republicans in February.”

Hmmm.

Myth #7. Biofuels require massive subsidies.

Reality. Well, no. Biofuels producers point out that subsidies will accelerate the commercialization of their industry, and if that is a policy benefit to the country offering subsidies, that can be a win-win. But they are not at all requiring them. In fact, both Brazilian cane ethanol and US corn ethanol have successfully transitioned off subsidies.

More than that, by helping to create a “floor price” for commodity crops like corn, US biofuels have allowed the US to also end payments to farmers made until long-time farmer payment policies designed to avert farm bankruptcies, and a halt in food production, during periods of low crop prices. The current US farm bill will end direct gamer payments, which in 2011 paid out $5.6 billion to farmers. That’s a result of the increased protection offered by crop insurance – and also, the floor on prices that biofuels provides.

Myth #8. Natural gas is a renewable fuel, too, and should receive the same advantages as biofuels.

Reality. “Gas has been reclassified as a green source of power by Horizon 2020, an €80bn European Union programme unveiled last year, which could have serious repercussions for the renewable energy industry,” reports The Guardian.

Is gas green? Well, it certainly is greener than coal, as a source of electric power. But the definition of “renewable” turns on the time lines. It’s true that if you take a ton of biomass and bury it for 60 million years that, under the right conditions, it will become natural gas or oil. But “renewable”, when it comes to biomass, generally applies to perennial or annual crops, or quickly growing wood.

So there you have it. The perception, and the reality. Our take at the Digest – base it on science. That doesn’t mean, always, quite the same thing as “base it on anything that comes out of a scientist’s mouth” – over time, consensus views have shown that a policy of “biofuels, never!” is just as foolish as “biofuels, always and in every place at every time.”



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