Are Biofuels Sustainable?

In the US and in Brazil, biofuels have grown and been introduced to consumers. In US, corn is used to make ethanol to displace some fossil fuel usage. This lowers price, increases national security, and decreases vehicular emissions. In Brazil, sugar cane is used to do the same thing on a much larger scale. Cars sold in Brazil are almost required to be fuel-flex, that is able to use both bio-ethanol as well as oil and many run purely on ethanol due to political issues in the past century. [1]

But how sustainable are these biofuels? Although we can see the benefits, do they out weigh the costs? Can we even quantify the costs?

Image(Figure from [2])

Although the apparent benefits and immediate costs are measurable, we’re not able to see the full effect of the costs. With all commercial agriculture, the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and/or genetically modified organisms is apparent when we cannot see how they affect the surrounding environment. If these are allowed to permeate the earth and society without knowing the full effect, we will have to find a solution to reverse a problem we could avoid.

With the increase in scale and ability to model, better research capabilities, and better knowledge of how these products affect their surroundings, better results and better ways of quantifying these issues paired with specific goals will more clearly define the sustainability of biofuels. [3]

[1] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05279.x/full
[2] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360544210003336
[
3] Off-Balance by Matthew Kelly

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Are Biofuels Sustainable?

  1. I agree with you Wayne that there are a variety of costs that probably can’t be measured in a way that is easily comparable. Biofuels continue to be a hot topic with how much production we subsidize. If biofuels, specifically corn ethanol, are sustainable, a lot of research should be done verifying that. Besides the physical aspect, the morality of using corn for fuel instead of food is also difficult to judge. It seems that if hunger and food shortages are already a global issue, this shouldn’t be an option but then again, the countries that make these decisions are not the ones with widespread famine.

  2. I agree with your general points, only to say that the argument against biofuels can only be fine-tuned. The energy intensity of ethanol and biodiesel is troubling given that the production of these fuels uses more energy than they produce. Given this fact that has been proven in study after study, I find it very interesting and slightly troubling that production of biofuels continues in the United States. As a government that promotes free markets overseas with policy regimes and institutions proceeding Bretton-Woods, the U.S. is consistent in its muddling in the energy industry; case and point, billion dollar corn subsidies for ethanol. Additionally, as Dr. Webber mentioned in class, our agricultural subsidies at home impact environments elsewhere. Responding to ethanol subsidies, American farmers drop production of other products such as soy to grow corn, raising global prices for soy that subsequently incentivize countries like Brazil to turn environmentally sensitive lands into soy fields. In sum, most of us can agree that working towards a future of less dependence on fossil fuels is good, but the biofuels we are producing today are clearly not the answer.
    Sources:
    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/2005/07/ethanol-biodiesel-corn-and-other-crops-not-worth-energy
    Webber, Michael. Bioenergy Lecture at University of Texas, February 5, 2013.

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