Recently there has been a rising tide of lies about biofuels. Ones that shock me in how contrary they are to the facts. Basic facts of biology and physics that were well established decades ago are somehow being superceded by beliefs that should be as obviously false as the smile of a gameshow host.
But I don't want to talk about what's false. I would rather talk about what's true.
Let's start with a simple thought experiment. Let's say that next March we go to an abandoned lot. And we plant hundreds of grass seeds there. Maybe switchgrass. Then we walk away and come back in September. We take the grass we find growing there and bale it, leaving the bales right there where the grass was. Again we walk away and don't come back until the next March. If we used switchgrass, almost all of the minerals and nutrients will have been washed back into the soil by the rains and what is left will be almost pure carbon. Like charcoal. So we grind it up and press it into pellets and burn it in a standard four hundred dollar pellet stove of the kind you can buy at Sears.
So, explain to me, please, how did this process use energy?
How did it use fertilizer or water?
How did doing this decrease our food supply?
Because, as botanists and farmers and landscapers and all sorts of other people have known for generations, switchgrass is a weed. It will grow anywhere. In fact, it enriches the soil and is used to prepare fallow fields. And since you're not processing it in any way other than chopping it up and making it into pellets, you're not using water, or much fuel, there is no need to transport it any serious distance, no new equipment is needed since you can buy pellet makers and grinders cheap all over the place.
Take waste land.
Plant the crop.
Harvest the crop.
Bale the crop.
Pelletize the crop.
Burn the crop.
Put the ash in the soil and start over.
That is all you need to make one particular biofuel. And it can be done in the parking lot of every abandoned minimall, in the median strips of every highway, on brownfields, on any place that gets some sun and some water and has any nutrients at all. Like, say, your yard.
Let's move on.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about cellulosic ethanol. Well, we could talk about ethanol versus other fuels but since ethanol is in the news, we'll stick with that. Somehow people have gotten the idea that scientists and environmentalists are suggesting that this be made with crops like corn. I find this odd. My father, who was a former farmboy, had his biology doctorate, and worked as an environmental scientist for many years, used to take me to the beach with his biologist and environmental scientist friends in the seventies. And they would talk, among other things, about making ethanol. Not, let's face it, mostly to make fuel but for ethanol's other useful purposes.
And they would joke that ethanol can be made from doggone near anything. Cellulosic ethanol just means that it's being made from cellulose. You know, like grass cuttings. Or chopped up dirty underwear. Or used McDonald's food wrappers. Or Exxon and ConAgra press releases.
Again, no need to use up food. No need to use up food-growing land. No need for additional fertilizer usage or massive new factories or technologies.
Let's move on again. Out here in Oregon, folks are big into biodiesel. Some people have said that us hippies will be out of luck once the supply of used french fry grease dries up. Well, there is some logic to that, but not much. There are many other ways to get oils for biodiesel.
A few years back some folks at MIT said, let's take the exhaust coming out of factory chimneys and bubble it through water. And the water will sit in big transparent columns where they get plenty of sunlight. Algae loves heat and CO2. The air that finally bubbles out the top will be much cleaner. And the water-filled column will soon be positively overflowing with happy, fat, energy-rich algae. And as long as you keep feeding exhaust and a little bit of algae food (like, say, the dried out remains of the last batch), you'll keep getting oil-filled algae.
So if we take that algae, crush it for the oil, and turn the oil into biodiesel, why do we need french fry grease?
This process is already in use. Already commercialized. And fwiw, researchers have already bred algae that are half oil by weight. Given how quickly algae reproduce, it shouldn't take any too long to breed ones that are even more efficient.
I could keep going but I really don't see why I should have to. There is no biological or technological or economic reason that making plenty of biofuels should prevent our growing plenty of food. We do have a food supply crisis. The greenhouse effect and increasing demand for meat and the swiftly accelerating rate of grain diseases (many brought about by modern, "efficient" growing techniques), not mention agribusiness profiteering, are certainly causing that.
But biofuels? To blame them, let alone to think that making them is inherently and unavoidably energy negative is naive at best. It's a misunderstanding that we simply can't afford.