A New Report Is Destroying Biofuel Claims

Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Despite their promise over the past decade or so, biofuels have been found to be a very inefficient way to generate energy, are bad for the environment, and even contribute to world hunger, according to a new report by the World Resources Institute (WRI).

In fact none of these conclusions are new. Research into biofuels for years has focused on making them more potent. And no one has ever thought cutting down trees, for example, is good for the environment, even if more trees can be grown. And as for nutrition, who benefits more from corn: A hungry child or an automobile?

Certainly, natural waste products can contribute to bioenergy, but dedicating broad acreage to raising crops not for food but for energy creates unfair competition with a more important enterprise of growing crops and providing grazing land for livestock, according to the WRI, a global research organization based in Washington.

And denuding forests may help create a clean-burning fuel, but it also deprives local waterways of protection they need, leaves wildlife without habitat and even leaves the Earth without its natural air cleansers that absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

Perhaps most important from an energy standpoint, the report says, is that biofuels are inefficient. For example, it says, sugar cane seems like an ideal renewable source of energy because it grows quickly, but it “converts only around 0.5% of solar radiation into sugar, and only around 0.2% ultimately into ethanol.” Much the same is true for maize, or corn as it is known in the United States.

The upshot? “Such low conversion efficiencies explain why it takes a large amount of productive land to yield a small amount of bioenergy, and why bioenergy can so greatly increase global competition for land,” the WRI report concludes. If you want clean energy, it says, go solar, which it says can outperform biofuels per hectare by a factor of more than 100.

Nutritionally, biofuels also create more problems – serious problems – than they solve. The WRI report anticipates what it calls a “70 percent food gap” between the calories available in the food grown around the world in 2006 and the foods that will be needed to feed the planet’s population by 2050.

If governments managed to phase out crop-based biofuels by 2050, they could reduce that gap to 60% – not much, but an improvement. But if the leaders of large economies pressed ahead with developing crop-based biofuels, that gap would inflate to as high as 90%.

Creating enough bioenergy to fill just 20% of the world’s demand by 2050 would mean doubling the annual global harvest of all plant life. That would be in addition to the huge crop yield needed to feed and house the planet’s mid-century population. That, the report says, is unsustainable and unrealistic.

Then there are greenhouse gases. There’s a “misplaced belief” that more use of biofuels would mean a decrease in toxic energy emissions, the WRI report says. For example, when maize is burned, it emits carbon dioxide. But many believe that this emission is balanced out by other plants that absorb CO2.

“Yet if those plants were going to grow anyway (e.g., for food), simply diverting them to bioenergy does not remove any more carbon from the atmosphere and therefore does not offset emissions from burning that biomass,” the report says. “In effect, these analyses ‘double count’ plant growth and thus ‘double count’ carbon, leading to overly optimistic estimates of emissions reductions.”

So how wrong did we get it? “I would say that many of the claims for biofuels have been dramatically exaggerated,” WRI President Andrew Steer told The New York Times. “There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.”

Originally written for OilPrice.com, a website that focuses on news and analysis on the topics of alternative energy, geopolitics, and oil and gas. OilPrice.com is written for an educated audience that includes investors, fund managers, resource bankers, traders, and energy market professionals around the world.