Oregonian Looks at Biofuels

Sunday’s O had a big spread on biofuels. At the 30,000 foot level, it looks to me like there are three main strategies:

  • Biodiesel from reclaimed materials or by-products, e.g., fryer grease
  • Biodiesel from purpose-grown crops, like rape-seed or soy beans
  • Ethanol from corn

It’s less clear to me which of those really pencil. The reclaimed strategy seems to make good economic sense. There seems to be a strong case that corn-based ethanol only works because the federal government so heavily subsidizes corn production. I’m not sure about the purpose-grown biomass crops, but I have heard suggestions that these could be good crops for eastern Oregon.

I’m hoping we have readers who know more about agricultural economics than I do who can comment on this!

9 responses to “Oregonian Looks at Biofuels”

  1. Chris,

    From the 30,000-foot level, you should probably add a fourth option to your list:

    Ethanol from other organic sources. Remember that Ethanol is basically what they’ve been making in the hills of Kentucky for ages. It’s alcohol, grain alcohol, made from whatever source.

    This page talks about the production of Ethanol from paper pulp, which would seem to make more sense in the NW than from corn, which tends to me grown more for human consumption and is of a higher quality here than in the Midwest.

    However, ethyl alcohol (ethanol) can be produced from just about any agricultural source:

    “Fermentation alcohol may be produced from grain, molasses, fruit, wine, whey, cellulose and numerous other sources.”

    This means that surplus agricultural production could basically be made into either ethanol, biodiesel, or potentially both…

    This is exactly the sort of topic that you might expect OSU to study prolifically as a way to potentially assist Oregon’s economy.

    Personally, I’m more enamored of biodiesel than ethanol, but I just wanted to make sure that your high-altitude summary of the subject was complete. :-)


  2. Biodiesel is a good use of used fryer fat that might be thrown away otherwise. But just how smug should buidiesel users feel?
    I meet people who want to keep driving but still feel like they’re doing their part to reduce global warming. Honestly, driving less will have a much greater impact than switching to biodiesel, which still pollutes the air and the ground water. If you have to drive, isn’t it cleaner to drive a new, small gasoline car with fully-tuned emmisions controls, or a gas-electic hybrid, instead of an old diesel Mercedes with loose piston rings?

    The whole local-farm-economy aspect is interesting, but I worry that if some government subsidy or other economic shift makes it profitable to grow switchgrass or soybeans or hemp for biofuels, that niche will be taken over by industrial agriculture. Small mom & pop operations aren’t going to be able to compete, when the demand is so high. Nobody’s going to care if their biodiesel is “organic” or not. So it’s a win for the wrong kind of farming, in my opinion. High-yield soybean production through intensive use of pesticides, herbicides, and inorganic fertilizers. The kind of practices that erodes and destroys farmland, and that have driven the small family farmer out of business.

    There are a lot of different measurements of how many gallons of gasoline you have to burn to produce your gallon of biodiesel — I’d like to see which one this crowd believes in. It takes fuel-burning farm machinery, petrochemical-intensive fertilizers and poisons, and an industrial refining process to get that oil out of those crops. All that you get for free is the solar power that falls on the crops. Is a biodiesel farm really more energy-productive than a solar farm?

    For biodiesel to make a significant dent in America’s energy problem, we’re going to need a lot of it: it’s going to mean a significant portion of America’s farms aren’t going to be producing some other food. As transportation gets more expensive, will it be cheaper to grow biodiesel locally, and use it to truck in food from California? Or to grown our own food and truck in biodiesel from Mexico? I don’t know, but either way I don’t think we’re getting something for nothing.

    Anyway, I’ve been nay-saying Biodiesel for ages, but maybe y’all can prove me wrong.


  3. Mykle-

    I think that the key with Biodiesel is to use surplus and waste to produce it, not virgin crops. i.e. if you’re growing feedstock for cows and pigs, it’s possible to produce biodiesel from the crop before it gets fed to the cows and the pigs. So, it’s basically just adding value to the existing farm-to-livestock economic chain by getting one additional output out of it. To the degree that these sorts of synchronicities can be taken advantage of (waste restaurant oil being another one), we can reduce the impact of what you mention.

    And besides, what are you hoping to achieve with all of your nay-saying of Biodiesel? Would you prefer to just see synthetic, petroleum-based diesel? Or would you like to see a more reponsible biodiesel industry?

  4. I would rather see an emphasis on electric vehicles, or hybrids. If offshore energy production can be developed on the Northwest Coast this would be a true renewable source. I don’t know why windturbines and wave energy could not be combined, since countries like Norway already have plans for floating wind turbines. I could think of three methods that could be used in combination and would also open up some recreational or offshore living potential. The Great Lakes is another region with enormous windpower potential. With mass scale usage the costs should fall. There are also technical improvements being made by foreign R&D.

    Maybe ethanol has been overrated; it does take energy to produce it and harvest the raw materials. Perhaps GM’s push on ethanol is hype; I think CNBC had a report on this, but I didn’t happen to see it.

    The energy cost of cars is measured not only in the fuel economy. The energy wastage and pollution involved in all of the manufacturing and distribution processes need to be figured in. Because, as an alternative, you could just recycle an older car; e.g. convert a VW Rabbit to biodiesel.

  5. Ron-

    I think you’re completely right. However, to the degree that people need to travel further than 100 miles per session, pure electric cars won’t catch on until the batteries/other technologies catch up. Therefore, plug-in electric hybrids are the way to go. And the other half of the hybrid is the internal combustion engine. Until now, we’ve mostly seen these running on gasoline. However, gasoline versions could be modified to also take ethanol, and I think that we will soon find that diesel versions, which will run off of biodiesel without modification, will prove to be the holy grail of immediate hybrid technology. Diesels get better mileage at higher speeds, whereas the electric hybrid gets better mileage at lower speeds. The combination should produce the best mileage at all speeds.

    Slap some solar panels on the roof and upper body panels, and the ability to plug it in, and suddenly a biodiesel/electric hybrid vehicle could be averaging over 100mpg in most conditions.

    Which is great as a solution for vehicles.

    But, shouldn’t we all just be driving less, walking, biking and taking transit more?

  6. At the 60,000 foot level biofuels look more like a cruel joke and here’s why.

    Growing crops to create fuels uses valuable land needed for food production and the preservation of biodiversity on this planet.

    Calculations vary concerning the amount of acreage needed to power a car for a year, but estimates seem to range from 11 acres for 15,000 miles of travel down to an optimistic 1 acre for 15,000 miles of travel.

    I’ve also read estimates that it takes about 6 acres / horse / year … equine experts?

    There are about 982 million acres of agricultural land in use in the US….. ethanol or other biofuel production for 62 million registered cars (the current number) would therefore require a significant percent of all agricultural land be devoted to extracting solar energy and converting it into transportable fuel. (Perhaps it would require even 2/3 of all agricultural land.)

    The hydrocarbon economy enables us to exist at our incredibly high energy consumption levels because we are plowing through the stored solar energy reserves of millions of years of solar energy capture.

    The only way to capture enough solar energy in a burnable form to fund an energy budget such as we currently have is to literally cover the earth with solar collectors (whether crops, or some yet unperfected solar to hydrogen system).

    The vision of “everything will stay the same, but we will get our fuel from the sun” seems, on the face of it absurd. We need our land for other things besides collecting solar energy to run cars. We need it to grow food… to allow species biodiversity to flourish.

    Go read about what the corn monoculture has done to Iowa… it is now a less biodiverse state than New York…. a vast corn production factory that is toxic to the people who inhabit it.

    Imagine what converting our economy to biofuels will do to areas much larger than Iowa, and to the Brazillian environment where they are now producing sugar cane ethanol.

    I’d suggest to you that farming for energy is going to be the next big ecological disaster…. it’s only a solution if you think that high energy automotive transportation is the sine qua non of modernity. If you can’t imagine life without it, I guess even destroying the planet with biofuel production seems like a reasonable choice.

    If you can imagine life without cars and without high energy transportation, then it becomes easier to see planetary biofuel production for the ecological disaster it promises to be.

    (I emphasize that the above back of the envelope numbers concerning farmland, energy consumption/year etc. are based on real stuff that I’v researched, but if there are energy experts who’d like to challenge them with better numbers, I’m open to hearing about it. What if we could operate our current energy budget with only 1 acre of farm land / 15,000 miles of travel? Well then we’d only need about a 10th of current farm land for fuel production in stead of 2/3 …. these calculations should be easy to do for someone immersed in the field, and would give us a good read on whether biofuels are remotetely practical on a planetary scale. However the larger point still stands that once transportation CONSUMES land for fuel production (in addition to what it already consumes for roads), then every car bought on the planet establishes a claim on another Y acres of earth’s surface. Much as we can’t afford to pump into the atmostphere all the hydrocarbons that China’s and India’s car owners will burn, so also can we really convert all the land to fuel production that a growing fleet of automobiles will require?

    Isn’t it time to just eliminate high energy transportation altogether and start builing environments in which work/home/recreation are within low energy reach of each other? Well of course anyone who has read this far probably agrees. :-)


  7. Garlynn says”Slap some solar panels on the roof and upper body panels, and the ability to plug it in, and suddenly a biodiesel/electric hybrid vehicle could be averaging over 100mpg in most conditions.”

    One advance in wind energy is the small 12v chargers that yachties use. So far the Rutland 613 seems to be the most efficient; small wonder! it has twice as many blades as the others! I think an Aeromotor design(the prairie windmill)–using ultralightweight materials like carbon fiber–could put out a lot of power. Could these be mass produced and then placed on top of utility poles? The Oregon Coast has wind in both winter and summer. You could park your electric vehicle and plug into a power pole.

  8. I love my 2000 Jetta TDI because of its ability to handle biodiesel. Why wouldn’t we want to have a local industry of creating a fuel that helps move food supplies to consumers? I also get a laugh about the statement of either biodiesel vs hybrid. There are concept cars now that are diesel/hybrids vehicles. Hybrid technology is only for gasoline. That is so 2004.

    Bio-diesel Now! Buy your diesel car soon just for flexibility. And yes, walking and biking are best especially by living closer to all the places you need to go.



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