Biofuels as Help or Hindrance: WorldChanging Digs Deep

Biofuels have been getting a rough ride in the media recently. Only last month we saw headlines from two studies arguing that land use changes may nix any environmental benefits of many biofuels, while they have also been singled out as a contributing factor in the looming food crisis. So what's the deal? Are biofuels a complete red herring, a silver bullet, or simply a useful tool in our arsenal if used wisely? In a series entitled Growing Sustainable Biofuels over at WorldChanging, Patrick Mazza, Research Director of Climate Solutions, argues that while the recent studies do highlight areas for concern, they have also been subject to sensationalist reporting and selective quoting. The first part of Mazza's series looks at the Searchinger and Fargione studies in detail, laying out the major points and summarising some of the critiques of the research that are beginning to emerge. Among the pertinent points are that Searchinger's study fails to account for likely increases in corn yields, and that his study low-balls the protein value of animal feed coproducts, thus underestimating their contribution to yields by 23%. Another critic argues that the studies fail to consider no-till cultivation of biofuel crops, which actually increase soil carbon storage, and that corn ethanol plants are converting to renewable energy, thus decreasing their emissions - meanwhile they are competing against fossil fuels like oil from tar sands that have an increased carbon footprint even compared to conventional gasoline. Mazza also points out that while the figures around land-use emissions may have made great headlines, for those in the biofuels community they came as no surprise, and that the new Renewable Fuel Standard includes greenhouse gas criteria, with life cycle studies mandated by law to include both direct and indirect emissions.

Whether or not the Searchinger and Fargione studies are accurate in their calculations regarding emissions of current biofuel technologies, Mazza points out that they do still envision a sustainable future for second generation biofuels. In the second part of his series, he explores how biofuels made from perennial grasses can store carbon in the soil to actually have a negative greenhouse gas impact, and even points to the possibility of creating charcoal as a biproduct of biofuel production and then burying it in the ground:

" USDA Agricultural Research Service scientist David Laird calls this the "Charcoal Vision." He envisions networks of small-scale pyrolyzers that employ heat to convert biomass into bio-oils, biogas and charcoal. The scale would reduce transportation costs and keep the charcoal product close to the biomass source. Bio-oils would be shipped to energy markets, while biogas would run the pyrolyzers. Charcoal buried in soils would retain at least half its carbon after 1,000 years. Other benefits include increased water retention and improved fertility."

Mazza also addresses concerns around the food versus fuel debate, acknowledging that there is a very real concern when energy needs start to compete with the need of folks to eat, but he also points out that, contrary to recent headlines, fuels are hardly the only factor driving up the price of food:

" The great bulk of grassland and tropical forest land conversions taking place today are for traditional needs of food, feed and fiber. Ironically, the palm oil boom that draws so much concern from biofuels critics is primarily driven by the demand for healthy food oils. This demand has even caused suspension of plans to build biodiesel refineries in Southeast Asia, in a case of food beating fuel in the marketplace."

Nothing is ever simple in the quest for sustainability, and sifting through the claims made by various "green" technologies can be a mind-boggler in itself. Apparently the next installment of Mazza's series will look at the development of sustainability standards for biofuels. We look forward to learning more.

::WorldChanging::via site visit::

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