Monday, March 05, 2007

Biofuels - Saviour or Danger

George Bush is about anounce that to combat global warming - something he has denied existed for the past 6 years, is to announce an "Opec for ethanol" and has committed the White House to substitute 20% of its petroleum use with ethanol.

Ethanol is derived from plant extracts, specifically; corn, barley, wheat, sugar cane or beet and burns a lot greener in specially adjusted vehicles. Dr Plinio Mario Nastari, one of Brazil's leading economists and an expert in biofuels, sees a bright future for an energy sector in which his country is the acknowledged world leader: "We are on the brink of a new era, ethanol is changing a lot of things but in a positive sense." Ethanol is the panacea for all the world's oil ills. Wars will stop, the planet will cease to warm up and everyone will love everyone else!

First off, the amount of corn grown to fill one full tank of the average 4X4 would feed a man for a year! Just one tank full.

Once we get our heads around that and multiply the amount of land required to fill that car for a year, and multiply that again by the number of cars on the road and the scale of the enterprise starts to become apparant. I haven't even started to think about trucks, planes, ships or heating, or any other oil use. Clearly there is going to have to be some serious mono-cultural farming just to feed our vehicles, - what price those raw materials if you also want them as food!

However, it gets worse. Clearly the ideal place to farm these crops are where you can get more than 2 harvests a year. They need to be grown in places, or countries, where there is round the year sunshine. Somewhere like the equator. Brazil already has a major ethanol producing industry based on sugar cane. This came about after the oil crisis in 1973 when the dictators decided they no longer wanted to be reliant on foreign oil. In Brazil, some of the plantations are as large as European states, and of course, when the sugar is harvested, it needs to be burnt - how's that for a carbon footprint? Fabio Feldman, a leading Brazilian environmentalist and former member of Congress said; "If you see the size of the plantations in the state of Sao Paolo they are oceans of sugar cane. In order to harvest you must burn the plantations which creates a serious air pollution problem in the city."

In America, the crop of choice would appear to be grain. The American economist Lester R Brown, from the Earth Policy Institute, has said; "The competition for grain between the world's 800 million motorists who want to maintain their mobility and its two billion poorest people who are simply trying to stay alive is emerging as an epic issue."

Finally, however, many biofuel crops, such as corn, are grown with the help of fossil fuels in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and the petrol for farm equipment. One estimate is that corn needs 30 per cent more energy than the finished fuel it produces.

I can see wars ahead, this time fighting over land to grow these crops. Why don't we start to consider how we can change4 our lives, culture and society so that the need for oil and oil substitutes are radically reduced. For me, that is the only long-term solution worth considering.


sandegaye said...

It is a mystery for sure.. what will 'win' out in the end. The price of corn has already sky-rocketed here.
I lived in a small town in NE Missouri where the cornfields were everywhere.. & all the wells were tainted from the fertilizer run-offs. Yuck.

Jay said...

It seems to be a mindset to find a substitute for fossil fuels. What we need are replacements. That will probably entail changing the way of life for many in the western world..but it's a sure bet that the changes we would have to make if things continue the way they are will be much, much more drastic.