Biofuels Are Promising But Would Require a Major Shift

Biofuel or biomass energy are formal names for fuel created from stuff that can be grown. The most common forms of biofuel are ethanol (derived from sugarcane or corn) and biodiesel (fuel made from natural, renewable sources such as vegetable oils). Creative alternative energy folks have also used everything from livestock droppings to heather, and look to perennial crops like switchgrass and poplar trees as low maintenance sources. Just imagine a society fueled with clean, renewable, locally grown fuel.

In addition to providing a renewable source of energy for our transportation needs, and thus reducing greenhouse gases and dependence on foreign oil, biofuels could provide tens of millions of dollars of new income for American farmers and rural communities.

Biodiesel Benefits

  • Biodiesel runs in any conventional, unmodified diesel engine
  • Biodiesel can be used alone or mixed in various percentages with petroleum diesel
  • Biodiesel can be stored and transported anywhere that petroleum diesel is stored (with little or no damage in the event of a spill). It’s biodegradable and non-toxic.
  • Engines running biodiesel have similar fuel mileage to engines on diesel fuel.

On the negative side, biodiesel produces more nitrous oxide, which contributes to smog. In addition, pure biodiesel does not flow as well as petroleum diesel in cold temperatures, so it could result in increased engine clogs.

Singer Willie Nelson began selling his own blend of biodiesel, which he calls BioWillie. It’s part of his campaign against the Iraq War and in support of American farmers. Daniel Becker, the Sierra Club’s global warming expert, believes the process of producing biodiesel is too energy intensive, resulting in a washout in terms of conservation. He told the New York Times, "If you’re going to the trouble of using an alternative fuel, use a good alternative fuel. If you really want to listen to Willie Nelson, go buy one of his records and play it in a hybrid."

Ethanol Benefits

  • Up to a 10 percent blend of ethanol is already covered under warranty of every auto manufacturer
  • A blend with 85 percent ethanol burns in an extremely clean and complete manner
  • E85 is already running on millions of so-called E85 flexible cars in the U.S. These cars, primarily used in corporate and government fleets, are manufactured by DaimlerChrysler, Ford, GM and Mercedes. Most of the E85 flexible cars are wagons and pick-ups.

The biggest drawback with high-ethanol blends today is that they are not widely available. The U.S. has nearly 170,000 gasoline stations; approximately 600 offer ethanol. It took 15 years to switch over from leaded to unleaded gasoline.

Major Shift Required

A grow-your-own approach to fueling our cars and trucks sounds very enticing. A major shift to biofuels could put our farmers to work, greatly reduce greenhouse emissions, and free us from dependence on the Middle East. A shift to a biofuel infrastructure would not happen overnight. It would require a major shift in our collective political will.

This potential shift also raises serious concerns about land use, pesticide use, and genetically modified crops, as well as difficult economic questions about the net costs of using land for food production versus energy production.

Hybrid cars by definition use more than one source to power a car. As a result, hybrids are often referred to as a bridge technology between currently available technologies and promising future approaches, such as hydrogen fuel cells. As carmakers continue to improve gas and diesel engines, and experiment with hybridization, perhaps biofuels will be brought into the mix—but only if oil becomes more scarce, more costly to produce and import, and even more obviously destructive to the environment.