Friday, March 13

A Note on Biofuels

This is a post I've been meaning to write for a while now, and a U.N. report came out yesterday ("Water in a Changing World") that just supports my argument too well. Biofuels have been in the news a lot lately, but there is one important fact that doesn't get a lot of attention: the use of corn for ethanol production is essentially a trade of water for energy. When you look at it from this perspective, it really seems pretty stupid. As Sheikh Zaki Yamani, a Saudi Arabian who served as his country's oil minister three decades ago put it:
The Stone Age did not end for lack of stone, and the Oil Age will end long before the world runs out of oil.
But we are in real danger of running out of water:

The (U.N.) report added to recent U.N. warnings about the downsides of developing biofuels to replace heavily polluting hydrocarbons as an energy source, because of the water needed to grow crops like corn and sugar cane to produce ethanol.

Saying about 2,500 liters of water is needed to make 1 liter of biofuel, it said implementing all current national biofuel policies and plans would take 180 cubic kilometers of extra irrigation water and 30 million hectares of cropland.

"The impact could be large for some countries, including China and India, and for some regions of large countries, such as the United States," it said. "There could also be significant implications for water resources, with possible feedback into global grain markets."

When oil prices peaked at over $140 a barrel last year, "the kneejerk reaction was 'well, we are going to grow our energy - biofuels.' But nobody took account of how much water it was going to require," William Cosgrove, coordinator of the report, told journalists.

Read more...(

That is not to say that biofuels don't have any potential, I just think the focus should be on production of biofuels from waste, not from agricultural crops. Unfortunately, corn (or more accurately, the companies that breed it) has much more lobbying power, so that's where all the money continues to go.

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