Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Biofools Behind Biofuels

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Q. Pimentel says that he sees no reason to repeal or suspend the Biofuels Law he co-authored with Migz Zubiri (and the Sugar Baron lobby) last year. He advances the same basic reasons Migz and his friends at Greenpeace did in pushing the law:

(1) Biofuels are "green" or environment friendly, allegedly because they are "carbon neutral" -- taking up carbon dioxide while living and giving up the same when they are fed to the cars.

(2) Biofuels will help the Philippines achieve energy independence from imported fossil fuels.

(3) Biofuel production won't compete with food production because the government has already identified sizeable areas for additional rice planting.

They haven't been paying attention to the recent scientific research on this matter, they aren't listening to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, or doing the simple arithmetic needed to see what a dangerous and possibly deluded idea biofuels actually are as a solution to the energy crisis and the sharp increase in global food prices.


(1) Scientists at Princeton University strenuously disagree with Nene and Migz in this recent Scientific American article, Biofuels Are Bad for Feeding People and Combatting Climate Change.
"Prior analyses made an accounting error," says one study's lead author, Tim Searchinger, an agricultural expert at Princeton University. "There is a huge imbalance between the carbon lost by plowing up a hectare [2.47 acres] of forest or grassland from the benefit you get from biofuels.

By turning crops such as corn, sugarcane and palm oil into biofuels—whether ethanol, biodiesel, or something else—proponents hope to reap the benefits of the carbon soaked up as the plants grow to offset the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted when the resulting fuel is burned. But whether biofuels emit more or less CO2 than gasoline depends on what the land they were grown on was previously used for, both studies show.

Tilman and his colleagues examined the overall CO2 released when land use changes occur. Converting the grasslands of the U.S. to grow corn results in excess greenhouse gas emissions of 134 metric tons of CO2 per hectare—a debt that would take 93 years to repay by replacing gasoline with corn-based ethanol. And converting jungles to palm plantations or tropical rainforest to soy fields would take centuries to pay back their carbon debts. "Any biofuel that causes land clearing is likely to increase global warming," says ecologist Joseph Fargione of The Nature Conservancy, lead author of the second study. "It takes decades to centuries to repay the carbon debt that is created from clearing land."

In other words, biofuels, better called agrofuels, won't be any cleaner to burn than fossil fuels like gasoline, from the point of view of climate change or global warming. They are likely to be worse, especially if they utilize so called wastelands and forests. The impact of converting such lands to agrofuel production is not GREEN at all.

(2) Slate Magazine asks Why Are Global Food Prices Soaring? Some good answers are coming from Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, whose recent presentation on the global food pricing situation is sobering.

"In 2007, the FAO Food Price Index averaged 157, up 23 percent from 2006 and 34 percent from 2005. Except for sugar, prices of which declined sharply, international prices of other major food commodities rose significantly in 2007."

Surging oil prices have been the big factor, but so has the surge in biofuel production in traditional exporting countries. From Slate's The Explainer, "High oil prices have also created a secondary problem: The burgeoning interest in biofuels. In 2006, 14 percent of the total corn crop in the United States was converted into ethanol; by 2010, that figure will rise to 30 percent." The United States feeds the world, in more ways than one. So when Iowa farmers feeding the corn crop to the cars in the form of ethanol, expect the rest of the world to get the hungries, or pay more to eat.

The Biofuels Law of 2006 is bound to benefit only the Sugar Barons, whose lobby fulsomely supports Migz and Nene.

(3) Finally, it is hard to imagine how the biofuels idea could be of any significant benefit, given the limited land area this Archipelago of mostly mountains and sensitive wetlands possesses not already needed for present and future food requirements. I did the simple arithmetic for the biofools when they passed that law in 2006, based on yield information from the Washington Post's own computation of the possible impact on a continental nation like America.


The Nashman said...

I wonder where Dayana Zubiri got his facts for item (1)!!! Clearly not a chemist!

as for item (2). Duh! It doesn't matter where our energy comes from! The real challenge is to convince people to consume less energy! Walk instead of drive! Better public transport! etc....

DJB Rizalist said...

the nashman,
I agree it doesn't matter where the energy comes from, as long as it supplies the right amount and does not force us into an oil vs. butter kind of scenario.

I also agree that conservation is a must, but in the long run we need a good long term renewable source of less polluting energy that biofuels, fossil fuels and others.

The US has a grand solar plan that by 2050 will make it largely dependent on imported energy from the sun!

We could go tidal energy and get it from the Moon too. But either way, Saudi Arabia's got to go!

The Nashman said...

I must say that I like how clean-burning biofuels are compared to the fossil fuels. The megalopolises of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo do not suffer from the same amount of smog sa Manila. Brazil is 99% energy independent. To get a full tank on a flex-engine is ridiculously cheap! Sadly, those biofuel plantations are indeed competing with food supply and primary forests.

And you have to admit, the USA has lots of reserves! It is simply finishing off the foreign oil....

Simply put, the Philippines does not have the land to for both food and biofuels to support a 2.3% population growth rate. Zubiri, as a sugar cane baron, probably has ulterior motives....

Shell Solar and a department on UP are allegedly working on solar-energy consumer products. What really gets to me is how we don't have wind data. The government should have commissioned this study ages ago...

blackshama said...

Energy independence is another NGO Environmentalist cliche that irritating to hear!

Real energy independence means we try to increase what we call "second law" efficiency.

Biofuels are better called energy carriers since the conversion efficiency (from solar energy) of plants is quite low at no greater than 30%. When chemical energy in plant tissue is combusted then it is >20% of the 30% that was originally from the sun.

Solar energy and its direct derivatives such as wind have low efficiency at 10% but are inexhaustible. Increasing efficiency of the use of solar energy can be easily developed by engineers.

Greenpeace is promoting these silly electric jeepneys. If you need to charge these like a cellphone,then the 2nd law efficiency is >30% at most.

Energy independence requires energy auditing something that these Greepeaceniks have little idea what this is all about!

If Greenpeace wants to promote energy independence it should promote walking! as well as planting trees!

As for walking? Why not? Since I lived overseas I have observed that people walk to their places of work when the distance is less than 2km. Here we Pinoys would rather ride the 100 meters distance.

As I have always told my students they should burn the fat off their arses and bellies but walking to their next class instead of taking a ride. This increase in 2nd law efficiency means less greenhouse gases and more cardiac fitness!

POGB said...

Ayayay, what to do, what to do..... it seems we always jump on to something everytime something new comes along without the benefit of good research. As usual laws are legislated to benefit their vested interest instead of the common good.... so when will the people start holding these trapos accountable?

My biggest fear is how they pervert the implementation and with corruption so ingrained in peoples consciousness whatever remaining forest if we still have any left from illegal logging will now be transformed into biofuel plantation.

The Nashman said...


I don't mind electric jeeps as this is our main mode of transport and it would be great to have a zero emissions vehicle. (of course the energy required to produce the electricity is not really clean...)

And I agree with you about walking!
It's totally ANNOYING to hear an otherwise FIT 30 year old oppose the pedestrianisation of Session Road in Baguio when it is only 3 km long! My 80 year old grandmother walks 5 km a day carrying vegetables on her head in the highlands. I don't understand how some in the present generation are so lazy! (And imagine the strain they put on our food security by eating more than they should and the associated health care needed when they eventually become morbidly obese!)

Jego said...

I don't understand how some in the present generation are so lazy!

Walking? In this heat? Euw. That's so icky, dude. It'll make me pawis. :-D

On electric vehicles, emissions would be easier to control if youre only controlling the emission of one power plant that isnt moving as opposed to controlling emissions from millions of vehicles.

The problem with all these energy substitution schemes is they expect the same energy efficiency in substitutes as they do from 'fossil fuels'. They want to maintain their high energy consumption lifestyle. The only thing that can do that is nukes.

The Nashman said...

yes, that is how the biofools mis-sell the technology as if it will cure the ills of the world.

the fours laws of thermodynamics should be emphasised in our curriculum.