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Biofuels are controversial in the world of renewable energy-- overall, are they more of a positive or negative when it comes to reducing GHG emissions? Should they continue to be a key part of government clean power policy?

Biofuels, such as biomass based on wood, grass, corn, waste, and more, have often been a controversial topic when it comes to clean and renewable energy sources. One main debate  centers around the fact that they do in fact release greenhouse gas emissions when they are burned and how to balance that on the climate accounting sheets when the farming of these organic materials sucks GHG from the atmosphere in the first place-- does that make them clean or not? Are they carbon neutral? There's also debate about how renewable they are-- the fuel sources, such as corn or trees, can certainly be re-grown, but with a finite amount of farming land available and much of it being needed to feed a growing population, can they be truly be considered renewable? Then there comes the debate about how much benefit biofuels (and their government mandates) actually do in the shift to clean energy when the biofuels themselves get transported by polluting trains/trucks/etc.

Given these debates, it's no surprise the support and growth of biofuels has stalled. So I wanted to pose the question to Energy Central's Clean Power Community-- where do you stand on the biofuels debate? Do they do more harm than good, are they beneficial but they divert focus from more important areas, or are they an integral part of the clean power transition? Or is the answer something else entirely?


Best Answer

My argument against fuel crops is essentially the same as the above: it's a very convoluted and resource-intensive way to store solar energy.

Biofuels from waste streams do make sense owing to the fact that it's energy that would otherwise go to waste. If we don't make use of waste biomass then microbes surely will. Not only would we be displacing fossil fuels by recovring energy from waste biomass, we would also prevent methane emissions by not allowing waste biomass to rot away. Additionally, waste management is in itself a valuable service.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on November 30, 2018

I definitely agree with you on waste streams, any energy we can extract from material that was already created and emissions would occur naturally with decay is a positive. That's a great point of comparison vs. grown biofuels

Matt, nothing has changed since 2012 when Hartmut Michel, a Nobel-winning chemist and photosynthesis expert, concluded "all biofuels are nonsense."

Since I'm not an expert,  I'll defer to Dr. Michel.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on November 29, 2018

Thanks for the contribution-- looks like Dr. Michel's argument comes from a fundamental basis that the conversion process from sun to plant to biofuel is just inherently not efficient enough to warrant our time or efforts. That's particularly interesting because it would suggest that it's not just wrong policy or improper use of biofuels-- but that the idea of biofuels is inherently faulty from the get-go. I'll be interested to see if anyone in the community has a different take. 

I personally feel that waste streams if not handled properly can play havoc in agri dominated industries like India.  Instead they can be put to use for value added products like eletricity, biofertilizer, soil improver, which again will create employment opportunities, revenue generation for everyone involved.   I think there is need for push for biofuels to address GHG emission from fossil fuel. Best wishes!!!

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on December 6, 2018

Thanks for the answer-- it seems to be the answer I keep getting is that biofuels are a great solution when taking advantage of already existing waste streams, getting the most out of them that you can. Not only is it almost 'free' energy, but your point about the employment and economic opportunities are well-received as well!

Seems like the waste-stream biofuel is a very different question than the type of biofuel debate often going on in American politices and Renewable Fuel Standards, where crops are specifically grown, transported, and bought for that purpose. 

Lots to consider-- thanks again for your answer!

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