Biofuels Won’t Fix Everything

For many decades, oil was available to meet all of our energy needs. It flowed from the earth; the challenge was to extract and refine it. The supply itself has only recently become a problem, and governments and businesses are scrambling to find a new source of energy that will once again allow us to power all our beloved technology without worries.

There is a problem with this hope, though. It is based on a worldview formed under an illusion. The oil reserves of our planet have functioned like a huge savings account, which we have been drawing from thirstily since we learned how to do so. Now that we are within sight of the end of the savings, we have to realize that another such supply does not exist on our planet.

Biofuels are a recent darling of the misguided hope for endless energy. Burning them for energy produces less pollution than burning fossil fuels. They are renewable, coming as they do from plants. At first blush, biofuels certainly do seem like a solution.

There are, however, problems. This New York Times story, for example, describes the growing trepidations in Europe over biofuels:

There is increasing evidence that the total emissions and environmental damage from producing many “clean” biofuels often outweigh their lower emissions when compared with fossil fuels. More governments are responding to these findings.

The problem, it turns out, is that the plant stock used to make the biofuels must be grown and processed. The land on which it is grown, the methods of planting and harvesting the crop, and the system of processing it into biofuel, are all factors that must be accounted for.

A recent AP article also highlighted these concerns:

But in recent months, scientists, private agencies and even the British government have said biofuels could do more harm than good. Rather than protecting the environment, they say energy crops destroy natural forests that actually store carbon and thus are a key tool in the fight to reduce global warming.

Our ravenous appetite for free energy is the problem, not any particular shortage of fuel sources. For decades we were living off the accumulated energy savings of millions of years. That kind of bounty won’t come again. We need to reorganize our way of thinking about energy, including funding for light rail transport systems, funding for the lowest impact energy sources (solar and wind), and public education about the problems of our current energy lifestyle.

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