Clearing the Air on the Bio-fuel Boondoggle
July 20, 2008

The conversion of vegetable oil to bio-diesel is a relatively simple, low cost industrial process that was first undertaken more than a century ago.  The resultant fuel can be burned in conventional diesel engines, produces 85% fewer emissions than its mineral hydrocarbon equivalent, and is on average 10% less costly to produce.  Because it is derived from a crop, bio-diesel is a renewable resource.  For nations like Costa Rica that are dependent upon imported oil for fuel supplies but have a healthy crop of bio-diesel feedstock in existing African palm plantations, it would seem self-evident that bio-diesel is a vital alternative fuel supply that will play an important role in the greening of Costa Rica, and that bio-fuels offer the same possibility for the planet as a whole.  Looks, however, can be deceiving, and the viability of bio-fuel as an environmentally sustainable alternative energy source is considerably more nuanced than first glances might suggest.

For practical purposes, there are three types of bio-fuels under production. 

Ethanol is an alcohol produced in two stages, first the fermentation of fruit or grain, second the distillation of the mash to concentrate the ethanol.  The process that has been used since the dawn of civilization to produce spirits assumes a redundant misnomer, bio-ethanol, when the product is intended for fuel blending rather than tippling.  It is used as a gasoline additive in blends ranging from 5-15% and boosts octane.  Production varies as a function of sugar content of the feedstock; sugar-cane has the highest yield, switch-grass and wood biomass among the lowest.

Methane is generated during the anaerobic decomposition of organic matter.  It can be harnessed from human and livestock waste treatment facilities, as biomass fermentation of vegetable byproducts during food processing (which can also be harnessed for modest ethanol yields) and in sanitary landfills.  Where methane is captured as a bio-fuel, it is typically re-utilized intramurally to reduce dependence on outside sources of energy.  Economics rarely (if ever) favor its distribution beyond its point of production.

Bio-diesel is the result of the trans-esterification of vegetable oil of any kind.   Ten parts of vegetable oil, one part of ethanol, and a small amount of sodium hydroxide and heat will produce ten parts of bio-diesel and one part of commercial grade glycerin.  The conversion of used cooking oil to bio-diesel is arguably the greenest of all alternative bio-fuels.  This is because used cooking oil is a waste product that has already achieved its primary purpose, so any energy recovery thereafter is a net positive.  The viability battleground over bio-diesel does not revolve around cooking oil feedstocks, however, but around virgin vegetable oils produced specifically for bio-fuel conversion.  African palm produces more oil per hectare of cultivation than any other farm commodity in the world.  For bio-diesel conversion it is therefore arguably the most viable of all feedstock materials.  Where climate is indisposed to African palm cultivation, other oil-rich agricultural products provide feedstock for bio-diesel conversion.  Most of Europe’s bio-diesel originates as rapeseed and sunflower oil.  Soybean oil is used as a bio-diesel feedstock in the United States, and jatropha, a Caribbean ornamental shrub, has a high oil content that may favor its future exploitation as a bio-diesel feedstock, though its toxicity precludes any nutritional value.  Bio-diesel is typically blended with hydrocarbon diesel in a 20% mix for sale to the motoring public.  Like bio-ethanol its production is made economically possible through government subsidies wherever it is used as a diesel blend.

The current cachet of bio-fuels would appear founded on a cursory examination of only portions of the series of economic and environmental equations that define the bio-fuel paradigm.  While there is undoubtedly a viable argument for some degree of bio-fuel use, the popular rush of the public toward bio-fuels as an environmental panacea is widely off the mark and most likely a black eye for planetary stewardship.  This rises from four widely divergent factors that define the economics, morality, and ethics of bio-fuel development and usage.  These factors are summarized below:

 1)     Emissions Omissions.   The bio-fuel strategists and propagandists are quick to point out bio-fuels burn 85% cleaner than their mineral hydrocarb on equivalents.  While true, this argument forgets that bio-fuels do not emerge from a vacuum.  Substantial emissions are produced not just in the manufacture of bio-fuels from harvested feedstock, but also from the cultivation of that feedstock.  Complicating the fact that emissions are produced across various stages of the cradle-to-grave fuel cycle is that some emissions are worse than others.  The nitrous oxide that is emitted during during fertilizer manufacture, for instance, is nearly 300 times more polluting than carbon dioxide, and unlike CO2, NO is not taken up by growing plants.  So, for agricultural feedstocks that depend on fertilizer application (think corn, soybean, rapeseed, sugar cane, and most agricultural products, overall fuel-cycle emissions considerably exceed the equivalent produced by mineral fossil fuels.  While African palm is momentarily excluded from class because it does not depend on large fertilizer applications, palm silviculture carries its own unique emissions multiplier that must be factored into the overall fuel-cycle emissions balance.  African palm production requires the elimination of tropical rain forests to host the palm plantations.  The net result of this is a dramatic drop in carbon uptake, which in effect is equivalent to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  Greenpeace estimates that the carbon emissions caused by expansion of African palm plantations far exceeds the emissions savings of bio-diesel over conventional diesel.  For first generation palm-oil production, it is estimated to take up to 60 years for emissions savings to yield a net-favorable emissions yield over conventional diesel combustion, simply due to destruction of forest and introduction of carbon dioxide from the burning of felled wood and vegetable matter.  Where original forest overlies peat accumulations, like in the leading palm oil producing nations of Malaysia and Indonesia, the carbon debt that results from initial clearing of the forest is estimated to be 400 years due to the additional carbon released from the peat.  Over and above the emissions that result from initial clearing and cultivation, the production of oil from the African palm fruit requires a substantial amount of energy investment to extract the oil, which results in greenhouse gas emissions  that must be factored in to full fuel-cycle emission budgets.  For existing groves of African palm for which the carbon-debt of land-clearing has already been made and which are sustained and operated without fertilizer application, net emissions gains are likely possible through bio-diesel conversion, presuming agricultural and manufacturing efficiency and the universal application of best management practices.

2)   Net Energy Imbalance.  The most contentious debate underway among bio-fuel researchers today is that of the net-energy balance.  Historically, reports of net energy gains of up to 30% for conversion of corn to ethanol provided the cornerstone for the US policy of subsidized corn production for bio-ethanol conversion.  Yet, calculations of net energy investments in the production, harvesting, and transportation of a crop, followed by its conversion to a bio-fuel, are not values that lend to precise deterministic calculations very easily.  It appears that early estimates underestimated some of the energy requirements of the entire fuel cycle and that some assumptions were perhaps liberal.  Contemporary estimates for the net-energy budget of corn-ethanol within the scientific community ranges from a net energy loss of 24% to a net energy gain of 28%, a variance of right around 200% for one of the most controlled and studied feedstocks of all.  As economists, farmers, and engineers analyze the fuel-cycle energy investments versus yields for a wide variety of feedstocks, it is increasingly evident that bio-fuel conversion is on the whole a net-energy loser, producing less energy than it requires to generate it in the first place.  A recent Cornell University study found that the net energy loss of typical bio-fuel conversion feedstocks varied from a low of 27% net energy loss from soybean bio-diesel conversion to a high of 118% net energy loss in sunflower oil bio-diesel conversion, with intermediate net energy losses among other feedstocks including corn, switchgrass, and wood biomass.  Such findings reinforce the fact that without hefty government subsidies there would be no bio-fuel conversion at all, since it is non-profitable and therefore not a good candidate for exploration by the private sector.   Despite a few findings that still project net energy gains, albeit modest ones,  the scientific consensus is converging around a conclusion that the net energy equation at the very best could represent only modest long term net-energy gains for even economically favorable feedstocks like sugar cane for bio-ethanol and African palm for bio-diesel.  At best, any energy gains from bio-fuel conversion can be only nominal and without government interference a long way from economic viability.

3)   Disruption of food markets.  If the argument that bio-fuels are neither energy-efficient nor emissions savers is insufficient to argue against further investment in bio-fuel exploitation, maybe its disruption of global food markets and the dramatic rise of prices will be enough to get the world's attention.  Bio-fuel targets enacted in Europe, the United States, and under consideration in an array of emerging of emergent markets is taking food out of the mouths of the hungry and raising the price for all food across the board and around the planet.  Corn prices are 70% higher in the United States because 30% of current corn production is earmarked for ethanol conversion, and the price of tortillas in Mexico City has doubled as a result.  Palm oil is the single most important cooking oil in use on the planet as a whole and by far the most important cooking oil in Costa Rica.  Its diversion from the dinner table and into bio-diesel blends is a non-trivial threat to nutritional needs and a likely multiplier of hunger on both regional and planetary scales.  The World Bank estimates that bio-fuel development worldwide has caused food prices to rise across the board by 75%.  A considerable amount of reflection, brain power, and economic honesty is needed to balance planetary nutritional needs with the arguably secondary benefits of extending fossil fuel supplies by a few years, particularly without demonstrable gains in emissions reductions, net energy gains, or profitability.

4)  Fossil Fuel Protectionism.  Even if coming advances in technology allow for an indisputable net-energy gain from bio-fuel conversion during the next few years, bio-fuels can never supplant conventional hydrocarbons outright.  In effect, the only thing that bio-fuel conversion and use can do is to extend by a few years the socio-industrial paradigm of the internal combustion engine.  Since it is unquestionable that the the hydrocarbon economy is the agent single-handedly most responsible for global warming and climate change, it is arguable if any development that prolongs the continued use of hydrocarbons has any planetary merit whatsoever. 

For those in Costa Rica and other nations weighing the use of bio-fuel to advance responsible planetary stewardship, reduce fuel costs, or to earn environmental kudos as marketing strategies for commercial enterprises, it is not necessary to draw firm conclusions on many of the arguments outlined in preceding paragraphs to reach an informed conclusion.  Instead, simple economic analysis will normally suffice to direct those of you exploring your options toward cleaner and more sustainable technologies.  Still, the environmental fundamentals that factor into a baseline evaluation are not substantially in dispute and can be summarized with the points bulleted below that highlight clear negatives and only very murky theoretical positives associated with bio-fuels of all stripes:

For those readers considering incorporating bio-diesel into your Costa Rican eco-paradise or self-sustaining, renewable, permacultural Shangri-La or Xanadu, please think again.  It is bad for the atmosphere, bad for the biosphere, bad for humanity, bad for business, and it is more costly than non-polluting renewable resources abundantly available from the sun, the skies, and the nation’s waterways.

PD Collar
Osa Water Works, S.A.
Puerto Jimenez Costa Rica
















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