Sat Mar 15th, 2008 at 05:06:54 AM EST
Maybe I'm stealing Euan's schtick here, and maybe Piebalgs blogging is getting repetitive. But the energy Commissioner has written another blog post in which he takes the opponents of biofuels to task:
Commissioner Andris Piebalgs - Blog - Biofuels Good or Evil?
[Statements opposing biofuels] have been widely reported and set the dominant tone on the biofuel debate. Contrary views are hardly heard. Yet, these statements are misleading or plain wrong. I myself drive an ethanol-powered Saab 9-5 and certainly I would not even think of it if I had the slightest suspicion that I'm contributing in any way to global warming, or, even worse, to an international genocide. This is why I consider that it is essential to regain a sense of proportion in this debate and try to have a discussion on this issue that is less intemperate and one-sided. I'm confident that this blog can be a good place to do this, and I plan to have a number of entries on this issue, and of course, your comments to them will be extremely welcome.
Increased attention to the pitfalls of biofuels is most welcome, and I do not think that views supporting biofuels have really been drowned out. Having bought in to biofuels personally, moreover, can hardly be an argument. Ethanol car drivers should take a page from Alan AtKisson
instead of presuming that they could not have made a mistake.
Promoted by Colman
Piebalgs does have some more substantive arguments:
First of all, when biofuels replace fossil fuels, greenhouse emissions are almost always lower. Biofuels are produced from plants that absorb the CO2 they generate when they are burnt. This has to take into account the fertiliser used to produce the crops, the energy needed to convert them into liquid fuels and so on. On this basis, biofuels produced in Europe from rape seed, wheat and sugar beet, typically reduce emissions by 20-50% compared to the oil they replace. Biofuels from sugar cane, waste vegetable oil and second generation biofuels can save 75% or more. Under our proposal, all biofuels used for the EU target will have to save, at least, 35%.
Secondly, energy crops are a positive agricultural alternative for European farmers. The Commission expects most of biofuels consumed in Europe to be produced in the EU. That will reduce substantially our foreign oil dependency, expected to be of about 90% by 2030. The transport sector which relies on oil for 98% of its energy is particularly vulnerable to our dependency and biofuels is currently the only significant alternative to oil in this sector.
And this is why biofuels are so important. Today, there are only three ways to reduce greenhouse emissions: the shift from polluting modes to more energy efficient ones (i.e. rail, short sea shipping, collective transport); the promotion of less consuming cars, by establishing CO2/km targets; and biofuels. The Commission is actively promoting the first two (white paper on transport; proposal to limit the CO2 emissions from cars 19/12/07 COM/2007/0856 final). But biofuels ought to be supported as well because they are the most immediately feasible way of significantly slowing the worrying growth of greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
The question of available acreage does not get addressed. Piebalgs offers some consolation by talking about sustainability:
Certainly, the Commission is aware that biofuels can also be produced in ways which can cause environmental problems or other negative consequences. This is why the Commission has conducted a serious assessment of all the impacts be they environmental, economic or social and that is why we have included a sustainability scheme in our policy proposal. I would like to underline once again, that the Commission proposes a target of 10% of SUSTAINABLE biofuels in transport fuels, not just any biofuels.
Robert D. Feinman came in before me, but here's my response:
Here's an interesting bit of information from the FAO:
Any analysis of biomass energy production must consider the potential efficiency of the processes involved. Although photosynthesis is fundamental to the conversion of solar radiation into stored biomass energy, its theoretically achievable efficiency is limited both by the limited wavelength range applicable to photosynthesis, and the quantum requirements of the photosynthetic process. Only light within the wavelength range of 400 to 700 nm (photosynthetically active radiation, PAR) can be utilized by plants, effectively allowing only 45 % of total solar energy to be utilized for photosynthesis. Furthermore, fixation of one CO2 molecule during photosynthesis, necessitates a quantum requirement of ten (or more), which results in a maximum utilization of only 25% of the PAR absorbed by the photosynthetic system. On the basis of these limitations, the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion is approximately 11%. In practice, however, the magnitude of photosynthetic efficiency observed in the field, is further decreased by factors such as poor absorption of sunlight due to its reflection, respiration requirements of photosynthesis and the need for optimal solar radiation levels. The net result being an overall photosynthetic efficiency of between 3 and 6% of total solar radiation.
Photovoltaic cells now on the market have a photosynthetic efficiency of up to 19%. Cells tested in laboratories have reached efficiencies of up to 43%. This contrasts with a theoretical maximal efficiency for biofuels of 6% (for algal biofuels that are still in the early development stage).
Currently, however, even the most efficient biofuel crops, sugar cane and sugar beet, yield about 25 times less than that.
It seems clear, then, that on the long run cars are going to be electric (probably directly, maybe indirectly through hydrogen or compressed air), and the EU, by investing in biofuels, is on the wrong path. It is going to end up with a big stranded investment. The right path right now would be moving towards plug-in electric hybrid vehicles.
In addition, there is competing demand for biomass for energy, notably for biogas, which is a far more sustainable way to use biomass as it can be produced from agricultural wastes (whereas cellulosic biofuels are still in the development stage) while - as biofuel production can't - preserving their use as fertiliser.
Have at it.
More Piebalgs Blogging:
Andris Piebalgs on European Energy Security by Euan Mearns Sat Mar 8th, 2008
Andris Piebalgs' Blog by Euan Mearns Fri Mar 7th, 2008