The EU and the United States are preparing for what appears to be an extended debate on the merits and structure of biofuels mandates. Especially in the US, where the Renewable Fuel Standard is coming under blistering attack from the coalition of oil, food and environmental groups that successfully sold the myth of "food vs fuel".
Attacks from the usual opponents are generally in the form of statements that sound vaguely scientific, or fact-based. Often with a scientist in tow. Beware. Not every person in the business of meat or breakfast cereal production has your (consumer) interests at heart.
Now, that doesn’t mean that every biofuels technology or “wonder feedstock” that comes down the pikeway is a winner. There’s hype and distortion on both sides of the equation — as we looked at in articles like “Jatropha, the Blunder Crop”, or the debacle at Range Fuels.
But today, let’s look at the myths you’ll be hearing a lot more about over the next 12 months from forces wishing to dismantle the Renewable Fuel Standard.
Myth #1. Meeting biofuels mandates would cause the US to radically lower food production, causing worldwide price increases as well as food riots around the world.
Reality. The Billion Ton Study from the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory has been issued twice now, (most recently, in the Son of Billion Ton update, here) and conclusively has demonstrated that the US can produce as much as three times the biofuels targets set under the Renewable Fuel Standard, without disturbing current food production. Even by the most conservative estimates, there are 500 million tons of available biomass (additional, that is, beyond that used for food), enough to easily achieve the RFS2 goals.
You may have seen a study from University of Montana post-doc Kolby Smith and colleagues, published in the ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology, that advocated doubt on the outcomes of the Billion Ton Study.
Here at the Digest, we think it is absurd for the ACS to seriously assert, as it has — and moreover, hyped the assertion in podcast form and press releases — that that it could take 325 million acres of prime US cropland to grow 36 billion gallons of biofuels. That’s 110 gallons per acre, less than a quarter of what the U.S. will achieve with corn this year, and a fraction of the consensus yields for advanced biofuels.
On food production, take this year’s corn harvest forecast from the USDA as an example. Typically, public concerns over “food vs fuel” in the US turns on the use of corn for ethanol production. According to the USDA, the US is expected to supply 900 million additional bushels of corn this years for animal feed, 200 million bushels for additional exports, and still add 900 million bushels to its year-end corn stocks — all this, while, maintaining their deliveries to the US ethanol producers.
Why do opponents of focus on this point? Classic misdirection. The truth is that rising energy prices push up crop prices. The best way to control food costs is to control energy costs — and changing the energy mix is the best way to do that.
As anyone knows when you start to think about it, a crop is not a food until you apply some energy to it. For example, there is just 8 cents worth of corn in a box of corn flakes that will run you almost $4 at the store. There’s actually more fossil fuel than corn in the cost of that product — milling, cooking, drying packaging, transport, and so on.
Even in developing countries that do not generally buy a lot of packaged foods, there is all that energy consumed in growing crops, and processing crops into grains, shipping, and then cooking too. Fertilizer, diesel for tractors and trucks, energy to run grain mills, and so on.
It’s easier for companies in fossil energy to misdirect your attention through a PR blitz than to get hammered in Congress and in the court of public opinion over energy prices, when they are properly linked to food prices. But they are linked: don’t be fooled.
Myth #2. Biofuels cause higher carbon emissions, instead of lowering them.
Reality: According the EPA, corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent, compared to the use of fossil fuels, and every other biofuel in use in the United States (which required qualifying for the advanced, or non-corn, pool) results in, at least, a 560 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuels. Does this include both direct land-use change, and even a component for the controversial indirect land-use change? You bet it does.
On indirect land-use change — we have said it before, and repeatedly. What causes land use change is not changes in crop prices, but changes in land prices, and changes in land-zoning policy. You can’t have unwanted land-use change, for example, where you have enforced zoning laws in place.
Myth #3. Biofuels use more energy in their production than they provide as a transport fuel.
Reality. Generally, the consensus energy return for corn ethanol is 1.3 to 1, sugarcane ethanol (primarily from Brazil) is at 8:1, biodiesel is at the 2.5:1 mark, and the range for cellulosic biofuels runs from 2:1 to 36:1.
Also worth noting that biofuels processors are continuously improving yields and reducing energy use.
Myth #4. All biofuels have lower fuel economy than comparable fossil fuels.
Reality. On mileage. Bio-based gasoline and renewable diesel, as identical fuel molecules, have exactly the same fuel economy as their counterparts. Due to the way that particulates found in fossil fuels behave in jet engines, bio-based aviation fuels generate 2-7 percent better fuel economy than their counterparts. Ethanol is generally in the 70 percent range in terms of mileage per gallon, compared to gasoline — the energy density is a little lower than that, but the impact is mitigated by some other favorable properties of ethanol, including higher octane levels.
In Brazil, flex-fuel drivers generally buy gasoline when the price of ethanol is more than 70 percent of gasoline, and buy ethanol when the comparable price is lower. In the US, the price of wholesale ethanol is generally right at that 70 percent mark, too. So, while fuel economy is lower on a car-for-car basis — cost per mile is just about the same.