Wise words (I wish I could remember who said them) from a conference I attended a long time ago: ‘If you don’t understand the system, your solution will become part of the problem’. That phrase has come back to me often – and especially in recent months as attention has turned on the ‘evils’ of biofuels. Suddenly – in the popular media at any rate – biofuels technologies are being held up as the sole culprit in rising world food prices. Of course, it’s much more complex than that.
Yet how we humans long for easy and near-miraculous solutions. And how rapidly – especially in this age of celebrity – our fickle mass psychology will raise up a person (or technology) as hero (or answer) and then turn on them as villain, with all elements of ‘good’ forgotten. So while it’s right to acknowledge that some aspects of biofuel production have always appeared shaky when measured in environmental terms (such as corn ethanol in the US, given the generally poor energy balance), it’s a very different matter indeed to claim that ‘biofuels have been disproven’.
‘The system’, which includes the ecological and economic system, means that cause-and-effect is not so much linear as happening within an intricate network. So production of biofuels does need to work sustainably within the system. Which it can. That may yet turn out to be the case for corn-based ethanol or palm-oil derived fuels, but biofuels R&D is enabling the conversion of a far wider range of feedstocks, including wastes, into fuel than before. Other solutions include jatropha, which can be grown locally and its oil used in tropical countries to offer some independence from oil imports. These fuels and others can make sense in terms of the overall system – and that system has to include even higher efficiency specifications on vehicles.
For a far better-informed evaluation of where these technology solutions really stand, do look at the article from the Sustainable Biofuels Consensus that appears on page 50. Other key features include a look by Eize de Vries at the challenges of rapid growth that face the wind industry, and the view from David Mills and Robert Morgan on upscaling potential for concentrating solar thermal power.
Meanwhile, the REW magazine team hopes you like our new design, which is a bit crisper than before. And we hope to meet you at upcoming events in the next few weeks: Windpower 2008 in Houston, Texas; Intersolar in Munich, Germany (and also at the first Intersolar in the US); World Bioenergy, Joenkoeping, Sweden and – last but not least – our own Renewable Energy World Conference and Expo Europe (formerly known as Renewable Energy Europe) taking place in Milan in the first week of June.
Jackie Jones is Editorial Director of Renewable Energy World Magazine.