Biofuels wont save sprawl

(NOTE:  this is an updated version of a post from yesterday.  Alert reader Mike B realized that I had made a math error.  This error doesn’t change the conclusion.  This post corrects the error.)

Mark my words, you will begin hearing more and more about an amazing plant – switchgrass – and about biofuels generally.

Swtichgrass is simply the kind of grass that grew on prairies here long before western human intervention on the landscape.

Biofuels are simply the pure grain liquor that you drank mixed with Kool-Aid in college and that can run a combustion engine, in addition to ruining your brain.

You’ll hear more about them because they are gonna be the replacement for oil, see.

Why even such a respected magazine as Forbes (puke), in their latest issue, predicts that by 2017, switchgrass will be cheaper than oil.

It won’t.

But that prediction says a lot about those who made it, and those who would believe it.

First, those who promote biofuels are in complete denial about our sprawling way of life. They simply cannot imagine it not continuing.

Second, those who promote biofuels believe in miracles, the kind needed to save our sprawling way of life.

Third, those who promote biofuels are implicitly acknowledging peak oil, and the fact that less oil leads to alternatives. Oil is going to be prohibitively expensive soon. Thus biofuels finally make sense.

But NOWHERE, is there in any of this any reality. Biofuels cannot power the way of life we live today. There simply isn’t enough ground on the Earth to plant the crops necessary to provide the fuel.

Here’s an example. Most high-grade biofuels have an energy density that is about 2/3s that of oil. That means you have to burn more to get the same amount of work.

Our friend Mike Bomford at Kentucky State has investigated the potential of sweet sorghum as a biofuel. He reported his findings at the recent Kentucky League of Cities Annual Convention.

He found that it takes approximately 16 square yards of land (12’x12′) to grow enough crops to provide one gallon of fuel. Simple enough. Now we have to start scaling.

An average driver goes 10,000 miles in their car per year. At an average of 20mpg, that translates into each driver needing about 500 gallons of gas per year.

But remember that biofuels are 2/3s are efficient as gas. For a typical driver who uses biofuels, this would translate into a need of 665 gallons.

To grow 665 gallons worth of biofuels for one typical driver, it would take a little more than 2 acres. (665 gallons x 12′ squared divided by 43,560 sq feet)

So here’s an example of scalability. In Lexington, there are approximately 300,000 people. For round numbers sake, let’s assume that 200,000 of those people drive, and that they drive 10,000 miles per year.

By switching to biofuels, where each typical driver would need 2 acres of crops devoted to their energy needs, the city of Lexington would need a total of 400,000 acres or 625 square miles devoted to crops for fuel production.

And that includes no other city in Kentucky, and that is not even including the fact that at least 1/3 of the state isn’t suited to growing biofuels. Nor does it include the energy necessary to plant, and harvest, transform, and then transport that biofuel.

Well, you say, we’ll just plant more in the USA.

Nope.

Scaling this to the USA with its 250 million vehicles, we would need nearly over 500,000,000 acres of land, or more than 781,000 square miles. This is nearly one-quarter of the entire land area of the US. 

The conclusion is inescapable: biofuels will never, EVER, allow us to continue to maintain our sprawling lifestyle.

Yes, there will be oil in the future. And yes, there will be biofuels. But both will be expensive, as in the short term demand will be much higher than supply. Over the mid-term however, as we learn to live with much less energy, demand will be destroyed, and the price will come down. Too late for us to save sprawl, but good for us in other ways.

We will live our lives in a much smaller radius around our homes. I doubt that we will be able to ever keep the current aviation industry going with bio-fuels.  And while trains can use bio-fuels, again I suspect the scalability. We’d love to have electrified high speed rail, but Robin and people like him (her?) don’t want to help us get there (read the genuis comments). That’s a shame, because people in other countries are going to be much more connected than here.

The good news is that we will have the fuels we need to run small-scale engines, and thus will be able to have an efficient local agriculture. Unlike, the middle ages, we will have machines to help us prepare, plant, tend, and harvest as well as to prepare and add value to our food.

Small engines running on biofuels will ensure that we don’t sink back into the dark ages and that society will be able to maintain a certain level of complexity. (Young people: skip “finance” in college. Instead learn how to build, and maintain, efficient small engines.)

This is the best biofuel news of all.

Mike Bomford relates his conclusion on the biofuels debate here:

“A small proportion of current US fuel consumption can be replaced with biofuels, but policies intended to replace current fuel consumption with biofuels in the long term could compromise environmental stability and our nation’s ability to feed itself. A nation that has 5% of the world’s population but uses a third of the world’s jet fuel has ample opportunities to reduce fuel consumption through conservation and efficiency. Reducing fuel consumption must be the top priority to reduce ecological and food system stress associated with biofuel production.”

He also gave a presentation last year entitled “Can we fly and eat too?” – very good stuff.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Biofuels wont save sprawl

  1. Pingback: Biofuels wont save sprawl « Bluegrass reVISIONS | Biofuels Car News -HybridFriends

  2. I’m pleased that you’re citing my presentation, but please be careful with the math. Sixteen square yards is a four-yard square, or 12′ x 12′. That comes to 144 square feet — one sixteenth the size of the 48′ x 48′ square you use for your scaling calculations.

    I think your broad conclusion is accurate, but the numbers used to get there are off by a factor of 16.

    Airplanes can run on biofuels and so can trains. The US airforce and several private airlines have operated successful test flights on jet fuel derived from biomass sources including algae, camelina, and jatropha. The first steam engines ran on wood, which is biomass.

    You might be interested in a talk I gave at the ‘Biofuels for Aviation’ summit last year in Arlington, VA called ‘Can We Fly and Eat Too?’ (http://organic.kysu.edu/Fly%26Eat(doc).pdf).

    My conclusion is much like yours:

    A small proportion of current US fuel consumption can be replaced with biofuels, but policies intended to replace current fuel consumption with biofuels in the long term could compromise environmental stability and our nation’s ability to feed itself. A nation that has 5% of the world’s population but uses a third of the world’s jet fuel has ample opportunities to reduce fuel consumption through conservation and efficiency. Reducing fuel consumption must be the top priority to reduce ecological and food system stress associated with biofuel production.

    • A factor of 16 is not a minor error – This is why scientists and not artists should explain things
      I will take this down while I (we?) recalculate

    • In my horrified embarassment, I see that 144 sq feet is the magic number for 1 gallon of biofuel, and that if 10,000 miles per year is an avg driving, at an average of 20 mpg and that bio is 2/3s the density, then we need 665 gallons – at that rate it would be 2 acres of plants (not 35) per person…..and that we would need “only” 440,000 acres or 686 square miles….I am horribly embarrassed – I’m not ready for the big time. (same conclusion as youve said – I personally dont see passenger planes using biofuels, but I’ve already shown I dont know what I’m talking about)
      thanks for helping me

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