Bio-Diesel: Salvation or Disaster?
Biodiesel is the fastest growing alternative fuel in the U.S. For the proponents of biodiesel, it promises to deliver us into an age of clean and renewable fuel. If present trends continue, biodiesel is more likely to escalate human misery around the world for years to come.
Biofuels have a long history. The first diesel engine was powered by vegetable oil. In the World War II era, more than a million cars in Europe were running on methanol, a fuel that can be made from any kind of cellulose. The auto-makers of the time installed brackets on the frames of cars assuming that people would install methanol converters in their cars. People were running their cars on corn cobs, wood chips, and other woody debris. Anyone who has purchased gasoline in middle America has seen ethanol for sale. The ?ethanol? sold at the pump is usually a of gasoline and ethanol, the latter made from corn and other grains. In the 1970s, Brazil converted 70 percent of their transportation fleet to ethanol made from sugar cane. Their experience is perhaps most instructive as regards the development of biodiesel.
Brazilian cars in the1970s ran more cleanly with alcohol fuel, and with less dependency on Middle Eastern oil. As a result of the increased demand for sugar cane, big cane producers pushed out smaller farmers, and many acres previously dedicated to growing beans to feed people were converted to sugar cane production to feed the cars of the rich. Given the superior market power of car drivers, sugar cane took precedence, and the price of beans and other staples went up. The poor went hungry, and the rich fed their cars well. As to whether this increased social distress helped facilitate the overthrow of the military government of that time is anyone's guess.
It is important to put biodiesel in the larger ecological context. Anyone familiar with the principles of biological systems knows that ecosystems form a pyramid. At the bottom of that pyramid are the plants who first convert sunlight to bio-energy. Plants make up the largest volume of organic matter in any ecosystem. Just above the plants come insects, small animals, and animals that eat plants. Further up the pyramid are animals that eat animals, and at the top of the pyramid are the large carnivores. This pyramid is relevant to biofuels because different biofuels tap the pyramid at different points. Methanol can be produced from any form of cellulose, and thus uses feedstock from the very bottom of the pyramid. Ethanol can be made from any kind of starch or sugar, and thus takes its feedstock from the middle of the pyramid. Biodiesel takes as its feedstock vegetable oil, which is near the top of the pyramid.
If biodiesel is more ecologically expensive, then why is it becoming so popular? Because factors other than ecology are driving the biodiesel revolution. Environmental laws such as they exist in this country have been easier to enact when the impacts fall closer to home. Thus global warming is exceedingly difficult to influence through legislation because its victims are distant in time and space. The strongest environmental regulations in the country concern urban air quality. Not coincidentally, a lot of Americans live in cities which are very much affected by air pollution. Biodiesel burns cleaner than fossil fuel, as does ethanol. As a result, some cities are converting their bus fleets to biodiesel to help clean up urban air. Methanol, like gasoline, is toxic and burns dirty. Even though its feedstock is cheaper and more available, it has fallen out of favor because it puts people in its immediate vicinity at risk. Biodiesel could claim many thousands of human lives, but like the casualties of global warming, these people are sufficiently removed in time and space that they remain voiceless.
Another factor favoring the development of biodiesel is the ease with which it is converted to automotive fuel. Methanol and ethanol are both somewhat complicated to manufacturer. Under some circumstances, vegetable oil can be used as fuel with no conversion at all. Even when biodiesel is modified, the conversion is a relatively simple process. This has made it a favorite of urban environmentalists and rural homesteaders alike. This in combination with the clean burn has brought biodiesel to the forefront of biofuels.
Anther great charm of biodiesel is the fact that it is made from discarded cooking oil. But is that oil really waste? Why is it sitting there behind that restaurant anyway? That barrel of oil is there because it was put there by a oil reclamation company. Used vegetable oil is reprocessed into a wide variety of products. Being a long-chain hydrocarbon, vegetable oil, like its fossil cousin, is a highly flexible commodity that can be used to produce an enormous variety of products.
In my hometown, the barrels behind fast food restaurants have ?Valley Proteins? written on them. That turns out to be one of the four largest rendering and used cooking oil collectors in the country, currently serving 17 states. They reprocess dead animals, inedible animal remains from slaughterhouses, and used cooking oil into a wide variety of products. From a report from American Capital (who recently invested $10 million in Valley Proteins) we learn that ?Valley Proteins turns the raw materials it collects into commodity goods which are sold to over 170 customers that include producers of livestock feed ("feed mills"), pet food and refiners of fatty chemicals. The company's finished products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities. The primary finished goods include fat and protein products, which are used in hundreds of commercial applications. Fat products are sold predominately to commercial animal feed manufacturers and to manufacturers of pet foods, fatty acids, chemicals and lubricants. The products are also used as an ingredient in bio-diesel (a blend of petroleum fuel and methyl esters derived from animal fats or vegetable oils), a cleaner burning substitute for diesel fuel. The company in fact has modified its own boiler equipment to use the lower priced fats it produces in its rendering plants and thereby minimize boiler fuel expense.? http://www.americancapital.com/news/press_releases/pr/pr.cfm?p_pr=pr20040624a.html About 80% of the reprocessed fats from rendering companies are used in livestock feed. The rest is used by ?splitters,? companies that process oils into fatty acids and glycerine, as well as other companies that produce industrial lubricants, as well as cosmetics and soap.
The key phrase in the previous paragraph is ?products are quoted on established commodity markets or priced relative to substitute commodities.? Used cooking oil is not a waste or discarded product. It is reprocessed and put on the market to vie with ?substitute commodities.? Any of the many companies using products from Valley Proteins is likely to simply purchase the cheapest adequate product regardless of its source. If the companies and consumers should run short of products that were originally made with used vegetable oil, they simply turn to products made from virgin oil.
If biodiesel consumption remained within the supply of used vegetable oil, that would all be fine. But the consumption of fossil diesel radically exceeds the supply of used oil. If Americans are convinced that biodiesel is a ?green? fuel, and we drive up the consumption of vegetable oil, we simply shift the weight of demand onto the virgin vegetable oil market. Americans use about a billion gallons of petroleum a day. The entire output of all of the rendering/ used cooking oil collection companies in the U.S. is about a billion and a half gallons per year. If all of the used oil presently used for all other purposes were divered into the fossil fuel market, it would last us a day and half. If you look solely at the consumption of diesel, the entire output of used vegetable oil in the US represents about 3% of how much diesel we use. And that simply begs the question of where industry would turn to for all that cattle feed.
Is biodiesel renewable? Any resource is renewable only if it is extracted at a rate no greater than it is replenished. Overcutting a forest or overfishing a fishery renders a renewable resource non-renewable. Given that biodiesel potentially involves taking human food from the top of the ecological pyramid and feeding to automobiles, the renewability issue is paramount.
Most people do not spend a lot of time sitting around the global food supply, but if we are going to feed human food to cars, we have to ask that question. We get our food from a number of sources. Do you know when the world fish catch peaked? In the early 1980s. What about grain production? Per capita production peaked in 1993. The vast majority of human food is grown on irrigated land. How is the supply of irrigated land holding up? Because of salinization, erosion, and other management issues, our the global supply of irrigated farm land has shrunk considerably in the last several decades. The final humbling fact is that, even though the U.S. has the most productive agricultural system in the world, we are now a nation that teeters on the brink of agricultural debtorship. Beginning in the 1990s, we have imported more food than we have exported in some years. The staggering fact is that all of these biological limits were being reached before the advent of the Adkins fad in U.S.,which is driving our consumption of ecologically expensive foods skyward. Our current circumstance also predates the broader impact of biofuel conversion. At the time of this writing, global grain stocks are at their lowest point in nearly 40 years.
If the amount of irrigated farmland has actually shrunk, how is it that we continue to feed growing populations? The phrase ?the oilification of food? was first coined a few decades ago, but it is more relevant than ever. The amount of energy we invest in each calorie of food produced has climbed steadily, and continues to climb. We now invest many calories of fossil fuel for each calorie of food we get in return. That is long before anyone considers putting those food calories into a gas tank. (If you check the footnotes of any energy-food calculations, you will eventually find yourself reading the words of David Pimmentel. Although he is not famous, he is the individual who essentially created the field of energy/ food conversion research. He has been trying to sound an alarm for a long time about the oilification of food.)
There are grossly conflicting claims regarding how much fossil fuel is required to produce a gallon of biodiesel. Some biodiesel advocates say that one gallon of fossil fuel used on the farm produces several gallons of biodiesel. If that were true, biodiesel would already be dirt cheap and a dominant fuel. Oil company conspiracies aside, neither Archer Daniels Midland nor the American farmer would let that one slip by. Even now, many people claim that ethanol represents a net energy loss from farm to gas tank, and that ethanol/ gas blends are simply a complicated farm subsidy. Ethanol is lower on the food chain than biodiesel and thus represents less embedded energy.
If biodiesel is ecologically expensive, then won't the market correct the problem by keeping biodiesel financially expensive? Maybe, but we have to add one factor to biodiesel's appeal -- guilt relief. There are a lot of Americans who want to help the environment, but who's lifestyle is as car-dependent as anyone else's. As much as the pundits of tradition may wax poetic about the good old days and falling moral standards, it is the young and liberal who, at least in terms of lifestyle, drive change in America. The social and sexual habits of the young move into the mainstream over time. The outdoor craze of the 1970s helped spur the SUV craze of the 1990s. The changing of fads is not always benign. And once a movement is started, even should that movement divert grossly from its original intended course, the movement may well continue the way of a merry juggernaut. The guilt-relieving power of biodiesel is enormous. Our society is organized in every respect around the automobile. That fact is terribly difficult to escape regardless of personal intent. As of fall 2004, Congress passed an excise tax relief provision to encourage the use of biodiesel. The horse is out of the gate.
Americans have a buying power in the global marketplace that grossly outstrips the vast majority of humanity. The slightest whim of purchasing fashion in our economy can send waves through the lives of thousands of people very far away. Already, American cats have more buying power than many third world people. As the fish of the world's oceans have been increasingly swept up in the nets of globe-roaming trawlers, the fish content of American cat food has increased while the fish consumption of poorer peoples all over the world has declined. All over Latin America, beef production has increased, domestic consumption has decreased as more and more beef is shipped to the McNorth. Any widespread purchasing decision in the Western World can have enormous impacts around the world.
Biodiesel is a powerful movement that is rapidly gaining force. Regardless of intent, if the biodiesel movement succeeds in convincing millions of Americans that biofuel is an ecological solution, they will create a market. The feedstock for that market is the global supply of vegetable oil. That market already shifts spontaneously between reprocessed used oil and virgin stock. Increased consumption of biodiesel beyond the supply of used oil will simply put more demand on virgin stock. As cars with their savage buying power are put into market competition with the hundreds of millions of humans already trying to live on a dollar a day, the latter will lose that tug of war. The global poor, for whom vegetable oil is already a luxury, will do without. Deficiencies of fat-soluble vitamins will escalate. It is no exaggeration to say that biodiesel, if widely adopted in the west, will result in the deaths of many thousands of people around the world.
All of this begs the question, if not biodiesel,then what? We have to have some source of energy, for transportation and otherwise. The issue is whether you work on the problem from the demand side or the supply side.
If you take any modern energy system and try to address it from the supply side, you will invariably fail. Already, there is a movement to use biofuel to generate the nation's electricity. What does that mean? That means massive tree chipping operations have started descending on our national forest, thus converting lush green forests into moonscape and chips. The chips are then burned instead of coal to generate steam that turns the electric turbines, thus keeping the lights, computers, air conditioners and tumble driers of America in operation. Careful what you wish for. If you try to meet America's energy demands from the supply side, you are simply going to throw unsustainable weight onto already overstressed biological systems.
If you try to get your energy from any "alternative" source, the same supply-side principle applies. If you tried supply the average American household with solar electric (photovoltaic) panels, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not only is that financially unfeasible, that money also represents a huge environmental price in the energy embedded in the manufacturer of those solar panels. The life-cycle payback (ratio of energy generated to the cost of the system for the life of the system) of such an approach is very high, well beyond any reasonable margin of ?sustainability.? The only feasible way to suppy a household with alternative energy is to first dramatically reduce the energy consumption of that household.
Neither can we deal with transportation fuel by attacking the problem from the supply side. The environmental costs of automobiles is huge regardless of how they are feuled. Few people realize that the average car has as much energy embedded in its production as it will burn in it lifetime. As soon as you buy a car, you have already used thousands of gallons of fossil fuel before you turn the key. Neither high-efficiency cars nor biofuels affect that fact.
We are most often very pleased to entertain any answers except the right ones. Even if you look at the brightest examples of eco-homes, there is always a detailed explanation of the immediate energy costs, but never is there an analysis of the life-cycle costs of such energy efficient homes. The reason is that if you look at the embedded energy costs of an American model energy efficient home and extrapolate that across the lifetime of its inhabitants, the final analysis does not approach anything any reasonable person could call sustainable because the house is large and used by only one or two people.
Why are we trying to solve our ecological problems with all the wrong answers? Because the right answers challenge our lifestyle. It is absolutely impossible to support the American lifestyle in a sustainable fashion with any energy source. The most destructive aspect of biofuels, if approached from the supply-side, is that the biofuels movement creates and perpetuates the myth that our lifestyle can continue if only we find the right fuel -- biodiesel, hydrogen, etc. Several decades ago, Donella Meadows and the Club of Rome pointed out in a book entitled the Limits to Growth that even an infinite energy supply would add only a decade or two onto the lifetime of industrialism. Why? Because energy supply is only one of many variables. The ability of the planet to absorb pollution, generate clean water, renew the soil, any of these systems can be overrun only with disastrous consequences. Of all the major mineral resources we use currently, only three (iron, titanium, aluminum) are so plentiful as to be inexhaustible. The rest are being used on an unsustainable basis. If our energy supply were infinite and clean, industrialism would collapse because of a myriad other limits. No energy source can replace all the ecological systems and inorganic resources that support or lifestyle.
Single family housing, as well as individual automobiles, are simply unsustainable, regardless of our energy source. So what then are the solutions? Live close enough to work so you don't have to drive. Live cooperatively. For many people, that may sound absurd, but that is precisely why the entire discussion about biofuels is misguided --because the real solutions are socially and culturally problematic.
The real solutions are there, and have been for a while. Even very simple technologies like solar water heating are very hard to pay for in single family housing because the capital cost is high relative the very low intensity of use in a single family home. With cooperative living, not only is the consumption of many resources divided by the number of people sharing that resource, but the higher capital costs of alternative energy systems becomes a lot more reasonable because they are being used more intensively. If you are looking at housing and energy options, insulate and seal up, then worry about supply.
Most importantly, build a culture around you, in cooperation with the people around you, that supports a lifestyle that is not based on single family housing and individual automobiles. This is the key point, because humans are very social animals, and need the support of our fellow humans. We become our social environment over time. True sustainability comes from consciously creating a social environment that supports a sustainable lifestyle. Convince other people to join you in this great task. And after we have have put the movement well underway to collectively choose how we live, then we can choose the most benign sources of energy to support us. That is a real answer. Turning the beast of industrialism with its voracious appetite away from fossil fuel and into our forests and fields is not an answer.
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