What Happened to the Biofuels Revolution?

biodiesel

[B]iofuel schemes—ranging from fermenting starch, to recycling cooking oil, to turning algae into jet fuel—have drawn more than $126 billion in investment since 2003, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), a research outfit… [But]Those biofuels that can best compete commercially are not, in fact, green. Those that are green cannot compete commercially.

The biggest cause of ungreenness is that biofuels made from food crops—or from plants grown on land that might otherwise produce such crops—hurt food supplies. A committee of the European Parliament agreed this week to cap the use of “first-generation” biofuels of this sort. The current European target is for renewables to make up 10% of the energy used in transport by 2020. The new proposal says only seven-tenths of this can come from first-generation fuels. The difference must be made up by more advanced ones based on waste products and other feedstocks that do not impinge on food production. That could mean European demand for advanced biofuels of 14 billion litres by 2020, reckons Claire Curry of BNEF.
Only two such advanced fuels, she thinks, are capable of large-scale production. One is turning waste cooking oil and other fats into diesel—a process for which Europe already has 2 billion litres of capacity. The other involves making ethanol from cellulose by enzymatic hydrolysis. Everything elseis at least four years from commercial production. That includes the much-touted idea of renewable jet fuel.  This is promising on a small scale. South African Airways (SAA), in conjunction with Boeing and other partners, is developing fuel based on the seeds of the tobacco plant—once a big crop in the country, but now fallen on hard times.

Biofuels: Thin harvest, Economist, Apr. 18, 2015, at 72

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