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Are Biofuels Really a Boondoggle? The Perils and Promise of Turning Plants into Gasoline

​Tea Party activists, environmentalists and petrolistas now condemn the industry in equal measure, but is there more to the story?
 
 
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In 1917 Alexander Graham Bell, Canada's premier inventor, had a bold ethanol vision. He predicted, in the pages of the National Geographic no less, that alcohol-based fuels would power the future when petroleum ran out.

Corn alcohol "makes a beautiful, clean and efficient fuel," declared Bell. "We need never fear the exhaustion of our present fuel supplies so long as we can produce a crop."

Well, Mr. Bell wasn't alone in thinking that corn stalks and other biomass might dominate future energy supplies. Rudolf Diesel ran his engine on peanut oil and Henry Ford once championed gasoline made from sumac fruit and weeds as a way to reanimate rural economies.

Harry Ricardo, the British genius who designed the Rolls Royce engine, even thought that alternative vegetable-based fuels were superior to mineral based ones.

"By the use of a fuel derived from vegetation, mankind is adapting the sun's heat to the development of motive power, as it becomes available from day to day; by using mineral fuels, he is consuming a legacy -- and a limited legacy at that -- of heat stored away many thousands of years ago."

But the power alcohol business, perhaps one of the oldest forms of alternative energy, is now mired in food versus fuel debates and the poor quality of its energy returns.

Given the number of firms that have gone bankrupt in recent years, it also looks like another stalled vehicle on the world's renewable energy freeway.

Although production has grown swiftly in the last decade from 600,000 barrels to 1.6 million barrels a day, it still accounts for less than two per cent of the world's global liquid fuel supply. The heavily subsidized industry's impact on food prices, biodiversity, water supplies and climate change has also come under intense scrutiny.

But Bill Kovarik doesn't think we should write the industry off yet. In fact, researchers  claim that as much as 30 percent of the world's transportation fuels could eventually come not from food crops but from engineered energy plants (such as Agave, mesquite and switch grass) designed to produce more fermentable sugars for biofuels. They could also be grown on marginal lands or in the ocean.

Tea Party activists, environmentalists and petrolistas now condemn the industry in equal measure. And visions of running vehicles or energy slaves on cellulose, algae or sea kelp-based fuels remain just that: uncommercial visions.

"Biological energy sources are the way to go," says Kovarik, "but ethanol production is awkward in terms of energy inputs and it needs to change. We need to transition to the next generation fuel crops."

Nor does Kovarik think we should dismiss a largely agricultural movement that has challenged the abusive power of Big Oil (a veritable transportation fuel monopoly) for decades.

Corn-based ethanol, after all, finally forced leaded gasoline, a known public health hazard, off the market in the 1970s. But the fuel additive could have prevented the adoption of lead gasoline in the first place -- something Big Oil actively thwarted.

Snake oil and moonshine

Kovarik, a 61-year-old energy historian and journalism professor at Radford University in southwestern Virginia, not only hails from moonshine country but also has studied the ups and downs of the alcohol energy business for decades.

In addition to being one of the co-authors of  The Forbidden Fuel: A History of Power Alcohol and other books, he's also made legal moonshine. (Kovarik is also an environmentalist whose fascinating blog notes that the killing of environmental leaders has increased from 11 in 2009 to 28 last year.)

 
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