Shel Horowitz: Good and bad biofuel models to learn from

Last modified: Thursday, March 13, 2014
Those of us who want a greener world can learn a lot from the biofuel industry. Both positive and negative lessons abound.

The first and perhaps most important lesson is to think things through. What appears on the surface to be a wonderful solution may not be so wonderful after all. In the case of biofuels, a lot of the technologies turned out to be full of unintended consequences.

Two technologies have been particularly troubling: corn ethanol and burning biomass. Both have turned out to be expensive, polluting, high-carbon-footprint and resource-consuming. Both have diverted both land and what grows on the land from their highest potential uses.

Corn ethanol takes prime farmland out of food production and diverts it to energy. Wood-burning biomass plants lead to forest destruction. Neither is clean, and with corn ethanol, the ratio of energy consumed to energy generated is far from pretty. Both worsen the potential for harmful climate change, and both can lead to problems including monocropping, drastically reduced biodiversity and wildlife habit and even higher food prices.

But should we write off biofuels altogether? Not at all.

Many much more promising technologies can actually reduce pollution and generate energy without interfering with food production or habitat. For instance: The farm I live on is currently installing a methane digester that will actually remove greenhouse gases while providing enough electricity to power 250 homes. Its inputs? Cow manure and food waste! In Brazil, sugarcane waste underpins a vast ethanol industry, strengthened by a government requirement to mix ethanol with gasoline (and government incentives to produce ethanol), all the way back to 1976. As a result, almost the entire Brazilian vehicle fleet runs either on flex-fuel mixtures of ethanol and gasoline, or on pure ethanol (more information: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_fuel_in_Brazil).

In the United States, many companies are successfully harvesting waste frying oil from fast-food restaurants and converting the waste oil to biodiesel. One particularly spiffy model is Green Circle North Carolina, which adds beautiful new pieces to create a circle of community self-sufficiency: donating a portion of the profits to the schools, offering restaurants the PR benefits of supporting local school districts and then selling the biodiesel to those school districts to power their school buses. When green entrepreneurs create these sorts of win-win-win programs, the whole world benefits.

There have also been many successful experiments generating ethanol with nonfood crops that can grow on marginal land, such as switchgrass. These have tended to yield more energy and create fewer greenhouse gases (more information: www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=grass-makes-better-ethanol-than-corn). And then there’s the so-called Q microbe, whose backers claim will digest far more cellulose and produce much more energy from the same amount of biomass. However, commercializing the Q microbe, first identified by researchers at the University of Massachusetts several years ago, has been off to a very rocky start. Qteros (the company that has tried to bring this technology to market) has faced many funding and operational challenges—including changes in ownership and having to close its plant—and its future is unclear.

From my perspective, successful and promising technologies have something in common. They create energy out of what we’re accustomed to thinking of as waste: materials that would have either clogged up landfills or emitted greenhouse gases when incinerated. Furthermore, they are not the food parts of food crops; they’re either waste parts of food plants, or plants that are not used for food (and aren’t grown on prime agricultural land).

In other words, they are part of a holistic approach to thinking about the integration of our energy and food systems, and not a poorly-thought-out kludge grafted onto a system not designed to accommodate it, all too often with disastrous consequences.

In one sense, biofuel is our oldest energy source. When aboriginal societies first discovered, thousands of years ago, that fire could not only keep them warm on cold winter nights but could preserve food while making it both easier to digest and better tasting, they were burning wood and plant matter. Back then, of course, they didn’t worry about greenhouse gas emissions.

In short, as with wind, solar and hydro, we can find both right and wrong ways to develop new energy sources. In tomorrow’s world, sensible biofuel will be part of the mix.

Marketing consultant and copywriter Shel Horowitz, shel@greenandprofitable.com, writes a monthly column and is the primary author of “Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green” (John Wiley & Sons).