Fields of Dreams: It’s tempting to believe in the dangerous illusion of biomass energy

You may have read articles—perhaps even in Grid—touting biofuels as a viable source to meet our energy needs. However, the science of biofuels points to one conclusion: They just don’t work.

The key concept is energy return on investment. Agrifuels—fuels derived from monocrops like corn or sugar—barely produce more energy than it takes to develop them. It takes at least three-quarters of a gallon of oil to produce a gallon of corn ethanol, reports the nonprofit Post Carbon Institute in their Energy Bulletin. This margin of energy is far too small to enable us to substitute agrifuels for nonrenewable fossil fuels. Without Congressional subsidies, largely going to corporate giants such as ADM and ConAgra to support their profits by boosting the price of corn, ethanol as fuel falls on its face. The petroleum needed to produce ethanol precludes independence from imported oil.

The geologic processes that created fossil fuels used untold amounts of energy to create fuels 100 times more energy-dense than corn, or the plants from which they were transformed. Clearly, we are not using that naturally created stored energy efficiently when we use fossil fuels to create biofuels. All biomass energy conversion schemes that have been implemented have net energy figures similar to corn.

The petroleum energy necessary to produce agrifuels means the argument about reducing greenhouse gases is also untrue. When you consider the greenhouse gases from the fossil fuels used to produce the ethanol, for example, and the additional greenhouse gases from burning the ethanol, the sum is greater than simply burning the oil in the first place.

Even more important, in my view, is the destruction of natural forest or prairie ecosystems in order to plant crops which are then turned into machine fuel. Land under agriculture produces far less oxygen than natural ecosystems, a concept extensively discussed in Wes Jackson’s book Consulting the Genius of the Place. Brazilian rainforests, a major source of free oxygen, are being destroyed to plant sugar plantations for conversion to automobile fuel. The removal of more complex ecosystems from the land is troubling, as is the complete interruption of the cycle of renewal, which makes agriculture sustainable. Crops raised for biofuel deplete soils even faster, and require more chemical and fertilizer inputs—also derived from using petroleum and natural gas—than ever, further worsening their greenhouse gas profile.

The argument that biofuels support the domestic economy is also superficially appealing, but false. As noted, imported oil is essential to produce “biofuels.” Corn, soy and sugar are grown in huge, mechanized, job- and land-destroying industrial monocultures.

How many more jobs would be created by sustainable and climate-stabilizing family farms, with a wide variety of crops and animals, and the real possibility of sequestering some carbon in a restored soil?

For a good general introduction to the science of biofuels, visit energybulletin.net.

JERRY SILBERMAN is a union organizer who has always been an advocate of a sustainable steady state economy. He can be reached at 215.219.5158.