Is Algae As Green As We Thought?

In the quest to find a readily available source of clean, renewable energy, many eyes have glanced longingly at the possible benefits of what’s perhaps the most humble biofuel of them all: algae.  A new report published by University of Virginia scientists, however, argues that while algae is capable of producing high energy output, there are some serious environmental concerns that accompany its production.

The study, “Environmental Impacts of Algae-Derived Biodiesel and Bioelectricity for Transportation,” was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. It finds that algae would produce considerably more transportation energy than biomass crops such canola and switchgrass for every hectare planted. In addition, algae can also be harvested on poor-quality land that cannot be easily used to produce food crops such as corn.

UVA algae scientists

image via University of Virginia

From an environmental impact standpoint, however, there are concerns regarding algae-based fuel as compared to other biomass sources. In the production of algae-based biodiesel more energy – in the form of petroleum-powered processes – is consumed than with other biofuels, the report says. Additionally, algae-based biodiesel and bioelectricity production processes also require substantial amounts of water and emit more greenhouse gases.

The report also asks important questions about the end result of biomass fuel generation. Since the creation of electricity from biofuels requires fewer steps and is more efficient than the production of liquid fuels, the report concludes, it’s a more favorable option to use biofuels to power electric cars rather than internal combustion-driven autos. For the next phase of their research, the team plans to monetize environmental costs and benefits associated with production of the various biofuels.

Steve Duda lives in West Seattle, WA with three dogs and a lot of outdoor gear. A part-time fly fishing fishing guide and full-time writer, Steve’s work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Seattle Weekly, American Angler, Fly Fish Journal, The Drake, Democracy Now! and many others.


  • Reply August 23, 2011

    Sten Hakanson

    Is this the logic -u00a0 All production of biofuels currently require fossil fuels and since algae processing includes an added energy requiring step of water removal algae produced fuel is less environmentally friendly?u00a0 All of these processes will eventually have to be fossil fuel free and the sooner the better.u00a0 And, isn’t that the point?u00a0 Algae has the advantage of not necessarily using terrestrial land resources and in any event doe not have to compete with food crops, although the residue after oil extraction is usable as a feed source – especially for humans.u00a0 (A much more palatable “green” alternative to the “Soylent Green” of 1973 movie fame.)u00a0 Once these processes are completely sustainable I think the oil/energy production advantage of algae, combined with with the fact it does not compete with food production crops or terrestrial food production space, will be a strong positive for the algae based biofuel industry.

  • Reply August 23, 2011


    Department of Energy has specific exclusion of ‘algae’ from the Billion Ton Update

    • Reply August 24, 2011


      You are correct. Do you know why it was excluded?

  • Reply August 24, 2011


    The study you quote was published over a year ago. If the algae farms are placed next to wasterwater treatment plants, coal-fired plants, etc. and water sources from those plants are reused, the environment impact seems almost negligible. The production of oil per acre from algae is 100 times that of corn, soybean, or other ethanol stock.

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