Biofuels 101: How Green Is This Clean Energy Source Really?

Sources that weren’t that great: Unfortunately, most of the ones most commonly used. Rapeseed oil (that’s canola oil to those in North America, but the rest of the English-speaking world calls it rapeseed) offers greater than a 40% reduction in emissions, but slightly increases ozone formation, toxicity in fresh water, particulate matter in the air, and has a much greater negative impact on land use. It’s the same story for soybeans grown in the US, oil palms grown in Columbia, sugarcane are similar. Corn grown in the US is similar on the negative eco-impacts, but with the added demerit of offering just a 5% reduction in emissions.

Sources that really are awful for biofuels, two stand out: Soybeans grown in Brazil (two-thirds worse emissions than fossil fuels, with similar or worse environmental impact than fossil fuels across the board), and oil palms grown in Indonesia and Malaysia.

The environmental impact of oil palms in Indonesia and Malaysia (the vast majority of the world’s production) is so bad, it deserves it’s own special mention. Despite industry attempts to greenwash its image—as well as serious but still ultimately fledgling efforts to build a sustainable palm oil industry in the region—oil palm cultivation is an environmental disaster of epic proportions.

Beyond devastating wildlife habitat for several endangered species and pushing indigenous population out of their homes, the greenhouse gases resulting from clearing land for oil palm plantations and then burning the biodiesel made from the palm oil are gigantic. The exact increase compared to petro-diesel varies depending on the study, but it’s anywhere from 8-20 times those of diesel. That’s all due to the plantations being established on rainforest, releasing tons of stored carbon in the soil and trees, and then the changed carbon sequestration potential of the land after the plantation is constructed.

Though not considered by any study I’ve seen, there’s one biofuel feedstock that needs to be mentioned and singled out for, to my thinking, to be an utter abomination, in fact a symbol of how bizarrely off course we’ve become as a culture. That feedstock is animal waste fat and body parts, left over from factory farms. It’s not really at any sort of commercial scale yet (phew!) but Tyson Foods has attempted to commercialize biofuel from beef and chicken fat.

There’s something to be said for utilizing waste products for sure, but when those waste products come from one of the most environmental destructive and ethically egregious activities ever conceived, nothing good at all can come from it. It’s a small step away from the fuel equivalent of Soylent Green.

Photo: Matt Dente

Photo: Matt Dente

How Much Biofuel is Produced Now
Problems with particular feedstocks aside, and biofuels falling from the headlines, global biofuel production over the past five years has nevertheless increased dramatically, roughly doubling for ethanol and tripling for biodiesel. In 2012, about 80 billion liters of ethanol were produced (equivalent to about 500 million barrels of oil), alongside 15 billion liters of biodiesel (94 million barrels of oil). For sake of comparison, global consumption of oil last year, stood at a bit over 32 billion barrels.

For ethanol, the overwhelming majority of the world’s supply in recent years came from the United States (hello, corn subsidies!) and Brazil (hello, sugarcane). The majority of biodiesel production is split between the European Union (about half of global production) and the US, Brazil, and Argentina (roughly similar to the EU production). Indonesia’s production of palm oil biodiesel, with its huge environmental impact, is thankfully a tiny proportion of the global total—the majority of palm oil goes into the food industry.

Where Do Biofuels Fit In?
Since biofuels are really meant to displace petroleum at best, or at least displace growth in oil usage, and oil overwhelming goes into transportation, this has always been the natural fit in an overall energy strategy. But the trouble is (yes, another trouble…) that a number of studies conclude that using renewable energy to charge electric cars is less environmentally harmful than using biofuels. That is to say, even in its theoretically ideal application, biofuel isn’t that ideal.

There are some transportation uses where the prospect of electricity being the primary power source seems a long way off, if it ever can be done using any technology we currently have. One of those is commercial jet-powered aviation. Here biofuels may indeed make sense in the long run, provided that only the best feedstocks (maybe algae or camelina) are used.

There’s another usage where biofuels could potential still have great benefit: Local agriculture in the tropics. I’m thinking of jatropha here, grown alongside fields as hedges (as the Swiss study examined), and at a subsistence level. Used in the basic diesel engines that often power irrigation pumps, fuel could be grown, processed and used on a local or regional basis, displacing costly purchases of diesel fuel, while at the same time assisting with the task of keep animals out of fields. Perhaps even here solar-powered irrigation may be a better choice, while also provided much-needed electricity, but nevertheless it could provide a worthwhile path towards improved human development.


  • Reply March 21, 2013

    Evan Worrell

    This article (as well as many others) forget to mention scale of production. If a farmer, family, or community decided to make their own ethanol they could do so sustainability, because they could more easily find sources of “waste” biomass (such as lawn trimmings, bakery waste, food waste in general, crop residue, etc.)

    Also one benefit of using algae is that it could be produced using salt water and wouldn’t require fresh water.

  • Reply November 21, 2013


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