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Sun., July 22, 2012, midnight

Biofuel crops are a bad idea

There is lots of happy talk about using alternative energy to reduce carbon dioxide. Does any of it make sense? Some of it clearly does not. I offer two examples, one where we dodged the bullet and little money was wasted, and another that is costing us billions of wasted, borrowed money.

The Energy Policy Act of 2003 required the secretary of energy to develop a program to assure 100,000 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles would be available for sale by 2010, and 2.5 million such vehicles available by 2020. Sixty-seven senators, including both from Washington, voted for the amendment.

It is now mid-2012, and nothing significant has been done to reach this goal, and no effort is apparent in this direction. Why not? It is because this was such a wildly impractical idea that no effort could stand even a superficial examination; it could not pass the laugh test. The details are simple but would require a separate article. The fact that this enthusiastically passed idea has been so completely dropped should provide some perspective on the wisdom and knowledge applied by our leaders to the alternative energy issue.

There are other bad ideas that are not so wildly impractical on which we are wasting billions of dollars of borrowed money. Biofuels from oilseed crops is such a bad idea. The rational for biofuels is to reduce net CO2 emissions and reduce foreign oil imports. On both, the impact is minimal at best.

U.S. land withdrawn from food production to grow corn and oilseed, for subsidized alcohol and biodiesel fuel, has resulted in a worldwide increase in food cost. Consequently, all over the Third World, marginal land is being opened for subsistence farming using slash and burn methods, leading to increased CO2 emissions short-term, and decreased CO2 absorption by old growth tropical forests long-term.

When fertilizer and farming fuel inputs to grow and process biofuel crops are accounted for, the net gain to replace imported oil is not as great as would be thought. Any discussion of biofuels that does not include real numbers for energy balance and fuel yield per acre is puff.

Even Al Gore now admits that making alcohol from corn is a bad idea. On an energy basis, it is like chasing your tail. Claims about the energy balance of corn alcohol range from negative to slightly positive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture uses a figure of 1.34, meaning for each unit of energy input, in this case from natural gas and diesel fuel, you produce 1.34 units of corn alcohol energy, a 34 percent gain. The claims for biodiesel also vary widely, from a little negative to positive 6. USDA uses a figure of 3.2, meaning for every one unit of energy input, you get 3.2 units out, a net gain of 220 percent.

One of the first questions that should be asked about biofuels is never asked. How much of our oil can we replace with U.S.-grown biofuels? The numbers are large, but the calculations are simple. If all of our transportation fuel was biodiesel, we would need 200 billion gallons per year. We have one billion acres of crop and grazing land. Our various U.S.-grown oil crops yield an average of about 100 gallons per acre, neglecting the substantial fuel and fertilizer inputs. So we could grow 100 billion gallons of biodiesel, half our transportation fuel requirement, and have nothing to eat. Given this limited fuel potential and the consequent rise in world food prices, does it make sense to devote even one acre to biofuel production from oilseed crops? It might if biofuel was cheaper. There would be no biofuels without mandates, subsidies and tax credits, sufficient proof that biofuel is uneconomic.

Remember Solyndra? Half a billion tax dollars committed to back a politically connected solar panel company down the drain. Similar boondoggles are underway with biofuels. The U.S. Navy is now spending four times the normal cost for a jet fuel equivalent biofuel mix, and a crony company is involved. There is no technical mystery to create fuels from vegetable oils, yet from the justifications for these expenditures you would think that there was. Google “splash and dash” diesel to read of $1 billion wasted. Borrowed money, which you are on the hook for, is being wasted on biofuel boondoggles. Money spent on obviously bad ideas is gone, and cannot be used to carefully explore possibly good ideas, biofuel from algae, for example.

Tom Horne is a retired professional engineer.

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