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It Takes Energy to Make Energy

It takes energy to get energyAs peak oil becomes part of everyday conversation, people are getting serious about alternative energy sources. We are seeing ethanol and biodiesel moving from fringe discussion into mainstream advertising, with “E85” and “Go Green” commercials airing on network television.

The dialogue on alternative fuels is becoming more sophisticated, and the concept of energy return on energy investment (EROEI) is becoming more familiar. When we set out to look at EROEI for various biofuels, we thought it would be a simple matter of looking at the data, and figuring out which ones were promising, and which ones were clearly losers.

We concluded that there's an additional dimension that doesn't get talked about much: the land-use effects of replacing petroleum transportation fuel (about 2/3 of oil consumption in the United States is for transportation) with biofuels. The startling results are shown in this YES! graphic.

Is there still a place for biofuels as oil gets scarcer and more expensive? Certainly. Can we use biofuels as a straight-across trade to maintain our motorized lifestyle at the level to which we've become accustomed? Certainly not.

In Issue 31 of YES!, Guy Dauncey laid out a 12-step plan to reduce U.S. transportation fuel consumption by 86 percent. Dauncey includes biofuels in his scenario. At the consumption level he projects, biofuel may be a reasonable part of an energy solution.

Here are some of the resources we used to produce this graphic. These are fairly new technologies, and there are advocates for various positions. Look at the arguments, read the numbers for yourself, and see where you land on this increasingly important topic.

The biggest nay-sayers are David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek. You can read their 2005 study in which they conclude that no biofuel has positive EROEI.

There are plenty of critics of Pimentel and Patzek. The National Biodiesel Board, which describes itself as “the national trade association representing the biodiesel industry as the coordinating body for research and development in the United States,” has a response to Pimentel and Patzek. They rely on this EPA study.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Climate Solutions issued a February 2006 study entitled, “Ethanol: Energy Well Spent—A Survey of Studies Published Since 1990,” which treats Pimentel and Patzek's conclusions as outliers, and finds that both ethanol and biodiesel have positive EROEI.

We used figures from Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2006), by Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute. Chapters of this book are available online, and Chapter 2, has information on biofuels, and we used his figures for per-acre production from various feedstocks.

For a look at what can happen when alternatives go to scale, look at “Worse than Fossil Fuel,” , a George Monbiot column in which he discusses how the European demand for biodiesel is contributing to deforestation in Indonesia.

These are controversial questions, and, as we become more aware of the reality of peak oil, and of the changes it may entail, they are increasingly freighted with emotion. YES! is interested in examining any viable alternative to petroleum. But we believe that we must have the broadest information possible to make reasoned decisions, and to decide which alternatives are, in fact, viable.


Doug Pibel is managing editor of YES! Magazine.
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