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Thomas Freidman's Folly

Biofuel Delusions


Debunking the tsunami of hype about biofuels doesn’t require much. A standard calculator will do. Alas, Thomas Friedman can’t be bothered to do the handful of simple calculations that prove the futility of the biofuels madness.

In a recent piece, the New York Times columnist and best-selling author praised the Navy and Marines for, as he put it “building a strategy for ‘out-greening’ Al Qaeda, ‘out-greening’ the Taliban and ‘out-greening’ the world’s petro-dictators.”

Hmm. I’ve never heard of Taliban fighters using tanks or F-15s. And if Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda operatives are worrying about the size of their carbon footprints, that revelation might eclipse the latest news about Lady Gaga ? at least for a few hours.

Nevertheless, Friedman reports that the military is planning to “run its ships on nuclear energy, biofuels and hybrid engines, and fly its jets with bio-fuels.” Friedman goes on to say that the brass at the Pentagon is only pursuing “third generation” biofuels made from algae and non-food sources. But here’s the reality: the commercial viability of advanced biofuels is a lot like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy: lots of people believe in it but no one ever sees it.

To be sure, the logisticians at the Pentagon know that the US military’s profligate use of oil on the battlefield is a strategic liability. And while it’s obvious that the Defense Department could ? given its nearly $700 billion in annual spending — make significant contributions in the development of new energy technologies, those advances are unlikely to happen on the biofuels front.

For decades, various pundits have been proclaiming that biofuels will displace our need for oil. Back in 1976, energy analyst Amory Lovins, a darling of the Green/Left, wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which he said that there are “exciting developments in the conversion of agricultural, forestry and urban wastes to methanol and other liquid and gaseous fuels.” He went on, saying that those fuels “now offer practical, economically interesting technologies sufficient to run an efficient U.S. transport sector.”

Today, 34 years after Lovins said that biofuels “now offer” the ability to run the transport sector, biofuels remain little more than a sinkhole for taxpayer dollars. According to the Congressional Budget Office, producing enough corn ethanol to match the energy contained in a single gallon of conventional gasoline costs taxpayers $1.78. Even with those subsidies, which total about $7 billion per year, corn ethanol still only provides about 3 percent of America’s oil needs. And by mandating the consumption of ethanol, Congress has created an industry that now gobbles up about one-third of America’s corn crop.

Those numbers are germane to Friedman’s claim that biofuels will be an essential part of the DOD’s new “green” future. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist lauded the Navy for its experiments with jet fuel derived from camellina, a plant in the mustard family. In April, the Navy flew an F-18 using a mixture of conventional jet fuel and camellina-based fuel. The cost of that biofuel: about $67.50 per gallon.

The fundamental problem with using plants to make liquid motor fuel isn’t want-to, it’s physics. We pump oil out of the earth because of its high energy density. That is it contains lots of stored chemical energy by both weight and volume. Camellina, like switchgrass, and nearly every other plant-based feedstock now being considered for “advanced” biofuel production, has low energy density. Thus, in order to produce a significant quantity of liquid fuels that have high energy density ? such as jet fuel, diesel, or gasoline — from those plants, you need Bunyanesque quantities of the stuff.

Friedman would have understood that had he done a bit of math on soybean-based biodiesel. The US produces about 3.2 billion bushels of soybeans per year and each bushel can be processed into about 1.5 gallons of biodiesel. Thus, if it made sense to do so, we could convert all US soybean production into diesel with total output of about 4.8 billion gallons.

How much fuel is that? By Pentagon standards, it’s not much. In 2008, the DOD consumed 132.5 million barrels of oil products, or about 5.5 billion gallons. Put another way, even the US decided to convert  all of its soybean production into motor fuel, doing so would only provide about 87 percent of the Pentagon’s total oil needs.

Tim Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School who has written extensively about the problems with biofuels, says that biofuels don’t make much sense because it “takes a huge amount of land to produce a modest amount of energy.” The key issue, says Searchinger, is scale. He points out that even if we used “every piece of wood on the planet, every piece of grass eaten by livestock, and all food crops, that much biomass could only provide about 30 percent of the world’s total energy needs.”

Some crops can provide a relatively good feedstock for biofuels. For instance, Brazil utilizes sugar cane to produce ethanol. (Brazil is the world’s second-largest ethanol producer, behind the US.) But even if  the US military commandeered all of Brazil’s ethanol production — which totaled 6.5 billion gallons in 2008 ? that volume of energy still wouldn’t be enough to keep the Pentagon’s planes, trucks, and tanks moving. Recall that ethanol contains just two-thirds of the heat energy of gasoline. Therefore Brazil’s 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol is equal to 4.3 billion gallons of refined oil product, far less than the US military’s consumption of 5.5 billion gallons per year.  

Going beyond Brazil, biomass-based fuels may be worthwhile on tropical islands, like Hawaii, that have lots of rainfall and plenty of arable land. Furthermore, fuels derived from photosynthetic algae might ? repeat, might ? someday become commercial.

Friedman ended his column by saying that “we might really get a green revolution in the military.” Sure, that’s a possibility. But before Friedman writes another article about the promise of biofuels he should invest in a calculator.

ROBERT BRYCE’s latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.