The Reluctant Hero of Biofuels….


Developing sugar cane for biofuels. Climate change, increased hunger for energy by emerging markets, along with increased population will drive the increased global demand for biofuels. Photo Source: http://www.bp.com/sectiongenericarticle.do?categoryId=9030041&contentId=7055175

Recently, I had written a written an article for Cleantechnica about United Kingdom oil giant, British Petroleum developing two new types of biofuels, in the hopes of them being developed commercially by 2014.

After when the post was released, there was some healthy debate about the role of oil & gas companies playing in the role of biofuel. So far, there has been six comments, including myself.

The comments range from oil companies should not be developing renewable fuels, including this example:

“I’m very skeptical/cynical about any oil, petroleum & gas corporation getting in on biofuels. At the end of the day, even if they say its just their way of helping the planet, we all know it’s about the money.

Can’t wait for most homes to be totally energy self-sufficient. Solar panels on roofs charging their cars in their garages. No need for an electricity company or oil company anymore.”

Other comments on the post took a more nuanced and realistic position of the relationship between biofuels and large oil and gas companies.

“My number one desire is to get us off fossil fuels before we really ruin the climate. If the Koch brothers and big oil are the ones to make it happen, I can live with that.

Whatever replaces coal, oil and natural gas will, in turn, become massively large corporations.  The people who head them will, most likely, be more about corporate profit than common good.  The problem of corporations is something separate from moving to renewable energy, IMO.

Furthermore, I don’t think we’ll get rid of electricity companies.  At least with the technology we have.  Running a backup system is more than most people will be willing to deal with. 

The only practical “self-sufficient” generation tech is solar panels.  It would take a very large amount of storage to be 100% solar in most parts of the world.  And a significant portion of the population does not have the rooftop for solar.

A unified grid with an assortment of generation spread over large areas and operated by trained people makes the most sense to me.  And, at least for the foreseeable future, we’re going to need some liquid fuel. “

Which brings this to where I stand on the whole idea between the marriage (or inconvenient if you like) between the fossil fuel industry developing biofuels along with big agribusiness.

I don’t like the fossil fuel industry. Naw, make that I REALLY DO NOT LIKE THE FOSSIL FUEL Industry. From the British Petroleum US Gulf oil spill in 2010, to the ever infamous Exxon Valdez spill 21 years earlier in 1989, big crude has been more tied to being a big dumb doofus.

Tie that to the onslaught of environmental damage these companies have done in the Alberta oil sands, with the ever hungry appetite to turn land into one big gigantic creator and you wonder if there is one thing to be redeemed about the oil and gas sector at all?

Well, folks, there may be some room to salvage something from both the fossil fuel industry and large agribusiness.

And you ask, how can you say that Adam, do you not hate these creeps? How dare you even say this?

Well, again, I said earlier, I am not a fan of both industries. However, I take a more pragmatic stance here in its relationship regarding renewable fuels.

Both the fossil fuel industry and large agribusiness can have a role to play (albeit reluctant) in at least mitigating climate change through the development of biofuels.

As grudgingly, I will say this folks, oil and gas knows about energy! They know about liquid fuels and how to produce. They have the infrastructure to boost biofuels.

Oil & gas have a lot of capital to develop biofuels necessary to fuel a globalized world.  Case in point, British Petroleum has invested millions in renewable energy, including solar, wind, and especially biofuels.

Other oil & gas companies have some investment in renewable energy also, including Suncor, and Enbridge. Both have got some money in wind and solar.

Meanwhile, big agribusiness not only has a lot of capital, but agribusiness understands something very important that oil and gas does not…. IT knows Farming. Farming is the lifeblood of biofuels. Without agriculture, biofuels would not be as commercially viable. agribusiness know what crops are good, and what crops are bad for biofuels. They know what is efficient and what is not. They know how crops need to be grown, how to convert those crops into fuel, and how to get the most out of any waste that comes from those crops. Farmers know the land. They know how to plant crops. They know how the land can work. You can look at Cargill, Archer Daniel Midlands as classic examples. They have put  money into renewable fuels.

Am I now a cheerleader for the fossil fuel and large agribusiness industry? Of course not! In fact, I think quite frankly we pump too many subsidies into the non-renewable energy. Governments should be looking towards subsidies (if any) towards at furthering renewable energy.  Heck even better a price on carbon would do the trick! Governments need to look at (here is the kicker folks) start-ups and new business. Just like the information revolution twenty or so years ago, the alternative energy revolution will need to be lead by small businesses and brave entrepreneurs. We need to do more to make sure in the long run, smaller renewable companies have a chance at making it big, especially biofuels.

However, in the short run, with climate change, and energy security needed in an ever increasingly populated global world, and growing energy appetite by emerging markets, biofuels may be the best transitional fuel we have until the price of electric vehicles and infrastructure fall. In order to get there,  we will have to rely on the expertise of oil and gas, and big agribusiness to bring biofuels at a commercially viable level for the market, in the short-term.

But hey, in the long run, I look forward to the day by 2035 when BP, Shell, and Exxon are long in their graves. RIP.

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2 thoughts on “The Reluctant Hero of Biofuels….

  1. Adam,

    While I can understand (though I dont agree with) the idea that fossil fuel are inherently bad, I really don’t understand the enthusiasm shown for so-called renewable fuels like ethonal. Renewable yes, but at what cost give the finite resources employed in the prodution of corn and other renewables (you can start with fossil fuel derived nitrogen if you would like) and the trade-off between the higher cost of foodstuffs so that someone can fill up their SUV with ethanol laced gasoline at a lower cost.

    Considering the energy involved fermenting then refining the ethonal, then transporting the fuel etc. I wonder if the carbon footprint is really that low. I don’t have any data on whether ethanol burns any clearer than propane or methane. Do you? But I could say that the production of the latter fuels does not take any food off the world’s plate.

    Finally, it should be lost on no one that this industry has to be subsidized in order to survive, and the higher the cost of grain, the higher the subsidy. And money certainly does not grow on trees.

    Your comments would be highly appreciated.

    • Hi Dale,

      Thanks for the response. Biofuels are one of those tough calls. I want to see us wean our way off from fossil fuels. I think in the short term until electric vehicle development is fully developed, biofuels are perhaps the best transition fuel we have.

      It also depends on the type of biofuels. Corn is not particularly great. Soybeans are a bit better. I think there is some hope in advanced biofuels, particularly with algae.

      Thanks for your comments

      Adam Johnston

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