Biofuels, water shortages and Global Warming

I was recently reading some stories on biofuels that had an interesting take on an aspect I hadn’t considered before…water. Apparently many of the better feed stocks for biofuels use a lot more water than other existing crops (they also tend to displace food crops in some places as they are worth more…which causes some additional problems). Many countries are touting biofuels as almost a panacea solution to the rising cost of oil and of course to Global Warming. But…well, from recent articles I’ve been reading it seems like water is becoming an even more critical and scarce resource than water is in some parts of the world. Specifically I was reading that a lot of Mediterranean countries are having water shortages…and in some countries like Turkey and India water is becoming critical. I know in the southern states in the US water is beyond critical in some places, even threatening to shut down nuclear power plants because there isn’t enough water to cool them properly (which is going to have a huge impact come summer when electricity prices are going to go through the roof).

So, for debate…should we perhaps rethink this whole biofuels as a solution thingy? Is it possible that biofuels will actually make things worse than if we just kept burning fossil fuels instead? Is water instead of oil a bigger concern?

-XT

First off let’s get away from the ludicrous concept that biofuels are a panacea. The idea of using vegetation as an actual fuel is interesting but it makes no sense whatsoever. Never mind the water, the sheer amount of land involved in replacing even a fraction of our fuels with plant material is staggering. I’ve seen reputable figurs which suggest that you’d need around 10 times the land surface of the entire planet to be able to replace our current petroleum/diesel fuel with plant material.

See, the big problem is that to produce biofuel you need a lot of fuel in the first place. You need fuel for the tractors, and you need fuel for the fertiliser, and you need fuel for the pumps, and you need fuel to get the crops to the distilleries and more for the silos and for the distilleries and so forth. In fact you need so much fuel that there is still considerable debate about whether plant material can produce any fuel whatsoever. It just may be that Brazil is managing to produce fuel using cane sugar ethanol, and some places in Europe are claiming net fuel production using oil crops such as rape. But those are still open to much debate, and if they are actually producing any fuel at all it is miniscule, at best you get 11 gallons of biofuel equivalent for every 10 gallons of petroleum you put in. And that is using some of the most productive farmland in the world, locate dvery close to major population centres. As your population becomes more remote from your farmland, such as is the case in the US, and as the productivity of the land declines you produce less and less fuel until very soon you are using more fuel than you produce. And that is why you need such massive land areas to produce biofeuls.

And that produces the other problem with biofuels. We obviously can’t actually utilise ten times the land surface of the Earth to produce significant amounts of biofuels, but let’s assume we ant to exploit what we can. The world has a finite arable land area. If we produce biofuels we have only two options: either we sacrifice cropland used for human foods, or we sacrifice wilderness areas and knock down the forests to produce crops. We don’t; have any other options. Space is finite, biofuels need space, we have to take that space from something else. There is a bit of leeway in terms of increased efficiencies, maybe even as much as 20%, but that’s it. After that we start making the decision to either let people starve or knock down the forests to produce fuel. And thew orld’s population is expected to increase by at least 40% before its stabilises.

Assuming we aren’t gong to let people starve then we knock down the forests. Lots and lots of forests Aside from the conservation implications of wholesale deforestation for our green oil wells we now have the problem of greenhouse gas release from our biofuels. But wasn’t the whole point of biofuels to reducegreenhouse gas emmisions.

Only after those insurmounteble obstacles do we need to start worrying about water. And while water is a serious concern it really isn’t the obstacle that you paint it as. With enough energy input you can always get water, either through deep bores or desalination or reclamation. We’ve already failed to factor in their fossil fuel costs of biofeul production, so why not discount this cost as well. More importantly we have a lot more scope for increasing water use efficiency. Land area is finite and our agricultural efficiency is high because that is the economic driver so we have little option on those things. Water is currently drastically undervalued and the western world are profligate water wasters. With a little bit of simple efficiency being practiced such as the use of subsurface and nocturnal irrigation we can easily increase the world’s agricultural water supply by at twofold, and reasonably expect a tenfold increase with minimal pain.

So really water isn’t the issue with biofuels.

Personally I think that biofuels have a really bright future. That might seem odd after all I’ve just said, but we just need to get away from this silly idea that biofuels will ever be a significant fuel source. What biofuels are is a potentially brilliant energy storage medium. By pumping nuclear or renewable energy into plant materials we can actually convert them into carbon negative fossil fuel replacements. It might seem odd, but its’ perfectly achievable even with current technology. Cut the plants, crack them using nuclear energy and turn them into petroleum or coal equivalents and then sequester the carbon produced from the burning of the fuel. Because the plants originally obtained that carbon from the atmosphere the whole process will result in a gradually decrease of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. It’s money for old rope, using plants to sequester carbon and then burning the plants without re-releasing the carbon. All we need is sufficient energy input.

Using biofuels as an energy storage rather than a fuel also overcomes the other problems. We don’t need to worry about energy returns because it’s not meant to be a energy source. We don’t need to find new arable land because we can utilise coppiced plants from non-arable locales such as sagebrush or Acacia savanna. Because the material is coppiced there is no net carbon production from the land clearing

So yeah, we should rethink this whole biofuels as a solution thingy? Is it possible that biofuels will actually make things worse than if we just kept burning fossil fuels instead solong as we insist on this pipe dream that biofuels are ever going to be a significant fuel source, rather than just a convenient chemical battery. Is water instead of oil a bigger concern? Not likely. Water is cheap, it’s ubiquitous and there is a huge scope for improved water use efficiency. Biofuels may be a blessing insofar as they force the adoption of more sensible water usage.