End of the Line for Biofuels?

Once held up as the future of alternative energy, and our key to independence from fossil fuels, it is remarkable to see just how much (and fast) the tide has turned against biofuels. Rightly blamed for everything from rising food and commodity prices to water degradation and soil erosion, biofuels have seen their cachet plummet in recent months -- even among some of their most ardent boosters -- and are now widely considered to be little more than a boondoggle for farmers. The leaking of an internal World Bank report claiming that biofuels have driven up food prices by a whopping 75% certainly didn't help.

Of course, it was always foolish to think that so-called first generation biofuels like corn ethanol would do much to alleviate our energy woes. Even now, flex-fuel vehicles only account for an infinitesimal proportion of the American car market -- at most a few million out of more than 130 million registered vehicles. And there are still so few gas stations that dispense E85 fuel (85% ethanol, 15% gas) that most drivers are forced to fill up with regular gasoline.

According to a recent study published in Conservation Biology, it would take 157 - 262% of existing U.S. crop land to even meet half of our current demand for fuel. While it's true that Brazil has more or less successfully weaned itself off Middle Eastern oil by investing in sugar cane-based ethanol, a much more cost-efficient biofuel, there are concerns it may be contributing to the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.

In any case, any small improvement in fuel efficiency would be more than offset by the millions of carbon emissions generated during the production process, which is both extremely water- and land-intensive. In the U.S. and Brazil alone, the destruction of forests and other land releases roughly 17 - 240 times more carbon emissions than the fuels ethanol replaces. Let's not also forget that this whole misguided enterprise is being propped up by the federal government to the tune of $5.5 - $7.3 billion a year, according to the Global Subsidies Initiative.

Fortunately, there are finally some signs of progress: France, the EU's incoming president, recently indicated that the European community was considering revising its renewable energy guidelines by shifting the focus from a strict quota system to one based on ethical, sustainable production methods. And, according to an influential EU lawmaker, the international body may reduce one of its targets -- producing 10% of vehicle fuels by 2020 from renewable sources -- to 4% by 2015. The new measure would also require governments to derive one-fifth of their renewable energy from advanced, second-generation biofuels and electric vehicles.

In light of this gradual shift away from food-based biofuels (at least outside the U.S.), it's hardly surprising that other renewable fuels, such as algal biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol, have been receiving a lot more attention. Insofar as biofuels remain a key component of the world's renewable portfolio, it is essential that governments and businesses invest more into these types of fuels. Unlike corn ethanol, the feedstocks used to make these biofuels, such as switchgrass and wood residues, do not displace food production and can easily be grown on abandoned or fallow farmlands.

The message here is that not all biofuels are necessarily bad. True, most of these second generation biofuels probably won't see the light of day -- in terms of large-scale commercial production -- for another few years. And, yes, there are probably better ways we could be spending our time and money in finding renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. We should of course expand our solar and wind energy capacity and, in some areas, examine other sources, such as geothermal energy.

While I fully agree with critics that the farm bill's wasteful ethanol subsidies should be done away with entirely, I believe the Democrats in the Senate should push harder to get the renewable tax credits extended. If we ever hope to become fully energy independent (a faint hope at this moment, I know), the next president will have to commit to overhauling our existing energy infrastructure by pursuing a smart, aggressive renewable agenda.