Biofuels: Where’s the energy?

In addition to detainee policy, I also got a chance to ask Senator Chuck Grassley about his thoughts on biofuels subsidies. Biodiesel manufacturers have been suffering mightily since Jan. 1 when their $1 per gallon federal subsidy expired. Many plants, including the one in my current town of Washington, Iowa, had to shut down.

Grassley promised to work for the renewal of the biodiesel subsidy when the Senate reconvened on Jan. 19. I had recently read that a number of groups from across the political spectrum had expressed their opposition to biofuels subsidies and I asked Grassley for his thoughts on the matter:

Hallman: Oxfam America and the Cato Institute are on record as being against biofuels. Does that bother you?

Grassley: Of course it bothers me. They think the American farmer doesn’t have the capability of producing products for food, fiber and fuel. They think the farmer only has the capability of doing it for feed.

The truth is, crops such as soybeans and corn are a finite commodity with alternative uses. Crops that are used for fuel are crops that can’t be used for food. That’s also true for the land the corn is grown on and all of the materials that go into producing the fuels.

A Congressional Budget Office report released in April indicated that ethanol production was responsible for 10 to 15 percent of the increase in food prices between April 2007 and April 2008.

What is more, research conducted by professors David Pimentel of Cornell and Tad W. Patzek of Berkeley revealed that there is no benefit to using plant biomass (whether corn, soybeans, or switch grass) as fuel, because they all require more energy to make than they give off in combustion.

In the report, Pimentel and Patzek claim that corn ethanol requires 29 more fossil fuel energy than it produces and soybean plants used for biodiesel require 27 percent more fossil fuel.

A summary of Pimentel and Patzek’s findings can be found here. The PDF version of their report, which appeared in Natural Resources Research, can be found here.

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2 Responses to “Biofuels: Where’s the energy?”

  1. Eric B Says:

    Pimentel and Patzek’s research is from 2005, I wonder if there have been advancements? Just because crops use more energy now, doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to increase their yield. Research might reveal something we currently don’t know.

    Not that I think it will, I think David’s last line makes the most sense:

    He says the country should instead focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion.

  2. Andy Hallman Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Eric.

    I’m sure there have been additional research papers published since 2005. There are studies indicating ethanol is a net energy provider, but Pimentel has looked at those studies and says they neglect to include the cost of using farm machinery.

    Here is a nice interview grist conducted with Pimentel in 2006. In it, he explains his position more fully and how he arrived at his conclusions:

    http://www.grist.org/article/philpott2/

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