Biofuels: More Expensive and Potentially Worse for the Environment


NEW YORK (MainStreet) — The lure of biofuels is strong: domestic energy independence, environmental advantages with potential cost savings – it is a compelling story. "Flex Fuel" vehicles can fill up with E85 ethanol and take advantage of pump prices usually well below regular grade gasoline. But with a reported decrease in fuel economy ranging from 25% to 30% or more, consumers are apparently spending more to go green when filling up.

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And now comes a report that some corn-based ethanol can actually generate more greenhouse gases than gasoline.

A team of researchers, led by assistant professor Adam Liska from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found that removing corn stover -- the residue remaining after a harvest that is being proposed for future expansion of ethanol production -- actually generates more carbon dioxide than energy. According to the study, total annual production emissions generated by the process, averaged over five years, would produce emissions 7% greater than gasoline and at a level well above the 60% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as required by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

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The U.S. Department of Energy has provided more than $1 billion in federal funds to support research to develop so-called "cellulosic" biofuels, including ethanol made from corn stover. The production process has not yet gained broad acceptance, though several companies are developing biorefineries capable of converting corn fiber into fuel.

The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) dismissed the study as "deeply flawed and contradictory to current science," saying the research showed "a complete lack of understanding" of current farming practices.

"Stover removal rates are currently in the 10% to 25% range, which well-documented research demonstrates is sufficient to replenish soil," Bob Dinneen, President and CEO of the RFA said in a statement.

"But this study assumes 60% to 70% stover removal, a level that nobody believes is sustainable."

But removing less stover doesn't impact the result, according the study, which found the rate of carbon emissions is constant whether a small amount of stover is removed or nearly all of it is stripped.

"If less residue is removed, there is less decrease in soil carbon, but it results in a smaller biofuel energy yield," Liska said.

--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet

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