Biodiesel: A Noble Experiment, But There's Much To Consider

June 5, 2009



Willie Nelson recently graced the front of The New York Times business section in a laudatory story focusing not on the singer's gambling debts or tax evasion, but rather his latest money-maker: BioWillie Diesel.

The fuel – 5 percent vegetable diesel, 95 percent petroleum diesel – powers Nelson's tour bus, as well as Bonnie Raitt's, and is sold at gas stations and truck stops in four states. Nationally, biodiesel fuels a variety of city and county fleets. Proponents call it a renewable form of energy that reduces carbon monoxide, hydrocarbon and particulate emissions with only a slight penalty in higher levels of nitrogen oxide.

Users are starting to talk about ramping up to 20 to 80 percent biodiesel. Afew already are on 100 percent vegetable-based biodiesel. In Europe and in America, tax incentives are being offered to biodiesel producers and blenders.

But beware of biodiesel's downsides. It has a "negative energy balance," taking too much energy to produce to make up for the energy gained, according to calculations by Cornell University ecologist David Pimentel and geoengineer Tad Patzek of University of California-Berkeley.

Plus, Pimentel says, the entire United States would need to be planted with soybeans to create enough fuel to feed the nation's needs. See Natural Resources Research, vol. 14:1, pp. 65-76; and a Cornell University press release at edu/stories/July05/ethanol.toocostly.ssl.html .

Their assessment triggered a huge backlash from biodiesel proponents. The site posts an industry-written attack on Pimentel and Patzek's paper. But even the National Biodiesel Board admits that in the short term, ay least, biodiesel is unlikely to supply more than one tenth of the United States' needs.

Some environmentalists are gravely worried. Even before Europe mandated that biodiesel make up at least 5.75 percent of the transportation fuel supply by 2010, millions of acres of tropical rainforest had been converted to palm plantations to make palm oil in Borneo and Malaysia, according to a Friends of the Earth report. See . The rate is expected to accelerate as Europe's palm-oil-derived biodiesel requirements skyrocket.

And there's the question of greenhouse gasses. Those equations get a little tricky, in some cases. For example, one individual's assessment (at his website "biodieselmyths," net/~russ676/willfindmore/page2.html) crunched the numbers to counter an assessment made by the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado, which found that "biodiesel is 78 percent carbon neutral," i.e. not contributing to climate change through carbon emissions. Once he tweaked the values slightly and added the oil necessary to produce the crops, among other costs, he found biodiesel was only 50 percent carbon neutral.

Nevertheless, biodiesel seems a noble effort. Even used turkey parts make good biofuel – as my editor wrote about in the same issue of GeoTimes in which I wrote about Tickell, Pimentel, et al.

And if you're taking on this topic in your community, you're likely to find interesting characters among those who converted their diesel cars to burn vegetables. Do-it-yourselfers are everywhere, including Tim Lindsey, who manages the pollution prevention program for the state of Illinois. He takes 80-120 gallons a week of used cooking oil from the University of Illinois residence hall cafeterias, producing 40-gallon batches for a departmental vehicle. He made a batch with a local science class at Mahomet Seymour High School for use in a school bus, which made a great story for a local newspaper

For more quiet examples, you will find that county and local governments (including school districts) have been taking advantage of federal subsidies for biodiesel, slowly creating a tiny market for the stuff. Look for the people who are the middlemerchants for larger producers such as World Energy (Woodruff Energy in New Jersey is one such sales outlet, biodiesel.html).

Ask how hard to get and how expensive the fuel is. Anthony Radich of the Energy Information Agency says it's still a drop in the bucket in terms of the size of the market, and part of the reason behind that is cost. Even so, the rate of growth of biodiesel has been impressive. Its use in this country was set to triple last year, to 75 million gallons from 25 million in 2004. Bear in mind, though, that United States use of gasoline and diesel alone amounted to 180 billion gallons in 2004. That's largely transportation use, not including much of the juice used in Americans' homes and other buildings.

But many see biodiesel as just one of many ways to re duce dependence on fossil fuels that drive climate change.

"We don't get there unless we use a full portfolio of solutions, including cleaner fuels and efficiency," wrote Patrick Mazza, research director for the nonprofit Climate Solutions in Seattle, Wash. (See archives/101129.asp). "In any event we cannot throw out this valuable tool to help meet the great challenge of reducing global warming pollution. …All the solutions must be placed in context. " 

Naomi Lubick is a staff writer at Alexandria, Va.-based GeoTimes. SEJ members Jim Motavalli of E Magazine and Robert McClure of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer contributed to this Toolbox.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal Spring, 2006 issue


Biodiesel resources: 

• "Key Differences between Pimentel/Patzek Study and Other Studies," Michael Wang, Center for Transportation Research, Argonne National Laboratory, July 19, 2005.

• National Biodiesel Board, Jefferson City, Mo.: (800) 841-5849 or .

 • Lubick's article: trashenergy.html#biodiesel 

• New Jersey forum: forum.asp?FORUM_ID 

• New Jersey rebate program bpu/cleanEnergy/BiodieselFuelRebateProgram.pdf 




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