We shouldn’t stop talking about biofuels
By Maria Oliveira
September 24, 2012
In the discussion on how to replace or supplement conventional, non-renewable sources of energy, biofuels are often promoted as one of the most feasible options. Compared to other energy sources, they can be easily obtained with minimal investment, and lack specific geographic preconditions. This is in comparison to wind and solar energy, although costs for these are shrinking with government incentives and technology advancements. One of the main problems that is stopping the spread of biofuels is controversies around the consequences of its production and use, the most well known being a potential rise in food prices.
It is not uncommon for people to link the increasing production of biofuels with the rising prices of food, even though one is not proven to cause the other. When making such a connection, individuals are generally referring to the production of ethanol, which can be made from corn or sugar cane for example. However this is not the only type of biofuel available. Even in those cases where land is being used to produce fuels instead of food, ethanol is not the one to blame for the prices we pay. This year, for example, the price of commodities like corn has increased mainly because of a drought in the northern hemisphere which has damaged crops in the United States, Canada, and Russia, among others. Moreover, the general price rise of food usually has more to do with transportation costs, which are affected by the rise in the price of oil. That is, not producing alternative fuels might actually lead to even higher prices instead of the opposite.
Of course planting our fuels is far from being the perfect solution. It can lead to deforestation in some regions and depletion of soils, and may not be suitable for most countries. It is, however, a better alternative to the status quo. Burning oil just provides the atmosphere with more CO2, while when producing ethanol the plants first take some of this CO2 out of circulation before it is burnt again. It is also important to highlight that biofuels can be also made from a wide range of substances, from algae to cooking oil.
Different initiatives are taking place all around the world. In Brazil, finding vehicles that run on 100% ethanol (made from sugarcane) is not difficult. In North America, regular gas sold in gas stations is gradually being blended with ethanol (usually made from corn). Moreover, Air Canada has recently made history with the first commercial flight being fuelled with a blend of 50/50 cooking oil biofuel and regular diesel. This type of achievement represents one important step towards “greener” transportation. Though airplanes and vehicles especially designed for biofuels can do so, so can basically any vehicle.
Despite sounding like a new alternative, the idea of biofuels is not new. More than being a great business opportunity, it is a “healthier” option for the planet. As of now, it is all a matter of willingness to adopt different technologies that in most cases already exist and put enough effort to it.
(Icon photo courtesy of Emma Cooper/Flickr, aircraft photo courtesy of US Navy/Flickr)