Biodiesel—essentially, a clean-burning vegetable-based oil that can be substituted for ordinary petroleum diesel—is getting a lot of press these days. That’s not too surprising: aternatives to oil tend to get a lot of attention when fuel prices are rising, which they’re certainly doing right now.
Perhaps the biggest piece or recent policy news is Washington state’s new renewable fuels standard, passed just last month, that mandates that 2 percent of the diesel sold in the state must be biodiesel by the end of 2008.
That got me to thinking—why just 2 percent? Couldn’t we do better than that?
Well, maybe so. But perhaps not by a whole lot.
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
The problem is really one of scale: we use an awful, awful lot of petroleum in the Northwest. Huge amounts. So much, in fact, that there’s just not enough cropland for biodiesel to make much of a dent in our petroleum habit.
The average Washington resident uses about 10 gallons of petroleum-based highway fuels each week. There are more than 6 million of us, so all together we burn about about 3.2 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel each year. And that doesn’t include the petroleum that we use for jet fuel, chemical feedstocks, road oil, asphalt, boats, etc.
How much of that demand could biodiesel meet? Between 2003 and 2004, national production (pdf link) of biodiesel tripled, from about 25 million gallons to some 75 million gallons, largely because of a $1 per gallon federal tax credit. So the entire annual national output of biodiesel could have fueled the cars and trucks of Washington state for…wait for it…about 9 days.
Obviously, current biodiesel production is far lower than its potential. Still, the most optimistic estimate I’ve seen is that Washington state farmers could produce about 100 million gallons of canola-based biodiesel each year, or about 3 times as much as the renewable fuel standard would mandate. That much biodiesel could offset about 11 days worth of highway fuel use. And producing that much canola oil would take about 880,000 acres—nearly one-fifth of the state’s harvested cropland (pdf link).
So clearly, as great as I think biodiesel is, it’s just a small piece of a bigger puzzle.
Just to be clear: I’m not gunning for biodiesel here. I’m not a hater. I think that biodiesel has clear global warming benefits, and just as importantly can help clean up truck and bus exhaust in center cities.
And while I do think there are some concerns about using food crops to power rush hour—a habit that may have some counter-productive effects over the long term—I think that experimentation with this sort of thing is nifty. And I’m all for R&D for even more productive biodiesel crops (algae, anyone?).
But mostly the biodiesel numbers reinforce my belief that there’s no silver bullet that will solve our petroleum dependence. It’s going to take a whole lot of strategies developed in parallel.
So I think we should forge ahead with biodiesel—but as we do so, we should be sure to keep the real scale of the task in mind.
There is a silver bullet! But it is not one that many are willing to take, until forced to: it’s the first “R” REDUCE!Those who claim “there is no silver bullet” always have the implied “given our current usage” in there somewhere. At some point, someone is going to have to stand up and say, “How about living within biking/walking distance of work?” “How about buying locally grown food?” “How about buying locally manufactured goods?”You’re right. There is no silver bullet, if the goal is to continue with our profligate life style.
I agree with many yours points, but I want to add that the issue with biodiesel isn’t just one of production. On the urban scale, if we replaced all of our gasoline-powered engines with biodiesel engines, urban smog and other air pollutants would increase drastically. The technology is changing fast, but as it stands now diesel cars – no matter if burning veggie oil or petroleum – are dirtier than gasoline.
Just to clarify Matt’s post, cars running on biodiesel produce more nitric oxides (NOx) than their gasoline counterparts, which contribute to smog. Smog or ground level ozone is essntially a mixture of NOx, volatile organic compounds (VOC), and UV rays from the sun. VOCs are predominantly from gasoline vehicle emissions. Aside from NOx however, cars running on biodiesel are considerably cleaner than running on petroleum diesel and for some toxic emissions, cleaner than gasoline as well. To make a blanket statement that cars running biodiesel are dirtier than gasoline is inaccurate. 2007 model year cars are forced to meet much stricter EPA TIER II emissions requirements, or, if you live in California Low Emissions Vehicles (LEV) level II requirements. Both require a reduction in NOx of over 90% and should put fleetwide diesel vehicles inline with their gasoline counterparts. All things being equal on the toxic emissions front, biodiesel should have a significant edge, producing about 80% fewer CO2 emissions. While I agree that biodiesel is not a silver bullet (no alternative energy source is for that matter), it could pave the way to a biofuels infrastructure – carving out a distribution network and creating demand for alternative fuel vehicles from automakers. Then when more promising biofuels like biodiesel from algae and cellulosic ethanol become profitable and mainstream, there will be vehicles to run it and pumps around the country to distribute it. While currently not the most efficient use of cropland (using soybeans for biodiesel and corn for ethanol), today’s biofuels are pioneering, to say nothing of the benefits of having more people consider their carbon emissions.
I have to disagree with Matt. He’s thinking of heavy diesels, or the smokey ones of the ’80’s.Modern diesel passenger vehicles have to meet the same pollution standards as gasoline vehicles.But diesel vehicles are more efficient, so for the same distance traveled, they are actually less polluting than gas vehicles!Now fuel them from biodiesel: unburnt hydrocarbons and particulates—the main pollutants from diesels that cause respiratory problems—are dramatically reduced!As Dave mentions, supporting biofuels now helps build the necessary infrastructure. But I am very cautious about three things: (1) the notion that biofuels can somehow save our current lifestyle, without huge structural and behavioral changes, (2) the thought of moving food cropland into fuel production, when there are many hungry people in the world, and (3) the possibility that we’ll be simply exchanging one huge corporate monopoly for another—trading Exxon for ADM.Structural and behavioral changes are what are sorely needed. Without them, the form of fuel we use is inconsequential.