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The Green Life: Ask Mr. Green: Will Biodiesel Fuel the Future?

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November 05, 2012

Ask Mr. Green: Will Biodiesel Fuel the Future?

Mr. Green is Bob SchildgenHey Mr. Green,

Why is biodiesel neglected? So many people don’t have any concept of it!  Why don’t you do an information blitz on this subject?

 Linda, Coral Springs, Florida

I'm not so sure biodiesel is all that neglected. If I did an information blitz on it, I'd remind its boosters that biodiesel is no magic elixir for a clean-energy, safe-climate future. Biodiesel could be a small part of our energy portfolio, if we were willing to intercept more oil and grease and divert it to fuel tanks before it reached our fast-food-crammed guts. And it’s certainly worthwhile to retrieve used kitchen oil and grease to run your car, as long as you don’t think you’re saving the world by gorging on Big Macs and avalanches of french fries to supply the raw, or, um, cooked material. 

Here’s the deal: If we devoted the entire U.S. soybean crop, which accounts for 90 percent of our oil seed production, to biodiesel we’d get 4.7 billion gallons, or only about 1.5 percent of the 306.6 billions of gallons of oil we use each year. And this is without subtracting the energy inputs required to grow and process this crop in the first place. So instead of hyping biodiesel, I’ll continue to extol the virtues of wind, solar, mass transit, energy efficiency, and common-sense, turn-off-the-bleepin’-light, pull-the-pedal-off-the-metal energy conservation. After all, a mere 3.5 percent improvement in gasoline cars’ fuel efficiency would save as much energy as is contained in those 4.7 billion gallons of biodiesel. Driving a whole lot less would obviously save a whole lot more.

Then there’s the troublesome environmental issue of putting more strain on the land and dumping more agrichemicals on it to grow more biodiesel and other biofuels. We’ve witnessed plenty of this already in the monoculture of the Corn Belt. In the past two decades, thanks largely to the ethanol boom, the acreage planted to corn has increased by 17 million acres.

Well, yeah, there are other sources of biodiesel that yield far more per acre, like palm oil, but as I’ve noted before, palm oil plantations play hell with the environment because tropical forests get wiped out to make way for the oil palms. And you’d have to divert this oil from products ranging from lipstick to cookies to actually get it into fuel tanks.

And there is the possibility of making oil from algae, with one company already claiming that it can produce 3,800 gallons of algal oil per acre, although critics counter that the technology and the inputs required make it way too costly to be feasible. But even this miracle would require more than 80 million acres or 125,000 square miles to meet our present—and in my view criminally outrageous—oil consumption. Besides, the algae would be raised in ponds, which would raise some concerns about the water supply. The moral? Conserve, conserve, conserve, while demanding policies that favor clean, sustainable energy instead of the “drill, baby, drill” lunacy touted by politicians bought off by the fossil fuel industry.

Got a question? Ask Mr. Green!

 --illustration by Little Friends of Printmaking

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