Disadvantages of Biofuels

Although much hue and cry is made about the dire need for new and renewable sources of energy, before implementing any such innovative technology the pros and cons need to be carefully examined.

Just as the advantages have been explored in the previous article, we now look at some of the disadvantages of biofuels. Using a technology which bases its source of power from something as essential as food crops and other organic materials has its own set of serious ramifications.

In fact, the large scale production and utilisation of food crops like corn, rapeseed and other grain for the production of biofuel has come under much flak from the international community and environment sceptics. The disadvantages of biofuels are few in number but have important side effects.

Biofuel Disadvantage: War between Food and Fuel?

Biofuels are derived from plant and animal matter such as starch, sugar and cellulose. First generation biofuels, of which bio-ethanol is the most common, is produced from the fermentation of crops like wheat, corn, sugar beets, sugar molasses and any sugar or starch. The question arises whether the use of food crops to produce biofuels is justified when there is such massive food shortage in the world. In a number of countries lands which were being used to produce rice and maize are now being replaced by the production of sugarcane and soybeans. These are not crops which are used for direct human consumption and hence such a replacement inevitably leads to food shortage. A large amount of land and resources are required to produce crops for the purpose of biofuel production and one of the biggest disadvantages of biofuels in this respect is the fact that a moral choice has to be made between using these resources for feeding people or feeding cars!

Further, apart from the issue of food security which will arise due to extensive use of biofuels, there is the immediate problem of a rise on prices of food crops. When the government incentivises the production of biofuels as a practical new renewable source of energy, it encourages farmers to dedicate more of their land and energy to grow crops which focus on biofuel production. This reduces the production of food crops for sale as food and the subsequent supply shortage will naturally raise the prices of food. A recent study titled "Impact of biofuel production and other supply and demand factors on food price increases in 2008", states that biofuels were responsible for 3-30% of the food inflation in 2008. Also, in certain regions in the world which are unsuitable in climate or soil fertility for growing crops like wheat, corn, sugarcane and the like, it would not be practical to produce biofuels commercially.

Thus, such a serious ethical issue is a major concern when it comes to producing first generation biofuels from food crops especially when the requirement of food is ever increasing due to the rising world population. This raises considerable concern about whether biofuels can be used as a sustainable energy source in the near future. However, to tackle this problem, more focus is being given to developing second generation biofuels which use non-food crops and biofuels which are extracted from algae and other waste material which will not interfere with the human food chain. Once reasonable progress is made in these areas, it will indeed be viable to generate biofuels sustainably.

Biofuel Disadvantage : Environmental Impact

Although it has been stated quite extensively that biofuels have an overall positive environmental impact, it may be well to explore the disadvantages of biofuels in this respect. The carbon footprint that the use of biofuels leaves is quite substantial. Carbon monoxide emissions are lower than that from combustion of fossil fuels, but the high levels of nitrous oxides released on burning corn contributes to greenhouse gases.

The more serious environmental problem is associated with the clearing of forests, grasslands and pastures to accommodate fields which will be used to grow crops for biofuel production. Brazil, which has the most wide scale production of biofuels, has faced the problem of sugarcane fields replacing the virgin rainforest, especially the Amazon, which has no proper law enforcement regarding clearing of forest land for other activities. This causes something known as a ‘carbon debt’ in terms of the forests cleared, greenhouse gas emissions and pesticides/fertilisers used. These might outweigh the potential benefits of using biofuels as energy sources. In Brazil, the carbon debt is estimated to take 17 years to repay as compared to the US which has an estimated 93-year repayment time.

As discussed above, the use of agricultural land to produce crops for biofuel production reduces the supply of food crops in the domestic market which then has to be compensated for elsewhere. For instance, USA has outsourced much of its soybean production to Brazil which leads to even more trees in the rainforest being felled and replaced. According to a recent report by The Telegraph – “Soybeans grown in America have an indirect carbon footprint of 340kg of carbon dioxide per gigajoule, compared to just 85kg for conventional diesel or gasoline. Biodiesel from European rapeseed has an indirect carbon footprint of 150kg of CO2 per gigajoule, while bioethanol from European sugar beet is calculated at 100kg.” All these effects result in the conclusion that biofuels cause four times as much carbon emissions as conventional petrol or diesel. In addition to this, there are other disadvantages of biofuels like the loss of habitat and food for animals and loss of bio diversity. All these factors question the sustainability of using biofuels on a large scale.

Biofuel Disadvantage : Teething Problems

There are some practical issues with biofuel production and distribution that do not make their commercial production favourable in many countries. Firstly, biofuels cannot be transported via pipelines, which makes them inconvenient to handle. Secondly, at present bio-ethanol and biodiesel are more expensive and offered only at select gas stations, which implies their low popularity among the public. Thirdly, massive quantities of water are required to produce crops used in extracting biofuels as well as the production process itself making it an additional stress on the water resources of a region.

In the end ..

While there are clear advantages of biofuels, the disadvantages of biofuels are also diverse and serious. Their side effects which must be considered before putting them into use as a commercial product. Although some countries have implemented the use of biofuels to quite a large extent, further development and research in this area will help in harvesting this form of energy in a more sustainable manner. Thus, despite the many disadvantages of biofuels, they are one of the most reliable and potentially efficient alternate means of generating energy on a global scale.