"When most people talk about biofuels, they talk about using oils or grease from plants."
Craig Venter, Scientist
Biofuels are fuels that are produced out of biomass of various types.
This can include fuel production from manure, algae or crops.
Among others, biofuels include biogas, ethanol and biodiesel.
Even though biofuels might be a promising alternative energy source in the future, there are still plenty of downsides related to it. In this article, the pros and cons of biofuels are examined.
Biofuels can be regarded as a rather green source of energy since the overall adverse impact on our environment is significantly lower compared to conventional fuels. Since biofuels can be generated through the use of by products from crop yields or other organic waste materials, the use of biofuels can contribute to an efficient use of our natural resources.
Since biofuels are made out of organic materials like plants, algae or agricultural by-products like manure, they can be regarded to be entirely renewable and sustainable since crops and other organic materials can be grown in perpetuity.
Therefore, especially in the context of the transition from fossil to renewable energies, biofuels may play a crucial role and may be able to maintain their status as important green energy source.
Once the necessary equipment has been installed, the unit price for energy that is produced through biofuels is quite low compared to conventional fuels.
Biofuels may also be stable in price since the production of biofuels does not rely on fossil fuels and therefore, independent of price increases for fossil fuels on the world market, the price level of biofuels may remain stable over a long period of time.
Thus, also in terms of economics and profits, biofuels may be a promising energy source compared to the use of fossil fuels.
Biomass is not a scarce resource, meaning that there is plenty of biomass available on a global scale, even much more than what is needed for the biofuel production industry. Thus, there should be no shortages in the raw materials for biofuel production in most of the countries worldwide. Therefore, biofuel production may be a global opportunity, especially for poor developing countries which want to catch up in development.
Since through farming or other processes, large amounts of biomass are produced, the dependence on other countries regarding the biomass supply should be rather low. Almost all countries should be able to produce enough biomass to ensure their biofuel production.
This may be quite positive for those countries since this kind of financial independence from other countries also implies an independence from increases for biomass prices.
This price stability may be quite attractive for many countries since they know that they could produce biofuels in a profitable manner for a quite long time and do not have to fear an increase of prices for raw materials.
Since there is an abundance of biomass in many countries of our planet, the production of biofuels can also be regarded to be quite flexible and scalable. For instance, if a region needs more biofuels, farmers could simply deliver more biomass to biofuel generators, which in turn could increase the production of biofuels. Thus, if biofuels become more popular for several reasons, it would be rather easy to expand biofuel production.
Biofuels are also a quite mature technology since plenty of research has been done over the past decades. Therefore, processes regarding biofuel production have been optimized and there is profound knowledge regarding biofuels.
This knowledge could be transferred to developing countries which could improve the efficiency of their biofuel production processes, which would in turn lower their production costs, increase their output and would strengthen the overall economic development of the respective country.
Since biofuels can be produced out of many different raw materials, including manure, crop remains or algae, biofuels can be regarded as a quite flexible energy source.
For instance, if there are years where crop yields are rather low, more manure or algae could be used for the production of biofuels instead.
Thus, this diversification in raw materials regarding biofuel production makes biofuels quite attractive since this technology is not that dependent on a single raw material.
Contrary to conventional fuels where large amounts of oil or other commodities have to be transported over quite long distances, the production of biofuels does not require the shipping of fossil resources. The required biomass for the production of biofuels can often be planted or harvested from areas nearby biofuel production facilities.
Thus, compared to fossil fuels, the production of biofuels does not require long transportation distances, which in turn lowers air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and the implied global warming issue.
Compared to other energy sources, the production chain of biofuels can be regarded as quite safe and eco-friendly. Since there is no long transportation of raw materials like oil that could potentially contaminate our ecosystems in case of accidents, the production of biofuels can be regarded safer compared to conventional fuels.
The production of biofuels implies the emissions of lower amounts of greenhouse gases compared to the production of conventional fuels. Thus, the use of biofuels could mitigate the global warming issue to a certain extent, however, there is still some level of greenhouse gas emissions related to biofuels.
Especially in regions that suffer from high levels of unemployment, an engagement in the biofuel industry might be quite attractive for those regions since it would provide many jobs and would increase the average income and the overall living conditions of many people.
Therefore, governments in those regions should consider to provide financial incentives for biofuel companies to open branches in those areas.
For instance, this could come through tax advantages for those companies, which would increase the incentive for companies to engage in those regions.
Biofuels already play a major role in the global energy business. However, they may also remain an important alternative energy source in the transition process from fossil to renewable energies.
Scientists claim that we only have a quite short period of time to accomplish this transition process in order to slow down global warming and to avoid the horrible consequences related to a significant increase in global air and water temperature.
Thus, in order to ensure our energy supply during this transition process, biofuels may play a crucial role in the next years and decades.
Even though biofuels have plenty of advantages, there are still some downsides related to it. One disadvantage is that the production of biofuels can be quite inefficient, depending on the raw material and also the setup of the biofuel production facility. Depending on the generation of biofuel production, conventional fuels may be much more efficient in terms of material input and energy output.
For the production of biofuels, large amounts of raw materials have to be processed. This in turn may translate into shortages of those raw materials in other industry branches. Moreover, the processing of large amounts of commodities may also stress machines quite much, which may in turn lead to high costs for repairs.
Even though the production process regarding biofuels itself can be considered to be quite eco-friendly since it only implies the emission of relatively low levels of greenhouse gases, the overall production chain still implies significant greenhouse gas emissions.
For instance, in order to grow crops for biofuel production, significant amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted into our atmosphere through the use of machines and other vehicles that are often run by fossil fuels.
In order to grow large amounts of crops, significant amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are used. However, these substances are quite harmful for our environment since they pollute the soil and may also lead to groundwater pollution as well as to ozone layer depletion. Thus, the production of biofuels is not as green as one might think.
The production of biofuels implies high initial investment costs, since plenty of machines are needed and many official requirements have to be met before firms are allowed to engage in the biofuel market. Thus, those high initial costs may deter many small farmers from engaging in this industry since they may simply be not willing to invest large amounts of money in the first place.
The production of biofuels may also increase the world market prices for food. For instance, if crops are used for biofuel production instead of food, there is a drop in supply which may turn in higher food prices. Moreover, if more space is used for biofuel farming, less space can be used for food production. Thus, if the production of biofuels competes with the production of food, this may lead to increasing world market prices for food of several sorts.
As mentioned before, the production of biofuels can lead to increasing global food prices. In turn, this could lead to serious global hunger and starvation for millions of people worldwide who rely on stable food prices in order to be able to survive.
Thus, in the worst case, the production of biofuels may increase food prices up to a point where millions of people may no longer be able to afford basic food, which may even lead to the death of many people in poor regions of our planet.
Water is a quite scarce resource, which will become even scarcer, more valuable and more expensive in the future due to global warming. However, the production of biofuels also implies the use of plenty of water, which could be urgently needed by the local population in order to survive. Thus, in the future, it may be quite questionable if biofuels are the correct way to go when it comes to an ethical perspective.
The production chain of biofuels involves multiple steps. Depending on the generation of biofuels, this production process may also imply serious levels of pollution of many sorts. Thus, biofuels, although they can be considered to be greener compared to fossil fuels, are not entirely green at all.
Biofuel that is produced out of crops also implies the use of large areas of land, which could be used for other important purposes like food production instead. Thus, the production of biofuels may destroy the livelihood of many people, especially of those who live in poor areas and rely on the crop yields of farmers in order to ensure their basic food supply.
Since large areas of land are needed in order to harvest enough crops and other materials for biofuel production, deforestation may be a natural consequence. This can be observed in the Amazon Rainforest, where large areas of forest are cut or burned down in order to get more space for farming.
However, deforestation contributes to global warming since trees are storage spaces for carbon dioxide and through deforestation, large amounts of carbon dioxide are emitted into our atmosphere.
Deforestation related to biofuel production may also lead to a serious loss in biodiversity. For instance, most of our global animal and plant species live in our rainforests.
If those rainforests are destroyed and used for agricultural purposes instead, chances are that many animal and plant species may become endangered since their natural habitats have been destroyed.
This problem is especially severe for species that only occur in a few spots on our planet. If those areas are subject to deforestation, this may even lead to the extinction of those species.
Even though biofuels have been produced for quite a while, the general public is still quite skeptical about this kind of technology and many people still prefer to use conventional fuels instead.
This is also due to the fact that many cars and other electric vehicles are still not suitable to use biofuels. Thus, the expansion of biofuels may be quite difficult, especially in times where electric cars are considered to be the leading technology for future mobility.
Relatively green energy
Renewable and sustainable
Low energy unit price
Large amounts of biomass available
Lower dependence on other countries
Flexible & scalable
Diversification in raw materials possible
No long transportation of resources
Low greenhouse gas emissions
Support for energy transition process
Rather inefficient energy production
Large amounts of raw materials needed
Greenhouse gases in the production chain
Implies the use of fertilizers and pesticides
Significant initial investments necessary
Possible increase in global food prices
Hunger and starvation
High water consumption
Implies many different sorts of pollution
Large areas of land needed
May contribute to deforestation
Loss of biodiversity
Skeptical attitude of the general public
Biofuels are a promising technology which is already used on a global scale. However, it also has some serious downsides which may prevent biofuels to become a leading power source in the future. In the end, biofuels may lose the raise against other promising green power sources which are even more eco-friendly and also more sophisticated from an ethical standpoint.
About the author
My name is Andreas and my mission is to educate people of all ages about our environmental problems and how everyone can make a contribution to mitigate these issues.
As I went to university and got my Master's degree in Economics, I did plenty of research in the field of Development Economics.
After finishing university, I traveled around the world. From this time on, I wanted to make a contribution to ensure a livable future for the next generations in every part of our beautiful planet.
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