28 MAY 2008

Smart innovation will save money over the long haul

Biofuels are the hot topic. Make fuel from the things we usually consider waste, and then folks can drive their SUVs with some peace of mind knowing the source of energy is renewable. Save on fossil fuels and reduce pollution emissions.

That just seems like the classic win-win situation, especially since gas is hitting the $4 a gallon area. But, wait a minute. Hold on. A new study is out.

Now, some of the most popular current biofuel stocks might have exactly the opposite impacts than intended, according to a study by a biologist at the University of Washington, Bothell.

The study looked at factors such as the energy needed to produce a renewable fuel source compared with the amount of energy produced, the impact on soil fertility, and effects on food supply when fuels based on crops such as corn and soybeans mix with fossil fuels. Based on those factors, the authors determined that corn-based ethanol is the worst alternative overall.

"It's foolish to say we should be developing a particular biofuel when that could mean that we're just replacing one problem with another," said lead author Martha Groom of UW Bothell.

Of course studies need to be done. We have to be smart about moving to a new genre of fuel sources, but be careful not to slam the brakes on too fast. After all, today's most common products were not cost effective at one point in their development.

The study says precise calculations should determine the ecological footprints of large-scale cultivation of various crops used for biofuels.

Because corn requires such large amounts of energy to grow and then convert to ethanol, the net energy gain of the resulting fuel is modest. Using a crop such as switchgrass, common forage for cattle, would require much less energy to produce the fuel, and using algae would require even less.

Changing direction to biofuels based on switchgrass or algae may be the way to go, once technologies are further developed.

Let's remember the goal. We want to become less reliant on fossil fuels. That may mean we need to spend more upfront to end up paying less over the long haul. Let's not get too study happy and get caught up in the debate.

Talk to me.