Monday, April 14, 2008

Krugman and biofuels

On Paul Krugman's recent op-ed piece in the times: Most importantly, he’s drawing attention to an issue that deserves it: food prices (here's another good post on this). I’ve written before about how poor people are harmed more by high energy prices than rich people, but they suffer even more from high food prices. The link between food and energy is strong ( farming is, as Krugman says, energy intensive and most fertilizer is a product of natural gas), so I don’t see food getting cheaper if energy is getting more expensive.

But I don’t think Krugman should brush off biofuels as generally as he does. Yes, corn ethanol is a terrible idea, but before you throw all biofuels out, you have to ask yourself A: are all biofuels are as stupid as corn ethanol?, B: will biofuels ever become reasonable with technological advances? and C: how will we replace petroleum?

First and foremost, no reasonable person is proposing that biofuels will entirely replace petroleum at our current consumption. Complete dismissal of biofuels without understanding or discussing this point is unreasonable. Now, here are my answers. A: No, not all biofuels are as stupid as corn. First, there’s a lot of talk about food vs fuel and I agree, corn and other similarly inefficient sources of biofuel should not be grown for fuel on farmland. But I want to note that algae oil can be grown in the middle of the sahara or even on floating platforms in the middle of the ocean. Second, corn, being possibly the worst source of biofuels on the planet has given all biofuels a bad name. From crop growth to conversion, corn is extraordinarily inneficient for producing biofuels. There’s a lot more biofuels out there than corn, so don’t just take the idiocy that has surrounded corn ethanol and attribute it to all the other ones. B: Remember when people used to think lightening was a thunderbolt thrown by god? Remember 10 years ago when a webpage like this would have taken an hour to load? All I’m saying is that someone in some lab could come up with an advance in biofuels technology that would drastically change the feasibility of biofuels. The easy retort to my answer is “ya, someone in some lab could also come up with a way to generate petroleum from bottlecaps and used staples, but it doesn’t mean we should give him money to work on that.” Well, my answer to that probable criticism is really question C. C: Transportation fuel pretty much has to be a liquid. This may change if someone invents a ridiculously sweet battery, but batteries have their environmental problems too. So, assuming we really need a liquid fuel, what are our options: We can get some liquid fuels from tar sands in Canada and shale oil in the US, but that’s worse than regular petroleum for climate change. We know how to liquify coal, but that’s a terrible idea . Hydrogen sounds great, but it’s either made from fossil fuel (natural gas) or made from biomass, which puts it on par with biofuels. So what’s left? I think you need to put all your money on batteries, go back to horse and buggies or see what you can do with biofuels. I'm glad Krugman wrote the column, but he shouldn’t have dismissed biofuels with such a general remark

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