Biofuels have become increasingly popular in recent years, but we need to understand their advantages and disadvantages if we want to use them properly.
Our current system for fuel and energy is currently causing more destruction to our environment than practically any other source. The global environmental movement has encouraged governments and people to adopt sustainable changes in our society - with biofuels being a potentially huge boost in the right direction.
Advantages of biofuels are that they are renewable sources, they slow climate change, are easily produced, cause less pollution, are accessible, and are energy-efficient. The disadvantages are that they encourage single crop harvesting, resource & food mismanagement, and are climate dependent.
Biofuels are not a new concept in our society, as they have been around for nearly a century. When the idea to utilize vegetable oil as a fuel source was first introduced in the 1930s, it was a groundbreaking concept that had the potential to revolutionize the energy industry. This was the first time that biofuels had been proposed as a fuel alternative. At this stage, oil was already such an ingrained energy source that we were dependent on - with infrastructure and industries being in place. With that being said, traditional fuel sources based solely on non-renewable resources have been under a lot of scrutinies in recent years. We have come to realize that fuel sources like oil are causing a lot of damage to our environment and are one of the biggest contributors to the ongoing climate crisis, which is why we are looking at any potential energy alternatives to lower our carbon footprint and secure the health of our planet. However, we need to understand that just like all energy resources, biofuels are not perfect and they do come with their fair share of advantages and disadvantages.
After extensively researching biofuels, I have been able to gather enough information to determine the advantages and disadvantages of these fuel sources. My research has taught me that in order to use biofuels optimally, we need to implement them in situations where they are environmentally and economically feasible.
What are Biofuels?
Biofuels are essentially fuel sources that are based on plants and crops to create energy and they have the potential to mitigate our reliance on oil and other non-renewable energy sources.
One of the biggest innovations that biofuels have presented is providing a substitute for gasoline to power our cars. They have become a focal point of energy production because they can greatly reduce our carbon footprint. However, some biofuels are considerably better than others for this - with ethanol and biodiesel currently carrying the torch. Here are some examples of common types of biofuels:
If you are the average consumer, you likely have not heard of most of these, as they have not been widely adopted in our society. Corn-based ethanol and biodiesel, on the other hand, have been used much more often by car manufacturers - with many vehicle models being compatible with biofuels.
We are able to extract biofuels from various types of plants such as corn, sugar, and soy. These organic materials are then combined with traditional fuels like gasoline. All in all, biofuels present a lot of possibilities for the future and they have the potential to greatly lower our carbon footprint. Keep reading to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels.
Advantages of Biofuels
The fact that biofuels are presented as plant-based already gives them a lot of appeal to environmentalists around the world. Biofuels present a lot of advantages for sustainable living, which is why many governments and everyday people are in favor of adopting them into our society.
The biggest advantage of biofuels is that they are renewable. We are currently transitioning our energy needs to sources such as solar, wind, and wave, but these do not necessarily help us lower our dependency on gasoline for our cars.
One of the biggest downsides of being reliant on non-renewable energy sources such as oil is that we do not have an infinite supply of it. This means that we are going to have to adjust our oil consumption eventually no matter what, which is why biofuels are a great alternative to transition to early on.
The plants that we use to create biofuels such as corn, sugar, and soy are completely renewable and come from a natural resource. If we are able to create a well-orchestrated system of crops for biofuels, we can considerably lower our dependence on non-renewable resources.
However, we do also use biofuels to meet household and industrial energy needs. Biopower plants can be used for central heating, which is a great substitute alternative for other non-renewable sources such as coal and natural gas. Much like with traditional energy sources, biofuels can be used to generate steam and electricity, which makes them a very dynamic renewable energy.
Slows Climate Change
The greatest threat that humanity is currently facing is climate change. This global phenomenon has resulted in the Earth’s temperatures increasing and ocean levels rising.
Climate change is an existential crisis for many people on the planet and it’s been brought into question a lot by deniers. It has become quite evident that it is real and is being directly caused by humans - with one of the biggest contributors to this being our energy consumption.
How we power our cities, homes, and cars is one of the primary reasons that climate change has gained so much momentum in the last century and in particular the last 50 years. Non-renewable energy sources pump out greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which are encouraging global temperatures to rise.
Biofuels are not a solution to global warming but they can significantly slow down its effects. We are finding that biofuels produce 65 to 86% fewer greenhouse gases and carbon emissions than traditional non-renewable sources such as gasoline. Implementing biofuels on a massive scale around the globe has the potential to do a lot of good in mitigating the effects of the climate crisis so that we can become carbon neutral in the future.
Easier to Produce
Before non-renewable energy sources can be properly utilized they need to be extracted, processed, and refined, which takes a considerable amount of time and energy.
Although biofuels also need to go through a similar process, they are much easier to produce. Instead of needing to drill deep into the surface of the Earth on land or even out at sea, Biofuels can be made from natural sources that are above the surface.
We can either crop specifically for biofuel processing or we can utilize plant waste from used agriculture that would otherwise be useless - enabling us to meet certain energy needs from materials that would otherwise be worthless.
Aside from the greenhouse gas effect that non-renewable energy sources cause, they also create a lot of pollution. Virtually every fossil fuel results in some form of pollution such as from power plants, cars, and processing/extraction facilities.
This causes a variety of different kinds of pollution which are harmful to the environment as well as to humans. So many urban areas around the globe have terrible air quality as a result of smog from vehicles and industrial plants. We are finding out that air pollution has horrible effects on human health - with many illnesses being linked to it.
In addition, industries that harvest and utilize non-renewable resources also greatly contribute to different kinds of environmental pollution such as soil and water pollution. This has resulted in some of the most horrific ecological disasters ever caused by man.
By switching over to biofuels, we can seriously lower pollution rates on a planetary scale, which will preserve ecosystems, natural beauty, as well as human health.
One of the greatest challenges that many nations around the globe face with non-renewable sources such as oil and natural gas is that so many people do not have access to them.
This results in many countries being dependent on energy sources from overseas for their economies to function. Given that biofuels are completely based on plant sources, they essentially enable any nation that can grow crops or produce natural materials to lower its reliance on overseas energy.
This makes biofuels one of the most accessible energy sources on the planet, as the majority of countries around the world are capable of growing plants.
Fuel & Energy Efficient
As the years go on, fuel costs become more and more expensive. This results in people spending thousands of dollars each year to drive their cars, which is a considerable amount when you calculate this over multiple years and decades.
We are now seeing a huge shift in electric vehicles, but most people out there are still driving on standard gasoline. Biofuels are considerably more fuel-efficient and better for your wallet. Although the technology behind oil extraction has advanced over the years, this has not reflected in gas prices going down.
On the other hand, farming methods for biofuel production have also increased significantly which has resulted in prices going down. This means that when you fill your tank, you are not only reducing GHGs (greenhouse gases), but you are also saving yourself on cash in the long run.
In addition, the amount of usable energy that we can retain from fossil fuels is greatly decreased during the extraction process. Biofuels, however, are capable of producing 93% more usable energy during their extraction process.
Disadvantages of Biofuels
Biofuels are an incredible alternative to fossil fuels and they provide so many environmental benefits to our planet, which is why we should begin to implement them in our society wherever appropriate.
With that being said, biofuels come with a lot of disadvantages, which is a major reason why they have not been widely adopted around the globe. We must recognize that even green energy is not always clean energy. There is virtually no energy source out there that does not produce some kind of carbon or environmental footprint.
Biofuels have the potential to do a lot of good for the planet but making a radical transition that solely relies on them is not going to be the most practical or environmentally friendly approach that we can take. If we want to make the most of biofuels we need to use them efficiently. For that, we need to closely examine all of the disadvantages of biofuels so that we can find an optimal way to implement them in our society.
One of the biggest drawbacks of biofuels is that they can encourage poor farming practices. Given that large amounts of crops will need to be grown and harvested to produce plant matter for biofuels, farming operations can easily get exhausted, which puts a lot of strain on the environment.
Many farmers may rely on single-crop farming also known as a monoculture to produce plants. This is a process that involves harvesting only a single type of crop for every grow cycle.
Although this is a much more efficient and practical way to produce crops in the short term, it has very destructive effects on the environment in the long term - in particular on the health of the soil. Soil is a very vital and delicate resource that can be very easily sabotaged when mistreated.
Soil is full of nutrients and micro-organisms that are essential for growing food. These nutrients stay abundant when they are given a variety of different crops to produce. The reason for this is that each crop prefers to use a single type of nutrient within the soil. When a variety of crops are grown and interchanged the nutrients are utilized in balance with one another.
However, when a single crop is grown it exhausts the soil and uses up the preferred nutrient. When this occurs, the entire soil ecosystem is put at risk, which results in unusable soil and land degradation on a massive scale.
Biofuels have the potential to encourage this type of farming practice given that only a handful of crops such as corn, sugar, and soy are commonly used for the process. If large-scale operations for biofuel production were implemented, we would run the risk of degrading our oil.
Virtually every country on the planet can grow crops but they are often limited to specific types based on their climate and region.
This can become problematic for biofuel production given that not every country is going to be able to grow soy, sugar, and cron, which can become an obstacle for many nations to rely on biofuels.
In addition, the fact that many nations will not be able to produce their own biofuels due to their climate and region means that they may become reliant on biofuels from other nations.
Water & Pesticides
Harvesting crops in the industrial farming complex requires large-scale operations that need a considerable amount of water and often pesticides to produce optimum levels of production.
Water is a resource that we take for granted, as we tend to mistakenly assume that we have an abundant supply of it. Whereas in fact, water is a resource that is actually quite scarce, as only 3% of all water on the Earth is fresh and only 1% is accessible to use.
The industrial farming complex is responsible for massive amounts of water use and mismanagement - with more than 40% of all water used being completely wasted due to poor irrigation systems. Given that biofuels will require a lot of water for production, we are going to exacerbate this problem further.
In addition, industrial farming also relies on pesticides for food production. We have become highly dependent on the use of poisons to grow our food - with biofuel sources being no exception to this. Pesticides pose a lot of environmental concerns, which can affect surrounding resources, wildlife, habitat, as well as human health.
To start, pesticides seep into the soil, which can become destructive to its nutrients properties. When this occurs, soil health is put at risk and the possibility of land degradation is only encouraged further. Pesticides have also been known to flow into nearby freshwater channels, which puts the resource at risk, as well as all of those who depend on it - including wildlife and humans.
To this day, roughly 1 billion people on our planet are experiencing malnourishment. Biofuels are not necessarily adding to this problem but they do bring into question whether we can be utilizing the resources required to produce energy to help stop world hunger.
Some biofuels can be created using organic waste, which is not suitable for food supplies. However, the vast majority of biofuel production is based on the idea of growing crops to create alternative energy.
This is particularly problematic since the crops that are being produced are viable food sources that could potentially feed hundreds of millions (if not billions) of people, which could aid or even end world hunger. The idea of food mismanagement with biofuels leaves many people wondering if perhaps our moral priorities are in the right place as a society.
Wildlife & Habitat Destruction
Agricultural lands have been known to be quite destructive for the environment in more ways than one. If we were to adopt biofuels on a massive scale around the globe, it is easy to overlook just how much land would be required to sustain the output of the crops required to meet our energy needs.
Crops can take up a lot of space, which often demands destroying natural habitats that wildlife are dependent on. Clearing this space for crops will put a lot of ecosystems and species at risk - especially if biofuel production is adopted across the globe.
As mentioned above, biofuels are an answer to mitigating the effects of climate change but they are not a solution to resolving them. Just because we switch to a cleaner energy source does not mean that it won't contribute to global warming.
Biofuels are still going to be adding greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, which implies that the climate crisis will perpetuate over the years. We can certainly cut greenhouse gas emissions in other sectors and industries but if we want to tackle this existential threat head-on, then we need to think pragmatically about every contributor to the problem.
Depending on how we approach biofuels, this might not be the best alternative to energy sources that have less harmful effects on climate change such as solar, wind, and wave - especially for powering urban environments.
About THE AUTHOR
James Parker has a Masters degree in Sustainability with a focus on land management, permaculture and regenerative agriculture. He also has experience managing sustainability projects, and is passionate about conservation and sustainability.Read More About James Parker