The disappointing reality of biofuels

Published on Sunday, 17 August 2014 21:32 - Written by

We’re spoiled by technology — we’re used to it exceeding our expectations and wowing us with its new wonders. So it’s a disappointment when an overhyped technology fails to live up to its promises. But that’s what we’re seeing with biodiesel.

When President George W. Bush signed the Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS) into law in 2005, the goal was to lessen the nation’s dependence on foreign oil. We hadn’t yet heard the word “fracking” and we had no idea that the U.S. would soon be out-producing even Saudi Arabia.

Just as the RFS and the biodiesel it mandates no longer make sense in regards to foreign oil dependence, they also no longer make sense in regards to their other promises — benefits to the environment and no harm to diesel engines.

“Biodiesel is fuel that is created from natural oils, fats, and greases and, unlike ethanol (which is far different and less efficient than gasoline), is a closer match to the diesel we’re used to,” explains The Diesel Driver, an industry newsletter. “In theory, diesel engines require little modification to burn it. However, modern diesel engines are being challenged by an ever-increasing amount of biodiesel content and both carmakers and diesel passenger car owners are nervous about the future.”

That’s because most diesels are designed to burn fuel that is no more than 5 percent biodiesel, while the government is now pushing fuel that’s up to 20 percent biodiesel.

Mercedes-Benz warns those higher concentrations of biodiesel “may cause severe damage to your engine/fuel system and are not approved. … Any damages caused by the use of such non-approved fuels will not be covered by the Mercedes-Benz Limited Warranty.”

Biodiesel also disappoints in its promises to be better for the environment.

“Biodiesel loses ground when the total environmental costs of producing the fuel are taken into account,” explains industry analyst Andrew Topf. “Nitrogen fertilizers applied to soils that grow crops to make biodiesel and ethanol emit nitrous oxide, a potent and long-lasting greenhouse gas. Carbon dioxide is released from soil when land is plowed for planting crops. There is also evidence that links biodiesel to higher tailpipe emissions of nitrous and nitrogen oxides.”

Of course, the facts don’t seem to matter to the lawmakers who want to renew the tax breaks for the biodiesel industry.

“Renewable energy supports thousands of jobs and generates billions of dollars in investment across the country,” Sen. Chuck Grassley claimed in July. “If the Senate truly wants to create and retain jobs, restoring clean energy tax incentives should be at the top of the list.”

That argument can be — and often is — used to support any government boondoggle. But results matter, and biodiesel has done little but disappoint.

There’s a larger case to be made regarding all biofuels, including ethanol: they’re a poor use of food crops.

As The Diesel Drive notes, “In August, the United Nations called on the U.S. to halt the [Renewable Fuel Standards] policy as a measure to avert a global food crisis.”

Biodiesel isn’t the wonder technology we were promised.