Blog Update!
For those of you not following me on Facebook, as of the Summer of 2019 I've moved to Central WA, to a tiny mountain town of less than 1,000 people.

I will be covering my exploits here in the Cascades, as I try to further reduce my impact on the environment. With the same attitude, just at a higher altitude!

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Biofuel quandary

I wanted to get y'all's opinion on something that I was thinking about as I was driving home. I was sitting at a stoplight next to a car running (quite proudly given the number of bumper-stickers) biodiesel. This is rather common in Seattle as there are several biofueling stations in the area. In fact, we were considering buying a diesel vehicle to replace one of our Honda's a few years back.

What I was thinking was about what we were reading in Omnivore's Dilemma regarding how much oil was involved in growing the corn (or soy) and the manufacturing of biodiesel. At least one person commented on how the amount of oil required to produce one gallon of biodiesel was so high that we might as well just burn the gasoline directly.

This led me to ruminate about how the local biofueling stations acquire their biodiesel. I don't know if they go through the trouble of getting spent oil from restaurants or how they get it. I know that the local Safeway is installing a biofueling station and I suspect that maybe they are getting the biofuel from processing the spent oil from the Safeway bakeries and delis in the areas, but I'm just making it up at this point.

So, I'm thinking that a biodiesel car isn't such a hot idea and that a hybrid car in the future would be better or, if they ever get off the ground and are more available, an electric car since we can charge the batteries using our wind/hydro energy.

I know you all can argue that I should just get rid of the cars altogether and, for the most part, I could agree with you there. We really could easily eliminate one vehicle as we don't really use it, but it's paid off, has low miles and it's nice to have around just in case we need it. My husband takes the bus to work as I did before we had kids. Once both kids are in elementary school (within walking distance) it's quite plausible we could easily live without cars, but more likely we'll pare down to one car.

And here comes the more imminent quandary - while I was digesting all of this (the stoplight wasn't really that long, it's just that my mind tends to race), I thought of the BioHeat that we buy for our oil furnace. It's a blend of traditional oil fuel and biodiesel. I have no idea what the source of the biofuel for that is and I suspect if I called and asked they may not know either. But if it takes more oil to produce the same burning "amount" of BioHeat, isn't it just better to buy the oil directly? Am I spending extra money on BioHeat and doing more harm than good? I know it burns cleaner, but somewhere along the way, I'm sure other pollution was produced in the manufacturing.

Help! What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I share your concern. I heard Gore (?) interviewed on this topic awhile back. He said that this first generation of biodiesel wasn't really an improvement when you consider just the factors that you mention, but that the next wave of biodiesel (do I remember what that means? no) would be a vast improvement. Blah blah, I don't remember the details because I caught the interview with kids distracting me, but the gist was that no, it's not great now, but the future looks very promising. I'm skeptical.

On the other hand, I am completely fascinated with the idea of buying a used diesel just so I can go with Straight Vegetable Oil (SVO). One blogging family has converted their diesel to run on veggie oil (used restaurant oil) that they pump straight from the container. They are blogging their experience here:

Check it out.

Greenpa said...

Take a look at my second comment on your previous post. This IS an area where I am an expert. Even a recognized one; they ask me to come to meetings and everything.

All the media noise about biofuels is at SUCH a high pitch right now; the Heat to Light ratio is approximately 50 to 1. Really.

Best thing for regular folks to do is- just make your best guess; and go ahead with it. And if/when it turns out to be wrong in a couple years; DON'T beat yourself up about it. Just make your NEXT best guess.

Not your fault; it's the noise- and the fantasies of money. "Get rich with switchgrass!"

My prediction- that one is never going to happen. A bunch of the others won't either. Bio diesel looks less horrible than some- UNLESS they're using palm oil. Palm oil is an ecological disaster, mostly being hidden by the profits it's making. Call up a palm oil company and ask if you can bring your TV camera crew to document their good works... seen any of those?

Anonymous said...

I posted about my concerns about ethanol a while back ( I really agree that right now, biofuels in general are just "making noise" and not doing a whole lotta good.

Anonymous said...

Well, that totally didn't link like I thought... oops!

Anonymous said...

Personally I'm not wild about biodiesel. It does tkae a lot of oil to make and seems pointless in the long run. I'd go hybrid or an electric car.

e4 said...

I think there are two problems with biofuels - and this applies to pretty much any biofuels.

First, it takes energy to create them. The energy returned on energy invested is generally not great, especially when we've been spoiled by petroleum for so long. Stick a pipe in the ground and stand back.

But second, biofuels can never scale up. Several thousand people using waste veggie oil is great. Several hundred million is just not feasible.

If you think about it, fossil fuels are like biofuel concentrate. Eons of plant material stockpiled underground. How can we replace thousands of years' worth of plant energy (fossil fuels) with a single year of crops? (Especially keeping in mind that we have to eat too.)

Conservation has the biggest impact in many cases. The more the better.

Christy said...

I tend to think that using used vegetable oil to make fuel is better than throwing it away. Using plants to make fuel, not a good idea. So, if you make your own biodiesel from used cooking oil I think that is a pretty good plan. Buying it at a pump, I have to think isn't from used cooking oil.

QT said...

I have to agree that at this point, it is like throwing a dart, but once you get close to the dartboard, you will see that all the spaces are filled in with light, sweet crude.

Driving less seems to be the best option now. Plugging in an electric car charged by wind/solar the second best option - in the future.

Anonymous said...

You can convert your car to run on straight veggie oil - better for the environment. You can then set up relationships with restaurants to collect their used oil for free (some places will even pay you for disposing it). With a $40 home filtration kit you can filter the oil and put it directly into your car. As people have said, this isn't sustainable for millions to do but right now they're not, and it is to me the best solution until we come up with a widespread one.

oopuy said...

I agree with Anon...get a disel car and covert it to run of vegetable oil--especially that left over from restaurants. it's a great deal...

Greenpa said...

mnbilre4-"But second, biofuels can never scale up. Several thousand people using waste veggie oil is great. Several hundred million is just not feasible."

Huzzah! You are absoLUTELY right- and this is something the guys pushing the tech companies keep saying is not so.

They've already tried to take tribal forest and clear it for sugar cane in Africa- for ethanol- and they're clearing more tropical forest in Malaysia etc for palm oil- for diesel- and it's already hurting people and environment. Just starting up.

Then they say, no, no - we'll make it from switchgrass! Eventually. maybe.

My question then is - so, you've got 10 million acres of dry switch grass, 5 feet tall? Wanna guess how spectacular that will be when somebody tosses a match in it? Better than any prairie fire there ever was.

Greenpa said...

lol. e4; sorry about that. Crunchy, your "verification" is being annoying, for me at least; I often have to do it 3 times to get it to work; don't know why. that weird start to my previous comment happened when the cursed cursor jumped without telling me.

I just turned it off in my blog, though I still screen. I've only had to delete like 4 robot posts; no biggie.

2nd try...

Anonymous said...

I'm with Greenpa on this one, you just do the best you can, and for our family, choosing a diesel car that gets 50 miles per gallon was a much better choice than a SUV guzzling down gasoline. We live in the mountains and I can say with confidence that very few people NEED 4WD here, even when it snows 7 months out of the year. It's the best we can do for now: become a one vehicle family, use diesel and biodiesel, and ride our bikes as much as we can. Also, I think choosing an alternative fuel sends the right message to others. In 5 years we may decide diesel isn't for us, but we won't have blindly supported the use of gasoline.

valerie said...

On a recent trip to upstate NY, my husband and I went to a "green" vehicle expo. One of the vehicles on display was a Dodge pickup truck that runs on ethanol. When pressed about the amount of oil that goes into making ethanol, the representative from Dodge trotted out a few stock phrases such as "ethanol is energy neutral" and "ethanol is renewable." I think he's got a few wires crossed.

I'm not sure that the equation used to draw the conclusion "ethanol is energy neutral" considers all of the factors. Does he mean to imply that it takes as much energy derived from fossil fuels (in the form of fertilizer, fuel for the tractors and processing equipment, etc.) as you get when you burn the ethanol produced? What about the energy input from the sun? How does that factor in?

And "ethanol is renewable?" If fossil fuels are used in any part of the process, how is ethanol renewable?

As I walked away, a woman (who was there with the truck) said with a shrug "It's the future." My response, "It's A future." did not seem to go over well. I left without taking a free T-shirt...

Anonymous said...

I love our eco-cyber-community. I love rational, calm discussions like this one.

I don't know enough about bio fuels to have a strong opinion. I think Dr. Dan makes his own, so it might be worth calling him up and asking about the fuel it takes to make it. He seems like a rational guy and I can't imagine him on this crusade if he knew it wasn't worth it.

I am worried about Safeway though. here are some scenarios I've played in my head at stoplights: 1. Safeway will pilot biodiesel in neighborhoods like ours that already have an established local guy. Loyal customers will continue buying local and Safeway will say "oh, we tried it and no one wants it." 2. Safeway will be able to sell the fuel much much less pushing local guy out of business. and 3. Tom Foolery. What percentage do we think they will actually have?

And then there's me who wants to applaud Safeway for getting on board and doing something. I just b!tched about poo-pooers on my blog so I better not do it too!

Anonymous said...

Um, put an 'or' or two in between those scenarios and they'll read much better.

Anonymous said...

Another alternative is car sharing. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have 3 different car sharing companies. The one I belong to is Flexcar, but there is also City Carshare and Zipcar. I checked, and Flexcar operates in Seattle as well. And many of their cars are hybrids, at least here they are.

If you want to give up owning a car, but you still want to be able to drive when you need to (I drive maybe once a month. Others need to drive more often) it's a great alternative. To me, it's really wasteful for everyone to have a car sitting in their driveway not being driven much of the time when someone else could be using it.

Sharing in general is a much more sustainable way of life. We already share books (library) and here we even share tools (Berkeley Tool library.) The more things we share, the fewer new things need to be created in the world, hence fewer resources used.

I know this is not about bio-fuels (which I know very little about) but I do think it's relevant to the whole driving issue.

Isle Dance said...

I think the answer is in the exact, complete calculations. The challenge is gathering the data so as to make those calculations. I'd love to know the breakdown, myself.

Anonymous said...

Like Greenpa, I think it's important to think, act, do something and not get too frustrated by all the conflicting information. Then, of course, don't beat yourself up for making the wrong choice. Reevaluate and act again.

Although I have no solutions, I do have another argument against ethanol, as an example. I saw a document on an ethanol plantation in Brazil. The sugar cane was grown intensively, not organically, and then burned before harvest, emitting a thick, heavy smoke in the air and the workers' lungs. The land was useless after 5 years. The small land owners were tricked into renting out their land to agribusiness who ruined it.

The working conditions were grueling and the workers hardly earned anything because they were forced to pay for miserable housing and food on the plantation. They had been promised work by a recruiter who toured villages recruiting unemployed youth and men, promising them a solution. But now they were stuck there, in the middle of nowhere, and couldn't "pay" a ride home. They worked with injuries and at least one man died from an infected injury.

Biofuel from plants not only guarantees *nothing* in terms of *human rights*, it replaces farmland with "fuel"land, which takes food from peasant farmworkers. It was sickening to see how the workers lived so that "we" could drive "clean".

The documentary was called something like "The Cat's Part" in Portuguese, by a small Belgian filmmaker. I doubt much has come of it. The "Cat" is what they call the recruiter, whose false promises earn him a percentage of their earnings.


Deb G said...

I might be mentioning something everyone here knows, but just in case here goes another train of thought.
When we start raising crops for fuel, the crops may not be organic, they may be genetically modified. I live close to a major agricultural area and it's a real concern about "fuel" crops coming into the area because they could contaminate the organic seed crops....

My solution for now has been to sell the car and walk, bike and bus. It's been working out great.

Anonymous said...

I just read a great post about biofuels. It's a bit long,
But the basic idea that the post revolves around is "there will be strong economic incentives to continue biofuels growth at the expense of the world's poor, and that mass starvation could occur quite rapidly, [...], as soon as 5 years from now and under existing policies. That is, if we don't act now, we may "accidentally" starve billions of people in our quest for oil substitutes".

Anonymous said...

The biodiesel that you buy at fueling stations is not made from recycled cooking oil. If you want to go that route you need to brew your own, or modify your vehicle to run on straight veg oil once it is warmed up.