Biodiesel: A Book Review
Biodiesel is one of the most intriguing of those new possibilities...crops of soybeans and rapeseed and maybe even algae, grown by present day farmers, processed into a diesel fuel substitute that works just fine in modern Volkswagons and Mack trucks and school buses--even in the oil-burning furnace down in the basement. It is potentially a truely sweet solution, offering a new market for hard-pressed local farmers even as it begins to help solve some of our most pressing environmental problems. Greg Pahl's book...manages to raise the right questions (and raise them early enough) so that we can perhaps build a structure for this developing industry that serves local farmers and processors instead of simply corporate agribusiness giants.
--Bill McKibben in the Forward to Greg Pahl's Biodiesel
Biodiesel has been getting a bad name because of the potential for competition with food production. It has always struck me that some of the loudest voices criticizing biodiesel has come from the oil, coal and nuke lobbies. But it did seem like competition with food production may be a critical problem with biodiesel.
When I had the opportunity to review a new book (really a substantially updated edition of a previously published book) called Biodiesel by Greg Pahl, published by Chelsea Green Press, I was quite interested in learning about this technology. Is it a viable alternative? What is it's potential? And what is the danger of competition with food production.
Greg Pahl's book is extremely well researched and fair. It brings up all the pros and cons about biodiesel.
The issue begins, of course, with oil. Oil currently has two major problems: 1.) it's environmental impact is increasingly devastating to our health, economy and environment, and 2.) annual demand is four times greater than the volume of new oil reserves discovered, meaning oil prices keep going up and will continue to keep going up. Since our economy is enormously dependent on oil, these ever increasing prices will become an ever increasing burden on the economy. As pointed out in Greg Pahl's book, even the new recent oil finds touted as being so huge will only add a few days' supply to the global oil market. This is why the Republican "drill, drill, drill" energy policy is so stupid. In fact, the McCain/Bush Oil Drilling Plan will only reduce the price of oil by $1 per Barrel by 2020...yep, their plan will only reduce the price of oil by less than 1% in more than 10 years. "Drill, drill, drill" will do NOTHING to alleviate our current economic crisis and the current inflation caused by increasing oil prices. This isn't new. In fact I remember way back when North Sea Oil was touted as such a major solution...well that peaked in 1999 and has been declining ever since so that the UK is now an oil importer rather than exporter again. We need new energy sources to supplement and replace oil before we can see any real progress economically and environmentally.
There is no single source of energy that will do this in the near to medium term. We need a multi-resource solution that exploits the local energy sources of each region. We need to replace our dependence on Middle East oil with multiple solutions that create local jobs and local (hence more efficient) energy production. It is in this context that biodiesel should be considered.
When considering the use of oil in our economy, cars and other forms of transportation account for nearly 30% of world energy use and 95% of global oil consumption (numbers from the Worldwatch Institute and quoted in Pahl's book). This means transportation is an area where we MOST need to address oil consumption. Some alternatives, like compressed natural gas, use domestic resources, but require extensive retrofitting of vehicles. Hydrogen power would require complete retrofitting as well and our current energy production cannot supply the necessary energy needed to produce enough hydrogen. The advantage of biodiesel is that it takes little or no retrofitting, relies on local resources, is easily produced and cleaner burning. In other words, biodiesel is an alternative we can use right now without requiring truckers to retrofit their trucks, school districts to buy a whole new fleet of buses, or homeowners to replace their boilers before they are ready to. Biodiesel is not perfect, but it is currently available at an increasingly reasonable cost.
One thing that has struck me for some time is the fact that in many ways we HAVE to make use of biodiesel because there are too many industries where diesel fuel is a mainstay and will not be able to retool any time soon. To name a few: trucking, railroads and home heating in much of NYC (and I assume much of the Northeast). In none of these areas of our economy is there the financial ability to retool away from diesel fuel in the next 10-20 years. So we need an alternative to fossil fuel diesel and that alternative is biodiesel. I think this is inevitable.
In Biodiesel, Greg Pahl begins by discussing the history of the diesel engine and of biodiesel as a fuel. Truth is, when the diesel engine was designed, it was INTENDED to use biodiesel. The technology was designed with biodiesel in mind. There is some controversy over whether modern diesel engines, which have been designed with petrodiesel in mind, would need any retrofitting at all to run on biodiesel. In general, biodiesel burns cleaner than petrodiesel and so can be better for the engine. The consensus is that any modern diesel engine or basement boiler for home heating can run on up to a 20%/80% biodiesel/petrodiesel mix (called B20) with no ill effects and no retrofitting. Above that level, some people believe that some gaskets wear out faster with pure biodiesel (B99 or B100) but those gaskets can easily be replaced with ones that won't wear out faster. Ultimately, our entire economy could replace all diesel fuel used with B20 without any consumer even noticing (price issues aside). The result would be a reduction in pollution, a reduction in greenhouse gasses and a boon to farmers and local economies. This could be a reasonable goal if done right.
One of the greatest applications of biodiesel is using used cooking oil. This won't be much of a resource in rural areas, but in an urban setting like New York City, Hong Kong or Tokyo where the restaurant industry produces a huge quantity of used cooking oil, this can be a huge resource. Right now, disposal of used cooking oil is a big problem. Instead it could be reprocessed easily into fuel which can be used to fuel buses and home heating. Where available in large quantities (urban settings), used cooking oil burns even cleaner than biodiesel produced from fresh vegetable oil. And this is a source that does not compete with any other part of the economy (like food production). This is, again, not a magic bullet, but it is a very logical and easy solution to the energy needs of urban truck and bus fleets, some urban mass transit systems and old fashioned home heating systems that are still in widespread use. Collection and local processing of used cooking oil in NYC into B20 fuel could fuel the heating needs of a good chunk of the city without any serious retrofitting. The NY City Council, led by David Yassky and Jim Gennaro, is looking into encouraging biodiesel use for home heating. If this can be tied to collection of used cooking oil and processing of it into B20 fuel, this could be one important step to a greener NYC. Similar solutions could be found in most urban centers in the world where frying in oil is a staple of the diet. According to Greg Pahl, if everyone in the northeastern US used just a B5 blend (only 5% biodiesel), it could save 50 million gallons of heating oil per year...and it would reduce pollution, particularly those goopy particulates that makes NYC so dingy looking.
Greg Pahl presents many experimental projects across the world that use biodiesl. For example, the US National Park system's "Truck in the Park Project" which fueld trucks with 100% biodiesel quite successfully. Started in Yellowstone, this project has been so successful that it has been exanded to more than 50 other parks. Trial projects like this have been successful all over the world showing the potential for biodiesel. And, of course, Europe haas led the way, yet another example where shortsightedness on the part of American politicians, particularly the Republican Party, has allowed the technological initiative to migrate elsewhere. When turning to Europe, Pahl shows very definitively that biodiesel is a good, viable alternative that helps local economies...but it only works when the government helps it along. This often takes the form of tax incentives and/or subsidies. When the political will is there, biodiesel can be extremely successful. When the political will is lacking or fades, then biodiesel becomes unworkable. I should note that this is the case with many industries, including nuclear power which is completely dependent on government subsidizing the construction of nuclear plants and on government subsidy to help dispose of the waste. Currently, the European biodiesel industry is NOT doing well due to increasing prices (well, prices are rising on EVERYTHING, it seems, affecting ALL industries), decreased political will, and bad publicity due to the possibility of competition with food production.
Pahl also describes the actual process of producing biodiesel, a simple process that I realized I could do myself if I wanted to since it really uses simple chemicals like lye (commonly used to unclog drains in homes around the world) and ethanol or methanol. Pahl doesn't give an actual recipe for making biodiesel, but he does include web and book references which do. He also discusses the MANY possible resources, or "feedstocks" which can be used to make biodiesel, and it is here where the possible competition with food production becomes an issue. Competition with food production is an issue with the use of crops like soybean for a feedstock. But there are hundreds of possible feedstocks including oil palms (the palm kernel oil is better used for food while palm oil, from a different part of the same plant, is best used for soap, candles...or biodiesel), coconuts, peanuts...even things like the widely grown jatropha plant, mustard (often a weed), hemp (more fuel, if you pardon the pun, for the vocal, if somewhat small and seemingly stoned hemp lobby), and, prehaps most promising in the long term, algae. Aside from algae, all these sources put together could reasonbly provide 10-20% of America's diesel needs. But algae could potentially produce more than all other sources put together. One pilot project by the US Department of Agriculture used waste carbon dioxide from a coal-fired power plant to grow pond algae which was then used to prodice biodiesel. Of course this isn't an ideal situation because coal-power has other problems, but at least it shows the kind of potential for greater efficiency and the alternatives we have in energy and fuel production. If America (or China...or Japan...or...) wanted to get serious about biodiesel, development of algae as a feedstock is probably a must. I should note, though, that the US Department of Energy's experimentation with algae as a feedstock for biodiesel was ended by the Republican Congress in 1998 due to budget cuts after extensive pressure from the petroleum lobby. Just think what could have been accomplished by now if we had kept that project going over the last 10 years!
Greg Pahl extensively compares biodiesl with petrodiesel in terms of energy content, emissions, effect on engines, performance in cold weather (can be a problem for some biodiesel fuels), biodegradability, toxicity, etc. Some of what he discusses wouldn't have occurred to me, like the fact that the lower toxicity and flamibility of biodiesel compared with petrodiesel, it is easier and safer to transport and store...which would, I would think, mean lower insurance costs.
In the US biodiesel is problematic right now because it is affected primarily by two industries: the petroleum industry which is doing all it can to crush biodiesel, and the soy and corn growers (who often are the same people) who want soy and corn to be used as biofuel sources (biodiesel and ethanol). This means that competition with food production is a real concern, driving up BOTH food AND biofuel prices, and it means the petroleum industry is always eager to emphasize these problems, giving biofuels a bad reputation publicized with petrodollars. But this does NOT mean biofuels can't be a viable option in the US, only that we can't leave it to the battle between these two big business interests to shape how biodiesel evolves in America.
Of course biodiesel has its problems. Depending on the feedstock used there can be problems like habitat destruction (a problem found in the coffee, meat, and other agricultural industries) and competition with food production. That is why it is so important to carefully select the feedstocks used in any given region so that these problems are minimized. So far there has not be adequate care taken largely because such care requires government involvement and there often has not been the political will to do so. The World Wildlife Fund has been highly supportive of biofuels, but with very important caveats. In effect, as discussed by Pahl, the World Wildlife Fund recommends a legally binding certification for biofuels production, perhaps similar to the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification of lumber as being sustainably produced. (Be sure to ASK when you are purchasing lumber or other wood products to be sure that the FSC certification is there...no other certification is reliable). This kind of certification process can minimize habitat destruction and competition with food production. A similar initiative to encourage sustainably produced biofuels has been started by the Energy Center at the Swiss Federal Technical Institute in Lausanne.
Pahl also describe biodiesel initiatives in Africa (where South Africa has a long history of interest in biodiesel) and Asia. Mali, where agricultural production is highly limited, is able to grow the jatropha nut which is an excellent source of biodiesel. This could be quite an industry for a nation that has little in the way of economic potential...if siome investment income came in. The largest biodiesel programs in Africa are in Ghana based on palm and jatropha oil. Japan's Biwako Bio-Laboratories is the source of some investment money for a jatrohpa based biodiesel project in Kenya. In India a native plant, the honge tree, has great potential as a biodiesel feedstock. The Indian railroads are experimenting with biodiesel. Biodiesel has also allowed remote villages, using their local, native plants, to produce power where they didn't have it before. This is another aspect of biodiesel that is important: it can be a LOCAL solution that works where the large scale, centralized power grids don't. In China, perhaps more than anywhere else, biodiesel is booming. In China use of the guang-pi tree, a native tree that grows on marginal land so doesn't compete with food production, is being explored as a feedstock for biodiesel. Used cooking oil is also a good source of feedstock in China.
Biodiesel will not become the sole fuel used for transportation. Greg Pahl shows how, using reasonable calculations, biodiesel has the potential to replace 10-20% of our current diesel use. New technologies, like algae as a feedstock, are in the works that could substantially raise this potential, but the current potential is 10-20%. Given that it is unlikely that diesel trucks, buses, firetrucks, trains and building heating will remain in use for some decades, that 10-20% replacement is important. This is increasingly needed as oil prices skyrocket, with high gas prices even now impacting our fire departments as well as our heating bills and, because trucks transport our food, food prices. But it is NOT a magic bullet to solve all our energy needs. It is one piece of the solution.
In May 2008, biodiesel cost an average of $5.50/gallon while traditional petrodiesel cost $4.39/gallon. This means biodiesel is not yet fully competitive and government subsidy may be necessary in the short to medium term to make the switch. Even as oil prices climb, biodiesel prices have also climbed because demand outstrips supply, despite the higher price. Part of the problem is because biodiesel HAS been competing with food production, causing prices to rise for both. This does not have to happen, but it has happened because the soy and corn lobbies are strong in America, making competition almost inevitable unless there is better cooperation/planning between producers and government. Biodiesel has to be part of the solution...but it has to be done carefully and properly and only intelligent government involvement will make it work without competition with food production.
Pahl's book also provides a rundown on government regulations and initiatives in force in America, as well as organizations, companies and cooperatives involved with biodiesel. Essentially, Biodiesel really is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in practical alternative energy solutions for transportation...everyone from politicians to truckers to environmentalists. Honestly I did not read every word of the book. If anything it presents TOO many examples of successful projects and experimental programs that are showing how well biodiesel works. So after awhile I skimmed those parts once I got the basic idea. I read the book on the plane between New York and Los Angeles, reading/skimming it from cover to cover in that period. The amount of information I gained was far more than I have been able to find on the topic anywhere else and its discussion of both the pros and cons, the potentials and limitations of the technology was balanced, careful and very helpful. For anyone interested in American energy solutions, Greg Pahl's Biodiesel is a must read.