Criticism of biofuels - a dispute between optimists and pessimists

Last week I attended a press conference of the German Biofuels Association (VDB), which represented another stage in the currently tough and protracted struggle of the biofuels industry. I am a bioenergy enthusiast and it is very sad to see how an industry that started with so much positive energy has been struggling more and more for its right to exist in recent years. My respect for the biofuel players who are currently carrying a heavy cross and are being criticized by passionate critics as the central scapegoat for hunger and environmental destruction. The world is no longer a better place due to the often one-dimensional criticism, but the industry is a manageable and tangible opponent.

What clean tech ideal can the biofuels industry fulfill?

I am certainly not the only one to whom the hostile criticism of biofuels is more than just a catch. This article is therefore more emotional than most of the others on this blog. I'm actually just waiting for the day when the harsh critics (and my stern tone is aimed at them) put the bad weather, a failed national team World Cup title or the annoying morning bike plates in the shoes of the biofuels.

The industry is already doing everything possible to criticize even the most one-sided and sometimes very abstract criticism (ILUC) react constructively and ready to change. In doing so, she is burdening herself with ever increasing requirements and digging her own grave when she wishes to fulfill an unattainable cleantech ideal, the strict critics.

I am curious whether the confrontation of the biofuel industry with the harshest ecological sustainability criteria that an industry has seen so far will be enough for the professional critics to now approach the biofuel industry with a little more patience. The bureaucracy of sustainability certification makes the production of biofuels rather unattractive and expensive, at least for investors, and market access is made even more difficult.

Sometimes I have the feeling that the critics of biofuels are only willing to give them a fair chance if biofuels alone can stop the world's hunger beforehand or if the industry can develop a XNUMX% protective shield for all rainforest deforestation worldwide.

I am impressed that the companies in the biofuels industry are still so passionate and ready to change for their place in the transport operations of tomorrow, despite the strong economic burdens of the past years and the uncertain perspective.

Preliminary study on the fluctuations in world market prices of agricultural raw materials

If we stop biofuels, we will also stop hunger. What a wonderful gift would that be ?!

At the VDB and UFOP press conference to present a current one Preliminary study on the volatility of agricultural commodity prices Elmar Baumann made a very open statement on international markets. The managing director of the VDB said that the German biofuels industry will dismantle its tents in the medium term if there is scientifically proven evidence that biofuels promote the development of hunger in the world!

According to the results of the study, however, this connection cannot be established.

The preliminary study by Prof. Michael Schmitz (agricultural economist at Institute for Agricultural Policy and Market Research) has shown above all that the development of global food prices (long-term as well as short-term) is a very complex topic and unfortunately is perceived with many generalizations. The influence of biofuels on the fluctuation in the world market prices of agricultural goods is only one of many factors in addition to economic fluctuations, weather conditions etc. Biofuels often even have a stabilizing influence on the market price development of agricultural raw materials.

It is not possible to make a general statement about the effects of biofuels on the internal markets and, above all, very much depends on the policies of the respective country. Traditional foods from developing countries such as cassava or sorghum are often uncoupled from world market prices. If I correctly interpret Prof. Schmitz and the results of the study, one should be careful with hasty and mostly emotional conclusions about the connection between the trade in biofuels and the development of world hunger.

Here you will find the VDB and UFOP press release to the study.

Radar to find criticism of biofuels
We must not only look at the risks of biofuels, we must also compare their chances.

Biofuel pessimists: paralyzed by the risks

As is well known, a negative attitude towards biofuels can have different motivations. At this point, I don't want to go into a different idea of ​​the technological design of the energy transition due to other economic interests (e.g. electromobility, hydrogen). This reason for rejecting biofuels is rationally understandable and everyone is free to decide which "decarbonization strategy" he considers most suitable for the transport sector. In this context, politicians like to speak of a “technology-open” transport strategy (the last one here dates from 2004).

However, I also learned from discussions with opponents of biofuels that a large part of the rejection is based on a very pessimistic attitude towards the energy from biomass and combustion technology in general. This perception is based in turn on the strongly negative reporting on biofuels in recent years.

At this point, the bioenergy industry must also become significantly more active and for the big ones Bioenergy potential and to promote their ideas of a modern transport sector of the future. If we allow the pessimists and critics paralyzed by the risks to dominate the debate, then the biofuels industry should not be surprised to find themselves in a situation that is currently so difficult. More positive headlines that report on technological innovations, successful international partnerships or the expansion of the biofuel infrastructure would at least be a positive antipole that has loosened the industry's constant defensive position in recent years.

A critical look at the various alternative energy sources of the energy transition is important. To put it a bit casually, you have to leave the church in the village. A greatly exaggerated and generalized pessimism towards biofuels is destructive and does not create jobs, nor does it help protect the climate.

Regarding the destruction of the rainforest, there are rotten apples among the biofuels, but these are mainly found in biodiesel made from palm oil. This biodiesel is not used in Germany, for example, and biofuels do not have the corresponding ones Sustainability certificates can no longer be used in Germany since the beginning of 2011. A total of 96 percent of the palm oil produced worldwide is used in the food and cosmetics industry and “only” 4 percent for energy. Consumers at the pump should also know that. If, as a driver, you have the clearing of the rainforest in the back of your mind when filling up at the petrol pump, you will of course not feel any better.

Biofuel optimists: blinded by the opportunities

It is important that we also have the courage to dream about alternative energy supply systems. In politics, unfortunately, you are quickly confronted with ridicule for formulating real visions. It is no wonder that the courageous and rapid establishment of a really new energy supply with a low political acceptance for "unrealistic dreamers" is not easy.

The need for cleantech dreams in bioenergy based on combustion technologies is not particularly great and the dream potential of photovoltaics (Dessertec), hydrogen or fusion is much greater.

Exactly this proximity to today's reality and the proven combustion technology is also the great strength of bioenergy, which can be used as a direct measure for climate protection and reducing the dependence on oil. When it comes to biofuels, I don't necessarily want to speak of bridge technology, but in the long term (!) Biofuels will definitely be replaced. This replacement will be supported by the fact that, in the medium term, the material use of biomass will become increasingly valuable.

When it comes to the accusation that biofuels are increasing hunger in the world, it is very easy to develop scenarios in which biofuels even form part of the solution to world hunger. In terms of their scientific verifiability, however, these scenarios are just as (in) verifiable as the negative interpretations of the pessimists on biofuels and world hunger.

I would like to briefly explain an argument for this, which was suggested by a representative of the biogas association at the press conference on the study. In this way, biofuels (vegetable oils) can also greatly promote agricultural production in many developing countries. In countries that do not have the necessary capital or the pipeline infrastructure, biofuels can only enable the use of agricultural machines that boost production and accelerate the production of food.

But beware, bioenergy optimists like myself have to protect themselves from the well-intentioned suppression of the risks of biofuels, in terms of environmental degradation or the displacement of food.

Conclusion of a biofuel realist

Taking Confucius' entry quote to heart ("All things have beauty, but not everyone can see them"), I will try to see something nice or useful in the rather destructive behavior of the very sharp and below-the-line critics of biofuels. So I can respect their passion and persistence and a little more humorously recognize their ability to abstract and generalize.

As a dreamer, you shouldn't necessarily go into politics, where every change has to be fought hard and developments usually go relatively slowly and we watch the 3-step-before-2-step-back dance. However, we can use optimists very well in politics, and I don't think there is a shortage of them.

In the media, however, we currently need significantly more journalists and authors who write more optimistically about biofuels and advertise the numerous advantages of this renewable energy source or at least tell of the positive examples for which biofuels are responsible worldwide. The moral discussion on bioenergy should be continued, but these arguments must not be the only ones in the debate!

If you can contribute a nice story here, then write a guest article for this blog.

Biofuels are not a green magic potion and of course the biofuels industry is not a pony farm either. But no industry can say that, and even in the manufacture and sale of cuddly toys, human rights are violated in part of the world. Still, we wouldn't go that far and claim that stuffed animals are generally a risky product.

In my opinion, the negative perception of biofuels in this area is primarily the projection of a prevailing anger on the biofuels industry. The cause of this anger could, for example, be the feeling of helplessness in combating world hunger. With the abuse of biofuels, one can assign at least one tangible cause to the depressing state of world hunger and actively fight it. By condemning biofuels, at least the relieving feeling arises that this burdensome status quo of world food could be overcome quickly or that developments like the one in Mexico can be prevented in the future.

Let us work together to ensure that biofuels have a real chance to make a positive contribution to climate protection and oil extraction. If other alternatives in the transport sector are marketable in 30 years' time, then biofuels can also retire gladly and thus follow the fate of the tape, the music cassette or the mini disc.

10 comments on “criticism of biofuels - a dispute between optimists and pessimists”

  1. Of course, not everything that is called biofuel today can withstand a detailed examination from a CO2 balance perspective. And the competition with food cannot be dismissed out of hand for a variety of reasons - but I also plead for seeing more opportunities instead of talking big about risks. A critical discourse on this is good and will continue to improve the approaches of the industry, but in the medium term I don't see any alternative to liquid energy carriers that can be integrated into existing supply chains and infrastructures. Perhaps in the future microalgae will be able to produce protein and oil in parallel, so that at least the tank or plate discussion would be off the table ...

  2. Thank you for the open and differentiated statement on a difficult debate. Unfortunately, too few actors are currently willing to refer more frequently to the great opportunities (!) Of biofuels. With the currently very negatively colored and very critical reporting, one can probably not be blamed for that.

    In my eyes, it is particularly problematic that the worst news that you get about biofuels are quickly generalized in many (unfortunately often superficial) articles and you get the impression that most of the biofuels work like this. We have to change that and this criticism does not even come close to the biofuels, especially not those produced in Germany.

    The algae industry has made significant progress in recent years and I know that some countries are very active in the field of microalgae. It's great that this innovative branch of bioenergy has so much positive news to offer. Reading the Algae Observer is therefore a real asset to the bioenergy debate!

  3. An interesting article ... I, although not particularly interested in RE technology, have also come into contact with strongly negative reports on the subject of bioenergy - this in "non-specialist" newspapers and journals such as the Schrot und Korn.

    So far I have not come across any positive reports in the “normal” press. Certainly something like this could be found on the internet without any problems, but most of it would be from the industry itself and thus lack objectivity, at least in the eyes of many ordinary people. If an employee of a bio-energy company writes a positive article, it is only positive because the company wants to sell its product, while a magazine like the Schrot und Korn can approach the topic without reservation - at least that is the perception of many people.

    I therefore agree that more balanced media coverage would be appropriate.

    I would also like to note that the perspective of a medium-term retirement of bioenergy is a very interesting one. However, a period of 30 years may be too short to be able to refinance costly investments in research and development through profits. If that happens in 30 years anyway, I'd rather invest in the technologies that will provide us with energy in the long term. Therefore, you shouldn't take this view too aggressively if you don't want to scare away investors.

    Finally, I would be interested to know whether the wind that blows the industry in the face is a specifically German phenomenon, as the Germans are in principle a people with a very critical (not negative - only critical) attitude towards innovations, who initially look at everything from all sides - which doesn't have to be bad, it's just not particularly dynamic.

    So is the industry under such pressure in other countries? I would be happy if you had some information about it.

    Thanks for the article and a nice week


  4. I agree with you that many consumers tend to trust the critical or non-industry media because they trust them to be more neutral and distant.

    Biofuels are not only ecologically, but also economically a very explosive topic and there are many players in the fuel sector who are certainly not only enthusiastic about the rapid growth of alternative biofuels. I think that you don't have to believe in conspiracy theories to see that established market participants are unlikely to object to one or two negative articles about biofuels. I think a realistic look at how the economy and markets work is sufficient to share this perspective.

    That is why I have become quite suspicious in the meantime, whether many of the very harsh critics in the non-specialist media really take a neutral look at the biofuels or just want to / have to earn money. I do not want to go into this aspect at all.

    I find a very interesting question whether this technology-critical attitude is a typical German “problem”, which a technology philosopher or cultural scientist could probably answer better.

    In my assessment, the Germans are world market leaders in the field of bioenergy (at least in biogas), which is why they are the first to encounter conflicts in the expansion of bioenergy and have to deal with it moral dimension of bioenergy deal with. However, my experience also tells me that we Germans are often very cautious when it comes to innovations (I would not be exempt) and that we may sometimes prefer to think everything through three times and have a very high appreciation for security. I agree with you that this is not a negative thing, but in terms of the speed of innovation you can of course quickly be overtaken by other countries.

    Thank you for your stimulating comment and interesting question.

  5. First of all, I'm also a bioenergy fan.
    Shouldn't you be surprised that there are many skeptics when it comes to using the biomass resources so wastefully? The best example of this is rapeseed oil with around 12.000 KWh of yield per hectare. Added to this is the low efficiency of the combustion engine. The yield of one hectare is just enough for one car and year. Around 910.000 hectares of rapeseed are currently being cultivated for fuel. Source:
    The energy potential per hectare is over ten times higher when cultivating appropriate energy plants (e.g. Igniscum), which can be burned as pellets. Pellet stove efficiency: approx. 90%.

  6. The energetic use of biomass should definitely be questioned in relation to the most efficient applications. However, the calculation of the ecological and energy balances is not easy and there is a risk of a passionate conflict between the different applications. In my opinion, the bioenergy industry should, if possible, prevent it from also breaking up internally, given that it is already getting a lot of trouble from the outside at the moment.

    I still know relatively little about the use of Igniscum, but the energy potential is exciting. Are there growing areas for knotweed in Germany that go beyond small experimental plants? It would be interesting to hear a report from a farmer / farmer.

    Thanks for the comment!

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