Despite garnering excitement and being heavily subsidized by the government, biofuels are no better for the environment than petroleum-based fuel, says Joe DeCicco, research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. DeCicco authored a new study on the viability of ethanol-producing crops.
There is carbon in ethanol, he says, which means that carbon dioxide will still be emitted from the car despite the fuel substitution. Coupled with the emissions from increased crop production to produce the fuel itself, biofuels actually make matters worse, says DeCicco.
“Biofuels are a false solution,” says DeCicco, ”but we need to reduce those emissions.”
There are other options, DeCicco says, such as growing more trees, which pull carbon out of the environment naturally, or electric cars, which do less environmental damage even when adjusted for the effect of power plants. Hydrogen fuel is being explored by companies such as Toyota and Honda, he says, but figuring out how to produce and distribute large quantities of it would require a large investment.
“There’s a lot of energy that goes into growing corn, but then the output that you get isn’t that great,” says Nick Schroeck, Director of the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic and Assistant Clinical Professor at Wayne State University.
We could instead try harnessing invasive plants, such as the Box Elder tree, which produces large quantities of ethanol without needing any extra energy, says Detroit Today calller Shane from Ypsilanti. There are people that have a problem with using food-production land for energy production, says Schroeck, so part of the conversation is learning how to maximize crop output.
One of the best strategies going forward, says Schroeck, is increasing fuel economy for cars so that they’re efficient no matter what you put in them.
DeCicco’s study was funded by the American Petroleum Institute.
To hear more of this conversation, click on the audio player above.