From point A to point B in the USA: enough energy to feed the world

Yesterday’s Seattle Times carried news of AltAir and Imperium Renewables recent testimony at the US Senate. The companies say they plan to build 100 million gallon (AltAir, “in the Tacoma area”) and 80 million gallon (Imperium, location unstated) facilities to make aviation biofuel. If both facilities were built in Washington State, it would bring the state’s biodiesel/aviation biofuel production capacity to over 280 million gallons.

Biofuels are problematic enough without this kind of hype, and these projects will hurt the sustainable biodiesel industry whether or not they are built. They also bring to mind Peter’s comment (in the TEDx thread) about the damaging influence of Tribe 2.

One challenge we all face when thinking about biofuels and renewable energy is that we have little sense of just how much energy we use.

According to the Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics (data here), the  total U.S. consumption of liquid fuel for car/truck/intercity bus transportation was 176,202 million gallons in 2007. The same source says aviation fuel consumption (presumably nonmilitary) was 14,759 million gallons.

Those are such large numbers, we need another way to think of them, so let’s think of them in terms of food Calories (recall that 1 kcal = 1 Calorie). A gallon of fuel contains about 30,000 kcal. Now let’s compare U.S. fuel consumption to global food Calorie consumption — the amount of food eaten by everyone on Earth. The graph¬† shows the amount of Calories produced and consumed since the early 1960’s.

The red circles and text on the graph below show the food equivalent of annual U.S. fuel consumption for ground and air transportation, excluding urban transit systems and international flights. Ground transportation consumes about 5.3 billion million Calorie-equivalents of energy, while domestic air transportation consumes about 0.44 billion million Calorie-equivalents of energy, for a total of about 5.7 billion million Calorie-equivalents, enough to feed almost everyone on Earth.*

Think about that. It means that if all the agriculture on the planet were used to make fuel, it would barely satisfy the fuel demands of the United States. This is the problem of biofuels: people seem to expect them to be able to replace all, or a substantial fraction, of fossil fuel use, even though that’s obviously impossible. Smart people are doing dumb things with money as a result, and aviation biofuel hype is the latest in a string of invitations to poor investments.

*This is not meant to raise a food vs. fuel concern; these numbers are to give a sense of scale. It is true, however, that for the last hundred years food has come from the surface of the Earth, and fuel has generally come from underground. Clearly, moving a great deal of fuel production to the surface will put the fuel in conflict with food: very large scale biofuel development can’t fail to affect food production, and will likewise increase human appropriation of net primary productivity, discussed earlier here.

About Steve

Steve Verhey, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Cascadia Carbon Institute (CCI). CCI is a nonprofit think tank dedicated to educating policymakers, agriculturalists, industry, and the public about sustainability, agriculture, renewable energy, and global climate change. Dr. Verhey has been involved in sustainable agriculture and energy issues for over 20 years. Trained as an agricultural scientist, he received his Ph.D in plant molecular biology and biochemistry from Oregon State University and his M.S. in Botany from the University of Washington. He recieved his B.A. in Biology from Reed College. He has served as a consultant for a variety of national and international renewable energy projects for companies such as Boston Consulting Group, HSBC, Portland General Electric, Algenol, Harvest Partners, Biofields SAPI de CV, Guggenheim Partners, Viking Global Investors, and Bank of America-Merrill Lynch. He is co-founder and Chief Managing Manager of Central Washington Biodiesel LLC, a rationally sized biodiesel startup, and served as Chief Science Officer for Bioalgene, an algae-to-fuel startup.
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One Response to From point A to point B in the USA: enough energy to feed the world

  1. John Ousterhout says:

    So, what diesel-powered activities should be allowed to use biodiesel? The answer(s) depend on people’s various philosophies. A little biodiesel can be added to all diesel as a means to improve tailpipe emissions and air quality. Some specific transportation or power sector could be the sole recipient of all biodiesel, leaving the “rest” of the diesel-powered world to experience the effects of pollution, declining petroleum sources, foreign oil importation problems, etc. Some specific use could be picked for biodiesel, and some other use picked for ethanol, and some other use picked for electric transportation, and so on, incrementally addressing particular industry’s power needs with the most apropriate renewable or low-impact source, etc…
    Every choice will make our energy costs more obvious, with higher prices, and much complaining.
    Cheers,
    JohnO