USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences > Blog

April 22, 2012

A Dream Unrooted

Filed under: Biofuels — dginsbur @ 9:26 pm

The search for an alternative energy source to replace fossil fuels has been well underway for many years now. However, no alternative resource has been able to provide the energy efficiency, comfort, and availability of oil. Nevertheless, the search still continues due to the environmental and economic concerns associated with fossil fuels. One such alternative that has gained much popularity in recent years has been the production of biofuels. This ideal suggests that we derive energy, either indirectly or directly, from organic material including agricultural crops and animal waste. “Biofuels can be solid, gaseous or liquid, even though the term is often used in a narrow sense to refer only to liquid biofuels for transport[ion]” (Liquid Biofuels for Transport Prospects, Risks and Opportunities). Even though this option sounds extremely intriguing, biofuels are just another pipedream because they conflict with food sources, release potent amounts of greenhouse gas, and cost American taxpayers billions of dollars.

The first reason why biofuels should not be considered a feasible energy source in the future is because they raise the price of food. “In 2008, about 33.3 million hectartes were used to produce foodbased biofuels and their coproducts.” Furthermore, biofuel production from food crops is expected to increase 170% in the next decade (Going Hungry: Why Biofuels Are for People, Prosperity, and the Planet). Diverting such a large number of crops for energy purposes increases the demand for land, which as a result increases the price. From 2007-2008, the price of corn rose 50%, wheat 75%, and rice nearly 200%. This was projected to push nearly 100 million people into poverty according to the World Bank (Going Hungry: Why Biofuels Are for People, Prosperity, and the Planet). As the human population increases in the upcoming decades, this number will only increase. The sacrifice of millions of lives is simply not worth the acquisition of a slightly cleaner fuel source.

In addition, biofuels generate the same or even worse greenhouse gas (GHG) issues as conventional fuels do. Unlike renewable energy sources such as hydro, geothermal or solar energy, biofuels emit a large amount of greenhouse gasses during production. According to studies conducted in 2008, the most common biodiesel source, corn ethanol, generates around 50% more GHG than conventional fuels. Although the EPA later reported that this figure may be reduced in the long term, after the land use change no longer contribute to GHG release, corn ethanol can still generate 13% more GHG in 100 years period. For other renewable sources of energy, hydroelectricity, nuclear power and solar power generate almost no direct emissions of GHG and geothermal energy can reduce GHG release by nearly 97%. In comparison, biofuels have a large effect on global warming.

The biofuel industry not only highly depends on government subsidies but also creates an inefficient government spending as well as a heavy burden to taxpayers. Economically speaking, biofuels have no efficiency advantage over conventional fuels. The energy content per gallon of biodiesel is 11% lower than petroleum diesel whereas the ethanol content is increasing the mechanical complexity for vehicle motors. Therefore, biofuels are not competitive in the market and to maintain the price advantage, they demand enormous government funding.

In conclusion, the risks and costs of biofuels make them an unfeasible option at the moment. We need an energy source that is both economically and environmentally beneficial. Presently, biofuels are not and therefore should not be considered as a viable alternative energy source that should be implemented on a large-scale.


Anthony Radich, “Biodiesel Performance, Cost and Use”, Energy Information Administration,

Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change”, Science.

EPA Lifecycle Analysis of Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Renewable Fuels”, US Environmental Protection Agency,

“Going Hungry: Why Biofuels Are for People, Prosperity, and the Planet.” Le Québécois Libre. Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <>.

“Liquid Biofuels for Transport Prospects, Risks and Opportunities.” Biofuels: 1. What Are Biofuels? Web. 20 Apr. 2012. <>.

Timothy Searchinger1,*, Ralph Heimlich2, R. A. Houghton3, Fengxia Dong4, Amani Elobeid4, Jacinto Fabiosa4, Simla Tokgoz4, Dermot Hayes4 and Tun-Hsiang Yu4, “Use of U.S.

Hongxi Zhao and Jay Bahayani are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Boosting Biofuel Use in the State of California

When biofuels are properly produced they can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost the economy with an alternative energy source, and help preserve habitats that were previously cleared for other energy sources. Ideal biofuels are derived from feedstocks that have lower greenhouse gas emissions than those of fossil fuels, but they need to be produced without compromising the success of agriculture and production. Sustainable agricultural practices cannot only benefit our economy as a whole, but they allow for an efficient production of biofuels. Sustainable biomass feedstock programs include the growing of perennial plants on degraded lands abandoned from agricultural use, using crop residues to enrich the soils, harvesting wood and soils sustainably, mixing crops on agricultural land, and utilizing industrial wastes. Biofuels are the only alternative energy source to have completely the clean air act requirements in relation to the cleanliness of the energy source, therefore it is in our best interest to switch over to biofuels as soon as possible.

Here in California, many are pushing to adopt biofuels as an alternative energy source in order to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Although California is behind on the number of available biodiesel locations, the state is willing  to increase the number of sites that offer this renewable source. The California Air and Resources Board has designated millions of dollars to be used for the building of biodiesel stations that will soon cover the state of California. Companies like Ceres Inc. are creating genetically modified crops to be used as biofuels. Although there is some skepticism towards the transition to biofuels, when biofuels are produced correctly and efficiently they offer an alternative that gives off energy while reducing carbon emissions. Multiple companies like Ceres support the use of biofuels in the state of California including companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Specifically Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville and Cobalt technologies in Mountain view were recognized by “Biofuels Digest” as a couple of the most transformative technologies of 2010.

California as a state produces around 80 million gross tons of biomass each year which creates the potential to have 32 million tons of feedstock for biofuel production. At the rate that California’s agricultural production is going, each annual harvest has the potential to produce about 300 million gallons of ethanol each year. That statistic alone is a huge incentive to switch over to the agricultural based energy source.

California is required to reduce their carbon emissions by 10% by 2020 and biodiesel offers a plausible way for the state to meet the predetermined goal. Studies show that carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 78% from biodiesel compared to petroleum diesel. Biodiesel accounts for a great reduction in carbon emissions because plants capture the carbon dioxide that is released from the burning of biodiesel and later used as fuel. This is a closed system that prevents carbon emissions. Obviously there are negative impacts to using biofuels because a lot of land needs to be used and deforestation for agricultural land can create enough carbon emissions to take away any benefits of biofuels. Another concern is that it takes more energy to produce biofuels than the amount of energy that biofuels offset. However if they are created in a sustainable and efficient way, California will see a drop in their greenhouse gas emissions.  Each energy source has both pros and cons, but considering the current state of our planet and global warming, biofuels appear to be a viable option in reducing global and national emissions.


Alanna Waldman and Chantal Morgan are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

November 13, 2011

The Merits and Misfortunes of Biofuels

Driven by political concerns related to the reduction of dependence on oil, improvement of environmental conditions, and increase in food production for a growing population; experts around the world are looking to biofuels.  Yet the undesirable impacts of biofuels, including the exploitation of multiple feed stocks, threat of biodiversity and habitat loss, overuse of water resources, and impact on food prices leave many experts questioning if the net benefits outweigh the cost of using biofuels.

As described in David Tilman’s article “Beneficial Biofuels—The Food, Energy, and Environment Trilemma”, the topic of biofuels is a complex issue that, done right, can offer “global greenhouse-gas emission reduction and the local environmental and societal benefits.” With dramatic improvements in technology and policy, biofuels have the potential to be the answer to increased food and biomass productivity on current farmlands, large reduction in global greenhouse-gas emission, and a considerable portion of energy necessary for transportation.

However, an investment in biofuel production will adversely impact such scarce environmental resources as land and water as well as lead to the potential increase of greenhouse gas emissions and increase in food prices.  Biofuels demand a considerable amount of land to grow the resources necessary for its production.  “Sometimes, the most profitable way to get land for biofuels is to clear the land of its native ecosystem”, be it primary forests, grasslands, a savanna, etc. (Tilman)  The conversion of these lands results in a drastic release of carbon dioxide and loss in biodiversity from slashing and burning the biomass, which contradicts any greenhouse gas reduction that results from using biofuels.

Carbon emissions from the conversion of land by global biofuels program can result in twice as many emissions from lands directly used for biofuel production.

In addition to the loss of habitat and biodiversity from converting these lands for the use of biofuels is a substantial demand upon stressed water resources.  Bio refineries consume close to four gallons of water per gallon of bioethanol produced from the evaporative loss during the distillation of ethanol.  Further, although one of the primary reasons for using biofuels is to stabilize food security, the production of biofuels requires extensive use of existing feedstock, land, and water. Such leads to a considerable impact on food prices.  Biofuels deserve blame for increased food prices due to its use of preexisting feedstock [such as corn] which contributes to tightening corn supply and rising prices.  Many people are at an even greater risk of food deprivation and malnutrition due to the inflation of food prices.

While there are many benefits in using biofuels, there are also many more disadvantages, especially with regard to the current state and use of biofuels.  While the use of biofuels can help eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and lessen the dependence on fossil fuels, it comes at a substantial cost.  Biofuels exploit such environmental resources as water and land, inflates food prices, and leads to greater greenhouse emissions from converting land for biofuel use.  Yet, the transition from fossil fuels to biofuels is one that, while gradual, is also highly feasible. By also adopting other clean, renewable, and efficient sources of energy–such as solar, hydroelectric, geothermal and wind energy—we lessen the negative effects of relying solely on biofuels and thus lessen much of the negative environmental impacts on the Earth.

About the authors: Victoria Chu and Mabel Nevarrez are undergraduate students in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

California Biofuels as a Feasible Energy Source

Filed under: Biofuels — dginsbur @ 2:08 pm

Although biofuels have been debated as a feasible energy source, their growing use has proven successful across multiple terrains and with multiple benefits. Biofuel methods have already been implemented in different regions of California, and should continue to expand because of the evident economical, environmental and health benefits that are occurring.

Northern California can successfully expand the use of biofuels through forestry residue sources.  Studies in the Sierra Nevada have concluded that slight removal of forestry residues for biofuel use helps reduce wildfires and greenhouse gas emissions and shifts our dependency off of fossil fuels.  Additionally, Biofuel is the only alternative fuel, according to the Clean Air Act, that has achieved the health-effects testing requirements.  The heavily forested regions in northern California make forestry residues a very feasible source of biofuels.

In Ventura County, California, ARIES Biofuel Technology has launched an incredibly successful biofuel system for military and governmental jets.  Through collaborative innovation, Aerojet, the Biodiesel Industry Inc. and the Navy created ARIES’ central facilities that utilize non-food feedstocks, jatropha and algae biofuels.  This economically and environmentally progressive method could easily be implemented on a more local scale through governmental advocacy.  Additionally, Extreme Green Technologies, Inc. has also been launched in Corona, California, encouraging local implementation and participation in the use of biofuels.  It focuses on private purchase of waste vegetable oil and algae-based biodiesel. California has incredible potential to use the entire coast for transforming algae into a feasible biofuel.

Algae is important because as land for agricultural purposes is a growing concern with an increasing population, algae doesn’t use up terrestrial space.  Algae as a biofuel has some controversy, however.  Even though algae seems like a better option because it isn’t a big threat to food security or soil degradation, the net productivity has been proven to be low on some accounts.  One article mentions synthetic photosynthesis as a future alternative that could eventually “convert sunlight into liquid fuels directly.”  Even if algae does not have high biofuel yields, the large ocean supply has incredible capacity.  It could also be combined with other biofuel sources such as crop or forest residues, ARIES biofuel technology system, or even synthetic photosynthesis to make an extremely successful net productivity.

Another plant that is providing incredible biofuel success internationally is the Jatropha genus. Jatropha “is a genus of different succulent plants [and] shrubs” that is a beneficial biodiesel source in its native lands; the Philippines, Brazil and India.  It is a very powerful source of biodiesel because of its drought and pest resistance.  The seed content of Jatropha is also very high in oil, and other remains of the seed are feasible energy sources, too.  Jatropha has been productive when used in a mixed cropping system.  The only concern is introducing this alien species in a land where the net yield and environmental impact is unknown. They have high productivity potential, though, if managed in a sustainable manner and in appropriate ecosystems.  In the past year, Jatropha has even started to become a successful source of airplane biofuel for New Zealand, China and Mexico.  These plants are also economically feasible because, like algae, they do not sacrifice food resources for fuel sources.

All of these sources still need further research to determine the most productive way to manage and implement these systems. Increased prices of fossil fuels, however, will undoubtedly help these biofuels become more popular.  Legislation however, needs to continue providing support, incentives and definitive goals for these cleaner, more sustainable, energy sources.  Current imprecise government regulations could let the biofuel business find loopholes or counter-productive methods.  If emphasis on economic benefits, job incentives and sustainable practices increases, biofuels will successfully become a dominant source of California energy.

About the authors: Liam Sharkey and Katie Graves are undergraduate students in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.