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Vol. 15 | No. 2  Spring 2013

Dialogue

Dialogue
Why are biofuels promoted as a clean energy solution when corn ethanol causes so many problems?

Biofuels can provide a clean, low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels if they are produced from the right resources at an appropriate scale. Using foodstuffs such as corn, sugar, or vegetable oil for fuel is problematic because it accelerates the expansion of agriculture into tropical areas, driving deforestation that releases a huge amount of heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere—reducing or even eliminating the fuels’ climate benefit. Furthermore, food crops are resource-intensive, and using them for fuel can contribute to rising food prices.

Non-food energy crops can avoid these problems. For example, perennial grasses such as switchgrass and miscanthus require less fertilizer and pesticide than food crops, and store more carbon in the soil. Agricultural wastes such as corn stalks can also be used for fuel production without expanding agriculture, as can the non-recyclable organic components of ordinary garbage. Commercial-scale production of these “cellulosic” biofuels (named for the sugars found in plant cell walls), will accelerate this year as a Florida company recently opened a facility capable of producing 8 million gallons per year, and other facilities are being built across the country.

Policies that increase support for cellulosic biofuels and provide incentives for investment will help maximize the potential of these fuels as a large-scale clean energy resource.

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