Are biofuels worth the investment?

Vote in the poll below.

Biofuels are at a crossroads. According to the International Energy Agency, global biofuels production has grown more than sixfold over the last decade, yet biofuels still account for just 3 percent of all road fuel energy. While it may seem preferable, in theory, to make fuel from plant matter rather than oil,  the reality of producing biofuel comes with its own costs and questions. (For more about biofuels, see “Biofuels at a Crossroads.”)

Corn-based ethanol, the world’s dominant biofuel, raises land, food, and water issues associated with growing more crops for fuel feedstock. (See related story: “Drought Withers U.S. Corn Crops, Heats Debate on Ethanol.”)

There has been a great deal of investment and hope placed in next-generation biofuels—cellulosic ethanol and other advanced plant- and waste-based fuels that could displace gasoline and diesel fuel in a big way without the resource constraints of ethanol. (See recent related stories about fuel from whisky and microbes.)

But advanced biofuels have not scaled up as quickly as many have hoped. In the United States, for example, there are moves to repeal or scale back a mandate requiring oil refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuel into the U.S. transportation mix. Domestic production of cellulosic biofuel has not met the government’s projections, and enthusiasm for continued ethanol subsidies is low.

Should we continue to invest in biofuels, despite what many view as slow progress so far, and the criticism that the business cannot stand on its own without government subsidies?


What do you think?

Vote below and comment with your thoughts.


  1. Uttam Jaipuria
    New Delhi India
    December 13, 2013, 8:49 pm

    The global food inflation is partly due to Biofuel particularly Corn based Ethanol. Priority should be changed to biofuel from Crop Residues. Another interesting option can be Algal Biofuel. Huge Arid regions near seas (like Rann of Kutch Gujarat) can be used for such Algal Oil. I understand that Salt water Algae is there and this can be very big biofuel option without affecting food production.

  2. Ole Hendrickson
    December 10, 2013, 11:17 am

    Food production should have priority over vehicle fuel production. Targets for the percentage of bioethanol (mostly from corn) or biodiesel (mostly from palm) in vehicle fuels are unwise. Biofuels (in the larger sense, think of Finland’s wood-fired cogeneration plants) should be part of the energy mix but are not a ‘magic bullet’ (along the lines of Roger Sedjo’s notion that pulpwood can fuel the world). We could learn a lot from energy return on investment and life cycle analyses of different energy sources. International data sets would be helpful.

  3. al loomis
    sydney australia
    December 9, 2013, 3:17 pm

    once we reduce human population below 1 billion, these problems will resolve themselves.

    how to do? convert babies into a protein source, with a subsidized high price, and adjust this price for a smooth and rapid reduction of human population.

    or, wait for war and environmental collapse to achieve a roughly similar result, at great expense and suffering, with the chance of extinction of homo not-so-sapiens.

  4. Dr.K DPandey
    December 9, 2013, 9:04 am

    As suggested by O.Charpantier,the OCEANOGENIC POWER should be harnessed.

  5. prashant
    December 8, 2013, 6:49 am

    poor countries will grow biofuel crop for rich nations for money,on the expense of the hunger of their fellow countrymen.so this will be devastating for the stability and peace of the world.as well as it will need lots of water and other resources. only viable and best answer is SOLAR ENERGY. available to rich and poor equally .

  6. Martin Kral
    Roswell, NM
    December 7, 2013, 10:08 am

    While I live near every energy source known to man (except oceans) I am currently troubled that France actually wants to reduce the amount of the most energy dense form there is: nuclear. France has proved that nuclear is cleaner than all other sources and they have made is safe and economical through standardization. In my opinion, nuclear needs to be advanced because it will have the least impact on the environment long term.

  7. Julesh Bantia
    December 6, 2013, 8:12 am

    Investing on biofuels are definitely promising and will yield great returns.
    What needs to be asked is how far is the govt willing to go on providing initial subsidies on select raw materials that help industrialists. After all bio fuels, especially bio diesel is the only alternative to fossil diesel. How can a company in India at least, imagine to run his power generator sets while prioritising emission reduction?

  8. Osmand Charpentier
    October 1, 2013, 3:29 pm

    No invited us, or are marginalizing us because we have the solution that contradicts what they think, those who use their money to proclaim themselves geniuses of mankind.

    We have been designated by the IEEE in our country ‘, to represent them in CONCAPAN 2013 in Guatemala, because our presentation: OCEANOGENIC POWER.

    I invite you all there, on November 14 for us to talk about it.

    Is hydraulic energy, taking advantage of the cosmic phenomenon that occurs in the oceans of the earth, and that only from Panama, with HTS lines, allow to carry anywhere in the world, clean energy.

    Clean, cheap, enough, scalable and renewable. 1 cent the kwh, for future 500 years or more, and sufficient to displace all dirty fuels (nuclear and carbon based, also biofuels). In less than seven years.

  9. Tom Kucharz
    Madrid, Spain
    September 16, 2013, 11:42 am


    Why despite ten years of accumulating evidence on the social and environmental cost of agrofuels, does the European Commission persist with its failed policies? An analysis of the EU’s bioeconomy vision, how it is fuelling land grabs in Africa, the agrofuels lobby that drives policy, and the alternative visions for energy that are being ignored.

    Shortly before the new millennium began, the EU embarked upon a major agroenergy and bioeconomy experiment. The EU began with agrofuel as the first major step toward an envisioned overall shift: from fossil resources to agromass as a source not just of energy and fuel, but also of food, feed, fibre and chemicals. This is the so-called ‘bioeconomy’ — and it is the leading technological version of the ‘green economy’ regime first promoted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Rio+20 process.

    More than ten years into this experiment, the evidence from science, academia, and grassroots voices is emerging ever more clearly: most of the claims initially made for agroenergy as a genuinely renewable alternative to fossil fuels are flawed.

    Life cycle assessments of agrofuel greenhouse gas emissions that include the effects of indirect land use change show that the supposed emissions savings claimed for agrofuels are greatly overestimated; and when all impacts are considered, they are generally worse than the fossil fuels they replace. Meanwhile, the creation of an EU market for industrial agrofuels has been shown to have a negative impact on the land and resource rights, livelihoods, and food security of local populations, especially in the global South. These same concerns hold true for agromass.

    Despite the accumulating evidence, however, the European Commission (EC) is persisting with its agroenergy policies, resolutely refusing to change targets that were demanded by industry from the outset to provide security of investment in the sector. Rather than heed the evidence, the EC has instead responded to criticism with a combination of measures that many observers regard as wholly inadequate, since they rely on voluntary adherence to sustainability criteria and on as yet unrealised (and unrealistic) ‘advanced’ technologies such as second-generation agrofuels, among others.

    Today we are at a critical juncture. The two directives which are the cornerstones of the EU agrofuels policy – the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) and the Fuel Quality Directive – are beginning their bi-annual review processes, and post-2020 policy and targets are already being formulated. At the same time, and apparently without reference to the unfolding failure of agrofuels, EU incentives and support for biomass is steadily rising. In this context, it is essential that these agroenergy policies and their underlying assumptions continue to be challenged.

    By critically analysing the origins, claims, and effects of the European Union’s (EU) transition to a new bioeconomy, this report aims to contribute to challenging this strategy. A central part of the discussion focuses on the failure of the EU’s agrofuels policies to deliver the low-carbon, sustainable, and pro-rural development outcomes envisaged for them. It highlights ways in which EU policy is contributing to a reordering of land and land use especially in Africa.

    Behind all the EC’s assumptions, claims and evasions regarding agrofuels and agromass, lies an extremely powerful industrial lobby that includes the motor industry, the oil industry and the various energy industries. The report will therefore also examine how the constellation of forces that make up the agroenergy lobby have managed to steer EU policy to their benefit. This agroenergy lobby has been able to succeed due to their alignment with the EU’s grand plan for a bioeconomy,understood here as a managerial project based on the capitalistic appropriation and conversion of renewable biological resources to facilitate a market-based, techno-centric response to unsustainable energy patterns.

    More generally, the EU sees in its promotion of the bioeconomy a chance to secure a global leadership role. Yet in presenting the bioeconomy as the ultimate win-win strategy, the EU is closing the door to genuine alternatives and much bolder policy decisions to reduce energy consumption and prioritise the exploration of a less energy dense development path for Europe. Only by tackling this overarching narrative can the EU’s policy lock-in with respect to agrofuels and agromass be overcome.

  10. Simone Lovera
    Asuncion, Paraguay
    September 16, 2013, 11:36 am

    Every hectare of land destined for bioenergy production is a hectare that cannot be restored into a forest or other carbon rich ecosystem anymore. Industrial bioenergy production is one of the biggest threats to the world’s forests and other ecosystems, and the threat that receives most subsidies and other support – from environmental budgets!