Since the term "biofuel" first entered the energy lexicon of the average consumer, there has been a steady stream of advancements to this technology. While public perceptions on biofuels may have changed over the years, quite a lot of interest in the pros and cons of this fuel source still remain. It is important for all consumers to seriously consider both the positive and negative aspects of this still-emerging technology.
Primary Advantages and Disadvantages of Biofuels
No fuel source is completely positive or completely negative. Consumers need to weigh the pros and cons of biofuels to determine whether they feel comfortable with this resource as an alternative to traditional fuels.
Biofuel advocates frequently point out the advantages of these plant- and animal-based fuels, such as:
- Cost: Biofuels prices have been falling and have the potential to be significantly less expensive than gasoline and other fossil fuels. In fact, ethanol is already cheaper than diesel and gasoline. This is particularly true as worldwide demand for oil increases, oil supplies dwindle, and more sources of biofuels become apparent.
- Source material: Whereas oil is a limited resource that comes from specific materials, biofuels can be manufactured from a wide range of materials including crop waste, manure, and other byproducts. This makes it an efficient step in recycling.
- Renewability: It takes a very long time for fossil fuels to be produced, but biofuels are much more easily renewable as new crops are grown and waste material is collected.
- Security: Biofuels can be produced locally, which decreases the nation's dependence upon foreign energy. By reducing dependence on foreign fuel sources, countries can protect the integrity of their energy resources and make them safe from outside influences.
- Economic stimulation: Because biofuels are produced locally, biofuel manufacturing plants can employ hundreds or thousands of workers, creating new jobs in rural areas. Biofuel production will also increase the demand for suitable biofuel crops, providing economic stimulation to the agriculture industry.
- Lower carbon emissions: When biofuels are burned, they produce significantly less carbon output and fewer toxins, making them a safer alternative to preserve atmospheric quality and lower air pollution.
Despite the many positive characteristics of biofuels, there are also many disadvantages to these energy sources.
- Energy output: Biofuels have a lower energy output than traditional fuels and therefore require greater quantities to be consumed in order to produce the same energy level. This has led some noted energy analysts to believe that biofuels are not worth the work to convert them to ethanol rather than electricity.
- Production carbon emissions: Several studies have been conducted to analyze the carbon footprint of biofuels, and while they be cleaner to burn there are strong indications that the process to produce the fuel - including the machinery necessary to cultivate the crops and the plants to produce the fuel - has hefty carbon emissions. In addition, cutting forests to grow crops for biofuels adds to carbon emissions.
- High cost: To refine biofuels to more efficient energy outputs, and to build the necessary manufacturing plants to increase biofuel quantities, a high initial investment is often required, making its production currently more expensive than other ways to fuel cars, even though this could change in the future.
- Food prices: As demand for food crops such as corn grows for biofuel production, it raises prices for necessary staple food crops.
- Food shortages: There is concern that using valuable cropland to grow fuel crops could have an impact on the cost of food and could possibly lead to food shortages.
- Water use: Massive quantities of water are required for proper irrigation of biofuel crops as well as to manufacture the fuel, which could strain local and regional water resources.
The Future of Biofuels
Biofuels are not a silver bullet for the energy problems of the world. To solve the issue of dwindling fossil fuel reserves, all viable means of harvesting energy should be pursued to their fullest. However, the fact remains that biofuels are a reliable alternative energy resource. With more development and research, it is possible to overcome the disadvantages of biofuels and make them suitable for widespread consumer use. When the technology is available, many of the disadvantages will be minimized and the market very clearly has potential. Much of this could rely on the ability of energy producers to discover better plants to raise for fuel that use less water, less land, and grows quickly.