Fuel for Thought

Once credulous, biofuels coverage grows skeptical

Fuel from corn. Fuel from coffee grounds. Fuel from chicken feathers. Whatever the recipe, the search for a replacement for gasoline is one of the hottest topics in energy reporting—so it’s no surprise that, earlier this week, journalists reported on Joule Biotechnologies, a new company that claims it can produce biofuel from little more than carbon dioxide, water, and sun.

While the company is keeping mum on most of the details of the process, representatives told reporters that its secret ingredient is “photosynthetic organisms” that will secrete what The New York Times described as “the chemical equivalent of ethanol and hydrocarbon-based fuels and chemicals.” With the secretive company making bold proclamations that its mission is “nothing short of world-changing,” it was nice to see reporters inject a measure of skepticism into their coverage that was largely absent from early biofuels reporting.

While an article in Forbes suggested that Joule’s formula could be “truly groundbreaking,” it also described the company as “cagey,” pointing out that much is still unknown about its technological processes and the strength of its financing. Likewise, an article in The Boston Globe mentioned that it will be hard for Joule to “combat the usual skepticism about alternative fuels” (though the reporter could’ve offered a better explanation of the nature of that skepticism). A blog post at The Wall Street Journal’s Environmental Capital stated:

Joule hopes to build a pilot plant next year, and a commercial-scale plant by 2012. That’s the same kind of ambitious timeline that has marked an awful lot of next-generation biofuel projects in recent years—projects that almost uniformly have failed to live up their hype.

Well played. The post succinctly noted an important feature of most biofuel projects—that they often sound too good and too overambitious to be true. Blog posts at Discover and MIT Technology Review also questioned the feasibility and potential impact of Joule’s claims. Citing the reactors’ high costs compared to the amount of fuel produced, the Review mentioned how similar companies failed to produce biofuels in an economical fashion.

Readers should know about these complications. Earlier this week, the National Academy of Sciences released a pretty hefty report entitled “America’s Energy Future: Technology and Transformation.” It’s an assessment of the United States’s current energy-supply and end-use technologies, as well as a projection for expanding clean-energy sources by mid-century. The information, intended for policy makers, covers the biofuel industry and leads to some pretty startling conclusions. Right now, biofuels are making a pretty insignificant contribution to transportation fuel, and will probably stay that way unless industries start focusing on energy efficiency rather than new methods of energy production. In fact, the report states:

In 2007, the United States consumed about 6.8 billion gallons of ethanol, mostly made from corn grain, and 491 million gallons of biodiesel, mostly made from soybean. The combined total of those two biofuels is less than about 3 percent of the fuels consumed for U.S. transportation…

Petroleum will continue to be an indispensable transportation fuel during the time periods considered in this report … There are limited options for replacing petroleum or reducing petroleum use before 2020, but there are more substantial longer-term options that could begin to make significant contributions in the 2030-2035 timeframe.

That’s not always the impression you get when reading the latest coverage of biofuels development. While most of the articles were balanced in their coverage of Joule, an article in Grist didn’t mention any of the technical or economic challenges that the company might face, let alone the current industrywide lack of progress. As biofuels gain popularity among large oil companies like Exxon and BP, it’s important for journalists to keep readers apprised of the big picture.

A recent piece in Science News, titled “The Biofuel Future,” gave a pretty comprehensive look at various aspects of the industry. Rachel Ehrenberg, the author, examined how biofuels are developed, the environmental costs associated with the technology, and current progress in the field. The article is well balanced, and, to an even greater extent than reporters that covered Joule Biotechnologies, Ehrenberg drove home the need for skepticism:

The only way that biofuels will add up is if they produce more energy than it takes to make them. Yet, depending on the crops and the logistics of production, some analyses suggest that it may take more energy to make these fuels than they will provide. And if growing biofuels creates the same environmental problems that plague much of large-scale agriculture, then air and water quality might not really improve. Prized ecosystems such as rain forests, wetlands and savannas could be destroyed to grow crops. Biofuels done badly, scientists say, could go very, very wrong.

One day, we hope, biofuels or some other Jetson-esque technology will become the norm for our green-friendly cars, trucks, and SUVs. But until then, reporters must continue to push beyond bold claims that every biofuel start-up is the one and only solution to our oil dependence. Journalists should go further than merely questioning these companies’ funding or technological plausibility. They should also provide some idea as to how much of an impact the technology will make, and whether it really will save the earth, like most of the companies claim. The NAS is asking policymakers to take a look at biofuel efficiency. We’re asking reporters to do the same.

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Sanhita Reddy is a former Observatory intern currently living in Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship, studying the media sources people use to find health information.