Burning food for fuel? There's something wrong with that picture. Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg
Burning food for fuel? There's something wrong with that picture. Photographer: Patrick Fallon/Bloomberg

Many critiques have been written about the foolishness of America’s mandates and subsidies for biofuels. But the most savage was almost certainly published last year in the Strategic Studies Quarterly, a U.S. Air Force journal, by Ike Kiefer, who launched this barrage:

Imagine if the U.S. military developed a weapon that could threaten millions around the world with hunger, accelerate global warming, incite widespread instability and revolution, provide our competitors and enemies with cheaper energy, and reduce America’s economy to a permanent state of recession. What would be the sense and the morality of employing such a weapon? We are already building that weapon -- it is our biofuels program.

Ouch.

But I also say amen, hallelujah and pass the biscuits. What makes Kiefer’s meticulously footnoted takedown of biofuels so effective is that he doesn’t frame his argument with moral cries about higher food prices, even though that’s one of his key points. Instead, he hammers the physics and math. And in particular, he focuses on density.

Biofuels have, in Kiefer's words, “an anemic power density of only 0.3 watts per square meter.” For comparison, modern solar photovoltaic panels are about 6 watts per square meter, or 20 times more; an average oil well producing 10 barrels per day is 27 watts per square meter; and an average nuclear plant is more than 50 watts per square meter.

The low areal power density of biofuels cannot be overcome, because it's due to the limits of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll is the preeminent converter of sunlight into energy, but it does so at its own pace.

The low power density of biofuels means that vast expanses of land are needed to produce even small quantities of them. For example, Kiefer notes that if we wanted to replace all of the oil used for transportation in the U.S. with corn-based ethanol, it would require about 700 million acres to be planted in nothing but corn. That would be 37 percent of the continental U.S., and more than “triple the current amount of annually harvested cropland.”

Do you prefer biodiesel? Kiefer calculates that relying on soy biodiesel to replace domestic oil would take 3.2 billion acres -- "one billion more than all U.S. territory including Alaska.”

Just two months after Kiefer’s article was published, the Barack Obama administration announced (on a Friday afternoon just before the Memorial Day weekend) that the Defense Department was giving contracts worth a total of $16 million to three biofuel plants located in Illinois, Nebraska and California.

Supporters of biofuels claim that someday they will provide a significant share of energy in the U.S. Amory Lovins, the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and his co-authors of "Reinventing Fire," for instance, argue that by 2050, the U.S. will get 23 percent of its total energy from “non-cropland biofuels.”

This is ludicrous. To grow enough biomass to produce that much energy, the U.S. would need to set aside about 219 million acres of land, an area the size of Texas, New York and Ohio combined.

Biofuels, we have been repeatedly told, are the magic bullet, the energy-independence-punish-the-Arabs-anti-terror-better-than-standard-diesel-fuel miracle elixir. It isn't true. It’s never been true.

Despite tens of billions in taxpayer money that have been thrown at corn ethanol, soy diesel, algae and the rest, the U.S. economy, and more particularly the U.S. military, has gained nothing.

But enough about Lovins and Obama. More than two dozen studies have exposed the dark side of biofuels.

For example, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s own data show that increased use of corn ethanol in gasoline boosts emissions of key air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide, by as much as 7 percent.

Corn ethanol also makes food more expensive. A large increase in biofuels production in the U.S. and Europe was the most important reason that grain prices rose by 140 percent from January 2002 to February 2008, according to the World Bank. Since 2004, biofuels from crops have almost doubled the rate of growth in global demand for grain and sugar, according to a 2011 study.

From 2006 to 2011, global biofuels production doubled to 600 million barrels per year, or about 1.64 million barrels per day, according to Jean Ziegler, a former member of the Swiss parliament who was the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food from 2000 to 2008. But ethanol contains only about two-thirds of the heat energy of oil. Therefore, the actual energy produced from biofuels in 2011 was closer to 1.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Producing that volume of fuel, says Ziegler, required 100 million hectares (247 million acres) of land.

Let’s put those numbers into perspective. Global energy use from all sources is currently about 250 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Therefore, biofuels are providing less than one-half of 1 percent of the world's energy needs. And in doing so, they are requiring a land area more than twice the size of California.

This is madness.

Burning food for fuel is simply a bad idea. In 2012, roughly 40 percent of the entire U.S. corn crop was diverted into ethanol production. U.S. motorists now burn about as much corn in their cars as is fed to all the country’s chickens, turkeys, cattle, pigs and fish combined.

The objective facts about biofuels -- their low power density, their effect on food prices, their inability to provide even a small fraction of our energy needs -- have been known for years. When it comes to energy production, we need density, and biofuel production is not dense. It diverts arable land from food production and from nature. Biofuel production is the antithesis of green.

(This is the second of three excerpts from "Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong," which will be published May 13 by PublicAffairs.)

To contact the writer of this article:
Robert Bryce at robert@robertbryce.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net.