With the depleting fossil fuel resources, oil production will inevitably reach its maximum and arrive at a state of terminal decline. The threat of ‘peak oil’; a term first proposed by M. King Hubbert, suggest that this irreversible condition will occur in the near conceivable future (as early as in the next ten years!). This is a scary thought—as a society we are so dependent on petroleum it’s hard to imagine life without it.
There is no way of avoiding peak oil, but there is a way for us to prolong the time it takes to reach it by decreasing our dependency on petroleum-based fuels. Many countries including Canada have mandated the requirement of biodiesel production; in which a percentage of diesel oil must have a blend of renewable resource ethanol. Ethanol, unlike petroleum, is a renewable resource produced by extracting the sun’s energy through biomass (i.e. corn).
Though it seems great in theory, many are skeptical towards their use as in reality ethanol production is energy consuming and arises the debate regarding “food vs. fuel” with the rising food prices. US Department of Energy addresses these problems, and proves that ethanol has a positive energy balance– which means it generates more energy than it takes to create it.
But is it worth sacrificing agricultural land for energy?
The assumption that ethanol farms require a significant amount of land and might disrupt agricultural sector is mistaken. The US Department of Agriculture shows in their Billion-ton Study that biomass used for energy accounts for only 16% of the 1.2 billion dry tons of plant material on agricultural land. Which is predicted to be sufficient in replacing 30% of the petroleum energy use by 2030.
Technological advancements will allow us to find more effective ways for ethanol extraction through cellulosic biomass found in crops and forestry residues (ie. discarded cobs and stalks, wood residues, pulping liquors).
As shown in the figure above, cellulosic ethanol shows a significant reduction in green house gases—as much as 86% compared to gasoline.
We should not sacrifice the health of our planet for the sake of meeting increasing energy demands. We have to face the facts that our dependency on a non-renewable resource will result in catastrophic environmental, social and economic consequences once we’ve exhausted the Earth of its reserves. So here’s to smarter fuel!