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Sometimes it happens that you are asked a question that forces you to reflect. So, a few days ago, I was at a public meeting on energy and climate and I was telling about the work we do at the university and with the Club of Rome. In the debate, someone asked me: “But, professor, from all these models of the world you make, after all, what did you learne?”.

Some questions are not easy when the topic is complex and you have to summarize the answer in a few sentences. And you have to come up with something right away! But I think I could put together a good answer when I said, “The main thing we’ve learned is that the models work well. Even the famous model of ‘The Limits to Growth’ that the Club of Rome had proposed in 1972 still describes reasonably correctly the state of the world today. But this has a consequence: the system is predictable because it tends to move in a certain direction. And this means that changing things is very difficult “.

The problem of the difficulty of changing things, even when it would be necessary, came back to me by later on, when reading a recent report on biodiesel. This stuff is really terrible: it causes deforestation and destruction of the fertile soil. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it is much worse than traditional diesel fuel.

But, you could say, at least biodiesel replaces a non-renewable fuel obtained from oil. In practice, the problem is that we are not getting very far with the replacement. Making the appropriate calculations, we find that, today the production of biodiesel is about 2.7% by volume of the total production of diesel (the details of the calculation are at the end of this post). Considering that biodiesel contains less energy than diesel fuel, it is just over 2% of the total. And for this miserable 2% we destroyed forests all over the world and massacred untold numbers of orangutans?

Maybe you do not care about orangutans or ancient forests, you just want fuel for your diesel SUV. And you could tell me, couldn’t biodiesel production be increased? The problem is that there are not many forests left to be razed in the world. To produce more biodiesel we should start using land that is currently used for food production. This means starving people to feed the cars: and we risk to get to that for real if we continue with current trends.

But how is it that we put ourselves in this absurd situation? The beauty is that the idea was to make an “ecological” fuel. Ecological my xxxx! But it is what I was saying before. The system (and the system is us) tends to maintain its trajectory. When we realize that there is a problem, in this case, the lack of diesel fuel (peak diesel), as well as global warming, we launch ourselves towards the solution that seems to keep things as they are. By replacing diesel oil with biodiesel, it seemed to be possible to fix everything with no change or with just minimal change. We use a renewable fuel and we keep our stoves on wheels running. But it doesn’t work like that. We only created a lot of damage without getting anything useful.

What we should have done, and we are still in time to do, is to move from the noisy and inefficient internal combustion engines to vehicles that use electric motors powered by renewable energy, much more efficient and non-polluting for real. Of course, this requires making investments, changing habits. Thus, the knee-jerk reaction of so many people when the idea is proposed is “I do not want to change anything, give me biodiesel so that I keep my diesel car”. It is understandable, but we are in an emergency situation both for the climate and for the availability of fuels. And change we must.

h/t Virna Quintini and Veronica Aneris

Calculation

It is curious that nobody on the Web seems to have bothered to do the calculation of how much biodiesel is actually produced in comparison with fossil diesel. I tried to find the data and the result is a bewildering mess of different units, claims, and counterclaims. Of course, if you are a good conspiracy theorist, you would suspect that the people producing biodiesel don’t want to make it easy for us to understand how minuscule is their contribution to the world’s fuel production. But, eventually, I could put together a calculation that seems to be correct and that Antonio Turiel kindly checked and validate. And, yes, the contribution of biodiesel to the world’s diesel consumption is minuscule. So, let’s go with the numbers.
BP.com gives 1577 Kboe of biofuels (the people who use these weird units should be killed by a lightning strike coming from God herself). I think it means one million and a half barrel of oil equivalent per day. And then, it is reasonable to say that biodiesel could be a fraction of that, as you say, ca 0.65 million barrels per day. That makes 237 million barrels per year. One barrel is 42 gallons, indeed we have some 10 billion gallons per year, a datum which corresponds to one provided by the biodiesel journal. Again, these people he should be struck by lightning for using these units. So far, so good.

Then, back to IEA, they say that the world diesel production was 1234442 thousand tonnes in 2016, or 1234 million tons, or 1.2 billion tons. One toneq corresponds to 6.88 — 7.33 barrels (depending on the assumptions), let’s say it is 7 barrels/ton. The result is that the world diesel production is some 8.5 billion barrels/year, which is a reasonable number considering that the total oil production is some 90 million barrels/day, or 32 billion barrels/year. Converting this to gallons, we need to multiply by 42, and we get 350 billion gallons/year

To recap, the good results are

DIESEL production is 9 Billion Barrels/year OR 350 billion gallons/year

BIODIESEL production is 0.237 Billion Barrels/year OR 10 billion gallons/year

Which means that the total production of biodiesel is 10/360= about 2.8% in volume. A little more than 2% considering the lower heat content in biodiesel.

The poor people who had devised the SI system must be twitching in their tombs when they think at the mess that is the story of the zillion units used in this field.

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. Contact: ugo.bardi(whirlything)unifi.it

One Comment

  1. This analysis assumes that biodiesel must be badly done by capitalists. The waste oil converters seem to be rather benign. Any use of solar energy ultimately steals from nature, so I agree on a ban on burning crops, but still see great potential for synthetic fuels as an alternative to batteries.