Stop Digging Pavlov's Hole

By Mike Bryan | October 14, 2010
New feedstocks for biofuels production are continually being groomed to step onto center stage. In fact, most of them are ready now. I'm talking about feedstocks like algae, switchgrass, miscanthus, jatropha, seaweed, camelina oil, single-cell microorganisms, and a wide variety of cellulosic materials. Add to this some of the more traditional feedstocks like corn, sorghum, wheat, barley, sugarcane, and the opportunities for biofuels production are nearly limitless.

A recent report by the Truman National Security Project states that biofuels, such as ethanol, are having a significant impact on reducing our dependence on petroleum. But the really good news is that we have just begun to scratch the surface of what is achievable.

Algae, for example, is on the very precipice of becoming a major feedstock for biodiesel production as well as second generation ethanol. Switchgrass and miscanthus will be valuable feedstocks for ethanol production. They not only help minimize soil erosion, but can provide needed income to farmers from marginal land. We discard enough cellulosic material in landfills alone each year to produce billions of gallons of ethanol. We bury it! You can bet that future generations will look back in disbelief and wonder why we simply buried all of that energy.

It's not technology or demand that's holding us back, it's all about price. Everything is compared to the price of a gallon of gasoline or a gallon of diesel fuel. There's not one of the feedstocks mentioned that we cannot effectively turn into energy. Not next year, or five years from nowwe can turn them into energy today. It just can't be done at or below the price of a gallon of petroleum in many cases.
We whine about our energy dependence, fuss about military spending and complain about oil spills, yet we continue to bury energy by the millions of tons every day in landfills, we let marginal land sit idle and turn our backs on new technologies. Why? Because they cost more than petroleum-based fuels.

We're like Pavlov's dog. Every action evokes the same reaction. When the price of oil goes up, our reaction is always the same: "We need to develop a robust biofuels industry and stop our dependence of foreign oil." When the price goes back down: "We like biofuels, but we just can't justify paying more than we do for gasoline or diesel." When another war breaks out, our reaction is "If we were energy independent, we would not have to go halfway around the world to defend our oil supply." When the war is over, or at least not on the news every night: "We like biofuels but we just can't justify paying more than we do for gasoline or diesel."

As the old saying goes when you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. Folks, we are in a hole, a very deep hole, and yet we continue to dig and bury more and more energy in the process.

That's the way I see it.