Biofuels are solid, liquid or gas fuels made from recently-harvested biological material (biomass). Most biofuel is derived from plants, either crops grown specifically for fuel use or material left over from plants harvested for other uses.
Burning biofuel releases carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, just as burning any other fuel does. However, unlike fossil fuel, biofuel can be renewable and low in carbon intensity -- if it is derived from plants that are grown sustainably (with new growth continuously replacing harvested material).
In New York State there is some unproductive and marginal farmland with the potential for growing dedicated energy crops for cellulosic biofuels production. In addition, more than 18.5 million acres of New York timberland are being renewed at a rate greater than 3 to 1, meaning that low-grade timber can be harvested in a sustainable manner for producing energy.
Emissions, health effects and land use impacts associated with biofuels are not well understood. The State Task Force on Renewable Energy points out the need to examine environmental impacts of biofuel production, particularly on local water and air quality, as well as the land use impact from diversion of crops and the larger impact on the agricultural industry.
- Biofuels can be low in carbon intensity (the net amount of carbon released to the atmosphere) - as long as uptake by other growing plants balances the carbon that is released in biofuel production and use.
- Locally-grown biofuel can enhance energy security by increasing independence from petroleum.
- Some biofuels may burn more cleanly than fossil fuels, though considerable study is still needed to identify all biofuel combustion products and pollutants.
- Marketing of biofuel feedstocks can boost the profitability of farming and logging, and improve the economies of rural communities.
- Some biofuel formulations remove materials, such as used cooking oil or logging waste, from the waste stream. In addition to recovering energy that would otherwise be wasted, use of biological wastes for fuel saves the cost, pollution and carbon release associated with traditional disposal.
Life-cycle environmental consequences
Evaluations of the energy balance of biofuels, and of biofuels' contribution to energy independence are currently incomplete. Most such evaluations do not take into account fossil fuel use and emissions from harvesting and transporting biofuel feedstocks, and for most processing of plant material into biofuel, nor do they include land use impacts of expanding the development and deployment of renewable fuels. Crops grown for biofuels are the most land- and water-intensive of the renewable energy sources. In 2005, for instance, about 12 percent of the nation's corn crop (11 million acres of farmland) was used to produce four billion gallons of ethanol-which equates to about 2 percent of annual US gasoline consumption.
Obtaining sustainable feedstocks
Balance between the carbon released by biofuels and carbon uptake by growing plants can be achieved by producing biofuels from feedstocks (raw materials) that come from managed forests or sustainably cultivated crops. However, the metrics of sustainable management, as well as models and measurement tools to assess management, remain to be developed.
Like any fuel, biofuel can be a source of air pollution. Biofuel air pollution is not yet fully understood. Widespread use of these fuels would necessitate further research and, possibly, emission controls. Any use of waste biological materials for fuel requires special care in evaluating air pollution implications.
Biofuel infrastructure and distribution
Existing oil pipelines are impractical for transporting ethanol, because ethanol is very easy to contaminate with water (commonly present in pipelines), and also because most ethanol is produced far from existing pipeline access points. So ethanol will continue to require fuel-intensive (and expensive) truck transport.
More about Biofuels:
- How Biofuel is Made - Information on how biofuel is produced from different plant materials.
- Biofuels Today - Information about current biofuel production and use in the United States and New York State.
- Biodiesel - Biodiesel is a fuel made from renewable resources such as soybean oil, animal fats, or waste vegetable oils.