Whenever I see a headline touting the latest efforts to develop a biofuel that might replace oil, I initially get very excited. If the word “renewable” is used to describe the biomass, I’m excited all the more.
Let’s look at an article I came across this morning.
Seaweed Offers Kelping Hand for Biofuels
Scientists say that developing biofuels from seaweed could provide not only an alternative low-carbon energy source, but also go some way to solving the problems of food and fuel crops competing for agricultural land.
Despite the terrible pun in the headline, sounds promising, huh? And right out of the gate it offers up a real hook, a solution to the problem inherent in traditional biomass crops like corn or nontraditional crops like hemp.
The article continues (my emphasis in bold):
The European Union currently has a target to increase the share of biofuels used in transport fuel to 10 percent by 2020, although green groups have long claimed that biofuels drive food prices up, result in deforestation and can even increase carbon emissions.
However, marine ecosystems account for more than half of global biomass and are relatively untapped, potentially offering a solution to the conflict, say researchers at Aberystwyth University. They add that seaweeds are capable of producing more biomass per square metre than fast-growing terrestrial plants such as sugar cane.
Relatively untapped. Aye, there’s the rub. For, it is mass extraction and production that are so easily glossed over in the excitement generated by biofuels. The article, as quoted above, acknowledges the drawbacks of land-based agricultural biomass crops, but says not a word about the impacts of harvesting and processing the seaweed.
Facilities…oh, let’s dispense with the euphemism…factories must be built, many of which would likely be sited on waterfront property, property possibly valued for its scenic, recreational, and tourism assets, factories that need to be powered with electricity, factories that might produce greenhouse gas emissions, factories that might use toxic chemicals during the refinement process, factories that might produce massive quantities of waste that needs to be properly disposed of, etc.
This certainly hits home for me, as the waters here in the Pacific Northwest are particularly rich with kelp and other seaweeds.
And perhaps even more troubling: one man’s biomass is another fish’s habitat. The article refers to the source of seaweed as “marine ecosystems”, yet, mindbogglingly, there’s no mention at all of the other inhabitants of those ecosystems.
Unfortunately, given industry’s track record in this area — the millions of acres of land ravaged by mining, oil drilling, oil spilling, refinery and end-user emissions, and toxic waste — it is nearly impossible to trust that seaweed could somehow be harvested in a way that protects the sea life that depends on it.
(Algae from man-made ponds seems like a hopeful alternative, but it has its detractors.)