The Latest Biofuel Nonsense: Jatropha

by Robert Bryce
The most recent miracle plant would need vast areas of land to produce relatively little energy.

Just when it seemed the hype over biofuels was finally dying down, the New York Times gave biofuel producers a Christmas present.

On Christmas Day, on the front page of the newspaper’s business section, the Times published a piece titled “Jet Fuel by the Acre.” Written by Todd Woody, the article touted SGB, a San Diego–based company that has, it says, “succeeded in domesticating jatropha.” The subhead claims, “A start-up cracks the code to turn a bush into fuel.”

The story says that SGB has made significant advances in hybridizing the jatropha plant, thereby increasing its potential yield of oil-bearing seeds. That may be true. But the article completely ignores the fundamental problem with all biofuels: Even after our best hybridization efforts, they still have very low power density. (Power density is a measure of the energy flow that can be harnessed from a given area, volume, or mass.) The result of that paltry power density: Biofuel plantations (as well as wind projects) require vast amounts of land to produce relatively small amounts of energy.

The hype over jatropha — a tropical plant whose seeds contain a type of oil that can be converted into a substitute for refined petroleum products — has been astonishing. In 2007, Goldman Sachs claimed that jatropha was probably the best feedstock for biodiesel production. Biofuel startup companies raised tens of millions of dollars for jatropha projects. But all of that hype evaporated over the next few years as jatropha yields turned out to be far lower than predicted.

Woody points out that there is tremendous interest in plant-based biofuels because airlines see them as a possible hedge against fluctuating oil prices and also “as a way to comply with government mandates that require the use of low-carbon fuels.” Airlines might well be counting on biofuels, but Woody — like nearly every other reporter in the mainstream media who covers biofuels — doesn’t bother to look at our current demand for jet fuel, or to compare it with the amount of energy we might reasonably expect to get from jatropha.

The math, as always, is elementary-school simple. Woody says that SGB has “deals to plant 250,000 acres of jatropha in Brazil, India and other countries expected to eventually produce about 70 million gallons of fuel a year.”

Seventy million gallons of jatropha-based jet fuel from 250,000 acres per year is equal to 280 gallons per acre per year, or 6.66 barrels per acre per year. In 2010, global jet-fuel demand was 5.2 million barrels per day, or about 1.9 billion barrels per year.

Bottom line: It would take roughly 285 million acres — 445,000 square miles — of jatropha to satisfy our annual demand for jet fuel. That’s a land area about the size of Texas, Colorado, New York, and Ohio combined. And remember, this doesn’t displace any of the demand for gasoline or diesel fuel.

Let’s make it even easier by looking only at Europe, where policymakers are pushing hard for biofuels, particularly in the airline sector. In 2010, the 27 members of the European Union consumed 1 million barrels of jet fuel per day, or 365 million barrels per year. Thus, using jatropha to meet Europe’s jet-fuel demand would require planting nearly 55 million acres of land, or roughly 86,000 square miles. That’s a land area more than three times the size of Ireland (27,000 square miles) and nearly as large as the United Kingdom (95,000 square miles.)

The silliness of such a prospect is obvious.

The hype over renewable energy — and in particular, the hype over biofuels and wind energy — has always hinged on the scientific illiteracy and innumeracy of the public and their politicians. By publishing yet more hype about jatropha, and by ignoring the issue of power density, the New York Times is only helping perpetuate that ignorance.

— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His fifth book, Smaller Faster Lighter Denser Cheaper: How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong, will be published in May. 

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