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Green Fuels: Not So Green?

So there was some kind of art-hipster carnival parked out in front of my house the other day. Two colorful buses, one of them appearing to run on biofuel. I thought _that's adorable_ but then, like an hour later, I realized they'd both been idling for...

So there was some kind of art-hipster carnival parked out in front of my house the other day. Two colorful buses, one of them appearing to run on biofuel. I thought that’s adorable but then, like an hour later, I realized they’d both been idling for long enough to totally choke the neighborhood with exhaust, and started wondering if art-hipsters realize that veggie oil or biodiesel or whatever still cause emissions. You know, internal combustion and all.

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Me, being a cranky, bitter old man, was about to call 311—the petty complaint hotline in some American cities—only somewhat because it would give me some small satisfaction to see supposedly progressive art kids get a ticket from the city of Baltimore for polluting (technically for breaking anti-idling laws). Either they left or I I just plain forgot about it, at least until this morning when this thing about a new MIT study arrived in my inbox saying that, surprise, biofuel can sometimes be less green than conventional fuel.

“What we found was that technologies that look very promising could also result in high emissions, if done improperly,” says James Hileman, co-author of the study published in Environmental Science and Technology. “You can’t simply say a biofuel is good or bad – it depends on how it’s produced and processed, and that’s part of the debate that hasn’t been brought forward.”

The research group looked at 14 different kinds of fuel, including conventional fuel and what’s known as "drop-in" fuel, e.g. biofuel that doesn’t require much modification to the vehicle. They looked at the entire life-cycle of the different fuels, starting from whatever plantation the soy/palm/rapeseed used to make the fuel came from. A striking finding is that biofuel could result in nearly 10 times the overall carbon dioxide emissions of conventional fuel, depending on what type of land its harvested from.

The catch is in balancing fuel needs with sustainable land uses. If you’re harvesting "green" fuel from a rainforest clear-cut it’s like taking 20 steps backward to take one step forward. A possible solution is developing fuels from algae or salicornia, which don’t need land or fresh water to grow. Or another possible solution is turning your goddamn buses off in my goddamn neighborhood. I suggest some combination.

Connected:
The Value of Green Buildings
Going Green Gone Bad: Reusable Bag's Dirty Secret
Inspired Design: Solar Roof Tiles

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.