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November 08, 2007



Well, I'll give the guy credit for one thing... he sure thinks BIG. However, I don't know how realistic his idea is. A 30% market share sounds a bit more feasible... and even that will take cellulosic fuels, pyrolysis technology, algae oil, etc. Still, if this report causes the anti-biofuels liberals to froth at the mouth, then it was grant money well spent.


A relatively simple research project must be setup to test these propositions. The ultimate source of energy for biofuels is the Sun. Once you deductthe "inefficiency" of the plant, the energy used to farm the fuel and extract its energy, you are left with a net production of energy. The best case is one with 100% of solar energy converted to biofuel and with no extraction or farming costs. The worst case (like ethanol) is where the farming and extraction energy equals or exceeds the useful energy production.

Now, let's find a scientist to do this study. Economists should be taken with a grain of salt.


The author claims:

... there are some 95 countries that have more than 700m hectares of good quality land that is not being cultivated.
This begs the question of what's there now.  Swamps tha haven't been drained?  Forests that haven't been cleared?  The implied claim is that it would be good for us and the world to convert this to biofuel crops, erasing everything that's there now.  This is not something that I would accept at face value, and I'm no "liberal".

The author also writes:

today’s oil production represents the equivalent of some 500m to 1bn hectares of biofuels.
World petroleum consumption is about 85 million bbl/day (crude, condensate, natural gas liquids and "other liquids") or about 31 billion bbl/yr.  This claim is equivalent to a productivity of 31-62 bbl/ha/yr, or the energy equivalent of about 930-1860 gallons of ethanol per acre per year.  This is 2-5 times the productivity of corn.  People should take Hausman's numbers with a grain of salt.


engineer: The difficulty with doing the sort of analysis you ask for is that every field/crop/production method is different. Presumably with time we will get more efficient, breed more suitable crops, use more efficient processes, that produce more product per crop input, and use less energy etc. Then there is the question of longterm sustainablity, are the energy crops depleting important soil minerals?

Clearly the analysis needs to be done, but blanket statements that we studied say corn to ethanol ten years ago and.. are meaningless. Now my gut feel is that Hausman probably took the most optimistic numbers for many factors, and is likely grossly overestimating the potential.


You missed the biggest point the text.  The author claimed that this land was not cultivated.  Before you can even argue about the productivity of the biofuels which might grow there, you have to show that you won't do irreparable damage by removing what's there now.

Kit P

In the US we have to show 'irreparable damage' is not going to be done to the environment but this does not apply everywhere.

Debates about the potential of renewable energy are rather silly in general. Notice that E-P is not the least bit worried about 'irreparable damage' caused by paving the desert with solar collectors to power PHEV so that his 'irreparable damaged' city will have cleaner air. At some point it is necessary to just go out and do it.

I do not know what the potential of biomass renewable energy will be but there are a whole lot of places in the world 'irreparable damage' is being caused by women spending a large portion of their day gathering firewood to cook food. Will making liquid fuels for rich western countries provide a choice they did not have before?


Engineer-Poet, that's not what "begging the question" means. Begging the question is a logical fallacy in which an argument is considered true without any evidence except the argument itself. If the Total chief had said, "There are 700m hectares of available land because nothing is being cultivated on it," that is "begging the question". He stated quite clearly that it was "good quality land", a category in which I think it's safe to assume an educated person would not include swamp land that needs to be drained or forests that need to be cleared. You should have written "that makes me wonder..." or "here's an interesting question...". http://begthequestion.info/

Why don't you just email the professor and ask instead of jumping to wild conclusions?


KitP and foobat, in terms of wilderness, value is often equated with biodiversity or uniqueness. While some desert areas and other areas of "good quality land" are species rich or unique, many others are not. The basic issue is whether the land Hausmann is talking about falls into this category or not. I don't know the answer but it is a question worth asking.


I know that Kit P has no compunctions against lying or even contradicting himself in the space of a single thread, but claiming that I want to pave deserts is a new low for him.  I think that some of the new solar-thermal schemes have great potential, but my proposals thus far have involved roofers, not pavers.

Kit P

E-P is against anything that would compete with PHEV. Do I have his agenda wrong?

E-P, you think putting solar panels on roof is a good idea? To start with roofing is a very dangerous occupation. The second is that there is an amazing lack of data about electricity production on roofs. One seller claims they can electronically track performance from a central location but does not back up claims with data.

There is a logical fallacy. Buildings are not located to catch solar rays. Identifying which buildings takes more time and money than it is worth. Well unless your goal is to take a picture as part of a marketing campaign to impress E-P.


KitP, I'm afraid these criticisms come across as rather pathetic. You asked about alternative energies to coal. E-P has suggested solar thermal. Can you come up with anything more substantial than these counter points? I would also say that there is a LOT of land out there that is not of high conservation value that could be utilized for this apart from roof space.


I welcome Kit P's scheme to eliminate the hazards of the job of roofing (which has to be done whether the roof collects energy or not) and am waiting with bated breath for details of this wonderful advance he must have.


Biofuels, forget it. This Audi plugin hybrid design is the thing to face peak oil. Every front wheel and all wheel drive car model could be converted easily with electric wheel motors and batteries in the rear.

It allows auto manufactureres to go plugin hybrid with very little investment in retooling. And issue front wheel drive cars in plugin hybrid all wheel drive versions.



I emailed the professor and asked him to expand on what exactly "good quality land" means, and he gave a pretty good explanation (pasted here with his permission):

Thanks for the question. The calculation on land availability followed the following procedure. We calculated how much suitable land there is and then subtracted the land that is currentlyu being used. For suitability we used the Geographic Information System (GIS) which splits the world into pixels of about 100 square kilometers. For each pixel we calculated an index of suitability for three different crops. The index, which can take a value of 1 to 7, is based on geographic variables such as altitude, temprature, rainfall, land type, etc. We took as suitable land any pixel that had been rated either 1, 2 or 3 in the 7 point classification. We then used the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics on arable land and subtracted these from the suitable land to calculate available land. This gave us some 750 million hectares. We also redid the calculation using only lands of quality 1 and 2, which gave us some 250 million hectares.

We checked that a great number of countries use more land than the land we identify as category 3 or better, and even more countries if we restrict it to categories 2 or better.

Some of the land that we find suitable is currently covered by forests. From a net carbon emissions point of view, it is important to understand that the carbon that is contained in a forest is like a stock. Stable forests absorb carbon through photosynthesis but must emite it back out through some other form. Biofuels that can be harvested from the land is a flow: the carbon that they absorb is removed through harvesting. Hence, clearing a forest may cause a reduction in the stock of carbon in the forest but it reduces the flow of net carbon emission if the biofuel is used to reduce future fossil fuel emissions.

One last point. It was the FT that chose the title of the piece: "biofuels can match oil production". From a purely engineering point, they can, but economically they wont. I do not think that biofuels will replace oil completely and they do not need to do so in order to cause the things I point out in the piece. But I do believe that they need not be the marginal player that it is often assumed.

Hope this makes things clearer.

Ricardo Hausmann
Director, Center for International Development
Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
79 John F. Kennedy St.
Cambridge MA 02138
Telephone +1 (617) 496-3740
Fax +1 (617) 496-8753


Thanks JD and Dr. Hausmann.

It would be interesting to see how the calculations go after subtracting all the land of high conservation value.


Solar PV for plugin hybrids can also be mounted over parking lots and even over highways if necessary. no extra land need be used.

On the other hand, cellulosic ethanol would use conservation reserve cropland for monoculture, chemical agriculture to produce biomass for cellulosic ethanol. Destroying that huge carbon sink. And ethanol will never contribute more than a few percent to gas guzzling at the same or greater price as ever rising liquid fuel from oil.

A study of suitable roof space for solar PV in San Diego county proves that it is a sufficient technology to power a large portion of the grid without GHG production.


He is absolutely right about biofuels..they are completely feasable and we have to switch to biofuels and synthetic oil ASAP!

Of course we cannot rely on third worlders in africa and south america for feedstock or fanatic anti biofuel liberals for policy... we can produce more than what we need right here in the United States and take down the terrorist oil cartel! Americans have always the creative and courageous ones, we can do it!


Are biofuels truly addressing the problem or creating a larger one with many unintended consequences? That's the debate I'd like to encourage at a new site I created called BioFoolish?.


I hope you'll weigh in / vote with your own thoughts on bio fuels.

Cyril R.

Well this is a basic calculation really.

Today's oil use: 180,000,000,000 GJ/year.

Optimistic average net biofuel energy yield of 180 GJ/ha.

= 180,000,000,000/180 = one billion hectares

= 10 million square kilometers.

= about the size of the United States.

= a square over three thousand kilometers on a side.

The question is not can we do this. We can cut down most of the forests on this earth if we really wanted. The question is how can we possibly do this without ecological destruction.

Going for today's oil use in terrestrial plant biofuels is madness. If extremely high yield algae are developed, the impact may be found acceptable by reasonable standards.


I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.




I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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