Besides wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric energy, biomass can be converted into useable, renewable energy. Biomass can come from municipal waste, forests and forestry residue, vegetable oils, animal fats, crops, algae and other plants, methane, and other organic matter. In the U.S., a large portion of biofuels comes from corn which produces ethanol used in gasoline. While this method of exploiting biomass is often advertised at green, sustainable, and renewable, the reality of the impacts that biofuels have on the environment is much more complex.
According to Forbes, biofuels require 450-750 times more land than conventional petroleum (Forbes 2020). Similarly, a 2015 report conducted by the European Commission found that biofuels resulted in three times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to petroleum (European Commission, 2015). This is because, apart from corn grown in the U.S., the majority of biofuels come from developing countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Here, arable land is converted to farm crops such as palm, soy, corn, and coconut. Palm in particular degrades land very quickly. There are many other secondary negative environmental impacts from farming biofuels including deforestation, excessive water use, diminished soil quality, diminished soil health, diminished air quality, biodiversity loss, and an increase in invasive species.
There is hope still, in “green diesel”, the second generation of biodiesel which has a different composition and is more energy-dense that traditional biodiesel. Where biodiesel contains 85% biomass and 15% petroleum, green diesel is 100% biomass. It also produces less GHG emissions that both petroleum and biodiesel. Green Diamond Diesel based in Louisiana is the pioneer in producing and distributing green diesel. They are expected to produce 275 million gallons per year, with their 2021 goal being 675 million gallons. And while they meet California’s LCFS (Low Carbon Fuel Standards), their CDP International rating for 2019 was “C” for climate change impacts, “C” for water impacts, and “D” for forest impacts. See, the LCFS requires refineries to reduce GHG emissions, but they get to choose how. The LCFS recognizes the entire life-cycle of fuel generation, therefore more efficient transportation is one option. Green diesel can be distributed in existing pipelines, where biodiesel cannot. So, because green diesel is inherently more sustainable– using pipelines instead of trucks, trains or ships –it can meet the LCFS. However, CDP International is more stringent in identifying environmental impacts. The grades “C” and “D” refer to awareness and disclosure, meaning Green Diamond Diesel is only beginning to be publicly aware of their impacts, as opposed to managing them or mitigating them.
This theme is seen globally in both biodiesel producing countries and consuming countries. In response to an Italian energy corporation “greenwashing” its biodiesel, a Transport & Environment (T&E) manager claimed that there is no such thing as green diesel so long as it is made from palm oil. Meanwhile, Indonesia plans to produce green diesel from palm oil beginning next year to both offset its energy imports and support global demand. Despite these challenging tradeoffs, there is still potential for green diesel in reducing environmental impacts from the energy sector. Based on an updated EPA report, two important suggestions for producing truly green diesel were to use secondhand feedstocks and to plant perennial grasses where firsthand feedstocks are required (EPA, 2018). Secondhand feedstocks include materials not grown for biofuels alone, and materials that cannot be consumed. On the other hand, perennial grasses improve soil health, protect biodiversity and clean water, and provide a great source of cellulosic biofuel.