These continued high fossil fuel prices has made development and production of alternative fuels, like biofuels, a cost-effective alternative.
Another economic factor that has resulted in biofuel being a popular choice of alternative fuels, is the infrastructure it utilizes. Unlike other possible alternative fuels, like hydrogen, biofuel can, for the most part, use the existing distribution and retailing infrastructure already in place for traditional petroleum fuels (Mol, 2007). it's not surprising that biofuel use has grown so quickly, given this economic head start, in addition to the other economic benefits for farmers and rural communities.
Social Benefits and Concerns of Using Alternative Fuel Sources:
In America, the transportation sector, in particular, is heavily dependent on fossil fuel. This reliance raises national security concerns, as nearly 60% of the crude oil used in America is imported (Archer, Self, Guha, and Engelken, 2008). This dependence on oil from other nations has resulted in political concerns for the United States. Mol (2007) notes that the United States and the European Union's have a significant dependence on fossil fuel from politically unstable production countries, such as those in the Middle East, Russia and Venezuela. The relations with these oil bearing nations have to be tended with care, in order to avoid a political disharmony that could result in the United States being cut-off from this critical fossil fuel supply line. An increased usage of alternative fuels, especially those that can be produced through American provided resources, would ease this political concern and assist the United States in negotiating with these specific countries.
Increasing atmospheric CO2 levels and increasing global warming are certainly significant concerns; however, food security is a significant social concern. An ever-expanding population has meant an increase in this concern. "Forty-eight percent of the world's population now depend on the Haber-Bosch process for their food supply. Over 100 million tonnes (metric ton, 1000 kg. Abbreviation t) of nitrogenous fertilizers are produced annually by the process, which requires a high input of energy and liberates CO2 from the oxidation of methane" (Walker, 2010, p. 319). This means using the limited amount of arable land as efficiently and effectively as possible becomes evermore important, and comes with an increased environmental concern. Use of this limited land for production of crops to use for biofuels, as opposed for crops for consumption, is a concern that has to be considered.
Fossil Fuel -- Alternative Fuel Hybrids:
Although fossil fuels and alternative fuels are often seen to be in competition with one another, the commercially available vehicles hybrid engines of the two fuel types are often more popular. Parris (2006) notes that the major automotive manufacturers, such as General Motors, Toyota, Ford, and Honda, have made major investments into including gasoline-electric hybrid powered vehicles in their product line-up. The primary advantage to this set-up is the significant increase in fuel efficiency, when compared to a traditional gasoline powered engine, especially in stop-and-go city driving conditions. Although this provides a solution for reducing fossil fuel demand, as well as serves to decrease vehicle emissions, this hybrid solution doesn't address the reality that fossil fuel resources are finite and eventually will not be available for use.
Young (2009) is in agreement with Parris' (2006) concerns regarding the use of land for biofuel crop production. He notes that little corn is grown in the western United States, for ethanol production and little soybeans and canola are grown for biodiesel; however, all of the 16 western states, except for Alaska, Nevada and Wyoming, have enacted incentives for production of these biofuels. He also notes...
Washington must compete in global markets. The quality of our products is second to none. This bill (encouraging biofiiels) won't just help individual farmers. It will help rural communities' (p. 384)." However, there are factors that could make the production of biofuels not as beneficial. High transportation costs for feed stocks that would need to be imported, unfavorable price relationships changes, and tight credit markets can all lead to unattractive conditions for biofuel crop production and biofuel production.
Pimentel and Patzek (2006) also raise social concerns regarding increasing biofuel crop production, due to the increased use of agricultural resources. The authors note that converting crops, biomass and even crop residues requires large quantities of water, fertile soil, and sunshine. The negative potential factors include: soil erosion, increased of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, and can actually add to global warming. Pimentel and Patzek conclude that using land for biofuel production, could be see as squandering these precious resources which could better go to feeding the malnourished. A more energy self-sufficient America, with a reduced dependence on foreign oil, and increased opportunities for rural communities are attractive benefits for biofuel development; however, the concern still remains regarding the limited amount of arable land and the increasing food production needs of a growing world population.
Clearly the finite amount of fossil fuel left on the planet means the industrialized world will need to develop and implement an alternative fuel source. Currently, biofuels are the most popular choice as they offer a cost-effective solution, across all levels of the product's lifecycle. In addition, the use of biofuels, including biofuels, can address the significant environmental concerns that have emerged as a result of the growing use of fossil fuels. However, the use of alternative fuels has yet to be perfected. Needed infrastructure and cost of development and production has resulted in several alternative fuels not yet becoming viable replacements for fossil fuels. The primary exception to this is biofuels. Biofuels offer economic, environmental and social benefits.
Economically, increased biofuel production can result in increased profitability for struggling American farmers. In addition, money previously spent on imported fossil fuels can remain in the American economy. Environmentally, biofuels has reduced emissions, lowering the creation of greenhouse gases. Exploration environmental hazards, such as occurred with the 2010 Gulf oil spill, are minimized with the production of biofuels. Also, using crop residues as biomass material for biofuels can further increase the crops usefullness. Socially, increased use of American-made biofuels will result in reduced dependence on politically unstable foreign oil sources. However, there are significant drawbacks to the use of biofuels, when compared to fossil fuels.
First, and foremost, there simply isn't enough arable land to produce enough crops to handle America's energy consumption. The crops currently used for biofuel production, such as corn and soybeans, are also used for both human consumption and livestock consumption. Even if America could produce enough crops to cover the country's energy needs, this would significantly impact the food production, resulting in higher food prices and reduced availability, in an already difficult economy.
Archer, a., Self, J., Guha, G., Engelken, R. (2008 Jan). Cost and carbon savings from innovative conversion of agricultural residues. Energy Sources Part B: Economics, Planning & Policy, 3(1), 103-108.
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