Bioelectricity Beats Ethanol

Wikimedia Commons


A new study in Science shows the best way to maximize “miles per acre” from biomass is to convert it to electricity, not ethanol.

Compared to ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles would deliver an average of 80 percent more miles of transportation per acre of crops, while also doubling the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.

“It’s a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before,” says study co-author Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution.

The researchers performed a life-cycle analysis of bioelectricity versus ethanol technologies, taking into account the energy produced and also the energy consumed in each.

Bioelectricity was the clear winner in the transportation-miles-per-acre comparison, regardless of whether the energy was produced from corn or from switchgrass.

A small SUV powered by bioelectricity could travel nearly 14,000 highway miles on the net energy produced from an acre of switchgrass. A comparable internal combustion vehicle could only travel 9,000 miles on the highway.

“The internal combustion engine just isn’t very efficient, especially when compared to electric vehicles,” says lead author Elliott Campbell of the U of California Merced. “Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren’t enough to overcome this.

While the results of the study clearly favor bioelectricity over ethanol, the researchers caution the issues facing society in choosing an energy strategy are complex.

“We found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues: transportation and climate,” says David Lobell of Stanford’s Program on Food Security and the Environment. “But we also need to compare these options for other issues like water consumption, air pollution, and economic costs.”
 

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate