Diesel fuel is made from crude oil, a nonrenewable resource. Biodiesel fuels are characterized as substitutes for diesel, but not all biodiesel fuels are clean and renewable. Renewable biodiesel can be made relatively easily from used vegetable oil.
Other possible sources include locally grown cellulosic materials such as switchgrass, straw, hemp, and algae. The B number indicates how much biodiesel is in the mixture. For example, B2 is 2 percent biodiesel, 98 percent petroleum; B100 is 100 percent pure biodiesel with no petroleum. Diesel trucks, cars, and farm equipment can run entirely on vegetable oil properly filtered in small, makeshift settings without petroleum sources of energy. There is also the potential for heating buildings with biodiesel fuels.
The Politics of Ethanol
Ethanol is defined as an alcohol obtained from the fermentation of certain carbohydrates such as grains, molasses, starches, or sugars. American ethanol, whether it is made from corn or soy, depends on the continued use of petroleum and reportedly uses more petroleum than is saved by the end product itself. In addition, conventional corn and soy are likely to be genetically modified and dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which are also petroleum products. The source of the energy that creates, refines, and distributes biodiesel fuels needs to also be clean and renewable.
In 2004, Congress passed the American Jobs Creation Act, which included a subsidy to oil companies and agribusinesses (such as Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill) of 51 cents per gallon of ethanol. In 2005, oil companies received direct deductions from their taxes-more than two billion dollars-to blend around four billion gallons of ethanol.
Clean and Renewable Options
There are claims that Brazil has achieved clean energy self-sufficiency with homegrown sugar cane biodiesel fuel. However, Ecologist and Geneticist Dr. David Suzuki is skeptical of those characterizations. He maintains that Brazil does use petroleum to produce its biodiesel, even though the petroleum may not be imported. He also cautions that Brazil might be destroying rain forests to plant more sugar cane. So sugar cane biodiesel does not currently appear to be clean and renewable.
A history of renewable energy in the United States includes windmills, widespread use of passive solar in Pasadena (California) at the turn of the twentieth century, development of the electric car around 1913, extensive and efficient electric train and streetcar systems throughout the country (which could have been modified to run on more renewable energy sources), and methane captured from septic systems to create electricity. Details of the dismantling of these technological innovations by competing corporate interests are disheartening.
Government Has a Role
Congress continues to ignore the savings from conservation while subsidizing nonrenewable and dirty energy sources, such as oil and coal. Coal often relies on mining processes that destroy ecosystems, and coal-powered plants emit toxins such as mercury. Supporters of nuclear energy characterize it as clean and defend huge government subsidies for nuclear plants. But opponents argue than any energy source that cannot be safely placed in someone’s backyard, such as nuclear waste, is unacceptable.
Although the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sponsor competitions and presentations that highlight renewable energy, green buildings, and sustainable communities, these innovations receive few direct incentives from the federal government.
Significant economic benefits from clean and renewable energy include lower energy bills in homes, schools, and businesses; white- and blue-collar jobs; reduced health care and environmental clean-up costs; and increased revenues to local and state governments from these additional jobs and savings.
Technological alternatives that merit government subsidies include clean mass transit systems, plug-in electric vehicles (parts of New York are using plug-in trash trucks), passive solar, photovoltaic cells, geothermal heating and cooling, small-scale windmills and solid waste management systems, green roofs, and food and biomass fuels locally raised on small ecological farms (such as organically grown sorghum and corn for human consumption where only the discarded stalks are used for biodiesel fuels).
The challenge is to educate the public about technologically and economically feasible choices. Only an honest debate that circumvents special interest politics will compel environmentally, scientifically, and economically sound political choices.