Fuel: A Review of the Movie on Biofuels

This film, Fuel (2009), was recommended by a friend and new father (M.J.). I just watched it online here. Very well done, inspiring. Great history of fossil fuels, discussion of peak oil, the relationship between oil and our entire economy, our political system, and our way of life…and then, it goes beyond that to a fairly convincing account of how we might actually be able to have a future again, one based, in part, on bio fuels (see also these posts on ethanol, vegetable oil).

I find myself excited and hopeful with the prospect of preserving many of the features of our way of life (even while I find myself hoping that we can do better in such a future on a whole host of other issues, such as social justice, education, healthcare, etc.). But, check this out: apparently we can grow biofuels on non-farm land with a variety of crops that will sequester CO2 and then, of course, release that CO2 when the fuel is burned. But, this means no net increase in CO2! And, this doesn’t take into account the biomass (e.g., roots) below the soil that remains in the soil (sequestering carbon) when the rest of the plant is used to produce a biofuel. In this case, we might achieve net carbon sequestration (for more on this argument, see David Blume’s discussion on ethanol, cited in this post).

Director Josh Tickell, “the veggie van guy” and author of a Biodiesel America, addresses the recent bad press on biofuels through a run-down on energy in:out ratios (1 unit of oil energy yields .8 units of gasoline energy; 1 unit of energy yields 1 unit of ethanol energy; 1 unit of energy yields 3 units of biodiesel energy) and also addresses the very important issue of how we would replace America’s energy (a combination of many technologies).

Some of what I’ve read doesn’t line up with what Josh is reporting. For example, eMergy accounting suggests that solar panels are net energy losers. However, I find myself wondering…if algae can soak up CO2 and waste water and be used to create biofuels (for example), I wonder if we can afford to use this and other fuels to make solar possible even if they are net losers. It gets pretty complex for me.

So, I’m not entirely convinced about whether we CAN do what the film suggests, but I’m hopeful, grateful that MJ recommended the film, glad I watched it, and will certainly be marinating on it for weeks to come.

In particular, it makes me more interested in engaging our current system to make these changes, like electing politicians with a vision for a sustainable future involving energy independence. Because if we CAN do what the film suggests, the next question is WILL we?

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