New Study Says Bioelectricty Bests Biofuel in Total Efficiency

By Editors on May 12, 2009 11:26 AM

A group of researchers from Stanford University, the University of California, Merced and the Carnegie Institution have concluded that using biomass to produce electricity rather than ethanol will generate the greatest overall benefits with respect to transportation efficiency and climate impact. Their claims were presented in an article that appeared in the May 7 online issue of Science Magazine, written by David Lobell of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment, Elliott Campbell of the University of California, Merced, and Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution and a professor of biology at Stanford as well a senior fellow at its Woods Institute for the Environment.

According to the data, converting biomass into electricity used by battery-powered vehicles would yield 81 percent more "miles of transportation per acre of crops" that turning it into ethanol that would fuel internal similar vehicles with an internal combustion engine. As a supplemental benefit, the team contends that the processes involved in taking the electric alternative would more than double the reduction in the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced. The research indicated that these kinds of relative gains would hold true regardless of whether one generated electricity using corn or a cellulosic alternative, such a switchgrass. In reaching their conclusions, the team incorporated existing public data on vehicle efficiencies from the EPA as well as its own specific lifecycle analysis that considered the amount of energy produced and consumed by each of the technologies, to create both the fuel and vehicles.

Although at first glance, the choice of bioelectricity over bioethanol seems overwhelming, Professor Lobell did add one cautionary thought about the need for further and more broad-based study on the subject. "We found that converting biomass to electricity rather than ethanol makes the most sense for two policy-relevant issues: transportation and climate. But we also need to compare these options for other issues like water consumption, air pollution, and economic costs."