Fossil fuels are detrimental to the environment and reducing their use is essential for a better planetary health. The use of biofuels is a reemerging energy practice that could act as a suitable substitute for fossil fuels. Fossil fuels currently make up sixty-five percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions while their extraction is also detrimental to the environment and has created lots of political turmoil. There are currently some misconceptions about biofuels and poor practices that give it a stigma. Because of subsidies and common monoculture practices crops such as corn are being harvested as a biofuel despite it being largely unsustainable. Alternates such as algae biofuels and biomass biofuels, such as Switchgrass, are being studied and used for a variety of different purposes to replace fossil fuels.
The process of making algae into biofuels is simple and useful in more ways than just the replacement of conventional energy sources. Algae can clean wastewater while also producing biogas which is burned to produce energy in the form of electricity which is then used to provide energy to the wastewater treatment plant. Once the algae biomass is harvested it is treated with solvents to break down the cell wall of algae and access lipids which can be converted to a liquid biofuel. Unlike corn ethanol, this process is more energy efficient making it nearly carbon neutral. Algae biofuels do not compete with land use or food security and are also a renewable source of energy that can easily substitute current fossil fuel sectors such as transportation. Though the industry is still very small there are large steps being taken to increase the prevalence of algae biofuels in regular societal practices. A partnership between professional race car competitions and algae biofuel producers have made some events use these biofuels as the fuel source which is a large step towards normalizing the transition towards biofuels.
Source: Nate Commers, 2013
Biomass biofuels, such as Switchgrass, provide other replacements to mitigate the use of fossil fuels. Switchgrass is a perennial grass that can be found throughout the US and can be carbon neutral when grown in a proper system. Because it is a perennial, its roots help to sequester carbon and store it in the soil while also increasing soil health. There are very few inputs necessary for Switchgrass to thrive because it is very efficient in its water and nutrient uses. It also does not require much pest management, especially when grown in a polyculture and does not require fertile soil for it to thrive. This allows for it to be grown on marginal lands which could increase carbon sequestration while also providing an economic boost to farmers. Many biomass biofuels are most efficiently used through combustion but the process is carbon neutral because it is releasing carbon that was already in the atmosphere while also storing some in the soil. This can be used for heating, replacing common fuels such as natural gas, and can also be converted to electricity.
Source: Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan, 2016
The future of biomass has lots of potential both in Vermont and throughout the United States. Though there are setbacks, such as not being a highly established commodity or being less economically viable than traditional fossil fuels, there are far more benefits. The 2016 Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan set out to increase the number of biofuels in the energy budget of the state to replace fossil fuels. There are many different types of biofuels that are far more sustainable than fossil fuels and they can be used in their own energy niches. It’s not a one size fits all solution but shifting the energy sector to more sustainable practices will have effects that are essential if we are to slow the effects of climate change.
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