Biofuels and Confirmation Bias

by Tim Auld

Several years ago I learned about peak oil and decided that industrial civilisation was going to collapse. From then on I viewed many responses to this with scepticism. They would at best prolong business as usual for a short period. Use of cars and trucks would collapse with the supply of oil, along with plastics, rubber and pharmaceuticals. I thought that this would ultimately be a good outcome considering the damage our civilisation does.

Is this our future?

When you draw a conclusion on information like this the mind can trick you. You become invested. You might say that you’re keeping an open mind, but you actually discount information that contradicts your chosen outcome and you don’t search for information or solutions that might change your mind. It’s called confirmation bias.

Follow arguments on internet forums and you will see it in spades. While some present a balanced and thoughtful position, many people seem to have come across specific sound bites and formed their world view from them. They will defend their position without properly evaluating newly presented information. Few people publicly admit they are wrong and we can’t all be right.

I’m not judging people for having natural human instincts. It once served a survival purpose by keeping tribes cohesive, which was more important than optimal behaviour. I am susceptible to it myself and it’s a challenge to overcome. The problem is that confirmation bias gets in the way of sorting fact from fiction. In addition, when enough people get the same idea you tend to get what’s called group think. Information of dubious quality is passed around without critical analysis and it is accepted as conventional wisdom. Detractors are castigated. Poor decisions and non-action result.

A standout example is the pervasive belief in ever rising house prices and that everyone can get rich from buying and selling them. Economist Peter Schiff was laughed at on TV for predicting that prices would collapse, and we know how that turned out.

Soon after my discovery of peak oil I became interested in permaculture. It appeared to be a sensible response as it did not bank on risky high technology solutions. In 5 years no-one I came across promoted biofuels or seriously discussed keeping machinery going. It was just accepted that fuel would get more expensive and we would have to be at the mercy of price and availability, progressively using less. That is quite astonishing considering liquid fuels are used for all sorts of permaculture project work and education.

We know it to be true, let’s despise it

I believe the sensible use of biofuels has suffered from confirmation bias and group think, even within the permaculture movement, seeded by some less than honest sources. To illustrate, which of the following statements do you believe?

  • “Biofuels compete with food production and are therefore a moral obscenity”
  • “There’s not enough land to grow the crops necessary to make a dent in our current requirements”
  • “Biofuels have a low or negative energy return and are just a way for big business to get government subsidies”
  • “Biofuels are bad for the environment, destroying native vegetation and top soil, and polluting air and waterways”

If you do believe any of these, ask yourself how you came to these conclusions. What was the quality of the information you used, did you go through a rigorous and objective analysis, and did you try to think of creative solutions?

Until recently I believed all of these statements. My information was sourced from popular media and peak oil writers. I took it at face value. I’m not going to break them all down here. Someone more qualified than I am has done that for us, but allow me to raise a few points rarely mentioned.

Henry Ford’s Model T was a flex fuel vehicle

Alcohol fuel predates gasoline by several decades. Farmers once made it from the crops they couldn’t get to market, even before national electricity grids were common. They used it to run their equipment and vehicles, selling the surplus to motorists. The first cars were designed for alcohol. Modern petrol engines can run up to 50% blends of ethanol and 100% with a small modification.

There’s nothing particularly great about fuels derived from crude oil. They are toxic, dirty, dangerous and increasingly expensive to produce and deliver. They only look good if you have nothing better to compare them with.

Ethanol is liquid sunshine, fermented from sugars and starches. All of the nutrients, fat and protein remain in the mash, which makes excellent animal feed and fertiliser. The carbon dioxide and excess heat from the fermentation can be used in adjacent greenhouses to accelerate food production and organically control pests.

Ethanol can power electric generators, heaters, and stoves, and can be turned into rubber. It can be produced close to where it is used and does not require scarce materials or new technology breakthroughs. It burns clean and cool, prolonging engine life and maintaining air quality. Sunlight is free, renewable and decentralised, providing a stable foundation for an equitable civilisation.

The material fermented contains only a small part of the carbon fixed by the plant. If you do not displace something doing a better job you are increasing the rate of carbon sequestration. Yes, you can generate wealth and drive your vehicle while potentially reversing climate change.

I was exposed to this information thanks to David Blume, who is an American ecologist and permaculturist who has specialised in biofuels, ethanol in particular, for some 30 years. He has written a well researched and referenced book called Alcohol Can Be a Gas, with an associated DVD, documenting ethanol production and related issues. He also provides copious free articles, videos and radio interviews. His work checks out against other independent sources and he is held in high esteem by many. Have a read of his Busting the Ethanol Myths page and Why Alcohol Fuel? The Two-Minute Summary. At the end of this article are two videos.

Dave is not the only one talking up alcohol. Bill Mollison discusses cutting flower stalks on Babassu palms (Attalea speciosa) to harvest sugar solution and integrated food production in Jeff Nugent’s 1983 PDC recording (file 16a.mp3 @ 31m 10s).

Distilled, that gives you 40,000 litres of absolute alcohol per acre. That’s 10,000 gallons of absolute alcohol per acre and that’s a better fuel crop than almost any you can get from solid fuel. It also has a good feature that it is liquid fuel and therefore can be used as a transport fuel. Unlike wood which is awkward and you’ve got to use a charcoal burner on your vehicle to run around on wood fuel, but with this it goes into a practically unmodified internal combustion engine. Now that’s a considerable yield and you would do better to invest in a few acres of this in terms of becoming an energy sales man than you would in looking for dry oil wells. This is a sure thing.

A palm is being harvested for the sugar solution
which can be fermented to produce ethanol

I haven’t confirmed Bill’s figures yet (if you’re reading this Bill, I’d love some references!), but the concept is sound. It can be done with any palm, and is commonly done with Nipa palms, producing in the order of 2000 gallons/acre (Blume). In Borneo’s Samboja Lestari project, Willie Smits is using Arenga pinnata, which he refers to as Sugar palm, to produce alcohol and palm sugar. The 100m ring of palms around the 2000 hectare site also functions as a fire barrier.

Now, let’s assume for a minute that there is great potential in ethanol and biofuels in general. Won’t they just perpetuate this destructive business as usual? I don’t think so.
The only sustainable way to produce biofuel relies on an understanding of ecology and the law of returns. Small and efficient operations out compete larger ones, so millions of ecologically minded individuals could produce clean fuel, becoming empowered.

Contrast this with how the fossil fuel industry operates. It is a handful of giant and almost unaccountable corporations, enslaving powerless consumers and holding them to ransom. They drill or dig a giant hole, extract what they want, follow the minimal environmental controls they are forced to and move on. All while buying out and undercutting alternatives, spreading disinformation, and lobbying government for greater access and relaxed controls.

Centralised and foreign control of vital resources produces insecurity and artificial scarcity, inducing fear and driving population growth. The unscrupulous take advantage, promising quick and easy solutions. The world is unjust because the wise do not hold power. Alcohol is a key technology in taking that power back. A sustainable biofuels based civilisation would be far from business as usual. Furthermore, by failing to provide a clean alternative we leave the door open to even dirtier centralised fuel sources.

Dave estimates that cattails (Typha latifolia) grown in sewage can produce
10,000+ gallons of ethanol per acre while cleaning the water,
compared to industrial corn’s 200-400.

All permaculturists should agree that there’s a great deal of work to be done to restore our natural wealth and build sustainable lifestyles. Also, that we are facing an energy crisis of unprecedented proportions as fossil fuels deplete and become increasingly vulnerable to disruption. So, hands up who wants to build dams by hand, haul thousands of trees around on dilapidated bicycles, bucket water, and dig mile upon mile of swale while not getting enough to eat.

Mollison adds this in Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual (9.1, p228):

Until the Second World War, earth was moved by sheer numbers of people, by hand or horse and car, or by a few people working with wheelbarrows or baskets over a long period. All this has changed. Why put up thousands of mud bricks when a machine can compact a 6-8 m thick wall immune to flood, fire, and earthquake in a few hours? Or labour long hours over a hole when we can blast a fence-post in a hard shale base for a few cents?

Want to do all this work by hand?
At what cost?

We are likely to be doing more physical work in the future than at present, but we haven’t fully explored to what extent it is necessary. I dare say most people disparaging the potential of biofuels are doing so from a position of comfort and with a full belly, taking advantage of our fossil fuel inheritance, with hard physical work and suffering being an abstract concept.

Fermenting four fodder beets will produce one gallon of ethanol plus by-products, which Dave enumerates (currency in 2010 US dollars):

The fodder beets generating one gallon of alcohol would also generate a surplus of about 25 pounds of edible mash which would produce about 6 pounds of fish, and then fish manure that would fertilizer 2000 heads of lettuce in 23 days, along with 1000 cucumbers being grown in a greenhouse heated by surplus hot water from the distillery in an atmosphere enriched by fermentation tank carbon dioxide. In this simple example the alcohol would be worth $3, the fish would be worth about $40, the lettuce would be worth $1000 wholesale, and the cucumbers $500 wholesale. So a Blume system would generate nearly $2000 for every gallon of alcohol produced, answering once and all the food vs. fuel debate. More complex designs would generate even more food and revenue.

A machine running on one gallon of ethanol replaces the equivalent of 120 hours of person labour. All this sounds like a good deal to me. Maybe we should give biofuels, done right, our unbiased consideration.

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