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Electricity vs. Biofuels: Which Gets More Miles per Acre?

Posted by: John Carey on May 7, 2009

As if ethanol and other biofuels don’t already have enough problems (see The Biofuel Bubble), here’s another.

A new study in the May 7th issue of Science magazine calculates that, if cars are to be fueled with biomass (such as by ethanol from corn or switchgrass, or by electricty generated from burning crops), those cars will actually get more miles per acre of crops if the cars run on electricity, than on liquid fuel. Why?

The idea is that it would be more efficient to burn the biomass directly to generate electricty, which would then power the cars, than it is to turn the biomass into fuel first, to be used in standard internal combustion-engined cars.

In the study, researchers at Stanford University and the Carnegie Institution for Science (affiliated with Stanford) calculated how far a car could go on the energy produced annually by one acre of switchgrass (a form of prairie grass). An electric car could go 14,000 miles. The biofuel-powered car? Only 9,000 miles. "The internal combustion engine just isn't very efficient, especially compared with electric vehicles," explains Stanford's Elliott Campbell. "We could do more to fight climate change by making electricity [from crops] than making ethanol."

Reader Comments


May 15, 2009 12:44 PM

The problem with this is there are more economical methods of generating electricity but not more economical methods of generating fuels. Long haul driving and trucking will never operate on electricity since recharging would take too long and too often. Substituting electricity for fuel where ever possible makes a lot of sense to save fuels for uses that are not substitutable though.

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BusinessWeek correspondents John Carey and Mark Scott, cover the green scene, keeping on top of the business aspects of energy, the environment and climate change, as well as the technologies, policies, markets and people that are shaping how the earth's resources will be used in the century ahead.

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