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Do Biofuels Massively Worsen Water Stress?

Submitted by on August 6, 2015 – 12:14 pmNo Comment

by Jim Lane (Biofuels Digest)  Does bioenergy place such massive pressure on water resources that it zeroes out the climate change benefits? Tweets around a recent article from PNAS say “yes, that’s so!” But is it really so?

The dire headline tweeted by Carbon Brief — “Heavy reliance on bioenergy could mean a 42% increase in water consumption across the US by 2100” — suggested that here was a cautionary tale on water use that would be of great interest to the biotechnology community. Indeed, the tweet takes us, via this Carbon Brief article, to an underlying article in the July Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The article inspired Peter Gleick (of the Pacific Institute) to tweet “There is smart climate mitigation and stupid climate mitigation. Using biofuels massively worsens water stress.”

When pigs fly, there’s going to be pig manure everywhere, in your pool, on your picnic table, on your children’s innocent little heads. Should we ban pigs?

Which of course brings up the old scientific saying I just made up, “before you tweet the unbearable consequences, do a reality check on the unreachable assumptions”.

Some notes on this particular study

One, the entire change in energy crop use was modeled around the use of a single crop, switchgrass. Which simplifies the research workload. Yet, it’s kinda like modeling the future of the world based on every person living on a strict diet of turnips.

Two, the underlying scenario in Climate Change made no allowance for technological improvements in water inputs. That’s 85 years from now. 85 years ago — that was like the Dark Ages. 85 years ago, my grandfather, and probably yours too, didn’t have running water at all. 85 years is forever in the world of high tech.

To the extent that it uses waste, the use of water is negligible; in some cases, the process produces net water. With energy crops, these will be produced generally in areas with sufficient rainfall — in the future, they’ll be continuously improved in terms of water needs, and agriculture itself will improve via the field known as AgTech. In fact, it already is.

The Revolution in AgTech – The 8-Slide Guide

Interested in the convergence between genetics, robotics, mobile tech, and cloud computing? That’s the world of AgTech — and there were 264 Silicon Valley invested-companies last year alone. Here’s our 8-Slide Guide.

The Bottom Line

Bioenergy investment and deployment doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it proceeds along with improvements in crop productivity and inputs, waste aggregation, infrastructure deployment, and application development for novel molecules. Water input R&D is important — not just for bioenergy — but for every use of water.

The only path forward are sustainable biofuels — and sustainable biofuels don’t cause dire water effects.  READ MORE  Abstract (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)

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