Economics for the Earth Blog

Biofuels from algae pose threat to water and the climate, National Research Council reports.

Posted Oct. 24, 2012 / Posted by: Becca Connors

Washington, D.C. -- This morning the National Research Council released a new report titled “Sustainable Development of Algal Biofuels in the United States,” highlighting the multiple environmental risks of using algae for transportation fuel. The report was requested by the U.S. Department of Energy due to sustainability concerns with large-scale production of algae for biofuels. The DOE and the U.S. Navy’s history of support for algae as a potential feedstock has been hotly debated in Congress over the past year.

Michal Rosenoer, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth, had the following response to the report:

“This report rightly highlights the huge environmental risks and unknowns of using algae for biofuels. Algae production poses a double-edged threat to our water resources, already strained by the drought. It requires massive amounts of water for production -- and is genetically-engineered to produce oil. If the wind blows algae out of its open-air production vats, cross contamination could cause never-before-seen oil spills in our rivers and oceans. We could have another BP oil spill that’s coming from within the ecosystem itself. We just don’t have the technology to clean up that kind of mess.

“Algae could also perpetuate the food versus fuel problem already common with corn ethanol. Some companies are feeding algae sugar to max out their biomass production. If we’re using food to develop biofuels, we’re risking increasing food prices as well.”

The National Research Council released the following facts:

  • 3.15 liters to 3,650 liters of freshwater is required to produce a single liter of algal biofuel equivalent of gasoline.
  • To produce 39 billion liters of algal biofuels, 6 million to 15 million metric tons of nitrogen and 1 million to 2 million metric tons of phosphorus would be needed each year. These requirements represent 44 percent to 107 percent of the total nitrogen use and 20 percent to 51 percent of the total phosphorus use in the U.S.
  • The greenhouse gas emissions of algal biofuels are unclear and estimates span a wide range; some studies suggest that algal biofuel production generates far more emissions than petroleum gasoline.

CONTACT:

Adam Russell, 202-222-0751
Micha Rosenoer, 202-222-0734

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