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Biofuels: The power plants of tomorrow?
Biofuels - Decisions and Consequences

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Date published: 7/31/2011


--The global demand for energy continues to increase at a steady pace. China just passed the United States in total energy demand, fueled not only by domestic growth but by the demand for exports. We continue to lead the world in per capita consumption of energy and in nearly anything you wish to measure such as water, wood and fiber, minerals, rare earth metals, food, number of cars per household, and other durable and consumable goods.

But to talk about our emerging energy needs and the current interest in biofuels development, we must first refer to Earth's growing population. Currently at 6.95 billion, the world population is projected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Is 39 years enough time to develop alternative energy sources to meet even the incremental demand from an additional 3 billion people on the planet?

The U.S. population, currently at 311.7 million, is targeted to reach 360 million to 500 million by 2050. In less than three life spans, the U.S. population could reach 1.3 billion people by 2180, the population of China today. By 2025 India will surpass China as the most populous nation on the planet. Today, Virginia stands at just more than 8 million people--about the population of the entire country in 1850. We must ask ourselves: Can technology and new energy sources such as biofuels keep pace with demands of a growing population?

Renewable energy sources (wind, hydro, solar, and biomass) account for about 8 percent of our U.S. portfolio. Coal, gas, oil, and nuclear power account for the rest. Our electrical energy comes mainly from coal or nuclear-based steam-driven generating turbines, and from hydroelectric power plants. Our transportation energy comes almost totally from oil in the form of liquid fuels such as diesel, gasoline, and aviation fuels.

Our entire transportation fuel infrastructure is based on liquid fuel technology, and this is driving much of the research and development into liquid fuel supplements and replacements such as ethanol derived from biomass. About 40 percent of the energy used within Virginia is for transportation, and about 20 percent of the energy consumption in Virginia is in the form of electricity.

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Paul M. Winistorfer, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment, has been shaping the college to lead the way in sustainability.