Just like hydrogen a few years ago, algae –to-biodiesel is the new hype launched by venture capitalists who want to make quick and big bucks (see today’s EurActiv story and the interesting – although a bit unbalanced – dossier). EU policymakers should keep a good dose of realism and try to understand the technology and its cost and sustainability implications better before falling for the “algae is good for the environment and energy security” trap.

The fact that fossil fuel giants like Shell and Exxon are jumping on the bandwagon does not change that. They have enough money to make some mistakes if the big promises of the next miracle solution for future oil production  would not deliver. It only shows these companies are starting to acknowledge that the end of the (traditional) oil era is upon us and it is time to look into alternatives (mostly forgetting renewables like solar and wind).
I do believe algae might play a role in future sustainable energy policies but a lot more research is needed before policymakers should get over-enthusiastic about this next silver bullet.

Here are a few of the sceptical voices in the algae hype:

  • Geoffrey Stiles has some answers to the question: why does Exxon invest in algae on his Energy Outlook blog.
  • Robert Rapier’s “Algal Biodiesel: Fact or Fiction” dates from 2007 but is still valuable and has good references to other sceptics.
  • The Oil Drum ran an excellent piece on “Cost viability and algae” in May 2009.
  • And, last but not least, there is the new (27 July)  LCA study published by a team of researchers in France in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The conclusions of this last study deserve some highlighting as they prove my previous point:

Biodiesel production from microalgae is an emerging technology considered by many as a very promising source of energy, mainly because of its reduced competition for land. However the impact assessment and the energy balance show that algal biodiesel suffers from several drawbacks at the current level of maturity of the technology. In comparison to conventional energetic crops, high photosynthetic yields of microalgae significantly reduce land and pesticide use but not fertilizer needs. Moreover, production, harvesting, and oil extraction induce high energy consumption, which can jeopardize the overall energetic balance. It appears that even if the algal biodiesel is not really environmentally competitive under current feasibility assumptions, there are several improvement tracks which could contribute to reduce most of its impacts.”