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Alternative Fuel Fantasy

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Potemkin Villager

Joined: 14 Mar 2006
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Location: Narnia

PostPosted: Tue Jul 25, 2006 12:46 am    Post subject: Alternative Fuel Fantasy Reply with quote

Alternative Fuel Fantasy

By Roger Adair

The substitution of fossil oil with bio-fuel crops, such as rape seed, is presently being widely promoted and in Ireland has begun to grip the public imagination with some quite unrealistic expectations which are not being adequately countered.

The picture looks rather less than rosy considering even just the amount of good farming land required to produce a significant fraction of our current oil use. That is before even considering the labour, machinery, fuel, fertiliser, herbicide and pesticide inputs required. Then there is the small matter of competition for land use for other purposes such as food production....not to mention changing rainfall patterns and levels.


?Could? is a key word in any self respecting political speech writer?s lexicon suggesting as it does, with great verbal economy, fantastic potential without any clear commitment. It predictably reared itself repeatedly at a recent Renewable Energy Resources Conference organised by the Donegal County Development Board at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology

A press item, a week earlier, had announced the County Development Board?s very ambitious ?emerging vision? that Co Donegal could become a net energy exporter by 2015. By the time the conference came around this had been modified to a much more modest and achievable ?Donegal could become a net exporter of electricity (from renewables) by 2015?.

It could be that this subtle semantic revision resulted from being asked to consider the several million acres of land required to produce enough rape seed oil to substitute the immodest several 100 million litres or so of oil that we modest 150,000 folk of Donegal currently burn our way through each year.

One million acres is about the entire land area of County Donegal, including mountains, bog, forestry, loughs and rivers etc ? not to mention buildings, roads and car parks. Such a plan, even if only partially implemented, certainly could very easily be seen from outer space as a very bright yellow glow (and a massive increase in respiratory problems) in the North West of Ireland. Still we should not let mere boring and inconvenient facts get in the way of populist political speech making and spin.

The Farmers View

The farming column of a local newspaper took a very sanguine view of all this, hinting at an element of electioneering going on in the conference proceedings and the accompanying political speech making. The article was more concerned with considerations like being able to use sewage sludge as a fertiliser on growing willow and how so few of the top heavy government agencies concerned had involved farmers in an informative and pro active manner.

Some of these farmers have already joined what is now a still small, but growing, price driven, mini rush in rural Donegal to convert diesel road vehicles to run on vegetable oil, in response to increasing fuel price pressure. Not that any of them are actually growing their own fuel yet, apart from one small pilot project, but they are naturally tempted by the enticing prospect of home grown energy independence and profit from their own ?oil wells?.

What is missing from their calculations is the simple consideration that the oil we now use, produced during the Carboniferous period, required no land to be bought, no farm labour to be employed, no investment in or running of machinery and no application of, fossil fuel based fertiliser, herbicide or pesticide. More importantly, in the Carboniferous era, there was no competition for acres of land used to provide food for human consumption.

Duty Free Fuel

Off the shelf cooking oil seems to be the main fuel of choice for current early adopters of bio-fuel, augmented by what many imagine to be the huge quantities of used fryer fat endlessly available from fast food joints.

The prospect of supermarket and cash and carry shelves being emptied of cooking oil, by the multiple trolley load, to fuel vehicles rather than used for cooking, is thus becoming more likely by the day. You can almost envisage the potential mountains of the resulting, carelessly discarded, empty, 1 and 5 litre plastic bottles littering the countryside.

Bio-fuel thus continues to grip the public imagination here, in a typically nonsensical manner, with no consideration of the sheer volume of oil we currently burn every year in Ireland ? about 9 million tonnes or 9,000 million 1 litre bottles of the stuff. Now that would fill a lot of supermarket shelves!

Higher Mileage

Meanwhile such exuberant optimism is being fanned by press articles such as a recent piece in the Irish Times ?Motors Supplement? which argues that you can only save money on a bio fuel engine conversion if you are doing at least 30,000 miles a year and that much more substantial savings can be made for HGVs. The sub text, as usual, being that more makes better economic sense, and that it is all merely a matter of freely made consumer choice, from a menu of options, based on purely economic considerations.

As long as bio-fuel use remains a small minority activity this is not a problem but it is hard not to imagine a quickly escalating supply and demand crunch as more and more high mileage and fuel consumption folk in road transport jump on an apparently economic band wagon only to be surprised and disappointed as supply tightens and prices inevitably escalate.

If you use vegetable oil a lot in cooking I would advise you to stock up now before the competition for land use between food and fuel production begins to kick in big time.

The Minister's View

Minister Noel Dempsey recently responded to a request to outline the Irish government's thoughts on the subject of Peak Oil. This is ahead of the ever so long awaited Energy Green Paper, Ireland's equivalent of the UK energy review.

The Minister does actually admit that oil is a finite resource (which I suppose is some sort of small step) but says that there are a wide range of estimates, up to beyond 2030, when Peak Oil may occur. However he assures me that, anyway, whenever peak oil occurs it will result in no immediate run down in supplies but lead to more efficient methods of extraction likely to lead to some equilibrium in supply and demand.

So you will be glad to hear there is no problem there and we have nothing to get concerned about!

He does recognise that high prices and the certainty that oil is a finite resource presents difficulties, particularly for transport but expects a global response in terms of alternative fuel vehicles.

He admits that planning for the possible effects oil peaking is a difficult problem for all countries but if intervention measures are initiated too early they may turn out to be premature and counter productive.

Well there is no chance of us making that silly mistake! Sure aren't we leading the way in Europe when it comes to delaying and procrastinating over anything substantive to do with renewable energy or energy efficiency.

In terms of alternative fuels, he estimates that 16 million litres of bio-fuels will be placed on the Irish transport market by 2007 and we will reach over 2% market penetration of bio fuels by 2008. How much of this is to be domestically produced and how much imported is not made clear.

This, apparently very impressively large, 2007 figure still only represents a totally insignificant and token 0.2% of our current oil use. To then increase, even this minute amount, 10 fold in one year is frankly just not credible by ramping up domestic production. Even if it could be achieved we would still remain 98% oil import dependent at our current extravagant consumption levels.

He also mentions the 2005 EC Energy Green Paper ?Doing more with less? which he says the government broadly supports and strongly believes that action can achieve positive long term outcomes.

If only, even strong, belief in action could achieve anything when we are all going to have to do much,much less with much much less.

Don't need a Weatherman

It can scarcely have escaped anyone's notice that this has been by and large a very dry and hot summer following another dry winter. My own little micro willow plantation has made little growth this year and the leaves are prematurely yellowing and falling off. Yields of early potatoes are well down and prices up due to a severe lack of rain across the country and the acres of grass grown all around here for cattle grazing, silage and hay making are making slow headway.

If this is a climate trend rather a weather blip, as seems increasingly likely, then it has very serious consequences not just for potential bio-fuel prospects but for food production as well.


Substituting renewable energy and energy efficiency for significant millions of tons of oil is not an easy task accomplished cheaply and quickly. Countries that have made significant progress in doing this and developing the skills base to support it, are now much better placed to face an uncertain energy future. They have only managed it as a result of enormous real commitment, investment and sustained hard work over long time spans and with access to cheap fossil fuels. Countries like Ireland which have made little or largely ineffectual efforts in this direction are in an increasingly precarious position which is showing little real sign yet of even being acknowledged or of having much prospect of improving significantly in the foreseeable future.

Bio-fuel does has the potential to make small and valuable local transport fuel contributions but not on anything near the scale of our current extravagant fossil fuel use. Creating an impression, or letting an impression take hold in the public mind that it can, is highly disingenuous and irresponsible to say the least.

The physical impossibility, not to mention environmental undesirability, of trying to substitute more than a small percentage of current energy use with bio fuel crops etc, seems to be the very large pink elephant in the living room that many are still very studiously trying to ignore.
"There's always been some bullshit product for farmers. And the people selling it are usually from out of town." David Friedberg
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PostPosted: Wed Jul 26, 2006 3:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Very thought provoking.

Another point that people also conveniently overlook when dreaming how we can produce alternative fuel is that gas, oil and coal were produced by sunlight and growth of life on earth over a period of thousands of years. Now we think that we will reproduce that same, (or perhaps even an increasing) growth on an annual basis.

In addition, we believe that we can use the dwindling water resources that used to be stored in the high mountain ranges in the winter to be released into our rivers in the summer to power hydo electric systems and irrigate all these extra crops and carry our toxic waste to the sea.

Thing is, what are we going to do about this?
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