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Biofuels: an ecologically friendly form of power?

 
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calvin.jones



Joined: 24 Nov 2005
Posts: 34
Location: Aberdeen, Scotland

PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2005 6:41 pm    Post subject: Biofuels: an ecologically friendly form of power? Reply with quote

The reason for me looking at biofuels is simple: it is a divisive issue, even amongst environmentalists. I don't like sitting on the fence, so it was time to get reading.

Biofuels are fuels which are produced from crops or waste biological materials such as cooking oil. The reason that governments are interested in biofuels is that they are fundamentally carbon neutral, although there are some important 'real world' complications. Biofuels are fundamentally carbon neutral because unlike fossil fuels, which release carbon dioxide from a carbon source which was previously looked away underground. Biofuels are made from plants which during there growth have taken carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, so when this is then released during combustion the net effect is zero flux (movement) of carbon dioxide to or from the atmosphere.

If biofuels are carbon neutral then where is the debate, that is a huge climate mitigation result isn it? It turns out that the debate is justified for two reasons 1. To be ecologically friendly the impact of biomass must be looked at on both a local and a global scale i.e biodiversity and agricultural impact. 2. Fuel is needed to harvest the crop and to produce the fertilizer that it uses and to transport the fuel etc... The case for increasing the use of biofuels therefore relies on these two issues, along with one other, if it turns out the impact on ecology is limited and that there is some reduction in carbon dioxide emitted once the whole system is taken into account then is the biofuel industry self sustaining, and if not what the cost of the carbon reduction?

My first finding is that biofuels have the support of the EU, apparently as part of its climate change policy, this indicates that net emissions are seen in Europe as lower than from using fossil fuels directly in transport. This finding was latter supported in a report commissioned the UK department of the environment (DEFRA) which found that when looking at 18 different types of biofuel strategies that:

"all the biofuel technologies considered achieve, in varying degrees, positive energy and greenhouse gas benefits"


The Net energy ratio (NER) of biofuels is a way to represent the amount of carbon emissions they are responsible for, it relates energy content of fuel and energy required in all the processes required to deliver that fuel. Due to lack of studies the NER of biofuels isn't well established, however levels of around 1.5-2.0 are most prevalent in the current literature, this means you get 1.5 to 2.0 times the energy out of a biofuel compared to what it takes to grow, harvest and transport that fuel. When the carbon emissions are compared to those of fossil fuels it is found that there is greater differential in total carbon emissions than might be expected, this is because fossil fuels also require to be transported, often over vast distances and the carbon emissions in sum are far more than tailpipe emissions. Unleaded petrol emits around 0.081 kg CO2 per MJ energy used by the car, this compares poorly to 0.029Kg for wheat derived ethanol, or even biodesil from oilseed rape 0.041Kg.
More info in tables below. (in blog version of this article)


The negative environmental impacts of biofuels result from the potential decrease in set-aside, the increased use of fertilizers and pesticides on any land that is brought under cultivation when currently being used for grazing. The crops to be used for are varied, oil seed rape, wheat, sugar beat, miscanthus and willow short coppice rotation (SCR). There are also a number of waste products which could be used for bioethanol and bio-diesel, these are likely to be small in size but most positive in terms of overall energy yields and little negative environmental impact. Oil seed rape and wheat are likely to constitute a significant part of the UK biofuel crop requirements, there is likely to be little impact of swapping one of these for another cereal, or visa versa on UK land, both are already prominent crops and take up only one part of a typical crop rotation scheme. Miscanthus is not currently a UK crop but is a tall grass of high lignin content that, like other grasses has very little fertilizer requirement (therefore low energy input) and is being grown on a bulk scale for its composition, not its aesthetics or for a delicate fruit so pesticide use should also be relatively low. The main negative impact on the environment form biofuels is likely to occur when set-aside is replaced by oil seed rape, thus removing a significant amount of biodiversity and habitat from wildlife. It is also notable that displacing any crop with biofuels will force that crop overseas, unless set-aside is used, and this will lead to greater external transport costs than predicted.

My research has lead me to be a believer in biofuels generally but not an avid proponent. As the UK Environment Food and Rural Affairs committee point out:

'The use of biofuels to replace conventional fuels in transport can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Biofuels are the only source of renewable power currently suitable for road transport and as such have an important role in reducing the environmental impact of this sector'

The economics of biofuels have probably imporved significantly in the UK since the reports i am using where published, at that time, only two years ago, fuel prices where about 70p a litre in the UK, now they are approaching a pound a litre! So it seems biofuels may have a more independent and rapidly growing industry due to fuel security and the spectre of peak-oil. The table below shows a breakdown of the costs of biofuels, and the advantages to the uk, namely more jobs at home in farming and processing.


My belief is that biofuels do have great potential, particularly in tropical regions, and that a mix is the most sensible way to supply the fuel. The cost of carbon dioxide emissions reductions is, however rather high and the local environmental impact will probably be sizeable, particularly in the UK if set-aside becomes used for biofuel crops. Transport is the most difficult sector to address in terms of climate policy but equality suggests it should play its part, it is for this reason that I support biofuels but wait with anticipation for the hydrogen economy, which would integrate so well with the distributed energy systems discussed in an earlier essay, hydrogen being readily produced by flowing electricity through water.
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clv101
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PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2005 6:50 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Have you read Monbiot on biofuels?

Feeding Cars, Not People
http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2004/11/23/feeding-cars-not-people/
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calvin.jones



Joined: 24 Nov 2005
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Location: Aberdeen, Scotland

PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2005 7:05 pm    Post subject: Not really, i`ll have a read. Reply with quote

No i know Monbiot is very anti-biofuels. I`m with him on most things but not this one. Thats the start of my post! i went into the research for this article with a question: Biofuels, are they environmentaly friendly? I provide the reports on which my article is based, take a look at the figures and take a look for youre self. I`m not saying i`m definetly right just that for the past eleven days i have been looking at this issue for an hour or two a day, maybe a bit more on some days, and my conclusions are sumerised in the post, the links on my blog are for you to make up youre own mind.

Monbiot is a great guy, he wites superbly and i wish there where more people like him but we all have the ability to look at these issues ourselves.

I knew this would be contentious Smile

All the reports and links on my blog http://climatechangeaction.blogspot.com
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Interested in climate change? Then check out:
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http://climatechangeresources.blogspot.com
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mobbsey



Joined: 24 Nov 2005
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Location: Banbury

PostPosted: Sun Aug 21, 2005 7:51 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I cover biofuels in detail in my book. They are great. They will be a key source of energy in the future. Problem is that they will never compete with fossil fuels in terms of energy density.

E.g, -- biodiesel. You'd have to cover the entire UK land area in oilseeds to get enough biodiesel to run JUST the cars. To get enough biomass to gasify to produce power you'd have to cover 3 times the UK's land area in short rotation coppice to produce an amount of power equivalent to our current electricity consumption.

The problem is that the sun only shines a certain amount of energy per unit area of land. Photosynthesis turn a certain proportion of this -- about 5% on average -- into energy stored as biomass. Utilisation of this stored energy varies in efficiency from 10% (open log fire) to 70% (gasification and subsequebt incineration of the carbon char with combined heat and power production).

As I note in the book, it's easy to get energy from natural sources. The problem is marrying our current level of energy demand with the amount of energy that we can source from natural systems.

For a general summary of the book see:
http://www.fraw.org.uk/ebo/tour_info/ebo_introduction.html
or[url]
http://www.fraw.org.uk/ebo/tour_info/ebo_introduction-a4.pdf[/url]


P.
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SherryMayo



Joined: 24 Nov 2005
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Location: Melbourne, Australia

PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2005 12:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hi Calvin

Thanks for your interesting post. I have looked into biofuels a little and the scale of our fossil fuel use when translated into biofuels terms is truly staggering. I did a quick calculation that less than 10% of Australias oil use could be substituted by using our entire wheat crop for ethanol (bearing in mind that Australia is a major wheat exporter, growing far more than its own needs). Thats not to say biofuels won't be useful, just that we have to adjust our energy aspirations to match what will be available as an earlier poster pointed out.

Energy profit ratios are much more favourable (so I understand) in Brazil (sugar-cane to ethanol) because agriculture there is much more labour internsive and less fossil fuel intensive.

By the way, I think Monbiot's objections to biofuels are as much on social justice grounds as on environmental grounds, and on social justice grounds I think his objections hold water:

Quote:
"This prospect sounds, at first, ridiculous. Surely if there was unmet demand for food, the market would ensure that crops were used to feed people rather than vehicles? There is no basis for this assumption. The market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people?s demand for food, the car-owners win every time. Something very much like this is happening already. Though 800 million people are permanently malnourished, the global increase in crop production is being used to feed animals: the number of livestock on earth has quintupled since 1950.(9) The reason is that those who buy meat and dairy products have more purchasing power than those who buy only subsistence crops."

Monbiot
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isenhand



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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2005 6:29 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I?ll just throw in something. Just from reading this exchange I get the impression that bio-fuels are the only alternative considered rather than as one part of an overall strategy that include other energy sources as well as strategies for transportation etc. For example, if we were to look at our transport network would we need to produce bio-fuels to match current oil consumption if we improved our public transport system? What about a system with shared car use to increase the untilisation? What about rethinking housing so that we build new housing in such a way as to reduce the necessity for traveling by car to work. What about more work from home?

That?s just touching the tip of an iceberg but the point is we don?t need to find ways to do what we are doing now, we need rethink what we are doing!

Smile
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RogerCO



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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2005 9:40 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Exactly as isenhand says it is very dangerous in all the debates about alternatives and mitigation to loose sight of the bigger picture when discussing a possible solution.
Just because around 94% of our transport today is powered by oil based fossil fuels doesn't mean that we have to find a single solution to replace the oil.

Obviously Monbiot is correct in pointing out that to use biomass fuel to drive our existing motor vehicles would require a greater arable area than is avauilable in the UK - but that doesn't mean we should reject biomass outright.

Calvin's cautious optimism about the potential of biofuel is well placed if it is seen as one component of a complete strategy - other components could include choices about modes and availability of transport (travel less, more shared/public transport), use of other alternative power sources (electric from renewables - easy for railways, relies on batteries or hydrogen cells for road vehicles, steam from wood, wind - good on the water for long distances, nuclear - potentially useful at sea?, animal & human power - bycycles, horses, etc etc), and alternative ways of organising society so that less transport of goods and people was needed (move work to where people live, stop transporting coals to newcastle)

There will be no single solution to the problem of finding an alternative to oil for transport - that is one of the reasons that oil became so dominant in the first place - its ubiquitous, easy to use in mobile applications and has excellent power density.
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mikepepler
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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2005 10:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

I had my diesel car converted last week to run on vegetable oil, with no special tratment other than filtering it. I'll be posting a thread to describe it all shortly, but here it is in brief:

Car starts on diesel, after about 1/2 mile (in the summer) the fuel is warm enough to start feeding in the veg. You then run on veg until you near the end of your journey. At this point you hit a button which flushes the oil out of the engine, replacing it with diesel. This must be done so that when you next start the engine from cold, the pump, injectors, etc are full of diesel, not oil. Of course, if you're only stopping for a few minutes, there's no need to flush, as the engine and the veg oil will still be hot.

I'm buying waste veg oil from the people who fitted the system. They collect it, filter it, and pay the fuel duty so that it's all legal. If it wasn't being burned in my car it would be going into landfill.

Just to clarify a few points - obviously we can't all run on waste veg oil, unless we plan on deep-frying all of our food! Also, in the long run I intend to get rid of my car entirely, but until I'm in a position to do that, this seems like a good thing to do. I'm doing it partly for impact - if I tell people what my car runs on, they can see I'm serious about Peak Oil, and that I'm prepared to spend money on dealing with it. It'll probably take me about 2-3 years to save the cost of installation, as the legal filtered waste veg is 70p/litre, but cost saving is not my primary motivation.

Another advantage is that if there is a diesel shortage this winter (or in future) I can have plenty of fuel stored: I only need 1 litre of diesel per trip, and whatever veg oil is burned. Both fuels are safe to store in reasonable quantities, so as long as I'm living in a society where driving a car is difficult to do without, I should be OK. In the long run I want to be rid of cars altogether, and then I'm hoping that fuel will cost so much that people will pay well for a car running on veg Very Happy
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fishertrop



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PostPosted: Mon Aug 22, 2005 2:20 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I agree with SherryMayo, I think Monbiot's main concerns are letting the bio-fuel biz be run like the Oil and Ethanol businesses.

Personally I think there may be some use fo biofuels in the Uk, but it's perhaps worth restating a couple of points:
1) We can't use the private car like we use it now - mass private car useage for every tiny little thing has got to end if we're to have any chance. Same for road frieght.
2) The tail-end of North Sea oil will last for many decades (so long as we re-nationalise it) and this will be able to run much of the essential oil-powered equiepment that we can't do without. Where countries like France will have to import (or "secure"..) some oil for decades - or switch to biofuels - to run things that aren't easily changed, we can use what is left of the North Sea.

I favour lots of R&D for everything, so I think the Uk should have a serious bio-fuel pilot programme under way right now - even if we never go into production with it.
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Levellers



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PostPosted: Sat Sep 10, 2005 5:35 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

A really interesting & informed exchange on biofuels & a couple of further observations:

Firstly, there are appear to be several self-perpetuating "truths" that really need further consideration and if unchallenged, there seems to be a danger of developing the agricultural equivalent of a dynamo being driven by an electric motor.

Not least of these is that biofuels are carbon-neutral ~ If the overall fuel useage remains the same and the overall cropped area remains unchanged (whether its destiny is food or fuel) then CO2 production and its absorbtion through plant life will also remain unchanged ~ the only change is that fuel would come from a renewable source. Therefore the term "carbon neutral can be misleading. "Carbon neutral" suggests that the source will affect CO2 levels, but this will only happen if the crop is grown on land that is hitherto not producing a crop ~ this is very unlikely as even "set aside" area should have green cover to prevent soil errosion & nutrient loss. And, since (a significant quantity of) energy is needed to grow the crop and to extract the oil (the latter being a considerable proportion of overall energy required), overall energy useage will actually increase in relation to fosil fuel production and that has to be a cause for concern.

The note about displacing food crops overseas is also well made, but as well as increasing transport costs, the fuel use created by this "lost oportunity" for food crops also has to be factored in to the overall energy equation.

The potential energy crops for the UK are OSR & Wheat as suggested, but also root crops such as sugar beet and fodder beet. However, the viability of processing depends upon supplies of raw material being available throughout the year - sugar beet is too seasonal for this to be considered a viable proposition. Wheat may seem a good potential crop for ethanol production, but since yields are so dependent upon climatic conditions, predicting quantities available for biofuel would be very difficult.

Finally, CO2 is not the only factor to consider - NO2 emmissions from fertilizer cannot be ignored alongside other impacts of biofuel production

This has to be placed into perspective -
1.Any type of largescale monoculture creates enormous environmental impact and biofuel production will potentially exacerbate this problem.
2.Biofuel is destined to be a commodity market like any other - it will be produced where labour is cheap and environmental harm is least scrutinised - the distilled product will then be shipped around the world just as crude oil is today.
3. It is a distraction from the central issue that we need to consume less energy in the way we live and the way we produce food.
4. Spend the money on loft insulation and a condensing boiler - the benefits are whole orders of magnitude greater than anything biofuel could achieve!!
5. whilst political & corporate money is busy promoting biofuel, there is a baffling lack of interest in potential sources such as methane recovery, where energy production and reduction of greenhouse emmisions could be achieved simultaneously. Markets are seldom driven by alturism.

I agree with the final comment - hydrogen is the goal to be focussed on for transport, with the primary energy (electical) production greatly developed at a local level.
Recomended reading:
DEFRA Report CSA 5982/NF0422
Evaluation of the Comparative Energy, Global Warming and Socio-Economic costs and benefits of Biodiesel. N. D. Mortimer, P. Cormack, M. A. Elsayed and R. E. Horne Jan 2003.

FARMING FOR ENERGY ? AGRONOMIC PRINCIPLES AND ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACTS - Murphy D.P.L and Helal M Helal, Federal Centre for Agricultural Research, Braunschweig Germany (sorry, no date available)
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skeptik



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PostPosted: Mon Oct 03, 2005 8:56 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

SherryMayo wrote:
Hi Calvin

Thanks for your interesting post. I have looked into biofuels a little and the scale of our fossil fuel use when translated into biofuels terms is truly staggering. I did a quick calculation that less than 10% of Australias oil use could be substituted by using our entire wheat crop for ethanol (bearing in mind that Australia is a major wheat exporter, growing far more than its own needs). Thats not to say biofuels won't be useful, just that we have to adjust our energy aspirations to match what will be available as an earlier poster pointed out.


http://www.abc.net.au/insidebusiness/content/2005/s1472822.htm

"ALAN KOHLER: I must be missing something with ethanol. This week, the Prime Minister, Mr Howard, put Australia's oil companies in a room and wouldn't let them out until they agreed that his target of 350 megalitres of ethanol production by 2010 was achievable. They didn't commit to it but they agreed it could be done.

Most ethanol in Australia is made from starch, which in turn comes from wheat. In other words, this is a plan to run our cars on food when half the world is starving. Ethanol costs more to make than petrol, so it needs subsidies from the Government estimated at $118 million a year.

The wheat is brought to Nowra from western NSW by trucks that burn diesel. It's then put through an eight-stage process that uses steam at each stage. The steam is generated by burning coal.

The report of the government task force on biofuels is equivocal, to say the least, about the environmental and cost benefits of ethanol. It says the principal benefit of the policy is regional development - not just a benefit but the main one. That's because a new plant has to be built, providing 648 jobs. It will use grain and molasses as feed stock - more food in the fuel tank.

Not mentioned in the report is the name Dick Honan, the main beneficiary of this policy. His company, Manildra, produces all the ethanol in Nowra and will make millions from increasing output to 350 megalitres a year. He also seems to be a prime ministerial friend and a big donor to the Liberal Party. Maybe that's what I'm missing."
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