Biofuel's Mixed Blessings

Cornstalk in Field
Peaking through the stover, already shucked, golden
kernals of corn await not the dinner table, but a refinery.

Editor’s Note: Over the past few years our take on biofuels has continuously evolved – from initial enthusiasm at the notion a crop could fight desertification, stablize soil, survive in an arid climate, AND provide fuel, to horror at the absolute and ongoing biofueled devastation of our last remaining tropical rainforests to grow oil palms and sugar cane. We have come up with a list of criteria for biofuel certification, and if there is another list somewhere, it isn’t publicized nearly enough, much less enforced.

We shared these concerns with the folks at REEEP (the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Partnership) and they agreed – reminding us that their charter explicitly emphasizes efficient use of energy along with encouraging energy production – the “demand side” as well as the “supply side.” We wholeheartedly agree with this approach – both are absolutely necessary as world population and per-capita wealth increases. And as this article authored by REEEP’s International Director, Dr. Marianne Moscoso-Osterkorn makes clear, the environmental impacts of biofuel production need to be fully understood. Our concern, well documented, is that even if biofuel is certified by all reputable participants from growers to refineries to distributors, the decentralized and often low-tech nature of this industry guarantees where certification ends, a robust black market begins.

This could be the bottom line – in most cases, ultra clean and ultra efficient petroleum fuel is far less disruptive to the environment than biofuel. It requires far less water (per unit of energy) than any biofuel crop, it requires far, far less land, and to the extent biofuel displaces forests, using petroleum results in far less CO2 emissions. I even think we may learn that tropical deforestation, for a variety of reasons, is a greater contributor to climate change than anthropogenic CO2, and there is a growing number of climate scientists who are voicing this concern.

We recently called the Rainforest Action Network and spoke with one of their press officers, and their response to me was similar to the tone of the essay to follow. One gets the impression we are trying to turn around a big ship that got sailing in a particular direction, and we’re not sure how to turn it around, and we don’t want to turn it around very fast. And that ship is biofuel.

Biofuel is a great idea if it’s grown in tanks in factories, or if it’s extracted from waste that can’t be returned to the soil (watch out, cellulosic extraction could create a dust bowl as all crop residue gets taken away for processing). Otherwise, biofuel is very, very problematic.

As we prove in “Is Biofuel Water Positive,” if corn requires more than 20 inches (50 centimeters) of irrigation per year, then the ethanol you get from the biofuel will not provide sufficient energy to desalinate the amount of seawater you will need to irrigate the next year’s crop. So in South Africa, for example, if the government is contemplating building desalination plants, they might instead stop growing any corn for ethanol if the corn requires anywhere near that much irrigation.

Finally, the extent of tropical deforestation for the purposes of growing biofuel is difficult to calculate. But it appears we are talking about a few hundred thousand square miles just in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Needless to say, an equivalent amount is lost to biofuel in the Amazon, and Africa is racing to catch up. As you know, tropical rainforests once covered 8.0 million square miles – and today there is less than 3.0 million left. I would guess .5 million is already gone for biofuel plantations, with another .5 million (possibly much more) destined to be lost to biofuel within 5 years.

Environmentalists who jump on every bandwagon that feels good need to realise they can’t have it both ways – why don’t these absolutely massive land development projects for biofuel fall prey to the same vociferous, well-funded opposition that opposes virtually any other land development? There is a double standard at work in this new iteration of environmentalism. Why, similarly, aren’t proposals to build electric turbines driven by tides, or wind turbines, or even utility-scale solar thermal installations opposed by environmentalists? Don’t all of these energy producing alternative projects require staggering amounts of land, concrete, steel, and don’t they cause huge disruption to the environment? Who in their right mind would think that, for example, 150 projects that each generate 3 megawatts – an assortment of wind turbines, marine current turbines, and solar thermal arrays which collectively generate 450 megawatts, could possibly disrupt the environment less than one compact 450 megawatt nuclear reactor – which could exist in an area well under one square kilometer?

- Ed “Redwood” Ring

Biofuel’s Mixed Blessings
by Dr. Marianne Osterkorn, June 22, 2007

The maize industry in South Africa is diversifying and prospering…..

Corn Field
If corn requires irrigation, then each gallon of ethanol
from corn requires 500 to 1,000 gallons of fresh water.

Ethanol Africa, a South African company that plans to produce ethanol from yellow maize, wants soon to list on London’s Alternative Investment Market (AIM). There are around 9,000 commercial maize producers in South Africa, which produces 8.8 million tonnes on average per year one of its largest crops. Ethanol could provide a new and much welcome source of earnings.

Ethanol Africa, which is one of the companies leading this move, plans to open eight ethanol plants over the next six years, the first of which will be located in Bothaville. All will be located inland in the central and Eastern part of the country. “The socio-economic benefits of biofuels are extremely clear there’s a huge positive argument for it,” emphasises Jo Kruger, the company’s managing director.

The prospect is an exciting one and is not lost on the South African government which approved a draft biofuels strategy in January of 2007. This strategy proposes that there be a mandatory inclusion of 4.5% of biofuels in road transport fuel by 2013. Implementation will mean an additional 1.3 million hectares of land will be needed to produce grain and oilseed to supply the biofuel industry. South Africa is likely to see under-used land in the economically depressed former homelands being developed to grow biofuel crops. By helping to jumpstart the biofuels industry the strategy should create 55,000 jobs while reducing the country’s climate-changing carbon emissions.

Ethanol Africa

This is one reason why Ethanol Africa plans eventually to spread its operations to other African countries such as Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania and is also a major reason why several African governments, such as that of South Africa, have opted to take the biofuels route. In South Africa, maize, sugar cane, soya and lesser known perennial plants are all feedstock options.

But while it is hard to dispute the numerous economic and low carbon benefits arising from the industry’s development, several environmental problems (as well as some positive environmental spin-offs) are already becoming more visible.

The maize industry has been criticised for using fossil fuels at every stage in the production process. Its cultivation uses fertilisers and tractors, and this is followed by energy used for processing and transportation. According to the World Conservation Union, “maize farming appears to use 30% more energy than the finished fuel produces, and leaves eroded soils and polluted waters behind.” Some studies confirm that at the very least, maize shows only a marginal positive energy balance in comparison to other crops, while others show its energy balance to be negative.

The sugar-bioethanol chain, which has provided huge benefits for Brazil, could also create jobs and income for several African countries, hence many countries are considering it. A UK-Brazil-South Africa partnership study published in July 2006 on behalf of the UK Office of Science and Innovation said sugar cultivation could be more than doubled to 1.5 million hectares in the Southern African region over the next 10-15 years.

If so, sugar cane production would meet more than twice the current regional sugar consumption while also creating 7.3 billion litres of bioethanol each year. It is an attractive option and “has the potential to be among the lowest cost and lowest CO2 fuel chains,” according to the report’s authors.

There are around 47 000 registered sugarcane growers producing an average 22 million tonnes of sugarcane according to the South Africa Sugar Association. About 80% of production comes from large commercial players.

But sugar production has created major concern in recent years. Future potential is limited in South Africa and one reason for this is the industry’s consumption of water. A 2005 World Wildlife Fund study found that 600 to 1000 litres of water are used to produce 1 kg of sugar, or one million litres of water to produce 12.5 tonnes of commercial cane. It is a water intensive crop that remains in the soil for the whole year.

Sugarcane Field
Compared to corn, sugar cane can yield twice the ethanol
per unit of area, but also can require more water.

Solutions are needed, especially in these arid countries. WWF’s response has been to create a Sustainable Sugar Initiative, through which it plans to develop a set of standards for use by investors and producers. In South Africa itself, there is in any case little physical room for sugar cane expansion. Kruger estimates that at most there could be enough for two sugar cane-based ethanol plants. However, new plantations and plants in neighbouring countries such as Mozambique will be under pressure to consider these issues.

Perhaps some of the most interesting developments are in the more unusual tropical plants being considered as biofuels feedstocks, many of which show a higher yield than maize and sugar cane. Simon Wilson, is managing a South African biodiesel project for the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP), a highly recognised global organisation promoting the development of clean and sustainable energy. REEEP is funding biofuel projects in Africa. He points out that the issue is a complex one, but that studies have noted negative environmental impacts from many of these plants, which are often grown on land that is degraded and not viewed as entirely arable.

“Given that marginal land is often a refuge for wildlife and biodiversity, it is likely that energy crops will have some of their greatest impact on these resources as is already being seen in South East Asia with the expansion of oil palm plantations into secondary forests which in turn is having a clear impact on orangutan populations, for example,” he explains. Africa is an enormous and unique continent, and the development of biofuels, whether in traditional crops or through tropical plants, is in many ways a step into the unknown.

Annie Sugrue, the South African co-ordinator for the international NGO Citizens United for Renewable Energy and Sustainability (CURES), is interested in the potential benefits of biofuels, but says that “the issues are not fully understood.” She believes that a full life cycle analysis for different crops needs to be done. Nevertheless, some positive environmental benefits have been noted from plants being considered as biofuel feedstocks in South Africa.

Perennial crops, including jatropha, moringa (a tree whose bark, leaves and other parts can all be used) and two local plums, could be the way forward, according to Sugrue, not least because they are more productive. Jatropha, the tree cultivated by biodiesel company D1 Oils in Southern Africa, can generate 2.5 tonnes of biofuel/hectare out of jatropha in comparison to, for instance, soya, which averages at 0.8 tonnes/hectare.

But there are other benefits too: “We have lots of arable land but it’s degraded, but long-term crops such as these help to stabilise and improve it over time,” Ms Sugrue says. Many sustainability campaigners favour the development of food forests that include different types of plants (trees and bushes) of different species and different heights.

It is a tricky problem. The financial gains from developing biofuels are attractive, since future high import demand is likely from mature economies in the European Union and Far East. But many of the environmental issues still need to be worked through.

REEEP as an organisation will continue to support the development of biofuels to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but the partnership will always ensure that projects take a comprehensive approach, requiring biofuels production to consider sustainability, economic development and land use holistically. REEEP does not support biofuels production that involves deforestation or displacement of food crops.

Marianne Moscoso-Osterkorn

About the Author: Dr. Marianne Moscoso-Osterkorn obtained her Business Administration at the University of Economics in Vienna, and received a Masters of Arts in Industrial Psychology from the University of Michigan. She started her career in the banking sector as a project manager for organizational projects at several Austrian banks. From 1981-2004, Moscoso-Osterkorn was employed by Verbund, the largest Austrian utility company. During her 23-year stay at this company she held various management positions, including 10 years as the International Relations Manager of Verbund where she was responsible for international lobbying and market development; she followed closely the liberalisation process of the European Energy Market. During these years she was also strongly involved in the development of the European Green certificate market and was for several years President of RECS International, a European green certificate organisation. In 2004 Dr. Moscoso-Osterkorn became the International Director of REEEP, the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership.

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One Response to “Biofuel's Mixed Blessings”
  1. karel van heerden says:

    i am south african living in chile the potential for biofeul un stopebil looking for jatropha growers in sa


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