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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Hydrogen's false promises: a look at the debate in Europe

In 2002, Jeremy Rifkin published his best-selling book "The Hydrogen Economy", opening a very brief period of enthusiasm for the supposedly 'clean' gas. A few years later, Joseph J. Romm, a U.S. Department of Energy official responsible for leading renewable energy R&D, published his even better-selling "The Hype about Hydrogen", in which he systematically showed why a hydrogen future is not very likely to come about soon (if ever at all), and why reliance on bioenergy is far more realistic. Since then, excitement about hydrogen has waned, and biofuels have come into the spotlight instead.

In Europe, the hydrogen debate is particularly acute though, because in this era of rising energy prices, growing dependence on foreign oil and gas, and increasing geopolitical tensions resulting in questions about energy security, it is crucial for the EU to make the right investment choices towards a viable energy transition. The stakes are enormous and so is the amount of funds involved. Funds that may be spent on other projects and visions...

Transport accounts for some 71% of all oil consumption in the EU, with the automotive sector alone dependent on oil at 98%, according to the European Commission. To reduce oil dependency, the Commission has therefor set out an objective to substitute 20% of traditional automotive fuels with alternatives by the year 2020 (Green Paper: Towards a European Strategy for the Security of Energy Supply [*.pdf], 2000).

A year later, it presented a communication on alternative fuels, identifying three of them as the most promising: biofuels, natural gas and hydrogen. But criticism against investments in the latter is now growing. Sceptics are pointing out what they call the "illusions" of the hydrogen economy. Let us start by listing the most basic critiques first:
  • Like electricity, hydrogen is merely an energy carrier, not an energy source. In other words, the hydrogen economy will only be as clean as the original energy source it is made from (coal, nuclear, natural gas, or renewables like biomass);
  • a hydrogen-based transport system requires a network of fuelling stations that will cost vast sums of money to set up. In a study [*.pdf] published in December last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said trillions of dollars will be needed to develop infrastructure before the widespread use of hydrogen;
  • fuel-cell batteries that convert hydrogen into electricity through a chemical reaction have limited efficiency and storage capacity with power losses being made in the hydrogen-electricity conversion process, and;
  • fuel-cell batteries are still highly expensive (around €10,000 for a medium-sized vehicle), due to the materials used in their manufacture. These include platinum and Nafion, an acid membrane used in the electrolyte of fuel cells.
Public and private R&D efforts have therefore focused on reducing the cost of fuel cells, increasing their storage capacity and on finding ways to build up new infrastructure at the cheapest cost. At European level, a Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP) was launched in 2004 to accelerate research and deployment of hydrogen technologies. Led by industry, the platform brings together public and private researchers as well as public authorities and the financial community.

In March 2005, the platform presented a Strategic Research Agenda [*.pdf] to direct research and to encourage public and private investment in targeted R&D programmes (EurActiv 17/03/05). The programme targets commercialisation of vehicles in 2015 but many think that they will not become competitive before 2020 at the earliest.

The scientific community in Europe however remains highly critical of hydrogen and of the allocated research funds. Hydrogen is environmentally unfriendly (see below), economically unviable, and perpetuates the grip of large economic players on our energy infrastructure. Ulf Bossel of the European Fuel Cell Forum, an organisation that supports technical and scientific advances on fuel cells, is a leading critic who has made it his mission to expose 'the hydrogen illusion' [*.pdf]. Let us start by having a closer look at his main objections:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"Hydrogen is clean only if it is made from renewable electricity," says Bossel. But he adds that if a hydrogen-based economy becomes a reality, it will be characterised by a massive increase in demand for electric power, which he says is unlikely to be met by renewables alone.

According to Bossel, a substantial part of the increased demand for power will therefore need to come from coal-fired or nuclear power plants with all the known consequences for the environment and for safety.

In addition, he says a substantial amount of energy is lost when the electricity is converted to hydrogen for storage in a fuel cell and subsequently converted back into electricity.

"About three quarters of the original energy is lost for electrolysis, compression or liquefaction, transportation, storage, transfer and re-conversion back to electricity with fuel cells," the Fuel Cell Forum said in a statement.

According to Bossel, this is because "a synthetic energy carrier cannot be more efficient than the energy from which it is made. Renewable electricity is better distributed by electrons than by hydrogen."

However, hydrogen promoters say that fuel-cell vehicles are just as efficient, if not more efficient, than conventional engines. "Internal-combustion engines in today's automobiles convert less than 30% of the energy in gasoline into power that moves the vehicle," according to Shell Hydrogen.

"Vehicles using electric motors powered by hydrogen fuel cells are much more energy efficient, utilising 40-60% of the fuel's energy," it points out.

Oil industry in favor of the hydrogen economy
About a year ago, a group of MEPs presented a Green Hydrogen Charter urging the EU to mobilise all forces to shift to a hydrogen economy by 2025. MEPs clearly expressed themselves in favour of a hydrogen economy based on renewables.

In the US, the Bush administration has earmarked $1.8 billion over five years for a Hydrogen Fuel Initiative and a complementary FreedomCAR project. The EU, the US and other partners are working together in an "International partnership for the hydrogen economy".

But the oil industry is most favorable to the development of a hydrogen economy in Europe. According to Shell Hydrogen, the biggest challenge is financial, not technical. "From a vehicle perspective, funding the transition from expensive prototypes to affordable mass production will be the key issue".

Shell estimates that Fuel Cell Vehicles can become competitive when annual production reaches one million globally. "Through the combination of the technical and manufacturing advances anticipated over the next five years, with the build-up of a reasonable global production over the following five to ten years, we believe attractive and affordable FCVs can become a commercial reality," Shell says.

Why hydrogen will not be 'clean'
Scientists are also beginning to focus on the environmental impacts of using hydrogen in the transport sector. In a recent review of scientific studies [*.pdf], British researchers found that contrary to most expectations, hydrogen is an indirect greenhouse gas with a potential global warming effect.

The researchers, led by Richard Derwent from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, said this occurs because emissions of hydrogen lead to increased burdens of methane and ozone and hence to an increase in global warming. However, they said that the climate effects would still be considerably less than in a fossil fuel economy.

Latest & next steps on the hydrogen front in Europe

* By end 2006: Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform to produce implementation plan
* December 2006: EU to adopt 7th Research Framework Programme (FP7)
* Second half 2007: Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform expected to deliver a European programme of industrial research, technological development and demonstration on hydrogen and fuel cells (Joint Technology Initiative - JTI)

More information:

Euractiv: MEPs caught up in hydrogen hype? - Updated Oct. 27, 2006

European Union
EU Commission (Directorate-General Research): Introduction to fuel cells
EU Commission (Directorate-General Research): Key advantages of FC technology
EU Commission (Directorate-General Research): Why is R&D needed for fuel cells?
European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP): DRAFT Implementation Plan - Status 2006
European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP): HFP Achievements and Perspectives 2006
European Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technology Platform (HFP): Strategic overview (2005)

International Organisations
Int'l Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy: Website

U.S. Dept. of Energy: Hydrogen, fuel cells & infrastructure technologies program

EU Actors positions
Shell Hydrogen: FAQ: Environmental issues regarding hydrogen
Shell Hydrogen: FAQ: What about the future of hydrogen?
Shell Hydrogen: FAQ: Development of the hydrogen infrastructure

Fuel Cell Forum: Hydrogen Cannot Solve Energy Problems (20 July 2005)
Fuel Cell Forum: The hydrogen illusion (Ulf Bossel, April 2004)

Richard Derwent et al.: Global environmental impacts of the hydrogen economy Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London (2006)


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