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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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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Why electric cars and plug-in hybrids mean a boost to bioenergy

At some point in the past, someone, somewhere, 'killed' the electric car and with it the dreams of efficiency afficionados who wanted clean and lean vehicles. Since its death, the electric car has become nothing more than an urban myth and hobby object for battery-obsessed people with a large garage and a lot of spare time. But now the e-vehicle is being resurrected by major car manufacturers. Maybe, this time, it is here to stay.

French automaker Renault announced yesterday that it will roll out an electric vehicle in 2010 aimed mainly at European fleet markets. The automaker said in a statement that "the project has reached an advanced stage" and that "It is already working on all the future vehicle's components."
The company follows in the footsteps of Nissan Motor, which earlier said it would bring an all electric car to market before the end of the decade. Besides this project, Nissan has also launched a series of programs aimed at speeding up the introduction of 'plug-in hybrids'. GM and Mitsubishi are going electric too, as are a whole series of small manufacturers who are producing electric specialty vehicles, such as light-duty vans, urban mini-cars or heavy-duty trucks.

Electricity, an energy carrier
Despite marketeers' insistence, none of these vehicles are "zero emissions" per se, for the obvious reason that electricity -- just like hydrogen -- is merely an energy carrier, not an energy source. You need a primary energy source to produce the electricity these vehicles' batteries will consume. At the 'tailpipe', electric cars are clean, but this doesn't hide the smokestacks that pump out CO2 at the point where the electricity they use is generated.

So where will the power for these plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars come from? If it is generated from fossil fuels, these vehicles would be very dirty and they would contribute massively to dangerous climate change. This is a real risk. But luckily, we have renewables - wind, solar and bioenergy - which offer the alternative. The question then becomes: which of these clean primary energy sources is most viable over the long-term?

Biomass, fuel of the future
Renault, for one, considers bioenergy to be the most versatile, most competitive and most universally applicable source for power generation (click image). Biomass is solar energy converted into plant matter that can be transported, distributed and managed in a flexible manner:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Unlike photovoltaic and wind power, biomass can be used everywhere and 24 hours a day. A staggering diversity of energy crops exists that can be used to grow biomass adapted to local agro-ecologic circumstances: from drought-tolerant perennial crops in semi-deserts and grass species in the subtropics, to trees in peri-arctic environments.

The electric car implies a boost to solid biomass. Many studies and analysts have indicated that it is more efficient to use biomass to generate power in highly optimal plants (such as combined heat-and-power plants with efficiencies of up to 90%) than to transform this biomass into liquid fuels for use in inefficient internal combustion engines. A German scientist working for the IEA's Bioenergy taskforce on Biomass Combustion even calls first generation biodiesel 'economic nonsense' [*German]; better use the land where rapeseed or soybeans grow, to cultivate solid biomass crops for electricity.

Of course, ordinary diesel and gasoline ICE vehicles will dominate the car fleets of this world for a very long time, which is why liquid biofuels will be produced on a vast scale.

Over the very long term and only if electric cars were to capture a huge market share, would solid biomass as an energy source for transport take over from liquid transport biofuels.

Final blow to the hydrogen economy?
But the increased attention for electric cars may also signal the final blow to the much hyped 'hydrogen economy'. Let us compare the electric future with the hydrogen future. Which one would be most efficient and cost-effective? We can do this in a systematic manner by looking at two phases: a first phase aptly called the "well-to-tank" phase, which analyses how much energy, CO2 emissions and money goes into transforming the primary energy source into hydrogen or electricity, and how much it takes to get this power to the "tank" of the vehicle (to its fuel cells, ICE or its batteries, respectively). In a second phase, one looks at the "tank-to-wheel" efficiency and costs. Which technology is most efficient in transforming the hydrogen/electricity into traction? Fuel-cells, batteries or hydrogen ICEs?

Answers to these questions can be found in detailed studies, and they all seem to point at the fact that hydrogen production (well-to-tank) and its use in fuel cells (tank-to-wheel), is not really more efficient than other fuel production and utilisation paths (such as biomass-to-electricity for use in battery electric vehicles) (see a recent well-to-wheel study made by the EU, which we referred to earlier).

The main reason why hydrogen is such an unfeasible option for the future, is that it has the disadvantage that the gas is costly to produce, difficult to store and not easy to transport or distribute. The hydrogen economy requires the construction of an entirely new, trillion-dollar infrastructure consisting of pipelines, storage facilities and special hydrogen stations where end users can refill their gas-tanks. This may take ages to build. The electric infrastructure on the contrary already exists. To function as the power instructure for transport, all it needs is some grid-extension and the construction of public recharging outlets.

Trading biomass
The advantage of biomass as the primary energy source for electricity generation is the fact that it can be traded internationally, unlike photovoltaic and wind-power which are locally rooted and can be used economically only under optimal conditions (strong winds in specific locations or ample sunshine). If you want to transport solar energy over long distances, you can only do it by embedding it in biomass; that way, you can ship it over oceans to markets where it fetches the best price. This is impossible with electricity derived from wind or photovoltaics.

The IEA Bioenergy Task 40 group, which analyses sustainable international biomass trade, has carried out many studies which show that it is cost-effective to grow biomass in the tropics, where ample land, sunshine and water are available, and to transport it over long distances to markets. The energy balance and greenhouse gas emissions balance of such long-distance biomass trade remains very favorable (see the IEA Task 40 studies on International bioenergy transport costs and energy balance).

In this sense, the development of electric cars would once again mean a boost to the bioenergy industry in developing countries. It doesn't really matter in which form these regions' biomass potentials come to market (liquid biofuels for ICEs, or liquid and solid biomass for the production of electricity for battery cars), the main point is that they have a competitive advantage over biomass producers in the North.


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