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    Taiwan's Feng Chia University has succeeded in boosting the production of hydrogen from biomass to 15 liters per hour, one of the world's highest biohydrogen production rates, a researcher at the university said Friday. The research team managed to produce hydrogen and carbon dioxide (which can be captured and stored) from the fermentation of different strains of anaerobes in a sugar cane-based liquefied mixture. The highest yield was obtained by the Clostridium bacterium. Taiwan News - November 14, 2008.

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Saturday, September 09, 2006

China and India sign strategic memorandum on science & technology cooperation

The two countries that will largely determine our future, China and India, have just signed their first ever ministerial-level memorandum of understanding for cooperation on science and technology. India's Minister for Science, Technology and Earth Sciences Kapil Sibal and his Chinese counterpart Xu Guanhua signed the MoU after they held talks in Beijing, as part of a series of meetings marking the 'India-China Friendship Year 2006'. Current Indo-Chinese cooperation in the science and technology field falls under a rather old inter-governmental S&T agreement signed between the two countries in Beijing during the visit of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1988. Meanwhile, the world's political situation has changed dramatically and both countries' economies have grown impressively but face a persistent energy crisis. The MoU comes as political relations between the former Asian rivals are warming and as bilateral trade is increasing rapidly.

The agreement is important because energy, climate change, biotechnology and agronomy are high on the agenda. The cooperation is based on both public interest and pure science and technology 'pillars':
  • Environment and energy: the two governments hope to collaborate on solving environmental problems by exchanging India and China's unique experiences amidst rising energy prices. Cooperation on research into alternative transport energies to combat energy insecurity and pollution in urban areas will be of strategic importance.
  • Biotechnology and agronomy: research into genomics, meteorology and biomass technologies have been singled out as concrete fields for cooperation. India has a lot to offer in agronomic sciences, considering the fact that the contribution of agriculture in India's gross domestic product (GDP) at 24% was higher than China's 14%, Mr Sibal said.
  • Climate change: India would stand to gain from China's expertise in climate change mitigation strategies (even though it is not clear which 'strategies' are being referred to here)
  • Nanotechnology: a "Nano-Science Forum" will be created, with research into applications in the field of energy technology being one component
The comprehensive agreement further foresees in exchanges in the fields of software and space technology, amongst other sectors. Science, Tech and Earth Sciences minister Kapil Sibal summarized the vision behind the agreement thus:
"When I think of brand China, I think the C stands for capacity and capability. Brand China is like a tsunami that floods the world markets. China's capacities are unmatched."

"When I think of India, I stands for innovation. Can you imagine what will happen if the I in India and the C in China were to get together? The innovation of India and the capacities and capabilities of China can overtake world trade."
Sibal further noted that Sino-Indian trade has already reached US$18 billion. China is destined to become India's largest trading partner. He added that China has a population of 1.3 billion and that India's has reached 1.1 billion. "If you add the association of Southeast Asian nations (ASEAN), the population of this region will touch 3 billion which means that we constitute half of the world's population." "So we have the market and we have the manpower. What we need is the technology. So let us start an Indo-China technology partnership. Let the strategic partnership for friendship become a strategic partnership for science and technology."

More information:
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Indonesia's biofuel program to bring 2.5 million jobs in three years time

In the developing world, biofuels mean jobs. Earlier, Indonesia already hailed its biofuel program as a strategy to alleviate poverty, but remained vague about the actual number of jobs it will bring. Today, the Indonesian government became more concrete and announced that its green energy crash program will generate 2.5 million jobs in under three years time. For a country with mass unemployment and poverty, this is indeed a great boost.

As part of an expanded poverty alleviation campaign, the Indonesian government would prioritize two programs to reach the goal of creating 15 million jobs before 2010: 'people empowerment' and 'biofuels'. Coordinating Minister for the People's Welfare Aburizal Bakrie, claims that the 'people empowerment program' had actually been running since 1998 in 34,200 villages across the country. The program is expected to generate jobs for 12.5 million people, assuming each project will absorb 250 people in a specific area for three years, said Aburizal. "The projects work, but we need to extend them to 50,000 more villages by 2009," he said after a cabinet meeting Thursday. "The types of projects are determined based on local conditions."

The remaining 2.5 million jobs are expected to come as the government opens plantations to support its biofuel program. Critics have called the anti-poverty projects ineffective, pointing to the steady rise in the number of poor people over the past few years. But Aburizal said that without the programs, poverty rates would have been even higher. "We hope that the coordination between the relevant Cabinet ministers can go better. We have agreed that 20 percent of the total state budget allocated for poverty alleviation will go to these two programs," he said.

The government has increased next year's poverty alleviation budget to 51 trillion rupiah (€4.4 billion/US$5.6 billion ), from 43 trillion rupiah (€3.7billion/US$4.7 billion) in 2006 [entry ends here].
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Jatropha biodiesel superior: extensive testing in India results in car manufacturers' interest

Two C-class Mercedez Benz cars ran 6000 kilometres accross India, on pure jatropha biodiesel

The Central Salt & Marine Chemicals Research Institute (CSMCRI), a small research body in Bhavnagar (Gujarat, India) was one of the first in India to extensively test jatropha based biodiesel in standard cars. When it began doing so in 2002, none of the big international or Indian car makers seemed interested, with the exception of German giant Daimler-Chrysler which decided to cooperate and set-up a pilot project together with the institute (more on this project here).

In 2004, two C-class Mercedes Benz cars completed nearly 6000 kilometres on 100% jatropha-biodiesel, without engine modifications. The project included an epic journey into the Himalayas to test the fuel's properties in harsh and cold weather conditions. The results were conclusive and promising: the cars emit 70 per cent less hydrocarbon, 80 per cent less particulate matter and sulphur, the fuel acts as a natural lubricant for the engines, and is safer than fossil diesel because of the much higher flash point of jatropha diesel (170° compared to 50° for fossil diesel); it withstands freezing temperatures easily. Endurance tests with tractors, generators and a Toyota Qualis further revealed that the B100 fuel's properties are superior to ordinary diesel and makes engines last longer.

Importantly, all the tests were carried out with 100% biodiesel and without engine modifications. This is why, according to Pushpito Kumar Gosh, director of the Institute, blending biodiesel with fossil diesel serves no purpose. Mr Gosh thinks the Indian government should concentrate on cultivating more Jatropha plants and 'jump' ahead to B100 rightaway.

The Institute's success has had predictable effects: today all major Indian car manufacturers (Tata and Hindustan), together with General Motors are now knocking on the CSMCRI's doors. A meeting between GM and the Institute is planned to take place next month. India is one of the world's fastest growing car markets, and a leader in jatropha cultivation, which forms part of its ambitious biofuels program. A recent mass campaign resulted in 3 million jatropha seedlings being planted in Chhattisgarh in one single day (see previous post) [entry ends here].
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Friday, September 08, 2006

Energy for a cool planet: Nature publishes series of articles on new energy technologies

Via Environmental News Bits: Nature - the top science journal - is publishing a series of comprehensive articles on new, clean and green energy technologies that might determine our planet's future:
The most pressing technological problem facing the world is uncoupling the provision of energy from the production of carbon dioxide. Developed countries no longer need to increase their energy use in order to increase the size of their economies, but developing countries do. And yet to add more carbon dioxide to the Earth's atmosphere is to increase inexorably the chances of climatic chaos.

To highlight this issue Nature is assembling a suite of feature articles and associated material which will outline the promises and, where necessary, the pitfalls of new energy technologies. From mainstream possibilities like the expansion of nuclear power to more offbeat subjects such as microbial fuel cells and schemes for combining biofuel with fertiliser manufacture, this regularly updated Nature web focus will provide a comprehensive overview of the energy landscape.
The series of articles covers virtually all renewable energy technologies, from solar over wind to bioenergy and biofuels, to nuclear and wave. The texts look at fuel cells and hydrogen as well. Moreover, important questions about investment, policy and politics are addressed. Crucially, articles about the complexities of carbon dioxide emissions and global warming take a central place in the collection.

The articles are free so make sure to check them out regularly, here.
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Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos mobilize to plant trees to offset carbon dioxide

Not long ago, India set a 'world record' when thousands of people planted some 3 million jatropha seedlings for energy in one single day. Now in a massive tree planting campaign, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos showed up to do something similar, and planted some 800,000 seedlings of native trees alongside the country's three major highways.

The "Green Philippine Highways" (GHP) project is aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions from the country's rapidly growing transport sector. To mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions of one single car, around 10 trees are needed.

On the morning of 25 august, nearly a million Filipinos signed up, including members of 4,414 organizations, to plant acacia, narra, mahogany, banaba and other native tree species all over the archipelago - "the biggest number of trees planted at one time in the history of the world," President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said in a speech after launching the project.

The Philippines' environment minister Angelo T. Reyes expressed optimism on the success of the GPH project, noting that commitments of support have been snowballing from a broad spectrum of Philippine society such as the religious, academe, civil society, local government units, business sector, and even the police and military. The program takes on the concept of "adopt-a-tree" where communities and organizations look after and nurture the trees at specific sites for at least three years, the minimum period needed by a growing tree to reach maturity on its own.

Like the principle behind the hand water pump, Reyes explained the ultimate aim of the program is to pump prime a momentum that would spur participating communities into making the planting and growing of trees as a way of life at community and personal levels: "The program's character, being apolitical and yet full of socio-economic implications, is the basic factor that makes these diverse groups gravitate to each other under a common goal for clean air as embodied by the presence of trees," Reyes said.

Studies show that 70 percent of pollutants in the country's air come from vehicle emissions and 30 percent comes from two other land-based sources namely fossil fuel-burning facilities (factories and power plants) and construction sites. There are presently around five million registered motor vehicles in the country, of which 31 percent or around 1.55 million are in Metro Manila. A single tree can sequester about 0.56 metric tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime, and around 10 trees are needed to capture the emissions of one car. Thus, it needs about 50 million trees to contain air pollutants emitted by motor vehicles in the country.

More information:
Philippines Dept. of Environmental & Natural Resources: Green support for GPH - Sept. 6, 2006
Bayanihan: Hundreds of thousands participate DENR's Green Philippine Highways - August 25, 2006
Environmental News Network: Philippines Hopes to Break World Record with Mass Tree-Planting - August 25, 2006

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Second generation biofuels "five years away"

Distilleries that can make ethanol from the cellulose contained in biomass waste, grasses or trees rather than corn should be in operation within five years, says U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

Bodman said his department expects to issue loan guarantees next year for the first such projects involing "second generation" biofuels. Construction will take an additional two to three years, he said Thursday. "I’ll say five years, giving myself a little flexibility on it, but potentially faster than five years," he said, answering questions at a press briefing with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.

Ethanol is currently made almost exclusively from corn, and Iowa is the leading producer in the U.S. But ethanol cannot displace a significant amount of U.S. gasoline consumption — the country now uses 140 billion gallons a year — unless the alcohol can be made from more plentiful feedstocks, such as corn stover, wheat straw, switchgrass and other sources of plant cellulose:
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Government and private scientists have been working for years on ways to reduce the cost of distilling ethanol and other types of alcohol from cellulose.

Despite the research, the Energy Department estimates that it still costs $2.20 a gallon to produce cellulosic ethanol, double the cost of making ethanol from corn.

Private companies closely guard their production costs, but Bodman has been told privately that some have lowered the cost of making cellulosic ethanol to $1.50 a gallon. He did not identify the companies.
“The goal is to get it down to commensurate with corn, which is $1.10,” he said.

One industry official said Bodman was probably overestimating the time it will take to get commercial-scale plants in operation.

“I think we’ll see some announcements here and they will be built in two to three years,” said Brent Erickson, vice president of the industrial and environmental section at the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

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USDA Chief economist: US tariff doesn't block much foreign ethanol

Interestingly, sugarcane-based ethanol imports from Brazil would increase if the U.S. scrapped its import tariff, but the surge would be small and not make much of an impact on the U.S. market, U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Economist Keith Collins said [read his full testimony, here].

Over the long term, such a move might be significant, Collins said, but the U.S. now imports only about 80 million gallons per year from Brazil. Doubling or tripling that wouldn't make much of a difference on a U.S. market that will consume about 5 billion gallons of U.S.-produced corn-based ethanol this year.

Collins, testifying before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said the impact of a surge in imports from Brazil would only impact the U.S. market "marginally at best":
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Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., suggested that over the long term, increased competition from Brazilian imports might spur stronger U.S. production. The idea of allowing more ethanol imports elicited sharp complaints from Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who expressed fears that the U.S. could become too reliant on Brazilian supply. He said he wants the U.S. to rely solely on "American energy."

Collins said he wasn't worried about the U.S. becoming reliant on Brazilian ethanol regardless of whether or not the 54-cent-a-gallon import tariff remains in place. Brazil is currently limited in the amount of ethanol it could conceivably export to the U.S., Collins said.

The country consumes much of the ethanol it produces, sends much of its ethanol exports to Asian countries and exports about half of its sugar production. Ethanol producers and the Renewable Fuels Association have railed against the idea of lifting tariffs on ethanol imports.

RFA President Bob Dineen, in a Senate hearing in May, pointed to the fact that ethanol users benefit from tax credits whether the fuel is domestic or imported. If Congress were to eliminate the 54-cent-a-gallon import tariff, Dineen said, the result would be "U.S. taxpayers subsidizing already subsidized foreign ethanol."

The U.S. tariff is set to expire in 2007 and USDA Secretary Mike Johanns has said previously he believes that it isn't essential to U.S. corn and refining industries.

All we have to say is: if this is indeed the case, then please scrap the tariff and give American consumers value for their money.

More information
U.S. Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, Hearing Statements, 09/06/2006:
Statement of Dr. Keith Collins, Chief Economist U. S. Department of Agriculture, Oversight on Federal Renewable Fuels Programs.

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Ethanol vs. Biodiesel: in the US, soybeans win

Quicknote energy balance
According to MIT Technology Review, new research offers another take on the long-debated question of whether corn grain ethanol provides more energy than its production consumes. A recent study that takes into account all the energy used in farming and processing corn to make ethanol concludes that there is a small energy gain, but that the gain from using soybeans to make diesel is far greater--and that biodiesel is less of a greenhouse-gas polluter, too.

Energy in, energy out
Farming and processing corn grain to make ethanol yields about 25 percent more energy--in ethanol and co­products such as animal feed--than it consumes. In contrast, biodiesel and coproducts yield 93 percent more energy.

Greenhouse-gas emissions

Producing and burning ethanol results in 12 percent less greenhouse-gas emission than producing and burning gasoline. Producing and burning biodiesel from soybeans offers a 41 percent reduction compared with regular diesel.

There are no further details on which study the Technology Review is referring to. But obviously, the research in question only focuses on what we call "lobby crops", that is low-yielding food crops used in the US/EU for biofuels, with taxpayers' money that is handed out to the agro-industrialist with the strongest lobby. The energy balance for tropical biofuels is many times better [entry ends here].
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Shell Oil chief: U.S. needs policy on greenhouse gas emissions

Quicknote climate change
Touting the importance of a "culture of conservation" and investment in alternative fuels, John Hofmeister sounded less the leader of the world's third-largest oil company as much as a speaker at an Earth Day celebration. The Shell Oil Co. president, addressing a group in St. Louis Thursday, said as far as the company was concerned, the debate over the science of global climate change is over. [Our friends at Worldchanging will appreciate this comment, since they have launched a campaign to convince people in the U.S. that indeed, the debate is over.]

"It's a waste of time to debate it," he said. "Policy-makers have a responsibility to address it. The nation needs a public policy. We'll adjust." He said it is a perfect time for policy makers to keep fuel prices high and force market changes. In Europe, where fuel prices are higher, less fuel is used, he said:
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Hofmeister shared his thoughts on U.S. energy security with a group at Washington University's Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy. As early as the 1920s, St. Louis was North American headquarters for Shell Oil, which is now based in Houston.

He said conventional oil and gas resources are no longer enough for the nation's energy security. The energy future, he said, will include fuel derived from oil shale, gasified coal and other unconventional sources; biofuels such as ethanol from grasses, straw, corn stalks and other plant matter; wind and solar energy; hydrogen fuel cells; and conservation.

He offered an anecdote illustrating how far we have to go.

"This morning at the Hilton, a gas fire was heating an air-conditioned lobby," he said. "It looks and feels great, but is that an efficient use of energy?

"We need to change the hearts, minds, values and behavior of Americans toward a culture of conservation," Hofmeister said. But adjusting the thermostat and driving more slowly isn't enough. He said the U.S. needs different designs of homes, factories and vehicles.

He also said the U.S. represents 8 percent of the world's population that is using 25 percent of the energy supply. "It's not a sustainable formula," he said, noting that the rest of the world wants its "fair share," too.

"The world produces 85 million barrels of oil a day and consumes 84 million barrels, with no available extra supply anywhere," Hofmeister said.

Hofmeister said world oil selling for as little as $10 a barrel in 1998 made investment in alternative fuels not economical. But he said with oil prices upward of $60 a barrel, solar, wind and unconventional fuel projects are doable.

David Hamilton, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy division, said he's glad Hofmeister "is not saying global warming is a hoax and their job is to make money."

But, he added, "I'm not bowled over by the fact they're aware we've got problems. Shell has been in the image-making business for some time."

He said Shell saw what BP has done to position itself as a greener company to deflect criticism.

Hamilton said to Shell's credit, the company is investing in solar and wind energy, but "let them come forward and say we need to improve fuel-efficiency standards."

In June, Shell announced plans to build a $200 million (€157 million) wind farm on the island of Maui. Hofmeister said it would help meet Hawaii's renewable energy goals and eliminate the need for a coal-generating plant there.

Shell and General Motors operate five hydrogen fuel cell passenger vans in Washington as a demonstration project. Shell provides a refueling station near the Capitol. But Hofmeister said a technology breakthrough is needed to bring down the cost.

Shell also is investing in producing ethanol from straw and has signed contracts with Idaho farmers willing to produce it. It is involved with a German company producing ethanol from grass, tree limbs and other wood waste. And it plans to launch an experimental project with an unnamed Northeastern city to create ethanol from paper and cardboard.

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Volkswagen attacks first generation biofuels made from "lobby crops"

The following article appeared in the international press. It is about food-versus-fuel, but allow us to add our nuances in [square brackets] and our stress of certain facts in italics, because, as usual, the debate is narrowminded and forgets that there is a world beyond the borders of Europe and North America, where an entirely different rationale behind the promotion of biofuels exists. We do agree with the bulk of VW's comments, which make it clear that it is high time to invest in biofuel crops in the South, and to stop wasting energy, resources and taxpayers' money on cultivating low-yielding "lobby crops" in the US and the EU to be used for biofuels.

Volkswagen on Thursday attacked biofuels made from food crops [from Europe and North America] as unsustainable, setting the German carmaker at odds with President Bush, US carmakers and European governments, which have all been touting ethanol as an environmentally friendly alternative to petrol in cars.

Bernd Pischetsrieder, chief executive, called on politicians to lower tax breaks for current "first-generation" fuels – made in the US and Europe from corn, wheat, rape seed and sugar beet – and instead provide financial support for new second-generation technologies that promise big cuts in carbon dioxide. [Second generation technologies include cellulosic ethanol and thermochemical conversion of biomass to liquids].

Mr Pischetsrieder said some of the current biofuels were "totally pointless" and "like a wolf in sheep's clothing". He criticised tax benefits that were not linked to carbon dioxide, since some methods of refining biofuel actually led to higher carbon emissions than from petrol. "The current situation is totally unsatisfactory, both from the environmental and economic standpoint," he said. [Indeed, "lobby crops" have a negative 'EROEI' (Energy return on energy invested), meaning they require more fossil fuels to produce them, than the energy they contain as finished goods; this negative energy balance means that these crops effectively add CO2. The opposite is true for 'tropical biofuels'.]

Even as Mr Pischetsrieder was speaking in Berlin, the US Environmental Protection Agency proposed an increase to renewable fuel requirements – mainly ethanol – from 2.78 per cent of all fuel this year to 3.71 per cent next year, and said it would help cut CO2emissions. Mr Pischetsrieder is the highest profile opponent of today's biofuel technology.

The handful of opponents of the fuel in the environmental movement have mostly been concerned about increased leakage of carcinogenic fumes, development of monoculture farms and the danger to rainforests from new palm plantations in developing countries, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia. Soaring demand for biofuels has contributed to a surge in the price of several of the grains and oilseeds used to make ethanol and biodiesel. [Which, if sourced from the developing world, where these crops yield far more than in the North, means an economic boost to these countries.] US carmakers have been strongly supportive of biofuels [but only those based on corn and soy - local crops for which huge lobbies exist in the US], running expensive ad campaigns in an attempt to win back customers concerned about the environment who had defected to Japanese rivals [hybrid cars].

General Motors and Ford argue that even though the carbon benefits of today's technology are small, and biofuel is more expensive per mile than petrol even with tax breaks [this is true for lobby crops only, not for tropical crops], the fuel should be promoted by governments in order to ensure the market is prepared when new technologies arrive. [No, the governments should invest in negawatts and in energy efficiency first, making cars that get 100 miles per gallon minimum mandatory, and in tropical biofuels second, with a view on coupling development policies for the South, to a sustainable bioenergy industry. They should stop wasting tax money to sustain their own wasteful agro-industrial lobbies.] [Entry ends here].

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Thursday, September 07, 2006

Japan signs agreement with Kenya for CDM projects

Quicknote bioenergy cooperation
Japan is an active player when it comes to investing in 'Clean Development Mechanism' projects in the South (see the database of registered projects at the CDM website). CDM projects, which are one of the tools with which the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) tries to combat global warming, allow industrialised countries to invest in emission reducing projects in developing countries as an alternative to what is generally considered more costly emission reductions in their own countries.

After Japan's ambassador to Kenya and the Japanese Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries visited a jatropha project run by a small NGO (Green Africa Foundation) in Kitui, Kenya, they formally announced that both countries had signed a memorandum of understanding for such investments in CMD-projects. The agreement foresees in funds worth around 300 million Shillings (€3.2 million/US$ 4.1mio), and some of those will go to liquid biofuel production projects.

In Kitui, Ambassador Dennis Awori said that the introduction of jatropha-based biodiesel fuel in the country would benefit a majority of the population, especially the poor. He added that the biodiesel fuel made from the jatropha shrubs would reduce the use of firewood and charcoal burning. "The seed will play a major role in reforestation," he concluded [entry ends here].
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Malaysia: 52 biodiesel plants approved, but no land to expand plantations

Two contradicting messages are coming out of Malaysia: on the one hand, the government has been issueing licence after licence for the construction of not less than 52 biodiesel plants, but on the other hand, it announces that the country has virtually no land left for the establishment of new oil palm plantations which are supposed to deliver the feedstock for the biodiesel.

The last announcement means that Malaysia will have to start looking overseas to expand. And the country's recent agreement with Venezuela already hints at this future (Hugo Chavez: "Palm oil is very important to us. If Malaysia doesn't have the land to plant anymore, Venezuela has it"). But for now, Malaysia faces a clear planning dilemma: if it issues more licences, it automatically commits part of its future crude palm oil stocks to the production of biodiesel. But if the licences granted do not result in the actual construction of biofuel production plants, its plan of converting its last bits of land to palm oil plantations risks resulting in an overcapacity of palm oil, with a potentially disastrous price collapse as a consequence.

For this reason, the Malaysian government is subtly starting to use a harder tone, suggesting that those who did indeed receive a biodiesel plant licence better take the permit serious, or they will face the consequences. What's more, the government is giving hints that it may even revoke some of the licences:
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Being careful with licences

"The Government has so far issued 52 biodiesel licences. We want to see all these biodiesel licence holders follow through with their plans," Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Datuk Peter Chin Fah Kui told Business Times. "We want genuine and committed investors. We object to those who are not serious, or have the intention to get the licence and sell it for a commission," he added.

Chin said ministry officials are already checking whether the licence holders have started to build their biodiesel plants. "If they have not done so within the time frame they stated in their biodiesel applications, we'll ask them to show cause," he said.

Chin said that if the ministry is not satisfied with the progress of these biodiesel licence holders, stern action will be taken, including taking back their licences. Carotino Sdn Bhd, Carotech Bhd and Golden Hope Plantations Bhd are currently producing methyl ester as a by-product of extracting Vitamin E from palm oil.

Larger-scale biodiesel plants, capable of churning out 60,000 tonnes a year, have been built by Malaysian Palm Oil Board joint-venture partners Rubiatec Sdn Bhd (a unit of Golden Hope Plantations Bhd), Kumpulan Fima Bhd and JC Chang Group's Carotino Sdn Bhd. These three biodiesel plants, involving RM120 million investments, or RM40 million each, are in Port Klang, Selangor and Pasir Gudang in Johor.

Last year, Malaysia produced 15 million tonnes of palm oil products, of which 90 per cent was exported to over 140 countries, earning the country some RM30 billion in sales. Two months ago, Malaysia and Indonesia - the two biggest palm oil producing countries in the world - agreed to set aside six million tonnes of crude palm oil (CPO) a year as feedstock for biofuel and biodiesel manufacturing.

This reassured biodiesel investors that there would be adequate supply of raw materials for their factories. The Government has time and again reminded oil palm plantation owners in Malaysia to produce more CPO through replanting high-yielding clones, instead of expanding their plantation area. "By 2010, we aim for a yearly CPO production of 18 million tonnes gathered from a total of five million hectares of planted area," Chin said.

While the evaluation process is being carried out, new applications for biodiesel licences will be put on hold. "As I have said before, the freeze is temporary. We need to be thorough in processing all those applications, and that can take some time," Chin said. Asked how soon the Government would lift the freeze and start accepting biodiesel applications again, he said: "Hopefully, by the end of the year, when we've built up a comprehensive evaluation of the various downstream activities in the palm oil industry."

Out of land

Malaysia says it's almost run out of land suitable for new plantations of the crop, and it'll need to raise productivity of existing trees if it's to tap rising demand.

``In terms of land that is suitable for palm, there's not much left,'' Minister for Plantation Industries and Commodities Peter Chin Fah Kui said. ``As a result, our strategy is to increase the productivity and yield from whatever plantation land that we have now.''

The Southeast Asian nation, together with its neighbor Indonesia, is rushing to boost palm oil production and exports amid rising demand for biofuels. Crude oil prices have tripled since 2002, driving up the cost of diesel and gasoline, and making alternative sources of energy more competitive. Palm oil has traditionally been used as a cooking oil or in soaps.

``There's just not enough land to plant in Malaysia,'' said Alvin Tai, analyst at OSK Research Sdn. in Kuala Lumpur, who has an ``overweight'' rating on the plantation sector. ``At the end of the day, there's no other way but to expand overseas.''

Palm oil prices climbed last month to their highest in more than two years, spurred by increasing sales to China, the U.S. and Europe. Palm oil prices on the Malaysia Derivatives Exchange, which have risen 13 percent in the past year, gained 1 ringgit, or 0.1 percent today, to 1,564 ringgit ($429) a metric ton.

`No Other Choice'

Malaysia wants existing palm oil plantations ``to produce as much as we can in terms of productivity and yield, and that is the only way we can'' raise output, Chin said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. ``We have no other choices.''

The country, which also has extensive rubber plantations, has a land area of 328,550 square kilometers (126,853 square miles), according to the CIA World Factbook. That's about the same size as Germany or the U.S. state of New Mexico.

Biofuel can be made from vegetable oils obtained from crushing palm fruit, rapeseed and soybeans, or from animal fat. The plant-based fuel, known as biodiesel, can be mixed with fossil fuel to stretch regular supplies.

Malaysia boosted the total cultivated area of palm by 3 percent this year to 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres) compared with last year's gain of 4.5 percent, according to the government's 2006/07 Economic Report, released Sept. 1.

Some 90 percent of the total area was covered with mature palms, said the report, an annual assessment of the economy that's released with the budget. No estimate was given for palm coverage next year.

Rising Yields

Palm oil yields -- measured in tons of fresh fruit bunches per hectare -- were forecast to rise 0.6 percent to 19 tons this year, after gaining 1.6 percent in 2005, the report said. The oil is made by crushing the plum-sized fruit from the tree.

``Palm oil prices will continue to go up in the next few years,'' Chin said, without naming his own target. ``Most analysts will say that palm oil would be in the region of about 1,650 to 1,700'' ringgit a ton over the next year or two.

The global supply of biofuels will probably almost double in the next five years as new plants start production, according to the International Energy Agency, an adviser to 26 oil- consuming nations. Fuel output from vegetable oils worldwide is expected to triple by 2008, with most of the growth in Europe, the Paris-based agency, which analyzes energy-market trends, said in July.

The Malaysian government forecasts the country will produce 15.6 million tons of palm oil this year, 4.3 percent more than 2005, and export 14 million tons, 5.1 percent more than last year, according to the 2006/07 Economic Report.

Export Target

Chin said exports would rise to 14.8 million tons in two or three years. That's little different from next year's target of 14.6 million tons listed in the report.

Prices would average 1,500 ringgit a ton this year, 7.6 percent higher than 2005, and may gain a further 10 percent to 1,650 ringgit in 2007, the report said. Palm oil is Malaysia's largest source of export earnings.

``There's not enough supply,'' Chin said. ``There's no fear that we'll produce too much.''

Malaysia wouldn't face competitive pressure in the palm oil market from Indonesia, Chin said. The two countries, which together produce 80 percent of global supply, agreed in July to set aside 6 million metric tons each of crude palm oil a year for biofuel production.

``Even if Indonesia were to produce much more than what it is doing now, I think there's not a problem of competition,'' Chin said, adding the two would try to support prices together.

``We're not talking about a cartel or anything like that,'' Chin said. ``We hope that over the years to come we will be able to manage the supply of palm oil in a reasonable way.''

More information:
Business Times Malaysia: Companies told to build biodiesel plants in set time
- September 7, 2006

Bloomberg: Malaysia Almost Out of Land for New Palm Oil Estates - September 6, 2006

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"Radical" biomass use urged to combat coal, carbon trading

Carbon is becoming an ever increasing problem. We already knew that CO2 emissions cause global warming, but strategies and targets to reduce them were designed and are up and running (carbon trading). The real drama is that serious cracks are now appearing in the 'European Union Emissions Trading Scheme' (ETS), this most publicised of weapons for fighting climate change. The big idea was that polluters have the right to emit a certain amount of carbon dioxide. But if they reduce their carbon dioxide emissions beyond a certain level, they can make money by trading the unused part of their quota.

The problem now looks like this: with the introduction of the ETS, prices for dirty coal shot up, making it more expensive for utilities to use this most polluting of fuels. So far so good. But then utilities using cleaner technologies, such as nuclear and natural gas, simply raised their electricity prices to the same level, and let the consumer pay. The result: windfall profits for utilities. Since many utilities play on several horses at the same time (they own both natural gas and coal plants), their overall profits have gone up, and the incentive to abandon coal has become eroded. This is what many have called the first 'scandal', and it became most apparent in the UK.
But there's even more: meanwhile, natural gas prices shot up in a real way, and the cleaner fuel has become so expensive, that the anti-coal incentive is now virtually worthless. On top of this, the price of carbon-credits in Europe has collapsed, worsening things.

The carbon trading system is in disarray. For this reason, more and more people are beginning to urge a 'radical', 'real' and 'mandatory' use of alternatives such as biomass. Biomass is carbon-neutral, or when produced in the tropics, it can even be carbon-negative.

British minister for climate change and environment Ian Pearson therefor wants to see a "radical" rise in the use of biofuels as part of efforts to cut carbon dioxide emissions and improve security of supply amid soaring oil prices. "We want to see a real step change in biomass use to meet these energy challenges," Pearson told a bioenergy conference organised by the Renewable Energy Association in Weston-super-mare, western England.

Biomass in power generation alone could cut Britain's CO2 emissions by up to 3.5 million metric tonnes a year, he said:
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Biomass is seen as cutting carbon emissions compared to fossil fuels like gas and coal, and is also considered an ideal fuel for combined heat and power plants which power local communities or buildings and involve efficiency savings.

Urgent action was needed from all sectors to cut emissions significantly and combat climate change, Pearson said. "We believe that biomass has an important role to play as an alternative source of energy to help meet these challenges." Pearson said that while Britain would meet its greenhouse gas emissions cuts targets under the Kyoto agreement and even beat its target for the 2008-2012 period by as much as 23 percent, its own more ambitious target of CO2 emissions cuts was looking less achievable.

The government had pledged to cut emissions of CO2 in 2020 by 20 percent compared to 1990 levels, but admitted earlier this year the target would be a tough one to meet. The rise in UK gas prices over the last few years has led to greater use of coal to fire power stations, which has resulted in higher CO2 emissions than the government had anticipated, the minister said.

The question is whether the carbon-trading scheme really works, and if it weren't better to mandate the use of biomass. The solid biofuels could be sourced from the developing world, in a win-win situation. In-depth research has shown that such a trade is feasible, and that even despite long distances involved in moving the bulky biomass, CO2 savings would be considerable.

More information:
Joint IEA Bioenergy Task 38 and Task 40 Workshop: Greenhouse gas credits trade versus biomass trade – weighing the benefits [*.pdf]

IEA Task 40: Bioenergy Trade: International bioenergy transport costs and energy balance [*.pdf]

BBC: Concerns over EU carbon trading - 15 May 2006

BBC: Carbon trading's real colours - 16 May 2006

BBC: '£1bn windfall' from carbon trade - 1 May 2006

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Overview of biofuel cooperation agreements in the Global South

The past few months have seen a whole series of biofuel cooperation agreements being signed between countries in the developing world. To keep an oversight, we made a simple map showing these formal relations. Does it indicate that the 'Global South' knows that now is the time to work together and to build a green energy future? It seems so. Energy independence, energy security and 'energy leapfrogging' based on bioenergy are no longer vague concepts, they are gradually becoming a reality, in the South.

Clear avant-garde 'kernels' can be discerned by looking at the map: usual suspect Brazil is pulling several countries towards its own ethanol example, with agreements on all three continents in the South, sharing its knowledge about biofuels, and its state-of-the art technologies. In Asia, China, Malaysia and Indonesia are active players as well, with the latter two drawing on their decade long experience with oil palm plantations and their recent development of, for example, cold tolerant palm biodiesel.

The following overview merely draws attention to agreements signed directly between states in the southern hemisphere so far. We will regularly update the map. And in a later article we will be looking at socalled 'South North South' agreements, because these are being signed more and more often as well. Furthermore, many informal deals have seen the light of day, with companies (from either the South or the North) investing in a developing country, either as a purely private venture, or within the frame-work of public-private partnerships. We will map this growing network of relations soon. But let us now list the 'South South' agreements and highlight their most interesting aspects:
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Brazil - Panamá - June 2006
Panamá and Brazil are combining their strengths to create a centre for the global distribution of biofuels. Panamá has no petroleum reserves of its own and is looking to Brazilian expertise for a technology transfer program that should introduce local biofuels production. But more importantly, Panamá of course has its intercontinental Canal, facing both the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean. And that's a great asset, especially for Brazil. Panamá would become a bioenergy hub, processing and distributing biofuels from Brazil for export to both the Far East, Europe and the United States's West Coast. See previous post.

Brazil - Venezuela - May 2006
The governments of Brazil and Venezuela signed an memorandum of understanding for energy cooperation on ethanol. In a first phase, Brazil's state oil company Petrobras is to deliver ethanol to Venezuela, and later to provide technical support in several areas, such as fuel reception, transportation, distribution, safety regulations, mix and transmix procedures...
The accord was negotiated between the Ministries of Energy of both countries, Petrobras, and PDVSA (the Venezuelan government-owned oil company). See previous post.

Brazil - Senegal - August 2006
Senegal recently launched the first phase of its biofuels program with direct support of Brazil's president Lula, and carried out by entrepreneurs from India. Senegal wants to learn and offers land and labor; Brazil brings in scientific and technological know-how; and Indian business makes sure that enough capital is in place. This public-private partnership is hailed as a win-win situation for all partners involved. See previous post.

Brazil - India - August/September 2006
Both countries held a round of talks on the topic of sugarcane acreage acquisitions by India. The Asian country wants to invest in energy security by controlling land suitable for the production of biofuels, mainly sugar cane for ethanol. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to flag the issue of Indian state-owned oil firms acquiring sugarcane fields in Brazil during his visit later this month (september). See previous post.

Brazil - Southern Africa (Mozambique/Angola/South Africa) - September 2006
The initiative for this cooperation agreement comes from the UK, which is taking the green energy revolution seriously, and wants multilateral cooperation agreements with biofuel leaders like Brazil to invest in the Global South. It is not clear yet which countries in Africa will benefit from the investment and the agreement, but the deal concerns the 'Southern African' region, with both Mozambique, Angola and South Africa as potential candidates. The first sights have been set on producing sugar cane for ethanol. See previous post.
In a very similar agreement, signed a few months earlier, France and Brazil agreed to work together on the development of biofuels in the South, more particularly in the 'poorest African countries' (probably in Francophone Africa) and in the Caribbean. See previous post.

PANPP: African Association of Non-Oil Producing Countries ('Pays Africains Non-Producteurs de Pétrole') - August 2006
15 African countries sign an agreement to work towards common energy security based on the sharing of knowledge and technology for the production of biofuels and bioenergy. The 'Green OPEC' is born, and more African countries are expected to join later this month, when the PANPP's second meeting takes place in Morocco. See previous posts.

Malaysia - Venezuela - August 2006.
Hugo Chavez's state visit to Malaysia resulted in an agreement between the two countries on the front of palm oil production for biofuels. In his usual flamboyant style, President Chavez immediately placed the cooperation deal in the context of the geopolitics of energy. See previous post.

Malaysia - China - August 2006
Both countries sign a research and development (R&D) cooperation deal to further develop biofuel and biomass production technologies. The agreement is aimed at exploiting the vast amounts of biomass that are produced on oil palm plantations. As we reported in an earlier post, only 10% of all this biomass is currently used as a feedstock for liquid biofuels. The 90% that are not used, are the object of this R&D deal between China and Malaysia. The development of bioconversion technologies that can utilize the many tons of palm biomass for the production of liquid fuels, would mean a great step forward for both countries, and for the global biofuels industry in general. See previous post.

Malaysia - Indonesia - May 2006
The world's largest palm oil producers team up to develop a fledgling palm based biodiesel and ethanol industry. Several cooperation agreements were signed, covering all the aspects of palm biofuel production, research, and marketing. See previous post.

India - Indonesia - August 2006
Both countries sign a trade-deal cutting tariffs on crude palm oil (CPO). The agreement is aimed at speeding up the development of palm biodiesel in India, whereby the country would import far more CPO than it currently does (India already is Indonesia's largest CPO client). The deal should also offset price-hikes were palm oil to increase on rising global palm biofuel demand. See here.

Burma - Thailand - August 2006
Thai investors, supported by the state, are seeking opportunities in Burma for the establishment of biofuel plantations. We are not sure whether a formal bilateral agreement has already been signed, but there has been talk of 'cooperation agreements' between the two countries on the national level. See previous post, and references there.

China - Nigeria - August 2006
Nigeria's central state of Niger and the Chinese government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the establishment of a first ethanol plant in the state, with cassava as a feedstock. At the signing ceremony held in the state capital Minna, Secretary to the Niger State Government Adams Erena said the project "will gulp 11.6 billion naira" (about €60 million/US$ 90 million). He said a Chinese company would serve as a consultant to the project, adding that the company was expected to source 85 percent of the project investment through a soft loan from the Chinese government on 3 percent interest rate. See previous post.

Indian Ocean Island States with China and Malaysia - August 2006
A group of island states in the Indian Ocean -- Reunion, Madagascar and Mauritius -- are allying with China and Malaysia to create a regional biofuel production network. Mauritius, Malaysia and China deliver the know-how and technical expertise, whereas Madagascar and Réunion offer land for plantations.
Malaysia, with its expertise in palm oil production, would be the central node in the 'biodiesel axis', whereas China would focus on technology transfers concerning the 'ethanol axis'. See previous post.

Biopact, 2006, cc, some rights reserved.

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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

News about tropical energy crops

We are rapidly progressing towards a green energy future in which developing nations -- more particularly countries in the tropics and the sub-tropics -- are playing an ever increasing role. Because of this, we will begin to hear more and more about tropical energy crops that can be used to make solid and liquid biofuels.

We think it might be useful to offer news about those crops in a separate category (which can be found in the right bar of this blog). We will report about these crops with headlines on advances in biotechnology, green chemistry, agronomic news, biofuel programs, the expansion of hectarages, production data, breakthroughs in bioconversion processes using these crops, trade deals, export data and much more.

The following plants were selected, mainly because (we think) they will become the major energy crops of the future:
  • Cassava (Manihot esculenta), also known as 'manioc'; a promising bioenergy crop which thrives in non-forest areas and which is relatively drought-tolerant. Cassava is a staple food for half a billion people, mainly in Africa and South East Asia.
  • Jatropha (Jatropha curcas), known under many different names ('pinhao manso' in the lusophone world, 'tuba tuba' in South East Asia, or 'noix de pourghère' in the francophone world). Known for its tolerance to droughts, yields a good oil for biodiesel, and features in many national biofuels programs as the preferred crop.
  • Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), yielding more energy than any other crop (oil and solid biomass), and currently more competitive than any other crop. The expansion of oil palm plantations poses numerous environmental problems though.
  • Sorghum, a family of drought-tolerant grass species the most interesting of which is sweet sorghum (Sorghum bicolor), already used widely for the production of alcohols. Sorghum is the fifth most widely grown food crop on earth, and is especially interesting because it is widely cultivated in semi-arid regions of Africa (the Sahel and the Southern African desert zone).
  • Sugarcane, perhaps the best known biofuel crop, with Brazil's vast ethanol industry which is based on it, being the example for many countries. There is a lot of scientific research going on focusing on sugarcane, with developing countries playing a crucial role. It will be interesting to see how this crop expands further into the global South, now that Brazil has shown how to build a bio-economy around it.
  • The market for solid biofuels is expanding rapidly, and globally. That is why we include information about 'tropical tree crops'. Some countries are already importing this kind of woody biomass from the south, to be used as a feedstock for biomass power plants, or to be co-fired with coal. We have limited ourselves to gathering news about the most promising tropical tree species, namely: eucalyptus, acacia and rubberwood.
  • Finally, with the advent of second generation biofuels, more and more grass species are being identified as having great potential as feedstocks to be used under various 'biomass-to-liquid' conversion technologies (cellulosic ethanol, fast pyrolysis, gasification-to-liquids). Strictly speaking both sugarcane and sorghum are grasses, but in this category, we focus on herbaceous species that are only gradually being recognized as potential bioenergy crops and around which a great deal of research is going on: miscanthus and bamboo (genuses with many species and subspecies).
There already is a wealth of information about these crops available online. For this reason we will limit ourselves to reporting stories that may count as real 'news'. However, mainstream media do not often report about crops and their development, and certainly not about those cultivated in the tropics, which is why we will actively search for stories and studies coming from research institutions dedicated to these particular crops [entry ends here].
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Meet Vinod Khosla, ethanol evangelist

The following interview with Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems and prolific billionaire dotcom investor, appeared in DNAindia. Interestingly, he calls for the establishment of new geopolitical relations based on green energy and democracy, two concepts that, to him, are narrowly intertwined.

Pune, India - With his deepset eyes and closely cropped hair Vinod Khosla has the mien of a monk. The appellation may not be befitting Silicon Valley’s ace ventura, who co-founded Sun Microsystems and later invested bigtime in Google and Amazon - and, in the process, pocketed billions of dollars, but it wouldn’t be out of place either: Khosla now dons the garb of an evangelist — an ethanol evangelist to be precise.

"At my stage in life, it is important that there is some social purpose to my work," Khosla demurs. "The world definitely needs it."

Terrorism, climate change, energy crisis
Need what? Conversion to the biofuel. He says ethanol verily is the answer to soaring oil prices and terrorism. Yes, terrorism, too. "Today, we have a energy crisis. We also have a climate crisis," he says. "And wrapped up in all this is the dark shadow of terrorism," the barrel-chested Khosla, wearing a tight-fitting full sleeved tee shirt, expounds.

He’s critical that democracies such as the US and India have to depend on countries such as Saudi Arabia, which are not democracies, for oil. "We don’t want energy from there," he says. "Why enter into contracts with unstable governments in Sudan and Nigeria? That’s a shame. We are increasing our import bill. We are forcing the consumers to pay more."

Instead, Khosla says, India should change the way it is addressing its concerns on energy security. The government and public sector oil refiners should enter into long-term contracts with Brazil, the world’s leading producer of ethanol.

The Centre should also mandate automobile companies to make vehicles that are compatible with ethanol. "It takes very little money to make cars adaptable to ethanol fuel," he says. Also, import duties and taxes on ethanol should be the same as for oil. "There should be a level playing field. Consumers would benefit the most."

Sweet sorghum, a sweet idea
Ethanol can be made from both sugar cane and sweet sorghum. The latter requires less water than the former, and can be grown even during the lean season on less arable land. Advances in cellulosic technologies will enable converting sweet sorghum, which looks like sugarcane, to squeeze out 5-6 times more ethanol than sugarcane, Khosla says:

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Planting sweet sorghum looks to be, well a sweet idea. "We expect it to happen in the next 2 to 3 years. When that happens, we’ll be set for a big explosion."

For Pramod Chaudhari, the Praj Industries chairman sitting next to him on Wednesday afternoon, that must have sounded like a Mozart piano sonata in C major. Apart from making equipment for sugar mills, Praj is also manufacturing equipment for ethanol manufacturing.

Just in May this year, Khosla invested about Rs 100 crore (€17mio/US$21.7mio) in the company based in Pune, where he was born to an army household, for a 10% stake. Khosla champions the cause of ethanol in California, US, too, where he resides.

In November, the state will hold a referendum that will decide whether the government should mandate the use of ethanol. "It’s not very often that we see a new market opening. It would be worth hundreds of billions of dollars if we can replace petroleum."

But there are discordant noises around the world against alternate fuels. Most of them are fuelled by big business with sizeable interests in oil. There’s an argument that farms that grew foodgrains would shift to growing plants for the manufacture of ethanol and bio-diesel. For Khosla, this is all palaver.

"The future work is on research. And Praj Industries definitely has an opportunity to become the world leader in all this." He says a day would come when, just like in computer software, the world will beat a path to India's doors, to set up R&D facilities to do research on alternative fuels.

Copyright DNAIndia, 2006.

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"Oil and coal passe": India searching for sugarcane land overseas

Quicknote energy transition
We are used to reading story after story about the world's major powers 'hunting down' oil and gas exploration licences in all the corners of the globe. But for India, oilfields and coal mines are passe. Now that the world is moving towards a green energy future, tropical land is the new gold, and India has understood the message. That is why the country is poised to make a go at acquiring sugarcane acreages overseas in search of energy security.

The idea is to put in place an assured supply of ethanol, a byproduct of the sugar industry that is mixed with petrol to produce 'swadeshi fuel' or 'gasohol'. Progressive use of this fuel will reduce the country's oil bill by reducing dependance on imported crude. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is expected to flag the issue of Indian state-owned oil firms acquiring sugarcane fields in Brazil during his visit later this month. Brazil is the largest sugarcane producer in the world and global leader in gasohol usage.

It allows foreign ownership of sugarcane acreages which are rain-fed and require little irrigation. The sugarcane farms are highly mechanised and have integrated sugar mills. India and Brazil have held a round of talks on the issue. Brasilia indicated it does not have problem — as of now — with Indian oil firms acquiring sugarcane acregaes, either on their own or in joint venture with Brazilian state firms.

Several European firms have acquired acreages and taken up ethanol manufacturing for captive use in home country, which might prompt rethink on foreign ownership. According to a government working paper, existing tieups between Indian oil firms and Brazil's national hydrocarbons entity Petrobras can be expanded for canalising ethanol from captive acreages in that country.

Flagship overseas explorer ONGC Videsh, GAIL and refiner-marketer BPCL have MoUs with Petrobras. Efforts to promote gasohol, started by then oil minister Ram Naik during the NDA rule, has been doddering due to short supply of ethanol.

The oil ministry is running pilot projects in nine sugarcane growing states of blending 5% ethanol in petrol. The plan is to make it mandatory in all states and then move up to 10% blending. The department of chemicals and fertilisers has opposed mandatory blending of petrol, saying domestic production of ethanol is not even meeting demand from chemicals industry and alcohol manufacturers. Any diversion for petrol blending will aggravate the woes of the chemicals industry [entry ends here].
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Brazil and UK to develop ethanol project in Africa

Things are speeding up, along the lines we have been predicting: European countries will collaborate with green energy leaders (Brazil, Nigeria, Malaysia, Indonesia), to launch large-scale biofuels and bioenergy production projects in the global South, and more particularly in Africa. Prototypically, in such 'South-North-South' agreements, Europe delivers capital and market access, the green energy leader brings in knowledge and technical expertise, and the developing world partner offers agro-ecologic advantages, land, labor and law. Not long ago, France closed such a cooperation agreement with Brazil, partnering to launch projects in Africa and the Caribbean.

And here is another example of what such 'trilateral' and 'multilateral' exchanges will look like: Brazil, the world's largest ethanol exporter, and Britain want to develop the production of ethanol from sugar cane in southern Africa, officials from both governments said on Tuesday. The move is intended to diversify cheap ethanol production globally to meet fast-growing international demand. Many potential consumers are hesitant to increase their ethanol consumption because Brazil is the only large global supplier.

"The product needs to become (more) available to consumers," Brazilian Industry and Trade Minister Luiz Furlan told a news conference. "The commitment of both countries is to develop other (ethanol) supplier countries." Brazil and the United Kingdom are tackling "one of the biggest threats in the world today -- climate change," UK Secretary of State for Trade and Industry Alistair Darling told the news conference.

Darling said many countries wanting to reduce carbon-based fuels could learn from Brazil. "I can now confront any car manufacturer in Europe who tells me that people won't buy cars powered by ethanol," he said after test-driving a "flex-fuel" car, which operates on ethanol or gasoline.

The flex-fuel technology was developed in Brazil and now accounts for about 75 percent of all new car sales. Strong international demand for ethanol has increased prices sharply, after several countries in Europe and Asia made a minimum consumption of biofuels obligatory:

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In Brazil, ethanol accounts for about 40 percent of all motorists' non-diesel fuel consumption.

A UK-Brazil task force is to present a business proposal within 90 days to produce cane-derived ethanol in southern Africa, Furlan said.

A feasibility study commissioned by the UK and Brazil had already identified several countries, particularly South Africa and Mozambique, where sugar cane production was commercially viable, a Darling aide said.

Brazilian agronomists visited South Africa in recent weeks and found no "technical impediments," Furlan said.

Brazilians were working to "re-adapt" and increase the productivity of 11 varieties of sugar cane originally from South Africa.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Nigeria's cassava ethanol program to yield 3 million jobs

Quicknote bioenergy economics
Nigeria has been working on a biofuels program for a very long time, and a first large-scale ethanol project involving sugar cane in the country's North-West shows the green energy industry's impressive job creation potential (the particular program in question is projected to bring in 1 million direct jobs). As we said earlier, the production of bioenergy is labor-intensive, producing much more employment than any other energy sector. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this, but for developing nations the prospect of reducing rural unemployment and the social problems that go with it, is very tantalising. Investing in biofuels and bioenergy might do the trick.

This is what the Executive Director of the National Root Crops Research Institute (NRCRI) in Umudike [non-official website, and more details here], Dr. Ken Nwosu, suggests when he stated that the full exploration and exploitation of the cassava industry would provide over three million jobs for unemployed youths.

Leading a team of the Technical Coordination Committee Meeting (TCCM) of the South East Agro-Ecological zones on a visit to Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State, he said that with the country maintaining its annual production capacity of 39 million metric tonnes of cassava -- much of which would be used as an ethanol feedstock -- , Nigeria would climb to the status of a commercial and agro-industrial 'superpower'.

Dr. Nwosu said that agriculture remained the only option for mass employment, adding that the cassava industry should be maximally developed. On the position of Anambra State in the new cassava order, the executive director noted that with the collaboration of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) (which is heavily involved in the country's biofuels program), the upcoming ethanol plan in the state would ensure the creation of a ready and profitable cassava market.

He assured that with the introduction of new cassava improved varieties, cassava yields would increase to between 60 and 70 MT from its present level of 20 MT per hectares (which is not unthinkable, given recent advances in cassava research). Making the case for the Anambra State Agricultural Development Programmes (ASADEP), Dr. Nwosu appealed to Governor Peter Obi to inject more funds into ASADEP. [Entry ends here].
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Spectacular mass mobilisation in India results in planting of 3 million biodiesel saplings in 11 hours

In a spectacular announcement, the Indian state government of Chhattisgarh's Biofuel Development Authority claims to have created a world record by planting at least three million saplings of Jatropha and Karanj (Pongamia pinnata) in only 11 hours to raise awareness about the plants that are rich sources of biofuels, mainly biodiesel.

Thousands of volunteers of the National Cader Corps (NCC), schoolchildren, village representatives, teachers and officials participated in the plantation drive in all four blocks of Chief Minister Raman Singh's home district Kawardha, spread over an area of 395,800 hectares (3,958 square kilometres / 1,528 square miles). Both jatropha and karanj thrive in semi-arid land and sandy soils, don't require much care or fertilizer and yield between 1500 and 2000 kilograms of oil that can be used as a biodiesel feedstock. The 3 million seedlings will begin to yield after about 2 years, and when mature might deliver a total of around 700,000 tons or roughly 4.9 million barrels of oil. Both shrubs have a useful life of several decades.

Raman Singh, accompanied by Finance Minister Amar Agrawal, Industry Minister Rajesh Munat and Agriculture Minister Nankiram Kanwar, formally launched the campaign by planting a few jatropha saplings at Ramhepur village.

"The state government has launched the mega jatropha plantations drive with the sole objective to make India an energy-secure country by 2015," Raman Singh, who is using jatropha bio-fuel to power his official vehicle since May 2005, told a gathering of farmers at Ramhepur.

District collector Sonmoni Bora told reporters: "At least three million saplings of jatropha and karanj were planted in hundreds of villages, mainly on fallow land, to create a revolution for biofuel awareness." Bora, who coordinated the day long campaign, added that the number of saplings planted was an absolute world record. [Entry ends here].
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China unexpectedly emerging as major ethanol exporter

Earlier, we reported about China's new biofuel policies, and showed that the country already is the world's third largest ethanol producer, after Brazil and the US, though lagging on biodiesel. Surprisingly, though, China is now unexpectedly emerging as a major exporter of ethanol as record-high crude oil prices and a U.S. deficit in the biofuel have pushed up its international price, triggering an impressive investment boom.

Industry officials said China's 2006 exports of ethanol, or ethyl alcohol made largely from corn or cassava, were set to exceed 500,000 tons (625 million liters or about 11,000 barrels per day). Shipments may reach 900,000 tons (1.13 billion liters or 19,000 bpd), some traders say. It had virtually no ethanol exports for fuel last year.

Most of the ethanol cargoes go directly or indirectly to the United States due to a switch this year to use ethanol as an additive for cleaner gasoline. Some are dehydrated in Caribbean countries for use in the U.S., helped by favorable taxes. "We predict it (2006 exports) may reach 900,000 tons," said a trader at an international house. "But due to recent softening in the international market, maybe we will revise the number down, possibly by around 100,000 tons."

However, not many are convinced that China can maintain a competitive edge for fuel ethanol exports in the future, especially if it has to keep importing cassava and as there is a ethanol plant building boom in the United States. China is the world's third-largest ethanol producer, behind Brazil and the United States, but in the past has used most of its output domestically, much for use in alcohol or chemicals but increasingly as a gasoline blend in agricultural provinces.

Brazil exported about 450 million liters to the U.S. last year, only about 4 percent of its total production. For many, Chinese exports of fuel ethanol came as a surprise as there were only four fuel ethanol plants until 2005. The product is heavily subsidized by Beijing, eager to develop alternative fuels to cut China's dependence on imported oil.

Yet officials said a window of opportunity had emerged, due to a surge in global ethanol prices, helped by a U.S. shortfall estimated at 2 million tons this year. Physical prices climbed to above $5.00 a gallon in May before receding toward $2.50:

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Coupled with high crude oil prices , this has encouraged small food ethanol producers to dehydrate their products for use as fuel, they said. Many have expanded capacity and built new plants.

Data and details of the trade are patchy, partly as it is difficult to distinguish between fuel ethanol and other alcohols, including hydrous ethanol, used also in liquors or chemicals.

But an official from China Songyuan Ji'an Biochemical Sales Co. Ltd., based in the country's top corn-producing province of Jilin in the northeast, told Reuters it alone would export 300,000 tons of ethanol -- or all of its output -- this year.

Of the total, most was exports of anhydrous ethanol to the United States, though there were some hydrous ethanol exports to South Korea and Japan for manufacturing liquors, said the official from Ji'an, China's top ethanol exporter.

Customs data showed exports of ethanol, including hydrous ethanol, totaled 477.65 million liters in the first seven months of this year, up 336 percent from the same period IN 2005.

The officials said ethanol plants were also sprouting across the country, especially with the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's top planning body, predicting Chinese fuel ethanol consumption will reach 6 million tons by 2020.

It was unclear how much ethanol China was producing this year, in addition to 1.02 million tons by the four government-sponsored plants in Jilin, Henan, Heilongjiang and Henan. Ji'an is also expanding its capacity to 450,000 tons by end-2006.

Yet the Ji'an official said China's total alcohol capacity, including fuel ethanol, would climb by 3 million tons to 10 million tons in 2006. It rose by 2 million last year.

"A lot of plants are being built," said the first trader, adding some of the new plants were focused on export business.

Another trader at a Beijing-based international house estimated there were now about a few thousand producers.

To avoid undermining the country's food security, Beijing is encouraging a shift in feedstocks away from grains, like corn, to non-grain crops, such as cassava, known also as tapioca.

In a sign of rising fuel ethanol production, one tapioca trader said Chinese 2006 cassava imports were heading toward 4.4 million tons, up by about 36 percent from last year.

China National Cereals, Oils and Foodstuffs Import and Export Co. (COFCO), the country's top state-owned trader, is also building a 200,000 tons per year (tpy) ethanol plant in the southern region of Guangxi, China's biggest cassava-producing province.

State media has said it is part of a plan by the Guangxi government to build 1 million tons of annual ethanol capacity.

COFCO is building another fuel ethanol plant in Hebei and doubling its alcohol capacity in Heilongjiang to 500,000 tons.

Domestic demand would depend on Beijing.

"You have to think if this export will last," said the second trader. "In the United states, they have lots of projects underway. The demand gap will narrow significantly next year."

More information:
International Herald Tribune: China emerges as major ethanol exporter - September 5, 2006.

Reuters: China emerges as ethanol exporter amid high oil - September 4, 2006.

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Market research forecasts 15-fold increase in biomass investments by 2012

Quicknote bioenergy business
Fuji Keizai, a Japanese provider of market research in the field of biotechnology, conducted a survey on the growth of the Japanese and international biomass market. Even though Japan itself has very limited biomass resources, according to the survey, the domestic biofuels and bioenergy market expects a rapid, three-fold growth in 2012 from 2005 with 25.28 billion yen (€170mio/US$218 mio) garnered from the industrialization of alternative energy using biomass and various biomass related technologies including supercritical water processing used for the production of liquid biofuels from biomass gas, generating electricity from biomass in direct combustion systems, manufacturing polylactide resin for the production of bioplastics, and the production of biogas from livestock and farming activities.

The growth forecast for the international biomass energy market shows a 15-fold increase, whereas the market for biomass related specialty products (bioplastics, green chemicals), will double by 2012. [Entry ends here].
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Dutch CO2 emissions fell 2 percent in 2005, now at 1990 levels due to imported biomass

Greenhouse gas emissions in the Netherlands fell by around 2 percent in 2005 from a year earlier and were at approximately the same level they were in 1990, the Central Bureau for Statistics said Monday. Climate change watchdogs generally praised the announcement, but said the public should be skeptical about how the fall in emissions was measured and what it means.

"It's a good thing, but they still have a way to go in order to meet their targets under Kyoto," said Joris Thijssen of Greenpeace, referring to the international treaty under which the Netherlands agreed to reduce its emissions to 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. The statistics agency said that total Dutch emissions were 214 billion kilograms of carbon dioxide or equivalents, down 2 percent from 2004 and just fractionally higher than 213 billion kilograms in 1990.

Agency spokesman Michiel Vergeer said the fall from 2004 was due to carbon dioxide emissions saved by increased use of biomass fuel for electricity generation, by households using less energy for heating during a warm winter, and by increased import of electricity.

To us, this is important, given that the Netherlands imports a lot of this biomass from the developing world: palm kernels and residues from Indonesia and Malaysia, solid biofuels (wood chips) from Brazil, Canada and West Africa.

However, each of those reasons has a downside. A warm winter could be just a fluke, or it could be due to global warming. Dutch biomass generators have been accused -- rightly or wrongly -- of buying some fuel from suppliers in developing countries who chop down old-growth forest to make room for biomass crops. And when the Netherlands imports more electricity, that means the exporters — Germany and to a lesser extent France — will have higher emissions:
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"We just report the data, it's up to others to interpret it," Vergeer said. John Hay, spokesman for the U.N.'s climate change agency UNFCCC, said the Dutch announcement was "a good sign of sound international policies," and added the U.N. would be releasing a broader report on the international emissions landscape in October.

"A group of Kyoto countries are set to have rising emissions," in 2008 he said. "Among high-performing economies some are doing well, others are off the mark." He gave the example of Spain as a country likely to miss its Kyoto targets because it has undergone faster economic growth than other parts of Europe in the past 16 years.

The Netherlands also grew fast in the 1990s, and its carbon dioxide emissions have actually risen. But that's been compensated by reductions in emissions of methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorine, greenhouse gases that are believed to contribute disproportionately to global warming.

Thijssen of Greenpeace said that the Dutch government would meet its Kyoto goals not by further reductions, but by buying pollution credits from developing countries, which is allowed under the 1997 treaty.

"Initially they said that they would aim for a 50-50 split between emissions reductions in the Netherlands and emission reductions elsewhere," he said. "Now they've let go of that."

He noted that the government last month announced a freeze on new applications for subsidies for renewable energy projects because it believes it will meet its Kyoto targets and a goal of having 9 percent of electricity generated from renewable sources by 2010.

AP: Dutch greenhouse gas emissions fell 2 percent in 2005, now at 1990 levels, agency says - September 4, 2006

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Ghana to cooperate with Thailand on biofuel development

Quicknote South South Cooperation
We are fascinated by practical South-South exchanges, and the field of bioenergy and biofuels is one where the sharing of experiences, knowledge and technology between developing nations is really speeding up.

Ghana has just recently announced that it would tap the expertise of Thailand in the large-scale production of biofuels for national consumption, vice-president Aliu Mahama said during a visit to Bangkok. He said that although Ghana had set in progress the development of biodiesel, the stride Thailand had made by way of research would illuminate the path of Ghanaian researchers.

Vice President Alhaji Mahama made this known during a visit to the palace of the King of Thailand, His Majesty Bhumibol Adulyadej (a staunch and long-time advocate of green energy, who has even patented his own biodiesel production process). His remarks followed the announcement by the Deputy Director of the Royal "Chitralada" Projects, Ms Rosarin Smitabhim that the Asian State would be switching to the use of biodiesel and gasoline next year.

She said currently the official vehicles of the King were being powered solely by biofuels. The Royal projects include a solar energy system that could serve a large area of Bangkok, the use of rice chaff for charcoal production, recycling of used household oil for soap and the manufacturing of candles from bee wax.
There are also experimental rice fields, fruits and vegetable processing factories, medicinal plant garden and conservation of plant genetic resources.

Ghana's vice-president Alhaji Mahama described the projects as "excellent" with the potential of providing rural communities with income generating ventures. He said the government would send a delegation to understudy the projects to replicate them in Ghana. In a related development, Mahama held a meeting with Mr Sompong Amornvivat, Thai Trade Representative in Bangkok, to fine-tune discussions on bilateral trade and commerce relations. Mr Amornvivat said an agreement would also lead to technical cooperation, adding that he would pay an official visit to Ghana in September, 2005 to strengthen the bilateral talks. Mr Akwasi Osei-Adjei, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Regional Cooperation and NEPAD, said Ghana was ready to offer would-be Thai investors Investment Protection Agreement packages and relief from double taxation.
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Malaysia export earnings rise on biofuels, gov't creates biofuel fund

Quicknote bioenergy economics
Malaysia, the world’s largest palm oil producer, may export 4.4% more of the commodity next year as output and prices surge amid rising interest in its use as a fuel additive, the government forecast. Overseas sales may rise to 14.6 million metric tonnes in 2007, boosting export earnings 14.5% to 24.9 billion ringgit ($6.8 billion), the ministry of finance said in its 2006/07 Economic Report.

Average prices may gain 10%, it said. Improved yields, an expansion of the area covered by mature oil-producing palms and higher prices "are expected to contribute toward higher production," said the ministry’s report, an annual assessment of the economy that’s released with the Southeast Asian nation’s budget.

Palm oil prices have risen to their highest in more than two years, spurred by rising demand from China, the US and Europe for the commodity as a renewable fuel, and its traditional use as a cooking oil. Higher crude oil costs have made biofuels - in particular biodiesel and ethanol - more competitive.

Palm oil futures reached 1,693 ringgit (€360/US$460) a tonne (US$62.7 per barrel) on August 9 on the Malaysia Derivatives Exchange, their highest since May 2004. Prices have risen 12% this year, benefiting plantation companies including IOI Corp. in Malaysia and PT Astra Agro Lestari in Indonesia. Crude palm oil is expected to average 1,500 ringgit (€320/US$408) a tonne (US$55.6 per barrel) this year, 7.6% higher than 2005, the report said. It may gain a further 10% to 1,650 ringgit in 2007. Palm oil is Malaysia’s largest source of export earnings, bringing in more than petroleum.

In the budget address, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said Khazanah Nasional Bhd., Malaysia’s state investment agency, will set up a 200 million ringgit (€42.5mio/US$54.4 mio) agriculture fund to develop biotechnology as the country seeks to boost biofuel use. There’s "increasing demand for palm-oil based biodiesel," the ministry’s report said. Total palm oil production would increase by 4.3% this year to 15.6 million tonnes, and by a further 3.8% next year to 16.2 million tonnes.

The global supply of biofuels may almost double in the next five years as new plants start production, the International Energy Agency, said in July. The Paris-based agency, an adviser to 26 oil-consuming nations, analyzes energy-market trends. [Entry ends here].
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Monday, September 04, 2006

Soybean farmers preparing for the biofuels scenario - doubts over sustainability

Quicknote bioenergy sustainability

A worker moves soya beans in the hold of a ship bound for Amsterdam at the port of Santos near Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Big soybean farmers meeting in Paraguay have agreed to create an institution charged with minimizing the environmental and social costs associated with large-scale production of the crop. Soybeans are known to be one of the world's most destructive crops, responsible for the deforestation of vast swathes of rainforest. Recently, consumer pressure in Europe even resulted in the continent's main food chains banning soy that was produced on illegally logged land. The rise of the global biofuels industry, however, complicates the debate, because the 'green' fuels offer a huge new market (soybean oil is a preferred feedstock for biodiesel). This is why the second "Global Roundtable on Responsible Soybean" development has given itself 18 months to decide on "criteria and indicators" that will govern development of soybean farming and minimize the crop's negative environmental and social impacts, including the possibility of an "environmental friendly" soybean certification.

The two day meeting in Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital, took place with the backstage of international soaring energy prices, the alleged depletion of existing hydrocarbons resources and global enthusiasm on the launching of the biofuels option.

The forum brought together farmers from several producer countries in South America - Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia and Uruguay - and from India, as well as members of environmental groups such as Worldwide Fund for Nature. Alberto Yanosky, director of the environmental group Guyra Paraguay and coordinator of the event is quoted saying that during the talks participants analyzed the negative aspects of the expansion of soy farming into rainforest areas, the misuse of pesticides, the migration of indigenous communities to urban areas due to large-scale production and the new world scenario of biofuels.

"We know that in some places the (crop's) advance has been at the expense of the forests" said the expert, who supports the idea of certifying products made from soybeans that are grown in areas where environmental norms are respected. "These are clear initiatives to halt the expansion of the agricultural frontier. We think the current area is sufficient to achieve the estimated production levels for the next five or ten years" added Yanosky.

Behind closed doors the infringement on the Amazon region and possible limits to Mercosur soybean cropland or reduction of extensive livestock farming were discussed as well as agrochemicals, soil depletion, the deterioration of working conditions and promoting more organic production. The world's leader in soybean production is United States with 85 million tons per year, followed by Brazil, 56 million tons; Argentina, 40 million; China, 16 million; India, 6 million and Paraguay, 3.7 million tons. However no representatives from the United States or China were present at the gathering.

We will closely follow up on this meeting and the sustainability criteria the 'Roundtable' comes up with. It will be very difficult to design credible criteria because after all, this is a monoculture industry, which, if it wants to expand, automatically puts pressure on forests. Direct logging for soy may become a thing of the past, but we fear the indirect pressures, involving a complex mechanism of different agro-industrial sectors interacting without nobody knowing who's really to blame for the end result which remains the same, deforestation. It is well known, for example, that in Brazil forest is logged to make way for pastures for cattle, after which the soybean industry moves in, receives the attention, while the cattle firms have meanwhile moved elsewhere, stealthily.

The palm oil industry faces similar problems, for which it too has created a "Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil", involving all major stakeholders. The results from this roundtable might be an indicator of what will come out of the Soybean panel. It will show that the bare fundamentals cannot be changed: these tropical monocultures prey on the world's last remaining rainforests, and if they want to expand, the forest always loses out.
At the Biopact we therefor continuously stress that the only way to arrive at really sustainable tropical biofuels, is by using crops that explicitely thrive on lands far away from rainforests (such as cassava, jatropha, or sorghum). [Entry ends here].
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Energy to produce biofuels, from the world's largest dam

This is part two of our series on Africa's natural resource conflicts and on how the biorevolution could change the way these resources are used (part one). In this essay, Laurens Rademakers looks at an 'energy secret' hidden deep in one of Africa's largest and least well-known countries, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Whenever we hear about the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire, we read superlatives: the country has huge reserves of mineral wealth (gold, diamond, coltan, copper, uranium...), its vast land resources could make it the breadbasket of Central Africa, the country's main river, the Congo, is the second biggest on earth, hosting the second largest pristine rainforest after the Amazon, and when it comes to politics, the country has been in the hands of ruthless dictators for more than 3 decades. In Congo, everything is big, and so are the country's problems.

Congo just came out of a bloody and underreported resource war which killed 4 million people, more than in any other conflict since the Second World War. After a cumbersome and complex transitional peace process, the country recently held its first democratic elections, which went smoothly, to the great relief of the UN and the international community (the country hosts the largest UN peacekeeping force, and the elections in the vast country were the most difficult the international community has ever had to organise.)

The Congolese now hope that the elections are a sign of a new era. One that will bring prosperity and stability, one that will exorcise the demons of the past and open a future where the Congolese are in control of their own destiny. Potentially, Congo could be one of the wealthiest nations in the global South, so the optimism is not entirely unfounded. But the tasks ahead are enormous. The State has to be reorganised, its infrastructure has to be rebuilt, social and health care systems have to be created, corruption has to be rooted out, hospitals, schools and universities have to be created, rebel factions have to be reintegrated into society... the list of things to revive, to rebuild and to reorganise is endless.

However, there is one resource that has been lying around, dormant and untouched for all these years, and it could be used to the great benefit of Congo's development in a relatively short time. In order for it to work, enormous investment is required though. But states, multinationals and world banks have been eyeing it for decades, and the plans are ready, the feasibility studies have been carried out, it's only a matter of getting together and working it. We are talking about the exploitation of the Congo river's vast energy potential, as it can be seen at the Inga Dams.

Bigger than the Three Gorges and the Itaipu combined
When the vast Congo river passes the capital Kinshasa and makes its way from the inland plateau to the Atlantic Ocean, the river rapidly descends over a short stretch. Some 150 kilometres from the coast, a series of rapids called les barrages d'Inga form a huge reservoir with a natural head of 150 metres (see picture). It is at this point where the potential for a hydroelectric complex of dams can be found. Back in the 1970s, dictator Mobutu already built a first series of small dams called "Inga I" with a capacity of 351MW, delivering 2400GWh of electricity per year. A decade later, "Inga II" was commissioned consisting of 8 units with a combined capacity of 1424MW and capability of 10,400GWh per year.

But it is the potential of Inga III and of the "Grand Inga" that has attracted attention. Combined, the projects have a hard to imagine total capacity of 42,000MW, making it the world's largest hydroelectric potential. Just think of what this means: the gigantic Three Gorges Dam in China, the world's largest, has a total capacity of 18,200MW; the world's second largest dam, the Itaipu on the Parana river located on the border between Brazil and Paraguay, has a capacity of 14,000MW. The Grand Inga would be bigger than both combined, and one can add two Grand Coulees to make up the total. Put differently, the Inga dams could provide more energy than 40 large nuclear power plants, more than 100 modern coal plants.

(See large map with statistics, here)

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the Inga dams can, in principle, power the entire African continent and even export excess electricity to Europe. Projections show that the Grand Inga can lift Congo's 55 million people out of poverty all by itself. Investors such as South Africa's power company Eskom and the World Bank are ready to jump on the project, provided political stability reigns in the country.

Energy to mass-produce biofuels
But what does Inga's tantalizing potential have to do with biofuels and bioenergy? And why refer to a mega-project that has spun the heads of more than one megalomaniac, when otherwise the logic behind the biofuture is one of small-scale, localised and decentralised projects driving bottom-up approaches to development? The link is easy to understand:

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First of all, the production of biofuels itself is energy intensive. In order to convert biomass into a high energy density liquid or gaseous fuel that can be used in vehicles, energy is required (either for distillation, transesterification, pyrolysis or gasification). Often, biomass residues are used to power this proces, as is the case in Brazil's ethanol industry, where distilleries are powered by bagasse (fibrous cane residue).
Critics have often pointed to the fact that some first generation biofuels, such as corn-ethanol, have a negative 'energy return on energy invested' (EROEI). They suggest that it takes more energy to plant, harvest and convert biomass, than you get out of the biofuel. Now for tropical energy crops, the energy balance is very positive (for sugar cane it is around 8, oil palm comes close to 12), but energy inputs remain an important cost factor.

Now it is not difficult to see where the Inga comes in. The cheap and abundant electricity from the huge dam complex could power a vast cluster of biofuel plants located nearby, that use biomass that was produced further in land, to make liquid biofuels ready for export.

A futuristic scenario
We have looked at the Congo's geography and infrastructure, and it is not unthinkable to see the following scenario develop in the near future: biomass from the country's vast inland production zones would be densified in decentralised plants, located alongside the Congo river. From there, the intermediate feedstocks are transported over the Congo to the capital Kinshasa, where rail would bring them to the port of Matadi. In that city, near the Atlantic Ocean, bioterminals and processing plants could be located, using the cheap and abundant electricity from the nearby Inga Dams.

In order to attract investments to realize the potential of the Inga Dams, a viable and large-scale industry would have to be in place, preferrably one that forms a synergy based on using raw materials coming from Congo itself. In previous decades, the idea was to use the Inga electricity to power the mining operations in Congo, but that would require a vast grid because the mining resources are located thousands of kilometres away from the dam, in the South-West of the country. Such an infrastructure was built, but has since decayed.

A biofuels industry would overcome this problem, as processing clusters and bioterminals aimed at exporting biofuels to the wider world could be located close-by. The exploitation of Congo's agricultural potential for the production of biofuels could thus be one step closer, because the problem of energy inputs has been solved.

Now this might all sound megalomaniacal, but there are some signs that tell us things might indeed go the way we sketched them here. The port of Antwerp, in Belgium (Congo's former colonial ruler) has recently announced that it will help build the harbors of Matadi [*Dutch] and Banana, in order to relaunch export activities in the country. Meanwhile, Antwerp itself is rapidly becoming a 'bioterminal' which imports raw and processed biomass and biofuels from all over the world to be distributed throughout Europe. In the future, the link might become more outspoken: 'bioterminal' Antwerp could become the importer of biofuels coming from 'bioport' Matadi or Banana.

One thing is certain, though: the Inga dam's enormous potential could power Africa out of electricity scarcity, and synergies between Congo's yet to be established bio-economy and the Inga could one day evolve into a highly efficient cluster of bioports and biorefineries, making Congo the Saudi Arabia of green energy.

Laurens Rademakers
Biopact, 2006, some rights reserved.

More information:

:: United Nations Environment Program: Congo River to Power Africa Out of Poverty - 24 February 2005
:: Afrol News: Congo River dam to industrialise Africa, Europe - February, 2005
:: Africa-energy.com: Large map of the Inga plans, showing a planned transcontinental grid to distribute the Inga electricity all over the continent and on to Europe (the same map can be found here).

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Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sugar cane has "enormous potential for green chemistry"

Despite sugar cane being one of the world's most important agricultural crops, it is surprising to see how little research there actually is on the plant's biochemistry and the applications its molecules could bring. Only now, with the advent of the concepts of 'biorefineries' and 'green chemistry', scientists are beginning to focus attention on this potential. With high oil prices, alternatives for petro-chemicals are being sought, urgently, and sugar cane might bring us a far way.

Surprisingly, top work is coming from the tiny Indian Ocean island of Réunion, where researchers from the Centre d’Essai, de Recherche et de Formation pour la Canne à Sucre (CERF), are working on a program aimed at valorising the many interesting molecules contained in sugar cane. According to Laurent Corcodel, who is leading the research, "these molecules have an enormous potential as building blocks for organic chemistry aimed at displacing countless petro-chemical products". The program is part of the island's ambitious target of building a first biorefinery in the next four years, that will produce bio-plastics, detergents, tinctures, drugs, glues, gels, and even bio-polymers resembling nylon from which clothes can be made... all from the humble grass known as sugar cane.

Leading the list of interesting molecules is aconitic acid (C6H6O6), a white, crystalline organic acid abundantly found in sugar cane. Laurent Corcodel:
Aconitic acid has never before been used on an industrial scale [unlike lactic acid, a building bloc for polylactic acid from which bioplastics are made]. Its potential is great, though. It has the same characteristics as certain molecules derived from petroleum that are used for a variety of products.

Since the molecule is so versatile, we can work in a systematic manner: first we decide which products we want to make, then we work out the technical procedures. In all likeliness we will start by manufacturing tensio-actifs (
a kind of specialty glue), but it could just as well be bioplastics. Whichever products we make, one thing is certain: our biorefinery will reduce the importance of petrochemistry and shift the future towards green chemistry.
The €700,000 program lasts four years and has now entered the phase where concrete applications are sought, after fundamental research showed the potentially interesting molecules and ways to extract them. The current goal is to build a mini-refinery before the year 2010, and then to build Reunion's first fully-functional biorefinery.

Even though Reunion's sugar farmers are already tapping the opportunity brought about by the ethanol industry, the government decided to phase out all subsidies to make the sector more competitive. This new diversification adds to the optimism for the cane growers. "It is true that the planters will lose their subsidies in 2014, but new valorisations make up for this loss. The industrialists are really looking out for diversification, and we are bringing it to them", Corcodel adds.

Sugar cane, the humble grass, is thus rapidly becoming an extremely versatile crop: vinasses, juice, fibres, molasses, bagasses and specialty molecules, - the cane can be used to make plastics, liquid fuel, feed, food, fibre, even paper, furniture and clothes. "People have been talking about green chemistry for years, but now the work is really starting. High oil prices and the prospect of depleting resources have opened a new era", affirms William Hoareau, who works for the CERF, analysing the potential uses of bagasse.

More information:
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Biomass-solar hybrid power for the developing world

Quicknote bioenergy technology
An innovative power generation technology combining different renewable energy systems has been unveiled in France, by Electricité de Marseille.

The system consists of two separate co-generation plants -- solar-thermal and biomass -- coupled to each other via so-called CAES technology (Compressed Air Energy Storage).
The solar-thermal plant generates electricity and hot water that can be used for district heating. Coupled to it, an electric system pumps air into carbon-fibre chambers, where it is compressed to 120 bar. Part of the hot water stream from the solar-thermal plant then further compresses the air to 600bar.
Similarly, the biomass co-generation plant delivers electricity and hot water for district heating, part of which is siphoned off to the air chambers. (Biomass-ash is a byproduct that is sold as organic fertilizer).

Electricité de Marseille (EMD) says that the system increases the efficiency of the air compressor by 40%. When peak power is demanded, the air is released through a turbine, and delivers enough electricity to satisfy that peak, with a very fast response time (in order to be allowed to connect to the main grid, local authorities in France demand response times of under 14 minutes; EDM's system reacts to peaks in under 5 minutes).

EMD's 120MW pilot plant consists of the following configuration: solar-thermal panels with a surface of 10,000m², carbon-fibre spheres each stocking 4850m³ of compressed air at 600bar which can deliver 40MW at all times, and an 80MW biomass co-gen plant using locally produced feedstocks (23,000 tons of rapeseed oil, 18,000 tons of wood waste and 15,000 tons of wheat straw).

On a yearly basis, the system avoids 48,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), 64 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx), and 62 tons of sulfur dioxides (SOx).

Dubbed "hybrid biomass co-generation", the plant combines the best of two technologies that were developed and are used extensively in respectively in Denmark (biomass co-generation) and Spain (solar-thermal co-gen). The advantages of the hybrid plant are its high efficiency and the fact that it diversifies the primary energy source (both solar and biomass), which allows for synergies between the two streams of energy, which are both bound by seasonal factors. The CAES technology is continuously on stand by in case peaks in electricity demand need to be satisfied.

EDM sells the system as one integrated package, and it could be an excellent concept for the developing world, where both solar and biomass energy are abundantly available. [Entry ends here].
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China investing in German Biomass-to-Liquids biorefineries

China and Germany have two things in common: they are energy- intensive export- nations that are leading the transition to renewables, and their agricultural and forestry sectors generate vast amounts of biomass 'waste' that could be used to make liquid biofuels. Wood waste, corn stover, wheat straw, beet tops, rice straw... the flow is diverse and massive. Germany could get some 10% of its liquid fuel needs out of its wood waste stream alone; China might be able to make up to 35% of theirs from similar biomass.

The search has been on for the most efficient bioconversion technology that liquefies the ligno-cellulosic biomass and turns it into clean fuels and specialty biochemicals. It would be uneconomical though to build dedicated biomass-to-liquid (BTL) plants for one single dedicated biomass stream, because that would imply using dedicated plantations on dedicated land, implying high costs - whereas the elegance of BTL-technologies precisely lies in the fact that they can in principle convert any kind of biomass waste into fuel, merely using existing waste-streams. But until now, such 'multi-feedstock' BTL-plants faced two major problems: (1) the diverse origins and (2)the wide-ranging energy contents of the different kinds of biomass streams. Moreover, given low energy contents, the biomass is bulky and transporting it to one central BTL-facility would be too costly.

A decentralised system
German engineers from the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe have now found an elegant solution to these problems simply by dividing the process (called "Bioliq") into two separate stages - each carried out in a decentralised plant.
Eckhard Dinjus, director of the Institute's chemistry department, explains that in the first stage, raw biomass is converted into an intermediate high-energy density pyrolysis fuel via fast-pyrolysis (biomass brought to a moderate temperature of 500°C after which it is pyrolised by a very short steam injection, resulting in 75% liquids, 12% char and 13% gas). This fuel, called pyrolisis 'slurry' or 'bio-oil', has an energy content of 25 Gigajoules per cubic meter (compare with crude oil: 40Gj per cubic meter), which makes it much easier to transport than the primary bulky biomass with its low energy content.
This 'intermediate' bio-oil is then transported to a central facility where it is gasified and synthesised at temperatures reaching 1200°C and pressures of up to 80 bar, resulting in a tar-free 'synthetic biofuel' that can be used as a transport fuel.

Besides the synthesis-fuel that is ready to be used as a transport fuel, the bio-oil contains a whole range of basic chemicals (acids, sugars, aldehydes, esters, alcohols, ketones, phenolics, oxygenates, hydrocarbons, steroids) that can be used as building blocks for a series of commercial specialty chemicals (acetic acid, hydroxyacetaldehyde, levoglucosan, levoglucosenone, maltol...). The gas that is released during the process can be used to generate electricity to power the plants, and the biochar can be converted into fertilizers or used in power plants as a high energy density solid biofuel.
Thus, the BTL-technology is rapidly becoming one of the most promising routes towards genuine "biorefineries", resembling petro-chemical refineries and delivering liquid fuels, green chemicals and solid biofuels.

The "Bioliq" system was demonstrated in a pilot plant, proving its efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Clean synthetic biofuels were produced for under 50 €urocents per liter. But Dinjus says that in countries where much more biomass waste is available, such as China, the costs would be significantly lower.

The research is supported by several German ministries, including the Ministry of agriculture and the Ministry of energy and renewables, and during Chancellor Merkel's recent visit to China, Dr Peter Fritz, director of the Forschungszentrum Karlsruhe which developed the technology and his Chinese counterpart M. Chengzhong Chu, director of Zibo Treichel Industry & Trade, have signed an agreement for the technology transfer of the Bioliq system. The Chinese government estimates that, using such efficient BTL-technologies, it can derive up to 35% of its current liquid fuel needs from waste biomass streams.

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