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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday, October 08, 2006

Brazilian ethanol is sustainable and has a very positive energy balance - IEA report

The International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, which analyses the international bioenergy and biofuels trade, recently published its long-awaited report on the sustainability of Brazilian ethanol. Its conclusions are that, in general, the production of sugarcane-based ethanol as it is currently practised in Brazil, is 'environmentally sustainable'. The study also concludes that the energy balance of Brazilian ethanol ranges between 8.3 (average) and 10.2 (best case). This is a very positive balance, compared to, for example, corn ethanol (which has an energy balance slightly higher than 1) or rapeseed biodiesel (slightly lower than 2).

The report, 'Sustainability of Brazilian bio-ethanol', was commissioned by SenterNovem, The Netherlands Agency for Sustainable Development and Innovation, and carried out by the Copernicus Institute (University of Utrecht) and Brazil's State University of Campinas, Unicamp. Its results are significant because Brazil is widely recognized to be one of the countries that will be able to export vast amounts of sugarcane-based bioethanol in the future. Since Europe will be a main importer, sustainability research is a priority (even though Brazil could decide to export to other countries if the EU were to use such criteria as an unfair market barrier). Given this prospect, EU governments have designed a series of environmental sustainability criteria which the study used as the basis against which practises in Brazil's sugarcane and ethanol industry were measured.

The main objective of the report was a comparison of Dutch sustainability criteria, which were drafted by a parliamentary Commission on Sustainable Production of Biomass between January 2006 and July 2006, and the current Brazilian practice. A quantification of the consequences for ethanol production in terms of production method and production costs if these sustainability criteria are applied, was also carried out. To this end, the Dutch sustainability demands for bio-ethanol themselves were investigated, including stakeholder consultation in the Netherlands (NGO’s, industry), and an extensive assessment of the current ecological and economic impacts of ethanol production based on sugar cane in Brazil was undertaken.

Even though current production methods are sustainable, for the future and the whole of Brazil, too many uncertainties remain to determine whether additional criteria from 2011 onwards can be met. First of all, it is as yet unclear how additional land use for sugar cane may cause indirect/induced land-use, and how large the actual impacts will be on land use and biodiversity. Secondly, it is also uncertain whether and how the Dutch sustainability criteria will deal with these indirect impacts, as these criteria are not yet clearly defined.

The report notes that it is important to recognize that sustainability criteria lead to higher production costs: depending on the strictness of the sustainability criteria, it estimates additional ethanol costs of up to 56%, though in case mechanical green harvesting is applied, additional ethanol costs are estimated at 24%. Regarding the future developments, first of all, Brazil is currently intensifying its agriculture and meat production. Further raising the productivity of agriculture and meat production is a key factor of keeping a neutral land balance, thus enabling compliance with criteria on biodiversity, food and fodder availability and so on. Secondly, it notes the promising example of the organic sugar cane production (as demonstrated and in a São Francisco sugar mill), where substantial ecological and social improvements compared to conventional sugar cane production have been achieved over a period of twenty years, including development of native forest area, and a yield increase of over 20% compared to conventional cane production. This could be a case study for the development of additional sustainability criteria. However, it should also be clear that switching on a large scale to organic farming cannot be achieved within a short period of time.

Even though this study is quite comprehensive, several aspects need further in-depth research. Social sustainability was hardly taken into account, mostly because of a lack of comparable data. Further research is also needed on the development of new methodologies to asses carbon soil interaction, biodiversity, food security and land use dynamics, and on exploring the possibilities and requirements of a certification system for sustainable ethanol:

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The comparison of Dutch sustainability criteria and the current Brazilian production methods looks at the following topics: greenhouse gas emissions, competition with food supply and other resources, biodiversity, wealth, welfare and environment.

The report concludes that:
"no prohibitive reasons where identified why ethanol from São Paulo principally could not meet the Dutch sustainability standards set for 2007. In many impact categories, Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane scores average to (very) positive. For a number of other criteria, problems are identified, but it also appears that these may differ strongly between the individual plants. Furthermore, for most of these issues, measures can be identified to improve performance (when needed)."
Within the segment on environmental sustainability, practises surrounding water use and water pollution, land use, forest protection and biodiversity, soil erosion, fertilizer use, genetically modified organisms, sugar cane burning (for energy) and greenhouse gas emissions are taken into account.

We want to highlight two of those aspects, because they often dominate public debates about the sustainability of biofuels: the energy balance of the fuel, and the greenhouse gas emissions.

Very positive energy balance
The report analyses the energy balances of sugarcane biomass and ethanol. Biofuel opponents often point at the low energy balance of biofuels made from crops grown in temperate regions, such as corn ethanol (in the US) or rapeseed biodiesel (in the EU). Studies differ widely on how positive these fuels' energy balance is. One controversial researcher even claimed that corn ethanol has a negative energy balance or 'EROEI' ('energy returned on energy invested'), even though not many scientists agree with his analysis (overview of this controversy). Notwithstanding the widely diverging results, one thing is certain: biofuels made in the North are hardly worth the effort, because the energy balance is indeed extremely low compared to tropical biofuels.

In contrast to corn ethanol or rapeseed biodiesel, the EROEI of sugarcane is very positive. The report calculated the net energy yield of ethanol, and found that it is around 8.3 on average, with best cases showing an energy balance of 10.2. This very positive EROEI is due to the fact that the tropical grass crop is highly efficient in converting solar energy into sugar-rich biomass; it requires modest amounts of water and fertilizer, and it can be harvested mechanically. Moreover, most Brazilian sugar cane and ethanol producers are extremely efficient in the way they actually plant, harvest, transport and process the cane. They have created synergies between different bioprocessing steps and their energy requirements (e.g. they use cane residues - bagasse and cane trash - to power the cane mills and ethanol factories). Brazilian producers have had to climb a steep learning curve to get there, but today their efficiency and consequent cost reductions are some 75% higher than they were 25 years ago.

The report further notes that with the advent of 'second generation' biofuel production techniques - such as cellulosic ethanol and biomass-to-liquids (Fischer-Tropsch synthetic diesel) - the energy balance is going to increase even further:
Regarding the future development of ethanol production, the conversion of bagasse into ethanol and/or electricity is crucial for the overall performance, and substantial increases are possible when this lignocellulosic feedstock can also be used for ethanol production. Macedo (2005) estimates that if a given mill should adopt a hydrolysis process t produce ethanol instead of surplus electricity, it could use 30% of the excess bagasse (improving the processes) and 50% of the can trash to produce around 34 additional liters per tonne of sugar cane. In addition, there are also substantial gains possible in the efficiency of electricity use and generation: the electricity used for distillery operations has been estimated at 12.9 kWh/tonne cane, with a best available technology rate of 9.6 kWh/tonne cane (Macedo, et al, 2004; Oliveira et al, 2005). For electricity generation the efficiency could be increased from 18 kWh/tonne cane presently, to 29.1 kWh/tonne cane maximum (Macedo, et al, 2004; Oliveira et al, 2005). The production of surplus electricity could in theory be increased from 5.3 kWh/tonne cane to 19 kWh/tonne cane. In addition, there are various other efficiency improvements possible in the cultivation of sugar cane and the logistic chain, see for more details Damen (2001). An assessment of the potential impacts on energy and greenhouse gas balance of the technological developments reported above goes beyond the scope of this study, but it can be concluded that there is a substantial potential for further efficiency increases.
In short, the production of ethanol from sugar cane as it is practised in Brazil today offers a very efficient way of converting solar energy into liquid fuels that can be used for transport. The future promises to make the process even more efficient.

Greenhouse gas balance

In terms of GHG emission reduction, ethanol from sugar cane is generally regarded the most efficient biofuel currently under commercial production, as the same Bioenergy Task 40 established in a previous study (see graph). When compared to gasoline, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions per kilometer is estimated to be between 85-90%.

Further, the soil carbon balance is an issue that must receive further attention. In Brazil, the evaluation of the emission of GHG for the 1990-1994 period indicates that change in land use and forests accounted for 75% of all GHG emissions, followed by energy (23%) (Macedo, 2005). In general, it can be said that the conversion of land from pastures to cropland leads to a significant loss of soil organic carbon (SOC). More specifically for the Brazilian situation, Silveira et al. (1999) found a decrease in SOC of 24% (over 20 years) when forest is turned into pasture land in Brazil leading to 47 tonne of carbon (tC) per ha for pasture land. This was followed by a decrease of 22% over 20 years when a sugarcane plantation is established on the pasture land, i.e. a SOC of 36.5 tC/ha on sugarcane plantations. So, if the additional land-use for sugar cane production leads (directly or indirectly) to conversion of pastures, the GHG emissions may be severe and could have a major impact on the overall GHG balance.

However, the researchers emphasize that:
• little data are available to quantify soil carbon losses, and they depend on a large number of assumptions, e.g. the time frame to measure soil carbon loss, various carbon accounting systems, the definition of the reference system, etc. Thus, the numbers presented above should be seen as indications.
• it is very difficult to determine the indirect effects of further land use for sugar cane production (i.e. sugar cane replacing another crop like soy or citrus crops, which in turn causes additional soy plantations replacing pastures, which in turn may cause deforestation), and also not logical to attribute all these soil
carbon losses to sugar cane.
• these effects have not yet been fully included for the GHG emissions reduction comparison by the IEA (2004), or for that matter for any other biofuel.

Quantifying these effects and their uncertainty clearly was seen to exceed the scope of the present research, but was deemed very important and strongly recommended for further research.

For both these topics - the energy balance and the greenhouse gas emissions of sugar-cane ethanol- the report concludes that the Dutch sustainability criteria are met. These criteria as formulated by the Sustainability Commission require a net GHG emission reduction of 30% in 2007 and 50% in 2011 compared to the fossil fuel reference system. The emission reduction from the use of ethanol as a biofuel results in a GHG emission reduction of 80% or above. Thus, the criteria as formulated by the DPB do not require additional activities. However, additional targets may be desired, since several technological improvement options are available that could further increase the GHG balance and/or reduce the costs.

Research needed into social sustainability
Even though the report shows the large number of direct and indirect jobs generated in the sugarcane and ethanol sector in Brazil, additional in-depth research into other socio-economic aspects is needed, especially on matters regarding income distribution and inequality effects, and the role the industry plays in negotiating social conflicts over land tenure.

Further, the social impacts of seasonal labor and the analysis of migration patterns amongst workers and their demographic, social and economic effects on communities must be analysed more thoroughly.

There is also a lack of transparent data on labor conditions and the human rights situation in plantations. Moreover, the analysis of the effects of the industry on workers' rights and their movements is very preliminary, whereas the 'social responsibility' efforts of companies are difficult to assess, given the fact that there is minimal legislation on the matter and companies implement social benefit schemes on a voluntary basis.

In short, the report offers a first overview of socio-economic factors that should be included in a social sustainability analysis, which needs to be backed up by more robust and transparent data. The researchers recognize that a more dynamic and holistic analytical framework for the assessment of social impacts must be urgently developed.

Exporting a model to other developing countries?
Brazil has three decades experience with its Alcool-program, but it is only today that we are beginning to get an understanding of the global picture of this industry as it concerns its potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel dependence. Ethanol production in the country certainly has many environmental and economic benefits, but it is too early to say whether the Brazilian experience is worth replicating in other developing countries as such. More research into several crucial aspects is first needed.

One thing is certain though, both from an environmental as well as from an economic point of view, consumers in Europe and the US should urge their governments to abandon trade barriers that prevent Brazilian producers from exporting their ethanol to the EU/US market. Instead of subsidizing biofuels and energy crops that have a very low positive energy balance, the North should give producers in the South a chance by opening their markets for sustainable ethanol that brings jobs to many of the world's poorest.

But tariffs and subsidies are not the only trade barriers. Some fear that the EU/US might indeed make their environmental and social sustainability criteria so stringent, that it becomes difficult for producers from the South to meet them. The risk then exists that they will abandon attempts to better the environmental/social performance of the industry and look elsewhere to sell (to India and China, for example, who will be responsible for nearly 50% of the growth in liquid fuel demand over the coming 25 years). This would be a missed opportunity for the EU/US to use sustainability criteria as a lever for positive interventions.

More information:

Edward Smeets, Martin Junginger, André Faaij, Arnaldo Walter and Paulo Dolzan,
Sustainability of Brazilian bio-ethanol, [*.pdf], August 2006, study commissioned by SenterNovem, The Netherlands Agency for Sustainable Development and Innovation; carried out by the Copernicus Institute – Department of Science, Technology and Society and the State University of Campinas.

Publicly accessible at the IEA's Bioenergy Task 40 website.

Article continues

Tests find ethanol safe on older cars

In an interesting essay, ally Henrique Oliveira sketched the history of the difficulties encountered by the Brazilian government in promoting its ethanol program. When everything was in place for a smooth production of the fuel, public acceptance had to follow. And this is where the program got a slow start. Car owners wanted to be certain that their vehicle was not going to be damaged by using the biofuel.

Much of the same doubts can be found in other developing countries, where car fleets are a bit older than in the West. In Thailand, though, extensive testing on older cars has now showed that the mandated E10 blend is safe to use in all of the most popular cars.

The Thai Energy Ministry tested [*cache] several makes of cars manufactured more than 10 years ago. The tests were run by the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency and the state-owned energy giant PTT. Cars used for testing included the 1.3-litre Toyota Corolla with a 2E engine, the 1.5-litre Honda Civic with a CVC engine and the 1.5-litre Mitsubishi Lancer with a 4G-15 engine. These three Japanese car brands account for 60% of the total number of cars made over 10 years ago and currently on the roads in the Kingdom.

The tested cars had mileage of between 150,000 and 200,000 kilometres and were tested over 100,000 kilometres between December 2005 and September 2006 at varying speeds of 50, 90 and 120 km/h.

No problems were detected with the engines as a result of the tests, said Mr Pornchai, adding that the fuel tanks remained in normal condition, with no residue in the tank, and metal, rubber and plastic parts all survived intact:
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At present, 566,469 cars with carburetor engines run on the streets of Thailand, estimated to drop to 508,932 next year and 196,288 in 2011.

European cars made more than 10 years ago also showed no engine problems with ethanol.

According to Mr Pornchai, the full study would be completed by December. After that, car companies will be asked to encourage motorists to use ethanol by reassuring them of its safety.

If motorists do encounter problems when using ethanol, the Energy Ministry will work with auto manufacturers and PTT to help pinpoint and solve the problems.

The Energy Ministry has a goal to phase out the use of all types of petrol and shift entirely to ethanol by 2012.

Ethanol is currently produced at 500,000 litres per day, but only 300,000 litres is used per day. Ethanol production will be raised to one million litres per day next year, while demand is expected to reach 800,000 litres per day.

Article continues