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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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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Car manufacturers, oil industry, agricultural federations sign France's ambitious biofuels charter

Together with fuel distri- butors, industrial groups and agricul- tural federa- tions, French auto manufacturers Renault and Peugeot-Citroën as well as Volvo, Saab and Ford have signed France's ambitious "Super-ethanol Charter", which contains the conclusions of a governmental study group on the future of transport biofuels and their implementation. The French State itself is a formal signatory to the crash-program. If the actions called for in the charter are carried out in time, France will be Europe's leading biofuel nation by the end of the decade.

The signing of the charter means that the car manufacturers are committing to building vehicles capable of running on E85 fuel and on biodiesel. The manufacturers will:
  • commercialise at least one flex-fuel vehicle each, from 2007 onwards and progressively increase the number of models over the years thereafter
  • introduce the flex-fuel vehicles at a price that compares favorably to similar gasoline models
  • develop a marketing strategy and a service industry necessary for this new market segment
  • ensure that research and development efforts in automotive biofuel systems result optimal and highly efficient fuel and engine systems
Renault has pledged that by 2009, 50% of the gasoline cars it manufactures will be of the flex-fuel type, whereas all its diesel cars will be capable of running on biodiesel (B30). Likewise, Volvo has announced that its C30, S40 and V50 models will all see a flex-fuel version next year.

The French state for its part:
  • will stimulate the constrution of 500 green fuel stations by the end of next year, andstart offering E85 to the French public from january 2007 onwards
  • will ensure that policies aimed at facilitating the production and marketing of the fuels are implemented;
  • has created a system of fiscal incentives to attract investments in the biofuels sector;
  • and has committed itself to buying biofuel capable cars (15% of all the state's cars in 2007, and 30% in 2008)
The signing of the charter comes after a recent study which showed that almost none of the European car manufacturers had achieved the efficiency targets they had earlier pledged to reach:
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This time, it seems like the French state and manufacturers are more seriously committed to the effort. Fuel distributors and agricultural cooperatives have been involved as well. The charter was equally signed by French oil giant Total, which aims to build 200 to 250 green fuel stations across France next year and 700 by 2009. The government's official target is to have 500 green stations online next year, out of a total of - if successful, this would be a major achievement and make France Europe's leading biofuel nation.

Total is cooperating with agri-cooperatives to ensure adequate supplies of biofuel feedstocks. The 'Syndicat National des Producteurs d'Alcool Agricole' (SNPAA) and the 'Fédération Nationale des Syndicats d'Exploitants Agricoles' (FNSEA) as well as other agricultural federations are signatories too.

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Did civilization arise out of catastrophic climate change?

The United Nations Climate Change Conference is being held in Nairobi, Kenya, this week. It is already being dubbed the 'adaptation summit' because focus has radically shifted away from preventing climate change towards adapting to it. Efforts are under way to devise strategies that must allow the most vulnerable countries (mainly in the developing world) to cope with the effects of what's seen as the greatest threat mankind has ever faced.

This change in discourse reminded us of a recent hypothesis launched by archaeologist Dr. Nick Brooks of the University of East Anglia, who has written extensively on cultural changes as a result of adaptations to climate change in the Sahel, and on the archaeology of Sahara cultures. His hypothesis comes down to the simple but profound idea that severe climate change was the single most important driver in the development of civilisation as we know it.

Dr. Brooks notes that the early civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, South Asia, China and northern South America were founded between 6000 and 4000 years ago when global climate changes, driven by natural fluctuations in the Earth's orbit, caused a weakening of monsoon systems resulting in increasingly arid conditions. These first large urban, state-level societies emerged because diminishing resources forced previously transient people into close proximity in areas where water, pasture and productive land was still available.

Civilization: an accidental by-product of climate catastrophes
In a presentation to the BA Festival of Science on September 7, Dr. Brooks challenged existing views of how and why civilisation arose. He argued that the earliest civilisations developed largely as a by-product of adaptation to climate change and were the products of hostile environments.
Civilisation did not arise as the result of a benign environment which allowed humanity to indulge a preference for living in complex, urban, 'civilized' societies. On the contrary, what we tend to think of today as 'civilisation' was in large part an accidental by-product of unplanned adaptation to catastrophic climate change. Civilisation was a last resort - a means of organising society and food production and distribution, in the face of deteriorating environmental conditions.
-- Dr. Nick Brooks.
He stressed that for many, if not most people, the development of civilisation meant a harder life, less freedom, and more inequality. The transition to urban living meant that most people had to work harder in order to survive, and suffered increased exposure to communicable diseases. Health and nutrition are likely to have deteriorated rather than improved for many:
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The new research challenges the widely held belief that the development of civilization was simply the result of a transition from harsh, unpredictable climatic conditions during the last ice age, to more benign and stable conditions at the beginning of the Holocene period some 10,000 years ago.

Civilization, not our natural state
The research also has profound philosophical implications because it challenges deeply held beliefs about human progress, the nature of civilisation and the origins of political and religious systems that have persisted to this day. It suggests that civilisation is not our natural state, but the unintended consequence of adaptation to climatic deterioration - a condition of humanity "in extremis".

Dr. Brooks said: "Having been forced into civilized communities as a last resort, people found themselves faced with increased social inequality, greater violence in the form of organised conflict, and at the mercy of self-appointed elites who used religious authority and political ideology to bolster their position. These models of government are still with us today, and we may understand them better by understanding how civilisation arose by accident as a result of the last great global climatic upheaval."

It is tempting to use Dr. Brooks' hypothesis to imagine what our own global future might look like, now that climate change promises to have an impact on many of us, especially on people in the developing world. Such an exercise would be grossly anachronistic, but still worth the effort.

More information:
Dr. Brooks has written on climatically-driven environmental change and cultural change in the Middle Holocene (from around 7000 to 4000 years before present), focusing on the consequences of increased aridity in the northern hemisphere sub-tropical and extra-tropical desert belt. In particular this work focuses on the role of climatic and environmental change in the emergence of complex societies characterised by a high degree of urbanisation, social differentiation and stratification, and the presence of state-level institutions. The project is based largely on a synthesis of previously published archaeological and palaeoenvironmental data, and is informed by ongoing geoarchaeological research in the Sahara (see Western Sahara and Fezzan Projects).

Brooks, N. 2005. Cultural responses to aridity in the Middle Holocene and increased social complexity [*.pdf], Quaternary International.

Brooks, N. 2004. Beyond collapse: the role of climatic desiccation in the emergence of complex societies in the middle Holocene [*.pdf], In Leroy, S. and Costa, P. (Eds.) Environmental Catastrophes in Mauritania, the Desert and the Coast. Abstract Volume and Field Guide. Mauritania, 4-18 January 2004. First Joint Meeting of ICSU Dark Nature and IGCP 490.

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Grass-based biogas and fuel pellets much more efficient than biodiesel, ethanol

Canadian renewable energy researchers are following in the footsteps of their European collegues by focusing efforts on using grass species for the production of biogas and solid biofuels that can be used as a transport fuel and for electricity production. According to the researchers, this offers a much more efficient bioenergy production path. In Europe, several experiments are already underway aimed at producing biogas from dedicated herbaceous energy crops (earlier post), such as sudan grass, sorghum and new hybrids. A recent comprehensive well-to-wheel study of more than 70 different fuels and fuel paths carried out by the EU's Joint Research Centre, showed that biogas is both efficient to produce and is the cleanest of all transport fuels (earlier post). Finally, many trials are underway with the production of solid biomass (pellets, briquettes) based on grass species such as Miscanthus giganteus (elephant grass) for the production of electricity through simple combustion (earlier post).

Fuel produced from biomass, like switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and dependence on fossil fuels, but it can do so at a fraction of the cost of ethanol and biodiesel, says Roger Samson of Resource Efficient Agricultural Production (REAP) Canada, a research and international development organization creating ecological solutions for food, fibre and energy production challenges.

Samson made his plea for the use of grass as a biofuel feedstock at a seminar sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Regina. "The opportunity exists to produce gas from grass or pellets from grass and heat buildings or even use it for transport. This (biomass) is a very viable option for the transportation sector".

Yet governments continue to pour millions into subsidies to produce ethanol and biodiesel, which are less energy efficient than biogas produced from switchgrass, said Samson, who's been working in the field of bioenergy development since 1991. "From an energy perspective, it's the wrong thing to do as a main (bioenergy) strategy," Samson said. "The only thing sustaining biofuels like corn-based ethanol or biodiesel are subsidies from the taxpayer.''

Energy balance
Biomass is far more efficient from an energy consumption point of view. Switchgrass pellet fuel has a ratio of energy production to consumption (energy balance) of 14 to 1, compared with only 1.5 to 1 for corn-based ethanol.

Switchgrass loses only five per cent of its energy in conversion to fuel pellets. "The more sophisticated we get in our conversion process," such as converting coal to electricity, the more energy is lost, he added. From an economic perspective, converting switchgrass into pellets and burning them to heat buildings is much more cost-effective than burning ethanol or biodiesel:
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And biomass fuel pellets are also more sustainable than either ethanol or biodiesel in terms of the amount of energy produced relative to an equivalent amount of fossil fuel energy. Samson said a ratio of four-to-one or higher is considered sustainable:

"Anything above four to one is where we should be focusing our resources. Anything below four to one, we should take them off the biofuels roadmap," Samson said. With nearly half the arable land in Canada, Saskatchewan is well-positioned to reap the benefits of this approach to biofuels production, he added.

Paul Jefferson, a research scientist at the Agriculture Canada research centre in Swift Current, said recent studies showed certain types of U.S. switchgrass could be grown in Saskatchewan, but Canadian varieties should be developed for our harsher climate and shorter growing season.

Tropical savannahs
Outside North America, there's a geat opportunity for the production of grass-based biofuels in the tropics and subtropics. The savannahs in this part of the world are the original ecosystem where many of the grasses now used in the North for energy production come from (such as sudan grass and miscanthus).

Tropical grasses grow easily, follow the highly efficient C-4 path of photosynthesis, and have a growing area potentially much larger than that of traditional energy crops (such as soy or palm oil or maize).

So far, there is only one major company involved in growing grass for the production of solid biomass in the tropics (the Biomass Investment Group who's planting miscanthus in the Philippines - earlier post), but as research into this energy production path advances, more initiatives will arise.

Research into large-scale export-oriented bioenergy production in the Global South, shows that such biomass would have to be densified or converted locally (either turned into fuel pellets and briquettes, or thermochemically converted into pyrolysis oil) and then shipped to importers up North. Transport costs are marginal and the fuels would still be considerably less costly than biofuels produced in the North, simply because the agro-ecological circumstances (growing season, land potential, sunshine, rain) are much more favorable for the production of grass based biofuels, than in more temperate climates.

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