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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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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Plastics are "poisoning the world's seas"

In our overview of bioplastics and biopolymers, we mentioned some of the main advantages of these alternatives to petroleum-based products: they are renewable, almost carbon-neutral and biodegradable. Besides their role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, new research now shows that there is another major reason why they should be urgently introduced on a much larger scale.

Microscopic particles of petroleum-based plastics are poisoning the oceans and may end up in the food chain, according to a British team of researchers. They report that small plastic pellets called "mermaids' tears", which are the result of industry and domestic waste, have spread across the world's seas.

The scientists had previously found the debris on UK beaches and in European waters; now they have replicated the finding on four continents. As the BBC reports, the scientists are worried that these fragments can get into the food chain.

Plastic rubbish, from drinks bottles and fishing nets to the ubiquitous carrier bag, ends up in the world's oceans. Sturdy and durable plastic does not bio-degrade, it only breaks down physically, and so persists in the environment for possibly hundreds of years:
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Among clumps of seaweed or flotsam washed up on the shore it is common to find mermaids' tears, small plastic pellets resembling fish eggs.

Some are the raw materials of the plastics industry spilled in transit from processing plants. Others are granules of domestic waste that have fragmented over the years.

Either way, mermaids' tears remain everywhere and are almost impossible to clean up.

Raw materials
Dr Richard Thompson at the University of Plymouth is leading research into what happens when plastic breaks down in seawater and what effect it is having on the marine environment.

He and his team set out to out to find out how small these fragments can get. So far they've identified plastic particles of around 20 microns - thinner than the diameter of a human hair.

In 2004 their groundbreaking study reported finding particles on beaches around the UK. Historical records of samples taken by ships plying routes between Britain and Iceland confirmed that the incidence of the particles had been increasing over the years.

Now the team has extended its sampling elsewhere in Europe, and to the Americas, Australia, Africa and Antarctica.

They found plastic particles smaller than grains of sand. Dr Thompson's findings estimate there are 300,000 items of plastic per sq km of sea surface, and 100,000 per sq km of seabed.

So plastic appears to be everywhere in our seas. The next task was to try and find out what kind of sea creatures might be consuming it and with what consequences.

Thompson and his team conducted experiments on three species of filter feeders in their laboratory. They looked at the barnacle, the lugworm and the common amphipod or sand-hopper, and found that all three readily ingested plastic as they fed along the seabed.

"These creatures are eaten by others along food chain," Dr Thompson explained. "It seems an inevitable consequence that it will pass along the food chain. There is the possibility that chemicals could be transferred from plastics to marine organisms."

Other contaminants
There are two ways in which this might happen. Firstly, the Plymouth scientists want to establish whether there is the potential for chemicals to leach out of degraded plastic over a larger area after the plastic has been ground down.

The second aspect of this research is focusing on what happens when plastic absorbs other contaminants.

So-called hydrophobic chemicals such as PCBs and other polymer additives accumulate on the surface of the sea and latch on to plastic debris.

"They can become magnified in concentration," said Richard Thompson, "and maybe in a different chemical environment, perhaps in the guts of organisms, those chemicals might be released."

Whether plastics present a toxic challenge to marine life and subsequently to humans is one of the biggest challenges facing marine scientists today.

The plastics industry's response is that much of the research is speculative at this stage, and that there is very little evidence that this transfer of chemicals is taking place in the wild.

It says it is doing its bit by replacing toxic materials used as stabilisers and flame retardants with less harmful substances.

Whatever the findings eventually show, there is little that can be done now to deal with the vast quantities of plastic already in our oceans. It will be there for decades to come.

Picture: correspondent Tom Heap holds examples of "mermaids' tears" - courtesy of the BBC.

More information:
University of Plymouth: Where does all the plastic go? - 7 May 2004

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Sweden takes biogas to a new level: methane from wood chips to fuel 75,000 cars

Europe is experiencing a real boom in the use of biogas for transport. According to an EU well-to-wheel study of more than 70 different (fossil and renewable) fuels and energy paths - including hydrogen from wind, solar or nuclear -, biogas is the cleanest and most climate-neutral transport fuel of them all (earlier post). Given the expectation that carbon prices will explode in the coming years, the clean green gas is attracting major investments as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The gas, which is obtained from municipal, industrial or agricultural organic waste, holds tremendous potential, both in Europe (where it can replace a large amount of natural gas imports from Russia), and in the developing world (with India having interesting plans for biogas). Using innovative technologies, the green fuel can be purified to natural gas standards, and mixed into the natural gas grid (earlier post), with several countries already doing this. Other European countries and companies are rapidly building infrastructures to use the gas as an automotive fuel (an example from Germany, and one from Austria) with some companies building real biorefineries around it which result in green specialty chemicals and products such as biopolymers and plastics (example from Austria). More and more, specially bred dedicated biogas crops - such as Sudan grass hybrids, Sorghum or biogas maize - are being planted for the production of the green fuel.

Biogas from wood chips, more efficient than cellulosic ethanol
Sweden, Europe's leader when it comes using renewables (the country generates 28% of all its energy from green sources) is now taking the development of biogas as a transport fuel a step further. Anders Hedenstedt, CEO of Göteborg Energi AB, wrote the following letter to Euractiv, a main EU news source: "In Gothenburg, biogas is produced locally by digestion of sewage waste, providing the equivalent of 4000 passenger cars with a fuel that is cleaner than petrol, or any other biofuel.

Now Göteborg Energi is taking biogas production to the next level. By gasification of low-grade biomass such as forestry residues, we can produce biogas in much greater quantities. Our aim is to build a biomass gasification plant with a capacity to produce enough biogas for 75,000 cars. We will convert wood chips into methane with 70% efficiency:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

We plan to have the plant in operation by 2011 at a cost of roughly €150 million. Since the technology employed is untested on this scale, we are depending on government or EU funding.

Public awareness of biogas as a fuel for vehicles is crucial for our success in this project. Of course, biogas could be used for many more applications than for vehicles. But we are convinced that the transport sector will play a key role as a driver of new technology, because the willingness to pay in this sector is high, and that there is a very real opportunity for consumers to individually contribute to a more sustainable society."

Several studies indicate that, using a combination of substrates (from dedicated energy crops) that are co-fermented, biogas yields much more useable energy than cellulosic ethanol. The bioconversion process is far more efficient. But the large-scale use of the green gas has one major disadvantage, in that one needs dedicated cars, similar to CNG-vehicles, to use the fuel.

More information:
Trendsetter-Europe, the information source on sustainable trends in urban mobility in the EU, has a range of interesting articles on biogas as a transport fuel.

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University of North Dakota receives $5 million to develop military bio-jetfuel

We have been tracking the development of biofuels for aircraft for a while now. Some interesting research programs are underway in different countries: Argentina's military recently demonstrated the use of bio-jet fuel in a large military aircraft (earlier post), whereas NASA and Boeing are collaborating with Brazilian biofuel company Tecbio on developing biokerosene (earlier post). Finally, Richard Branson announced that he wants his entire Virgin fleet of aircraft to fly on a green fuel in the near future (earlier post). The development of biofuels in this sector is the last frontier, with several major challenges ahead.

Today, the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) at the University of North Dakota announced that it has been awarded approximately US$5 million (€3.75 million) from the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Defense-Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for the development and demonstration of a new domestic bio-jet fuel for the US military. The 18-month project will produce enough fuel to allow DARPA to demonstrate the fuel’s usability in real-world combat scenarios.

The fuel produced by the EERC will be an identical replacement for the traditional JP-8 petroleum-based fuel, which represents the majority of all fuel used in the U.S. military. The EERC fuel will meet the military specification for JP-8, which is used to power vehicles such as the Boeing B-52 bomber, the Abrams A1 Battle Tank, the Apache Helicopter, and many others.
One of the greatest challenges in our nation is energy security for the U.S. military. This award is a significant opportunity to match the skills of the EERC with the military’s needs. This will also expand the EERC’s capabilities in tactical fuels and allow us to demonstrate the effects of recently developed technology to convert fuels made from indigenous resources that can replace imported oil. -- EERC Director Gerald Groenewold.
“Our whole approach with this project is to develop an affordable new fuel that can be dropped in to replace the current JP-8 fuel,” adds Ted Aulich, Senior Research Manager. “This replacement will allow an easy transition from a petroleum-based fuel to a 100% domestic renewable fuel.”

A major challenge for any type of fuel is its use in cold-weather conditions. The EERC fuel is usable in extremely cold temperatures (at or below -50°F), which makes it ideal for use in jets. North Dakota is an exceptional real-world setting for cold-weather testing:
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In addition to demonstration of the fuel, the EERC will also be focused on improving the methods for producing the fuel from a variety of vegetable oils and other renewable feedstocks. Several provisional patent applications have already been filed for a new chemical process specifically for producing renewable JP-8, which simplifies the traditional process for converting vegetable oil to fuel with low freeze point requirements—a major breakthrough developed exclusively at the EERC.

“The state-of-the-art technology being developed by the EERC, through partnerships with the DoD, particularly the U.S. Air Force and a variety of private sector entities, holds significant opportunities for deployment at one of North Dakota’s Air Force bases,” Groenewold said.

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Liquid biofuels company makes huge investment in Mozambique's energy sector: decentralised biomass power plants

In a very interesting turn of events, Mozambique Bio-Fuel Industries (MBFI) and its Indian partners announced they are investing €800 million (US$1 billion) to generate bio-electricity in Mozambique. This is a major boost to the African country's rapidly growing economy, where energy needs are increasing sharply. The company is radically choosing for a smart, decentralised approach, utilising locally produced biomass in small, modular power plants. The company, supported by the Mozambican government, is collaborating with India on the project, showing once again that South-South cooperation strategies offer advantages in addressing crucial development problems. The EU too has several bioenergy-related initiatives in the country (earlier post).

Africa’s potential for economic growth is limited by its inability to generate enough power, and this is exactly what would have impeded MBFI’s core business activity which is to produce liquid biofuels such as bioethanol from cassava and biodiesel from jatropha. The company has therefor taken matters into its own hand and will be investing in green electricity generation using a paradigm in which distributed energy and decentralisation play key roles.

Decentralisation key to African context
Traditionally, when African countries plan to generate additional power, they tend to opt for a Western approach based on economy of scale models. This results in concepts where centralisation and large plants concentrated in urban areas get priority. Mr Steenkamp, CEO of MBFI, says most of these western solutions are not suitable for the African context because they do not address Africa’s fundamental lack of infrastructures. Western approaches result in energy poverty for most Africans, and become push factors, driving people from the country-side to the cities.

"Therefore", Mr. Steenkamp says, "when we planned to produce biofuels on 3.5 million hectares in Mozambique, we never thought we were also going generate bio-power. But the cost to clear land, limited power capacity and the excess biomass forced us to consider alternatives. And to meet Mozambique’s needs we decided to introduce many modular power units throughout rural Mozambique, instead of one large power plant."

Earlier, we referred to a case-study which shows that Mozambique - still very much an agrarian society - has a huge bioenergy potential, amounting to some 6.7 Exajoules, or 3 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, which it can generate in a sustainable manner (earlier post). Current per capita electricity consumption in the 20 million nation is around 365KWh per year (compare with France: 7585KWh - World Resources Institute, Earthtrends database.)

Mozambique Bio-Fuel Industries' research lead the company to look at another developing country, India, where it found extensive experience in modular bioenergy technologies:
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After many visits, MBFI announced that it has signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Malavalli Power Plant Private Limited (MPPL) and CVC Infrastructure India to invest 800 million euros in Mozambique over the next ten years. The MOU provides for management and finance of modular five-megawatt biomass power plants throughout seven of the ten Mozambican provinces.

According to Mr. Steenkamp, "investors in Mozambique can, today, generate considerable profits, while at the same time, eradicate poverty. Investments can be made in biomass, bioethanol, biodiesel, and sustainable rural development in the fast growing economy of Mozambique”.

We will be tracking this project very closely, as it offers a fascinating example of how large-scale bioenergy initiatives result in positive contributions to the economies of some of the least-developed countries, both on a very local, micro-economic, as on a larger, macro-economic scale.

More information:
Case-study on Mozambique's potential: Martin Junginger, André Faaij, Biofuel trade issues [*.pdf], Launching conference of the European technology platform for biofuels, Brussels, 8 June 2006.

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Commodity strategists: biofuels frenzy may cause oil prices to decline

Crude oil prices in New York may tumble to US$40 a barrel next year as demand for biofuels made from crops spurs investors to switch from energy to agricultural commodities, says Tetsu Emori, chief commodities strategist at Japan's Mitsui Bussan Futures Ltd. This means biofuels are beginning to have a real macro-economic impact on the world economy.

Shifting to biodiesel and ethanol additives may slow the growth of demand for gasoline and diesel in the US, Europe, and Japan. Earlier, Emori predicted oil would rise to $96 a barrel in August this year because of the hurricanes in the US Gulf. Prices fell from a peak of $78.40 on July 14 after a calmer-than-usual storm season.

"Some people may say the 2006 oil bubble eventually was short-lived like a firework that sparks and disappears," Emori said. "People called me crazy when I projected a couple of years ago oil to surge this year. They may do that again because I said oil may touch the $40 a barrel mark next year."

Oil consumers are increasing use of fuels and additives that derive from corn, soybean, sugar cane, and oilseeds, as they try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The switch may cause a shift of money from oil futures on the New York Mercantile Exchange to the grain futures market in Chicago, Emori said in Tokyo:
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Biofuels may account for 7 percent of global transportation energy by 2030, provided governments implement International Energy Agency policies to promote alternatives to oil, the Paris-based adviser to oil-consuming nations said in its World Energy Outlook 2006 report. Currently, biofuels make up 3% of global transport fuels.

'Epoch of Change'
Oil prices in New York have dropped 20 percent from the record set in July and traded at $62.71 a barrel in Tokyo.

"Biofuels may be an epoch of great change for oil, possibly ending the spike in prices of crude we've seen in the past few years, and attract pension and commodity fund managers to pour more money into grains," Emori said. "A record of $78.40 a barrel set on July 14 may eventually be the peak of oil in the years through the end of 2010."

Biofuels include gasoline blended with ethanol that's made from sugar cane or grain and diesel mixed with vegetable oils. Prices for corn, used to make ethanol, have risen 47 percent in Chicago this year. Oil has gained 2.4 percent. Emori started at Mitsui Bussan, a unit of Japan's second- largest trading company, in 2000. Before that he worked at Sumitomo Corp. and German commodity trader Metallgesellschaft AG.

Crude oil will average $62 a barrel next year and $61 in 2008 in New York, according to the median forecast of 35 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News.

Japan's Refiners
Shinzo Abe's government, an IEA member country, plans to increase consumption of biofuel for transportation to 500,000 kiloliters (3.15 million barrels) by the end of 2010 as part of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and meet targets set under the Kyoto Protocol. Japan currently doesn't use biofuel.

Starting in April 2010, Nippon Oil Corp. and other Japanese refiners aim to supply about 12 million kiloliters of ethanol- blended gasoline, about 20 percent of the country's total consumption, the Petroleum Association of Japan said in a statement in April. In doing so, they need a total of 360,000 kiloliters of ethanol for blending.

"The growth of gasoline and diesel demand may slow at a faster-than-expected pace if the government subsidizes companies distributing the biofuels and further pushes promoting use of the environmental-friendly fuel," Emori said.

Big Ethanol
In the U.S., a Democratic-controlled Congress is expected to boost demand for the corn-based fuel. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, in line to take over the House Agriculture Committee, said Nov. 8 he will be more aggressive in seeking ethanol subsidies.

"Democrats' victory means a lot and big plus for the U.S. ethanol industry," Emori said. Democrats picked up at least 27 House seats in November elections, ensuring control of the House in January, after being out of power for 12 years.

Californian Nancy Pelosi has proposed a doubling of the amount of ethanol required by law to be blended into gasoline by 2012, to 15 billion gallons. In August, ethanol output rose 27 percent to an all-time high average of 329,000 barrels, or 13.8 million gallons a day, according to the Energy Department.

China, Brazil and Europe booming
Brazil's shipments of ethanol to overseas markets jumped 91 percent last month to 545 million liters (144 million gallons) from 286 million liters a year earlier, according to the Trade Ministry.

China and Europe, too, are expanding their biofuel industries. "In particular, we should closely monitor China's biofuels policy, which could affect the nation's appetite for oil in the coming years," Emori said.

A rosy biofuels demand outlook helped bolster trading of agricultural futures in Chicago, Emori said. "The global race for agri-products may be intensifying, while fierce competition for energy assets may ease," he said.

The Chicago Board of Trade, the second-biggest U.S. futures market, registered record trading in agricultural contracts in October as turnover rose 35 percent from a year earlier.

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South Africa unveils its bioenergy programme

The South African cabinet has unveiled a first draft of its long-awaited bioenergy strategy. The country has set itself some very ambitious targets: it wants biofuels to contribute up to 75 percent of its renewable energy needs by 2013 under a 6 billion Rand programme.

This is good news for sub-Saharan Africa as a whole. South Africa is the economic giant on the continent and other countries often follow in its tracks on important development issues. Since the bioenergy sector touches a large number of policy fields (labor, land, agriculture, energy, capital and trade), South Africa's choices may determine those of other African economies.

The bioenergy strategy's main elements were summarised as follows by Government spokesperson Themba Maseko who addressed parliament and the media simultaneously:
  • The programme is designed with the explicit foresight that it will not require "excessive support" nor hit food security. It comes as volatile oil prices combined with a global drive to limit greenhouse gases forces governments to look at alternative energy sources.
  • South Africa envisages that biofuels will create jobs, particularly in the agriculture sector which is under pressure as it comes to grips with post-apartheid liberalisation and global competition.
  • The biofuels industry has the potential to create 55,000 agricultural jobs and will contribute to reducing greenhouse gases and promote a cleaner environment.
  • The proposed strategy will see South Africa, which produces a surplus of sugar and maize crops, use the excess to manufacture bioethanol. Expanding energy crop production on under-used arable land, particularly that of emerging farmers, is another aim.
The required capital investment will be approximately 6 billion Rand (€650/US$850 million) which will come from both public and private sectors:
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Brazil, a strategic partner in trade relations with South Africa, is being touted as an example to follow because of its successful biofuels industry.

A policy taskforce, partly sponsored by the European Union, will review the draft strategy before it is submitted for finalisation in May 2007.

The draft comes as South Africa's Ministry of Minerals and Energy has set new fuel standards, including those regulating biofuels and the ratio's at which they may be mixed into diesel and gasoline.

Last month, South Africa hosted the first-ever Biofuels Markets Africa conference (earlier post).

More information:

IOL South Africa: South Africa approves push to develop biofuel - Dec. 7, 2006
Business Africa Online: SA approves $850mn draft biofuels strategy - Dec. 7, 2006
iAfrica: Biofuels get govt green light - Dec. 7, 2006

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Biomass Investment Group to plant Arundo donax for electricity

A while ago we reported on the Florida-based Biomass Investment Group (BIG), when it announced that it was going to grow Miscanthus x giganteus, a grass species, in the Philippines as a biomass feedstock for power generation. BIG is renting land from Filipino farmers at rates they never expected to obtain, thereby stimulating the local economy (earlier post).

The same company is now embarking on a similar project in Florida, using Arundo donax as the energy crop that will be grown on 20,000 acres (8000ha). The biomass will be converted into bio-oil, a heavy fuel oil, via a fast-pyrolysis process (for more on this process see the EU/IEA Biomass Pyrolysis Network). This carbon-neutral oil will then be used in a power plant that will provide electricity to some 80,000 Floridian households.

The project is similar to some in Europe, where high-yielding grass species are grown for bioenergy (see for example this project in France). In an interview broadcasted on American Public Media, Jerry Whitfield of the BIG and Bob Niekum of Progress Energy Florida, the energy company which buys the electricity, explain the project in detail. We summarise the main points of interest:
  • Arundo donax, also known as the 'Spanish cane' is a giant reed native to the Mediterranean. Originally the grass species adapted from subtropical climates but is now found in Cool Temperate Wet through Tropical Dry to Wet Forest Life Zones. It arrived in the U.S. more than a century ago and was planted to control erosion in California stream beds. Since then, it has become a noxious weed in some zones, with large campaigns aimed at eradicating it.
  • The grass species is very hardy and needs virtually no fertilizers, nor any other means of protecting the crop with herbicides during its growth.
  • The grass's bamboo-like stems can grow up to 6 metres in height (18ft). Arundo is strongly rhizomatous which results in dense patches. Dry matter yields of up to 50 metric tonnes per hectare have been recorded and 75 tonnes in the tropics, but 25-30MT/ha is a more realistic estimate for average yields in more temperate climates (see the plant profile in The Handbook of Energy Crops).
  • Assuming a dry matter yield of 30MT/ha/yr, at a gross heating value of 17.1GJ/tonne (see the Bioenergy Feedstock Characteristics at the ONRL's biomass website), then a hectare of Arundo yields around 84 barrels of oil equivalent. Grown in the tropics, twice that amount can be obtained.
  • BIG will grow about 20,000 acres (8000ha) of Arundo on a Florida farm. It will then convert the biomass into a liquid fuel (pyrolysis oil), and burn it in a gas turbine. The waste heat from the turbine exhaust then produces steam that churns out additional electricity in a steam turbine.
  • The resulting energy will be enough to power 80,000 homes on a continuous basis. Whitfield says the production process increases the facility's efficiency two-fold above current biomass methods. That will make it on target to produce energy at prices below what a conventional plant might produce.
  • Bob Niekum with Progress Energy Florida says the reed-driven energy facility will be carbon neutral — that is, it will have no net output of carbon dioxide, known to contribute to greenhouse gases.
Niekum says most environmental groups favor the project. But the Florida Native Plant Society and a other groups oppose it:
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Niekum and BIG say the reed's growth is easy to control, with a simple ditch around the farm. But Roger Anderson at Illinois State University isn't so sure. He says the giant reed can spread easily, clog waterways and even be a fire hazard. Anderson says many species proposed as biomass crops, including Arundo, are potentially invasive plants.

If more studies point out that the energy crop in question can be grown in a relatively controlled manner, then it would make for a very interesting bioenergy feedstock for large-scale production in the developing world.

As with most energy crops grown for exports, the biomass would first have to be densified before being shipped. Several options exist, such as pelletizing and briquetting, but for transcontinental transport, conversion into pyrolysis oil is most efficient in most scenarios. The International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40 conducted a study on the logistics of biomass exports. It looked both at the energy costs and GHG-balance of long-distance transport (Brazil to Rotterdam, and Maputo to Rotterdam) of biomass in different densified forms, and it concluded that transport costs, energy balances and carbon-emissions are negligeable factors in determining the final cost of the biofuel.

More information:
-The Biomass Investment Group website.
-Progress Energy Florida: Progress Energy Florida signs deal to purchase power from proposed biomass plant - May 1, 2006
-American Public Media: Energy solution or noxious weed? - Dec. 6, 2006
-Carlo N Hamelinck, Roald AA Suurs, André PC Faaij, International bioenergy transport costs and energy balance, IEA Bioenergy Task 40.

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