<body> --------------
Contact Us       Consulting       Projects       Our Goals       About Us
home / Archive
Nature Blog Network

    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.

    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.

    Tasmania's first specialty biodiesel plant has been approved, to start operating as early as July. The Macquarie Oil Company will spend half a million dollars on a specially designed facility in Cressy, in Tasmania's Northern Midlands. The plant will produce more than five million litres of fuel each year for the transport and marine industries. A unique blend of feed stock, including poppy seed, is expected to make it more viable than most operations. ABC Rural - February 25, 2008.

    The 16th European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - From Research to Industry and Markets - will be held from 2nd to 6th June 2008, at the Convention and Exhibition Centre of FeriaValencia, Spain. Early bird fee registration ends 18th April 2008. European Biomass Conference & Exhibition - February 22, 2008.

    'Obesity Facts' – a new multidisciplinary journal for research and therapy published by Karger – was launched today as the official journal of the European Association for the Study of Obesity. The journal publishes articles covering all aspects of obesity, in particular epidemiology, etiology and pathogenesis, treatment, and the prevention of adiposity. As obesity is related to many disease processes, the journal is also dedicated to all topics pertaining to comorbidity and covers psychological and sociocultural aspects as well as influences of nutrition and exercise on body weight. Obesity is one of the world's most pressing health issues, expected to affect 700 million people by 2015. AlphaGalileo - February 21, 2008.

    A bioethanol plant with a capacity of 150 thousand tons per annum is to be constructed in Kuybishev, in the Novosibirsk region. Construction is to begin in 2009 with investments into the project estimated at €200 million. A 'wet' method of production will be used to make, in addition to bioethanol, gluten, fodder yeast and carbon dioxide for industrial use. The complex was developed by the Solev consulting company. FIS: Siberia - February 19, 2008.

    Sarnia-Lambton lands a $15million federal grant for biofuel innovation at the Western Ontario Research and Development Park. The funds come on top of a $10 million provincial grant. The "Bioindustrial Innovation Centre" project competed successfully against 110 other proposals for new research money. London Free Press - February 18, 2008.

    An organisation that has established a large Pongamia pinnata plantation on barren land owned by small & marginal farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India is looking for a biogas and CHP consultant to help research the use of de-oiled cake for the production of biogas. The organisation plans to set up a biogas plant of 20,000 cubic meter capacity and wants to use it for power generation. Contact us - February 15, 2008.

    The Andersons, Inc. and Marathon Oil Corporation today jointly announced ethanol production has begun at their 110-million gallon ethanol plant located in Greenville, Ohio. Along with the 110 million gallons of ethanol, the plant annually will produce 350,000 tons of distillers dried grains, an animal feed ingredient. Marathon Oil - February 14, 2008.

Creative Commons License

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Jacques Delors suggests the creation of a European Energy Community

As Europeans prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the European Union, Jacques Delors, former president of the Commission and father of the Treaty of Maastricht that turned the 'European Community' into a real Union, suggests the EU builds a genuine European Energy Community as a way to overcome the sense of crisis that has kept the continent in its grip for quite a while now.

When the Founding Fathers of modern Europe signed the Treaties of Rome in 1957, they created the 'European Atomic Energy Community' and the 'European Economic Community' which aimed to strengthen peace through economic cooperation, amongst countries that had just come out of a World War that had destroyed their societies and left their economies in ruin. A few years before, in 1951, six European countries - Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands - had created the European Coal and Steel Community to manage their heavy industries collectively. From the very beginning, energy and economic cooperation were the building blocks of what would later become the EU.

Five decades later, with 27 member-states, 500 million prosperous inhabitants living in peace, and the world's largest economy, the Union celebrates its achievements, but also reflects on its future. A cloud of doubt has gathered over the continent, after the Iraq War caused a rift in the Union between those who were right and those who were wrong, and after the French people voted 'Non' during the infamous referendum on the European Constitution. People in France think the EU has become too liberal economically while its social unification is lagging behind. They feel that Europe's unique social models are threatened by the forces of globalisation - and the Constitution as it was presented to them reinforced that sense of danger. It's a perception shared by many European citizens.

Meanwhile, European leaders have understood the message. The Berlin Declaration that will mark the EU's 50th anniversary, is expected to give fresh impetus to the stalled constitutional debate. Not only will it outline the EU's historic achievements in terms of peace, freedom, prosperity and solidarity, it will stress the need to defend a more social Europe in negotiations over its future.

Former President Jacques Delors understands this sense of crisis and calls for the EU to be more ambitious in its attempts to unite citizens behind a new vision. On the question what urgent measures should be undertaken in order achieve this, Delors recommends the creation of a genuine European Energy Community, modelled on the concept of the early European Coal and Steel Community.

He said that such a European Energy Community will contribute to strengthening a feeling of unity as it allows Europeans to create an entirely new kind of economy, one based on sustainability, hyper-efficiency, clean energy, and environmental responsibility. According to Delors, climate change, low carbon energy and a green future are building blocks of a unifying discourse the underlying values of which are shared by many citizens:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

At first sight it might seem strange to choose energy, of all things, as the core of a new collective vision for the future of Europe. But on further reflection it may make sense: energy touches the kernel of the way our societies work - economically, socially, (geo)politically and environmentally. By radically changing this kernel, all the issues connected to it take on a new color as well.

The abundance of fossil fuels was the core of an economic model that made an unsustainable consumer lifestyle possible for a while (the 20th century). This paradigm implied an industrial model and a mentality in which nature, people and social relations are expendable, exchangeable and depletable. Climate change proves that, at least when it comes to nature, such a vision is disastrous for our future.

Politically and geopolitically speaking, the fossil fuel paradigm has fueled some of the world's dirtiest conflicts. The war in Iraq is just the latest example - global terrorism its consequence.

So by radically rethinking our energy paradigm, we are forced to rethink our productive, economic and social relations - on a European and on a global scale. This is why Delors' suggestion for a European Energy Community goes beyond energy and hints at new mentalities, new modes of production and consumption, and a more holistic, sustainable relation with nature.

If Europe were to speak with one voice on the international stage, it would also be much stronger to convince others to join the attempts to create a greener and climate secure future.

A European Energy Community would have very practical uses as it would strengthen the Union's positions in talks with the producers of oil and gas, with rapidly emerging economies, and with the U.S. over climate change, sustainable development and a shift towards a low carbon economy. In an era of volatile energy prices, geopolitical troubles, and the inconvenient truth of global warming, the idea is most welcome.

More information:
MPT: Jacques Delors suggests creation of European Energy Community - March 21, 2007
RTBF: Jacques Delors intarissable sur l’Europe - March 17, 2007
Forum de Paris: L’Europe par l’énergie - Jan 11, 2007
Le Monde, L’énergie pour relancer l’Europe - Nov. 7, 2006.

Article continues

FAO project promotes Brazilian technology for agriculture in Africa

A new FAO project in Kenya and the United Republic of Tanzania is forging links between farming communities and Brazilian firms specialized in production of equipment used in conservation agriculture (CA). The objective of that South-South cooperation is to boost agricultural production in both countries by encouraging a shift to CA techniques, which optimize the use of farm labour and could also help reduce widespread land degradation.

Under the three-year, Germany-funded project, up to 4,000 farmers are to be trained through participatory field schools in conservation agriculture practices, including reduced or no-tillage (NT) and the use of permanent soil cover.

Conservation agriculture encompasses a set of complementary agricultural practices based on three principles:
  • minimal soil disturbance through reduced or no-tillage in order to preserve soil organic matter
  • permanent soil cover (cover crops, residues and mulches) to protect the soil and suppress weeds without need for chemical herbicides
  • diversified crop rotations and associations, which promote soil micro-organisms and disrupt plant pests and diseasesmain principles of no-tillage and conservation
Since dedicated CA implements - such as knife-rollers and direct seeders - are not widely available, the project will take Kenyans and Tanzanians to Brazil to study CA technologies and will design strategies for developing a sustainable equipment supply chain in the subregion. Lessons learned will be "up-scaled" and disseminated throughout Africa.

FAO says conservation agriculture offers Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers a pathway to sustainable agriculture and rural development, which hinges on sustainable land management and better use of available farm labour.

In Tanzania, where the economy is based mainly on small-scale farming and livestock, an estimated 44 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line. In neighbouring Kenya, the incidence of rural poverty is around 50 percent, despite strong recent growth in the farm sector:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In both countries, land degradation is a major constraint on the productivity of labour and other external inputs. In addition, farming communities have been seriously weakened by migration to urban areas, the rapid spread of the HIV/AIDS, and the persistence of debilitating diseases such as malaria. The reduction in farm labour availability is forcing farmers to abandon traditional methods of land preparation and other farm operations, and many now plant seed directly into unprepared land immediately after the onset of wet season rains.

"While farmers and extensionists often regard such practices as a poor way of farming, planting without ploughing uses less human labour and animal power," says Josef Kienzle, of FAO's Agricultural and Food Engineering Technologies Service. "So, far from being a 'coping mechanism', no-tillage cultivation has the potential - if carried out in conjunction with other appropriate agronomic practices - to become an important part of strategies to improve food production and stabilize threatened rural livelihoods."

The benefits of no-tillage on small farms are well known in Brazil, which has pioneered conservation agriculture in tropical and subtropical farming systems. The first prototype NT seeder and a prototype knife-roller for residue management were designed in 1985 by Agronomic Institute of Paraná State (IAPAR). Research over the following years bore fruit in 1992, when the Paraná government launched a large-scale evaluation of CA systems and ordered 50 seeders and other equipment from a local manufacturer.

With that political backing, and the support of government and private extension services, other small industries began producing CA equipment and developing new designs tailored to different types of soil, crops and animals. Direct seeding was soon recognized as an excellent means of natural resource conservation, which attracted financial support from the federal government for a programme that encouraged farmers to adopt the innovations.

Economic advantages. Evaluations have confirmed the economic advantages of no-tillage over conventional tillage systems. Trials conducted between 1997 and 1999 showed that the maize yields of no-tillage farmers were 3.5% higher and overall income 11.3% higher. "The most striking differences were observed for returns to labour," says IAPAR's Fátima dos Santos Ribeiro. "Since it requires less labour and distributes labour inputs more evenly across the year, no-tillage systems have a clear advantage."

One study in Brazil's Central-Southern region found that bean production required around 140 hours of labour per hectare using no-tillage methods, compared to 190 h/ha under conventional tillage. In fact, surveys show that, for farmers, the reduction in labour requirements is the most important benefit of no-tillage, ahead of erosion control and even yield increases.

To transfer and adapt that experience to East Africa, the new FAO project will build on the achievements of a pilot CA programme in Kenya and Tanzania, implemented between 2004 and 2006, that created 90 Farmer Field Schools to train farmers and extensionists in CA and sustainable land management. As part of that programme, FAO helped procure a limited quantity of CA equipment from southern Brazil manufacturers.

"In this new phase," says Josef Kienzle, "we will be facilitating the creation of a further 200 field schools, and Brazil has now become a full development partner. An important aim is to help East African equipment manufacturers learn more about Brazilian experience in building a self-sustaining input supply chain for CA equipment, and to promote direct private sector and dealer relationships between Brazil and East Africa."

After an initial study visit by Kenyan and Tanzanian farmers, equipment manufacturers and suppliers to Brazil, Brazilian manufacturers will tour East Africa to gain first-hand knowledge of the small farm sector and the equipment supply chain, with an eye to developing collaborative ventures. The project will explore different approaches to no-till equipment supply in Africa, ranging from direct importation, local assembly and local manufacturing with imported components, to full local production and joint ventures.

Image: In Tanzania, a trainer demonstrates the use of a Brazilian-made direct seeder. Courtesy: FAO.

More information:

FAO's regional partner in the Kenya-Tanzania conservation agriculture project is the African Conservation Tillage (ACT) Network, a Nairobi-based association of farmers, input and machinery manufacturers and suppliers, researchers and extensionists. Founded in 2000 with GTZ support, the network promotes CA as a means of improving food security and rural livelihoods in the region. See the ACT website.

The Conservation Agriculture for Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development project in Kenya and Tanzania
FAO's Conservation agriculture website
FAO Magazine Spotlight: Conservation agriculture - Feb. 2006
FAO Magazine Spotlight: Zero tillage - Jan. 2001
FAO Magazine Spotlight: "Cover crops" save soil in Brazil - May 2001.

Article continues

Farming in tropical rainforest can preserve biodiversity, ecological service and bring incomes

For the first time a large, truly multidisciplinary team of scientists has studied the complex tradeoffs between incomes for poor farmers in the tropics, biodiversity loss and the way ecosystems cope with deforestation. The results are interesting in the context of biofuel production in the tropics. They show that while conversion of tropical forest for agriculture results in significant declines in biodiversity and carbon storage, farming cash crops such as cacao under the partial shade of high canopy trees can provide a way to balance economic gain with environmental considerations.

The team consisted of a dozen scientists from mainly German universities, in particular the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, the University of Hohenheim and the University of Bayreuth. Other researchers were from the Bogor Agricultural University and the Tadulako University, both in Indonesia, and from the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium. Results are published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Losses of biodiversity and ecosystem functioning due to rainforest destruction and agricultural intensification are prime concerns for science and society alike. Potentially, ecosystems show nonlinear responses to land-use intensification that would open management options with limited ecological losses but satisfying economic gains. However, multidisciplinary studies to quantify ecological losses and socioeconomic tradeoffs under different management options are rare. The group of scientists from the social sciences (cultural anthropology, sociology and economics) and plant biologists therefor joined forces to evaluate opposing land use strategies and their socioeconomic outcomes in a focused case-study.

Their object of research was the cacao agroforestry system as it is commonly found in Sulawesi, Indonesia. Field studies were conducted at the margins of Lore Lindu National Park (LLNP) in Central Sulawesi. Sulawesi, an island east of Borneo and northeast of Bali and Java, has high levels of endemic biodiversity which is increasingly threatened by deforestation.

The researchers used data on species richness of nine plant and animal taxa, six related ecosystem functions, and on socioeconomic drivers of agroforestry expansion. Interestingly, they also took into account rarely considered cultural factors, such as culturally driven expectations about risk and wealth that go far beyond rational economics or the analysis of pure market forces. These cultural factors played a big role in the expansion of cacao cultivation by 230% in the last two decades.

The results of the study indicate the following:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Transformation from near-primary forest to agroforestry had little effect on overall species richness, but reduced plant biomass and carbon storage by approximately 75% and species richness of forest-using species by approximately 60%.
  • In contrast, increased land use intensity in cacao agroforestry, coupled with a reduction in shade tree cover from 80% to 40%, caused only minor quantitative changes in biodiversity and maintained high levels of ecosystem functioning while doubling farmers' net income.
  • Unshaded systems further increased income by approximately 40%, implying that current economic incentives and cultural preferences for new intensification practices put shaded systems at risk.
"We found that a soft intensification of agroforestry that decreases canopy cover by shade trees from 80% to 40%, will double the farmers' income while leaving biodiversity and ecosystem services on a similar level," Dr. Teja Tscharntke, a co-author of the paper and a professor of agroecology at University of Goettingen. "This is an example of a win-win or small loss-big gain situation that we need more to identify sustainable conservation strategies."

The researchers say that while the environmental payoffs of shade-grown cacao are evident, economic incentives are needed to encourage this style of farming. They note that premium "shade-grown" coffee could serve as a model to generate higher income for farmer using agroforestry techniques. Steffan-Dewenter and colleagues add that education and awareness campaigns could further the cause.

"Encouragement of cultural preferences for shaded cacao agroforestry systems and education of local farmers about unappreciated ecosystem services provided by shaded systems could further promote the implementation of certification schemes," the authors write. "Such market-based incentives will crucially determine whether shaded agroforestry systems remain important refugia for tropical biodiversity and sources of essential ecosystem services."

"These findings are the result of fruitful collaboration among ecological and socioeconomic groups and among Indonesian and German researchers," added Tscharntke. "The key was to identify the drivers and effects of land use. From this we were able to develop concepts of sustainable land use."

The scientists conclude that low-shade agroforestry provides the best available compromise between economic forces and ecological needs. Certification schemes for shade-grown crops may provide a market-based mechanism to slow down current intensification trends.

Biofuels and agroforestry
The results are particularly useful for sustainable biofuel projects that rely on agroforestry, instead of on monocultures and/or deforestation. Several research efforts are underway to study the feasibility of making fuels out of non-plantation forestry products - such as oil seeds harvested in pristine rainforests. For an example of these efforts we refer to a pilot project in Brazil based on utilising wild babassu nuts.

According to the researchers of this project, there is a large potential for energy production from the shells of these nuts (up to 260 MW of biomass energy for poor forest communities). Babaçu is a palm tree native to Brazil, widely grown there and provides an important industrial and economical resource because of the oil extracted from the kernels.

The oil is similar to coconut oil and is gradually conquering that market. Since the trees are not grown in plantations, but are used as they stand in the wild (in the Amazon), its nuts are harvested manually by some of Brazil's poorest communities. They are often left with huge waste-streams of shells after they have removed the oil-rich kernels (which is done manually as well). Unicamp's Faculty of Mechanical Engineering studied the potential for using this waste in efficient co-generation plants, and sees a great opportunity in it for rural electrification. Each year, some 2.9 million tons of babassu shell are wasted (earlier post, scroll down).

Similar projects are underway in Cameroon (involving oil-rich Karité nuts) and Gabon, whereas in China, perennial crops like Jatropha curcas are studied for their reforestation capacity as well as their potential to act as shade-crops for legumes in intercropping systems. In such systems (not a typical agroforestry system since it involves new forests), the jatropha trees would function as carbon sinks, their seeds would provide biodiesel feedstocks, and the shade would protect legume cultures. The idea is to create integrated systems that can be managed by smallholders (earlier post).

More information:
Ingolf Steffan-Dewentera, et al, "Tradeoffs between income, biodiversity, and ecosystem functioning during tropical rainforest conversion and agroforestry intensification" [*abstract], PNAS, March 20, 2007 | vol. 104 | no. 12 | 4973-4978.
Mongabay, Farming in the rainforest can preserve biodiversity, ecological services, May 5, 2007.

Article continues

Disappointing yields dampen switchgrass enthusiasm

Governments both in the EU and the US view switchgrass and other herbaceous energy crops as plentiful and low-cost alternatives to corn or sugarbeets for making the next generation of biofuels.

As sources of cellulose, such dedicated energy crops can be used as feedstocks for the production of cellulosic ethanol and for synthetic biofuels obtained from the gasification of biomass. The dream of these temperate regions of the planet is to turn their vast prairies and grasslands into energy plantations.

Crude economics
But the price of the switchgrass and similar feedstocks must be kept low enough so that (next-generation) biofuel plants can afford to buy them. Some interesting data from Iowa State University now show that, as things currently stand, the economics of switchgrass do not work out.

The US Energy Department hasn't specified a cost target for switchgrass but does have one for corn: US$35 per ton - needed to keep biofuels competitive. If the experience of switchgrass growers in Iowa is a guide, ethanol plants are going to have to pay a lot more than that for switchgrass.

Farmers in four southern Iowa counties have been growing switchgrass as part of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project, a cooperative effort between the Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development Inc., Alliant Energy, Prairie Lands Biomass LLC, and the U.S. Department of Energy.

What they have found is that it costs farmers about US$60 a ton to grow, harvest and bale the grass, including the price of seed, fertilizer and herbicides. It costs another US$25 for storage and transportation costs, and then farmers will need an additional US$30 to US$40 a ton in profit to make it worth their while. In short, cellulose ethanol and synthetic biofuel producers would face feedstock costs of between US$115 and US$120, more than three times those of corn.

A question of yields
Low yields are to blame for the unfavorable economics. Switchgrass yields in the Iowa project have averaged about 3 tons per acre (7.4 tons per hectare), way below what would be necessary to make an ethanol plant competitive: 8 to 12 tons per acre (20 to 30 tons/ha), according to Mark Downing, who analyzes bioenergy markets for the Energy Department.

We can't stress enough that real switchgrass yields - not hoped for, desired or projected yields - are marginal compared to those of tropical grass species, such as sugarcane, sorghum or gynerium sagittatum. In Brazil, in 2005, the average sugarcane yield was 80 tons/ha; many plantations easily yield 120 tons/ha. Trials with new sweet sorghum hybrids in the Philippines showed average yields of 110 tons/ha (earlier post). And plantations of gynerium sagittatum show 50 tons/ha on average. In short, from a purely economic point of view, producing biomass and biofuels in the (sub)tropics makes much more sense than attempting it in the North.

The biomass feedstock cost is the single most important factor determining the viability of biofuels projects. It informs all further decisions on investments in harvesting technologies and logistics - such as transporting, pre-processing and storing. It determines design, scaling and expansion options and opportunities for biofuel plants. It indicates how much land will have to be dedicated to supply a plant of a particular scale. It determines the environmental footprint of the venture. It opens or closes opportunities to create efficient cogeneration facilities that can power the biofuel plant. It determines the risk levels of a biofuel venture as it competes with fossil fuels with their volatile prices, and so on.

Stuck in cornfields?
Switchgrass has been hyped because supposedly it would yield large amounts of affordable biomass and consequently cellulosic ethanol or synthetic biofuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The hope was that by utilising such a dedicated energy crop, land requirements would be reduced. Unfortunately, the first large-scale trials now prove that indeed, much of the enthusiasm was not based on realistic assessments.

Mike Duffy, an Iowa State University economist who has analyzed the project, puts the production costs of switchgrass at US$50 a ton. "There's no $35-a-ton switchgrass," conceded his collegue, Mark Downing. His department is undertaking a study, which will include the use of satellite imagery, soil carbon measurements and climate data, to decide whether and where it might still be feasible to grow the herbaceous energy crops.

He said the high cost of Iowa land is a major impediment to biomass crop production in the state. "That's going to be really tough, to get a farmer to get out of corn and produce switchgrass," he said.

It is not unreasonable to assume that in both the US and the EU, farmers will stick to producing crops like corn for biofuels. Betting on switchgrass may prove to be too risky. But sticking to corn would obviously be disastrous from an environmental perspective - because these fuels have a very low energy balance even though they are commercially viable - and perhaps even more so from a social point of view, because these are food crops that should be consumed as such.

At the Biopact, we obviously present a far more realistic and sustainable alternative, on which we base our entire concept: natural resources and agro-climatic factors leading to good biomass yields, and the need for economic development in the South, make biofuel and biomass production there not only most feasible commercially, but also from an environmental and social point of view.

As many scientists, economists and think tanks have come to understand, Europe and the US should import these fuels, instead of making their own, which contribute marginally to fighting climate change, strengthening energy security or relieving poverty. There is not reason to perpetuate the European and American mirage of 'energy independence', on which so much of the switchgrass hype was based. Interdependence and a diversification of biofuel supplies, opening world markets for biofuel trade from the South and ending the market distorting US/EU subsidies for bad biofuel crops such as corn, is the way forward.

Image: harvesting switchgrass, yields of which are way below expectations. Courtesy of the Chariton Valley Biomass Project.

Article continues

Venezuela and IADB clash over $200 billion biofuels plan

Quicknote geopolitics
During the 48th annual meeting of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) in Guatemala City, the IADB launched a proposal to invest a massive US$200/€150 billion by 2020 for the mass production of biofuels in the hemisphere and to reduce the continent's oil dependence.

Meeting participants took a strategic look at the risks and opportunities in a future of diminishing fossil fuels and greater global warming, at a seminar sponsored by the German government.

However, the proposed injection of US$200 billion prompted a negative reaction by Venezuela, the continent's major oil exporter. "Suggesting an investment of US$200 billion is incredible when, even at this moment, two out of five Latin Americans do not have access to power supply," Venezuelan Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabeza minister told reporters.

IADB President Luis Alberto Moreno countered by saying that "biofuels are a chance for the region to tap into its natural resources, as part of an activity that involves development of technological innovation sites, investment in infrastructure, streamlining of rural sectors and jobs creation".

Biofuels as such aren't the real issue, because Venezuela itself is creating bilateral cooperation agreements with, among others, Brazil and especially Cuba, for the production of the climate-neutral fuels. With Cuba, it recently agreed to cooperate on the construction of 11 ethanol plants (earlier post), while at home, President Hugo Chavez has initiated a plan to build 17 such biofuel production facilities (earlier post). He even invited South-East Asian producers to establish plantations in the country (previous post).

What is at stake is Venezuela's attempt to control the energy politics of South-America. Interference by a multilateral organisation like the IADB - perceived to be loyal to U.S. interests, not surprisingly since U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was present at the meeting and vowed strong support for the biofuels plan - is seen by Venezuela's left-wing government as 'neo-imperialism'. It forms a threat to the country's attempts to forge a broad left-wing alliance in Latin America, in which energy is used as a geopolitical weapon.

A similar reaction came from the country when U.S. President Bush signed a biofuel cooperation agreement with Brazil earlier this month. Brazil, the genuine regional superpower, has recently distanced itself from President Hugo Chavez's increasingly agressive attempts to control the debate over biofuels and energy security in Latin America [entry ends here].
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Article continues

Italy and Brazil to join biofuel efforts in Africa

Another typical 'South-North-South' cooperation agreement is in the making between Brazil and Italy, whose state-owned energy companies want to join forces to tap Africa's huge sustainable bioenergy production potential (earlier post).

Similar agreements have been made between France and Brazil, the UK and Brazil and recently the US and Brazil. In their crudest form, this kind of pacts usually looks as follows: the partner from the North brings in financial and technical resources, the Brazilians contribute their invaluable scientific, agronomic and technological expertise on biofuels, and the African partner offers the investment opportunity.

For the time being, most of these agreements are organised bi- and trilaterally, even though the Biopact still thinks the EU should leverage its collective power to create a much more ambitious accord, in which it would couple its development policies to its energy and trade policies and create a Euro-African synergy aimed at increasing energy security and supplies of low carbon fuels for Europe and opening up the opportunity to help lift millions of farmers on the continent out of poverty. There are some indications that such a vision is beginning to reach the highest levels of European decision making (earlier post).

The Italo-Brazilian talks involve state-run oil company Petrobras and Italian energy firm Eni SpA. The goal is to build a presence in Sub-Saharan Africa aimed at exporting biofuels to Italy. Brazil itself already has a dedicated biofuel task force in Accra, Ghana, and is building alliances on the continent, fast.

Eni executives met with officials from Petroleo Brasileiro SA last week and will meet again next week regarding possible cooperation in biodiesel and ethanol Petrobras Downstream Director Roberto Costa said.

The main focus of Eni officials was the construction of biodiesel plants in Mozambique and Angola. Both these countries have a very large sustainable biofuel potential. We indicated this earlier (for Angola, and for Mozambique).

Eni is also seeking international alliances in biofuels, especially in countries where it has exploration and production activities, including Angola and Congo. This last country too has the potential to become a 'biofuel superpower' (earlier post).

Costa made the comments ahead of Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi's visit next week to Brazil to meet with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Petrobras and Eni are also interested in sharing their experiences in the refining of heavy oil, Costa said.

Italy's government has a stake of about 30 percent in Eni, while the Brazilian government owns 60 percent of Petrobras.

Brazil is the world's largest exporter of ethanol and its second-biggest producer, after the United States.

Brazil, Latin America's largest nation, is also ramping up production of biodiesel, and will require a 2 percent blend of biodiesel in regular diesel starting next year. The percentage will rise to 5 percent by 2013.

Article continues

Pure Biofuels announces land lease plan for 60,000 hectares for oil palm in Peru

Pure Biofuels today announced its plans to lease 60,000 hectares near the city of Pucallpa in central Peru for the cultivation of African oil palm to provide feedstock for its Callao Port biodiesel production facility on the coast near Lima.

The city of Pucallpa is located near the Brazilian border, some 500km (300miles) inland from the Callao port. The land, currently classified as 'empty and degraded', is being made available to Pure Biofuels under a sanction agreement with the government of Peru. The company expects to complete its application process and finalize its lease in the coming months.

"The lease of this land provides Pure Biofuels with a unique, vertical self-supply capability that will help sustain our production capacity at levels unattainable by other producers in the region," stated Pure Biofuels’ President, Luis Goyzueta.

The biofuel maker is confident that the African Palms it intends to cultivate will find a healthy environment in the central Peruvian forests. It’s a hearty plant that thrives in the tropical environment. "Our ability to self-supply our feedstock will contribute to our independence and protection from outside market conditions and commodity price fluctuations and will undoubtedly help Pure Biofuels prosper".

The biofuel producer's production facilities in Callao consist of three 17.5 million gallon (66 million liter) per year modules, with an annual production capacity of 52.5 million gallons (almost 200 million liters) of biodiesel per year. The plant is being built on a 47,000-square-meter parcel of waterfront land located a short distance from the La Pampilla Refinery, one of Peru’s largest oil refineries:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

With a 50 million gallon per year facility, Pure Biofuels hopes to make a significant impact on the amount of diesel fuel used in Peru, and, more importantly, it says it can help contribute to the energy independence of all of South America.

If its plans are realised, Pure Biofuels would indeed be one of Latin America's larger biofuel companies. The flagship project, the Callao Port biodiesel refinery near Lima, Peru, is scheduled to commence production during the fourth quarter of 2007.

The Callao Port refinery will process biodiesel from Pure Biofuels' own crude palm oil feedstock, whereas the firm has also secured memorandums of understanding with local fuel distributors for all of Callao Port's annual biodiesel production.

Article continues