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

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

The global biofuels revolution: challenges, options, recommendations

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) recently announced a US$3 billion investment strategy to develop biofuels in Latin America. To put this initiative in context, the IDB released a major report on the future of the global biofuels industry, with a focus on Latin America's role in this emerging sector. The 600 page report titled "A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas - Strategic Analysis of Opportunities for Brazil and the Hemisphere" offers an overview of the past achievements, current trends and future challenges to make the transition to biofuels in a sustainable and equitable way.

The report was recently presented and discussed at a conference, where both the IDB and the Interamerican Ethanol Commission convened. The following videos highlight contributions of two speakers: Roberto Rodrigues (former Brazilian minister of agriculture) and David Rothkopf who prepared the study.
Rothkopf discusses the confluence of major factors that make the case for biofuels: instable and insecure oil markets, the evidence for climate change and the need for low carbon fuels, the biotech revolution, and rapid growth in the developing world. Green fuels offer opportunities to create an entirely new energy paradigm that confronts this situation. Key words are decentralisation, fuel diversification, sustainability and social inclusion.
However, many challenges remain, such as the need to develop new technologies, investments in infrastructures and the creation of global and regional biofuel policies and markets. The speaker further focuses on current trends and the potential of Latin America.
Roberto Rodrigues, current co-chair of the Interamerican Ethanol Commission, former agriculture minister under Brazilian president Lula's first government, and professor of 'world economics' at the University of São Paulo. Rodrigues explains why the big issue for 20th century agriculture was achieving global food security, and why for the 21st century it will be energy security. The professor sees a radical change in the geography of energy and agriculture, with the Global South taking advantage of its vast bioenergy potential to leapfrog into a green development era. Rodrigues continues by focusing on the food versus fuel issue as it relates to Brazil. He concludes with a discussion of technological progress in the sector.

More information:
IDB: "IDB targets $3 billion in Private Sector Biofuel Projects" - April 2, 2007.
IDB presentation of the study "A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas - Strategic Analysis of Opportunities for Brazil and the Hemisphere", April 2007.
Video fragment credits: IDB, C-Span [entry ends here]
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USDA researchers test biomass pyrolisis plant for the production of bio-oil

Scientists from the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have started experimenting with a thermochemical bioconversion technology that will convert biomass crops such as switchgrass and lignocellulosic energy crops into a liquid intermediate called 'bio-oil' or 'pyrolysis oil' that can be refined further into a range of automotive and industrial fuels. The test bed is a 2.5 kg/hr fluidized-bed reactor that converts biomass via a process called fast pyrolysis. The researchers published their results in the journal Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research.

Overcoming logistical challenges
A major motivation for the research is to overcome some of the logistical challenges associated with biomass fuels. The challenge of using ligno-cellulosic energy crops is to overcome their low density. Bales of for example switchgrass are light and very bulky and require too much space on trucks or rail to make transportation to a central processing facility economically feasible. The idea is to transform them into bio-oil on-site, near the plantation, after which the energy rich, high density liquid can be transported more efficiently to central refineries.

Other challenges are difficulties associated with breaking down the complex carbohydrates in switchgrass to make simple sugars that can be converted into ethanol through the process of fermentation. These difficulties result in the current estimate that ethanol from switchgrass costs about twice as much as ethanol from grain crops, such as corn.

But according to the ARS researchers, pyrolysis offers a way to overcome both problems at once. By heating the biomass in an absence of oxygen - called pyrolysis - the green feedstock is broken down efficiently into a liquid that can be easily transshipped to central refineries and upgraded to fuels and chemicals.

In order to test the concept, they built a unique pilot-scale reactor that uses a hot sand medium (called a fluidized-bed reactor) to convert perennial grasses to bio-oil and have now tested the reactor on switchgrass. They obtained the following results:
  • The reactor was able to use switchgrass as a feedstock and produce a quantity of bio-oil that was 60% of the weight of the switchgrass fed into the reactor.
  • They analysed the composition and fuel properties of the produced liquid and found that the energy content was about the same as the parent switchgrass but the density was more than 2.5 times greater.
  • The results show that char yielded would suffice in providing all the energy required for the endothermic pyrolysis reaction process.
  • The tests showed over-all energy conversion efficiencies ranging from 52 to 81%.
The operational data collected and the test results obtained can be used to design similar tests for other grasses in the ARS energy crop program and for the design and scale-up of reactors for larger operations.

Decentralised production
In the larger order of things, the technology is exceptionally suited for the developing world, where biomass productivity potentials are high, but where infrastructures are underdeveloped. In principle, the technology allows for decentralised 'crude oil' production by small producers, who sell to refineries (earlier post).

The ARS researchers hint at this concept:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

the study provides useful information for companies interested in building small scale distributed pyrolysers that could be used by farmers "on the farm" to produce a pyrolytic oil. Farmers could then sell the product as a "crude oil" to oil refiners, who in turn, would convert it into transportation or heating fuels. If successful, this would lead to increased opportunities for farmers who could put marginal lands into [tropical grass] production and help drive a renewable fuels economy in rural [areas].
The study includes mass and energy balances of this system, yielding useful parameters for future economic and design studies.

More information:
Boateng, A.A., Daugaard, D.E., Goldberg, N.M., Hicks, K.B. 2007. Bench-scale fluidized-bed pyrolysis of switchgrass for bio oil production. Industrial and Engineering Chemistry Research 46, p.1891-1897.

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Why OPEC-member Nigeria introduces biofuels to its energy mix

As is well established by now, biofuels may offer major advantages to developing countries. These countries can 'leapfrog' into a greener world that is based on a new energy and development paradigm. Biofuels bring a reduction of dependence on oil and the high fossil fuel prices that are so detrimental to their economies, they offer increased energy security through fuel diversification, income generation for farmers and rural communities, new jobs in a wide range of sectors, decreased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, a democratisation of access to mobility and increased energy access - in short, a virtuous cycle of factors that leads to a strengthened economy, both on the macro- as on the micro-level.

Ultimately, biofuels hold the potential to include some of the world's poorest people into the wider economy, by looking at them as energy producers. Especially in Africa, where more than 70% of people make a living from agriculture, social inclusion and income generation on a massive scale through biofuels can lead to lower pressures on the environment, strengthened livelihoods and to more sustainable development.

Engineer Funso Kupolokun, group managing director of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), explains why Nigeria introduced biofuels into the nation's energy mix, despite being an OPEC member and the continent's largest oil producer. He explained that the integration of the agricultural sector with the energy sector opens a new world of opportunities to all members of society.

Speaking at the 18th Enugu International Trade Fair, Kupolokun shed light on a US$350 million 'Nigerian Content Support Fund' (NCSF), which has been created as an avenue through which indigenous companies can source biofuel funds to compete with their foreign counterparts and to strentghen Nigeria's grip over its own energy supplies. Even though Nigeria is a crude oil producer, the refined fuels sold in the country are under control of foreign capital. Nigeria wants to change this situation.

Engineer Austin Oniwoh said the effective combination of efforts of the agricultural sector and the energy sector would have profound impact in increasing the nation's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in addition to the creation and spreading of wealth among a very large segment of the Nigerian people.

Nigeria's people are highly frustrated by the fact that they see virtually none of the benefits from the oil wealth that is generated from the country's petroleum sector. The Nigerian oil sector is foreign-owned and operated, produces very small numbers of jobs compared to the profits made, fuels corruption and a concentration of power, and destroys ecosystems. Biofuels production on the other hand, is based on distributed production of feedstocks amongst many different farmers and is based on local instead of foreign labor. In short, petroleum and biofuels are based on two entirely different logics (earlier post).

Oniwoh said that in the pursuit of kickstarting this new energy industry in Nigeria, the NNPC has engaged the Federal University of Agriculture, Markurdi, as a consultant to develop high yielding, short gestation cassava and sugar cane breeds:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"The seedlings will be made available to both small and large scale farmers for cultivation and subsequent supply of the produce to ethanol distilleries, to be established in various parts of Nigeria," he said.

Kupolokun for his part said the biofuels initiative will have the twin effect of protecting the nation's environment as green fuel, and spreading wealth amongst the poor rural farmers and the mechanised urban farmers who hitherto have been distant beneficiaries of the oil and gas economy.

He invited entrepreneurs from the South-east and members of the Enugu Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (ENCCIMA), to take advantage of the NCSF fund.

As regard to the oil-sector and the aim to strengthen Nigerian companies' participation, Kupolokun said the dividend of the liberalisation of the downstream oil and gas sector has engendered effective and active private sector inclusion and participation in bulk products importation, distribution and expanded retailing, resulting in the much desired wealth creation across the products supply chain.

He said NNPC has now shifted emphasis to creating the same enablement of Nigerian entrepreneurs in the upstream sector through the Nigerian Content initiative, adding that the Corporation's management has been actively engaged in promoting and monitoring local inputs to all on-going and new projects in the sector.

"Our target of achieving 45 per cent Nigerian content in 2006 was largely realized, while concerted efforts are on to achieve the targeted 70 per cent in year 2010. The Nigerian Content initiative seeks to significantly improve the quantum of composite value-added or created in the Nigerian economy through the effective utilisation of Nigerian human and material resources for the provision of goods and services to the oil and gas industry," he said.

Image: Nigerian field technicians showing "super cassava" developed with multiples of the normal chromosome count, by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: current and future impacts of climate change on human and natural environments

Earlier this year, Working Group I of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the evidence showing that humans are responsible for global warming. As part of the Fourth Assessment report on climate change (AR4), Working Group II has now released its contribution which analyses the scientific, technical, environmental, economic and social aspects of the vulnerability (sensitivity and adaptability) to climate change of, and the negative and positive consequences for, ecological systems, socio-economic sectors and human health.

The report released today is the Summary for Policy Makers [*.pdf], which was approved by politicians and the scientific community after a week of intense negotiations in Brussels. The Summary sets out the key policy-relevant findings, based on assessments of current scientific understanding of impacts of climate change on natural, managed and human systems, the capacity of these systems to adapt and their vulnerability. It builds upon past IPCC assessments and incorporates new knowledge gained since the Third Assessment.

Many of the findings are highly relevant to the future of biofuels and bioenergy production (such as expected impacts on agricultural productivity, effects of land use change, and the carbon storage capacity of ecosystems). One general observation on the human dimension of climate change stands out: the poor in the developing world will suffer most as their societies are least able to adapt.

The following is a selection of these key findings regarding projected impacts, as well as some findings on vulnerability and adaptation, in each system, sector and region for the range of (unmitigated) climate changes projected by the IPCC over this century judged to be relevant for people and the environment. The impacts frequently reflect projected changes in precipitation and other climate variables in addition to temperature, sea level and concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The magnitude and timing of impacts will vary with the amount and timing of climate change and, in some cases, the capacity to adapt.

From the Summary, we highlight only the following findings:
  • a general overview of future impacts of climate change on: fresh water resources, on ecosystems and biodiversity, on the production of food, fibre and forest products, on coastal systems and low-lying areas, on industry, settlement and society, on human health
  • impacts on 'developing countries' (in Africa, Asia and Latin America)
  • estimates of the magnitudes of impacts for a range of possible increases in global average temperature
  • estimates of the magnitudes of impacts caused by altered frequencies and intensities of extreme weather, climate, and sea level events
  • an overview of the current state of knowledge about responding to climate change
Note that the statements made here are categorised according to the level of confidence with which they can be expected to reflect accurate projections ('Very high confidence', 'High confidence', 'Medium confidence').

General overview of future impacts

Fresh water resources and their management

Estimates of the magnitudes of impacts of increased temperatures on fresh water resources and their management (click to enlarge)

By mid-century, annual average river runoff and water availability are projected to increase by 10-40% at high latitudes and in some wet tropical areas, and decrease by 10-30% over some dry regions at mid-latitudes and in the dry tropics, some of which are presently water stressed areas. In some places and in particular seasons, changes differ from these annual figures. ('high'):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Drought-affected areas will likely increase in extent. Heavy precipitation events, which are very likely to increase in frequency, will augment flood risk. ('high')

Adaptation procedures and risk management practices for the water sector are being developed in some countries and regions that have recognised projected hydrological changes with related uncertainties. ('very high')

In the course of the century, water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover are projected to decline, reducing water availability in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges, where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives. ('high')


Estimates of the magnitudes of impacts of increased temperatures on ecosystems (click to enlarge)

The resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change, associated disturbances (e.g., flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, ocean acidification), and other global change drivers (e.g., land use change, pollution, over-exploitation of resources). ('high')

Over the course of this century net carbon uptake by terrestrial ecosystems is likely to peak before midcentury and then weaken or even reverse11, thus amplifying climate change. ('high')

Approximately 20-30% of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5-2.5oC. ('medium')

For increases in global average temperature exceeding 1.5-2.5°C and in concomitant atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, there are projected to be major changes in ecosystem structure and function, species’ ecological interactions, and species’ geographic ranges, with predominantly negative consequences for biodiversity, and ecosystem goods and services e.g., water and food supply. ('high')

The progressive acidification of oceans due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide is expected to have negative impacts on marine shell forming organisms (e.g., corals) and their dependent species. ('medium')

Food, fibre and forest products

Estimates of the magnitudes of impacts of increased temperatures on the production of food, fiber and forest products (click to enlarge)

Crop productivity is projected to increase slightly at mid to high latitudes for local mean temperature increases of up to 1-3°C depending on the crop, and then decrease beyond that in some regions. ('medium')

At lower latitudes, especially seasonally dry and tropical regions, crop productivity is projected to decrease for even small local temperature increases (1-2°C), which would increase risk of hunger. ('medium')

Globally, the potential for food production is projected to increase with increases in local average temperature over a range of 1-3°C, but above this it is projected to decrease. ('medium')

Adaptations such as altered cultivars and planting times allow low and mid- to high latitude cereal yields to be maintained at or above baseline yields for modest warming. ('medium')

Increases in the frequency of droughts and floods are projected to affect local production negatively, especially in subsistence sectors at low latitudes. ('high')

Globally, commercial timber productivity rises modestly with climate change in the short- to medium-term, with large regional variability around the global trend. ('medium')

Regional changes in the distribution and production of particular fish species are expected due to continued warming, with adverse effects projected for aquaculture and fisheries. ('high')

Coastal systems and low-lying areas

Estimates of the magnitudes of impacts of increased temperatures on coastal systems and low-lying areas (click to enlarge)
Coasts are projected to be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion, due to climate change and sea-level rise and the effect will be exacerbated by increasing human-induced pressures on coastal areas. ('very high')

Corals are vulnerable to thermal stress and have low adaptive capacity. Increases in sea surface temperature of about 1 to 3°C are projected to result in more frequent coral bleaching events and widespread mortality, unless there is thermal adaptation or acclimatisation by corals. ('very high')

Coastal wetlands including salt marshes and mangroves are projected to be negatively affected by sea-level rise especially where they are constrained on their landward side, or starved of sediment. ('very high')

Many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rise by the 2080s. Those densely-populated and low-lying areas where adaptive capacity is relatively low, and which already face other challenges such as tropical storms or local coastal subsidence, are especially at risk. The numbers affected will be largest in the mega-deltas of Asia and Africa while small islands are especially vulnerable. ('very high')

Adaptation for coastal regions will be more challenging in developing countries than developed countries due to constraints on adaptive capacity. ('high')

Industry, Settlement and Society

Costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement, and society will vary widely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate. ('high')

The most vulnerable industries, settlements and societies are generally those in coastal and river flood plains, those whose economies are closely linked with climate-sensitive resources, and those in areas prone to extreme weather events, especially where rapid urbanisation is occurring. ('high')

Poor communities can be especially vulnerable, in particular those concentrated in high-risk areas. They tend to have more limited adaptive capacities, and are more dependent on climate-sensitive resources such as local water and food supplies. ('high')

Where extreme weather events become more intense and/or more frequent, the economic and social costs of those events will increase, and these increases will be substantial in the areas most directly affected. Climate change impacts spread from directly impacted areas and sectors to other areas and sectors through extensive and complex linkages. ('high')


Estimates of the magnitudes of impacts of increased temperatures on health (click to enlarge)
Projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people, particularly those with low adaptive capacity, through:

• increases in malnutrition and consequent disorders, with implications for child growth and development;
• increased deaths, disease and injury due to heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts;
• the increased burden of diarrhoeal disease;
• the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground level ozone related to climate change; and,
• the altered spatial distribution of some infectious disease vectors. ('high')

Climate change is expected to have some mixed effects, such as the decrease or increase of the range and transmission potential of malaria in Africa. ('high')

Studies in temperate areas have shown that climate change is projected to bring some benefits, such as fewer deaths from cold exposure. Overall it is expected that these benefits will be outweighed by the negative health effects of rising temperatures world-wide, especially in developing countries. ('high')

The balance of positive and negative health impacts will vary from one location to another, and will alter over time as temperatures continue to rise. Critically important will be factors that directly shape the health of populations such as education, health care, public health prevention and infrastructure and economic development. ('very high')

Impact in the Global South

By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to an increase of water stress due to climate change. If coupled with increased demand, this will adversely affect livelihoods and exacerbate water-related problems. ('high')

Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries and regions is projected to be severely compromised by climate variability and change.

The area suitable for agriculture, the length of growing seasons and yield potential, particularly along the margins of semi-arid and arid areas, are expected to decrease.

This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition in the continent. In some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% by 2020. ('high')

Local food supplies are projected to be negatively affected by decreasing fisheries resources in large lakes due to rising water temperatures, which may be exacerbated by continued over-fishing. ('high')

Towards the end of the 21st century, projected sea-level rise will affect low-lying coastal areas with large populations. The cost of adaptation could amount to at least 5-10% of GDP. Mangroves and coral reefs are projected to be further degraded, with additional consequences for fisheries and tourism. ('high')

New studies confirm that Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate variability and change because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity. Some adaptation to current climate variability is taking place, however, this may be insufficient for future changes in climate. ('high')

Glacier melt in the Himalayas is projected to increase flooding, rock avalanches from destabilised slopes, and affect water resources within the next two to three decades. This will be followed by decreased river flows as the glaciers recede. ('medium')

Freshwater availability in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia particularly in large river basins is projected to decrease due to climate change which, along with population growth and increasing demand arising from higher standards of living, could adversely affect more than a billion people by the 2050s. ('high')

Coastal areas, especially heavily-populated mega-delta regions in South, East and Southeast Asia, will be at greatest risk due to increased flooding from the sea and in some mega-deltas flooding from the rivers. ('high')

Climate change is projected to impinge on sustainable development of most developing countries of Asia as it compounds the pressures on natural resources and the environment associated with rapid urbanisation, industrialisation, and economic development. ('high')

It is projected that crop yields could increase up to 20% in East and Southeast Asia while it could decrease up to 30% in Central and South Asia by the mid-21st century. Taken together and considering the influence of rapid population growth and urbanization, the risk of hunger is projected to remain very high in several developing countries. ('medium')

Endemic morbidity and mortality due to diarrhoeal disease primarily associated with floods and droughts are expected to rise in East, South and Southeast Asia due to projected changes in hydrological cycle associated with global warming. Increases in coastal water temperature would exacerbate the abundance and/or toxicity of cholera in South Asia. ('high')

Latin America
By mid-century, increases in temperature and associated decreases in soil water are projected to lead to gradual replacement of tropical forest by savanna in eastern Amazonia. Semi-arid vegetation will tend to be replaced by arid-land vegetation. There is a risk of significant biodiversity loss through species extinction in many areas of tropical Latin America. ('high')

In drier areas, climate change is expected to lead to salinisation and desertification of agricultural land. Productivity of some important crops are projected to decrease and livestock productivity to decline, with adverse consequences for food security. In temperate zones soybean yields are projected to increase. ('high')

Sea-level rise is projected to cause increased risk of flooding in low-lying areas. ('high')

Increases in sea surface temperature due to climate change are projected to have adverse effects on Mesoamerican coral reefs, and cause shifts in the location of south-east Pacific fish stocks. ('high')

Changes in precipitation patterns and the disappearance of glaciers are projected to significantly affect water availability for human consumption, agriculture and energy generation. ('high')

Some countries have made efforts to adapt, particularly through conservation of key ecosystems, early warning systems, risk management in agriculture, strategies for flood drought and coastal management, and disease surveillance systems. However, the effectiveness of these efforts is outweighed by: lack of basic information, observation and monitoring systems; lack of capacity building and appropriate political, institutional and technological frameworks; low income; and settlements in vulnerable areas, among others. ('high')

Emissions scenarios
In order to understand some of the terminology used in the sections, we present a quick overview of the emission scenarios contained in the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES). These SRES are illustrative marker scenarios for the 2000–2100 period and model experiments with greenhouse gases and aerosol concentrations held constant after year 2000 or 2100.

The Emission Scenarios of the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES)

A1. The A1 storyline and scenario family describes a future world of very rapid economic growth, global population that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, and the rapid introduction of new and more efficient technologies. Major underlying themes are convergence among regions, capacity building and increased cultural and social interactions, with a substantial reduction in regional differences in per capita income. The A1 scenario family develops into three groups that describe alternative directions of technological change in the energy system. The three A1 groups are distinguished by their technological emphasis: fossil intensive (A1FI), non-fossil energy sources (A1T), or a balance across all sources (A1B) (where balanced is defined as not relying too heavily on one particular energy source, on the assumption that similar improvement rates apply to all energy supply and end use technologies).

A2. The A2 storyline and scenario family describes a very heterogeneous world. The underlying theme is self reliance and preservation of local identities. Fertility patterns across regions converge very slowly, which results in continuously increasing population. Economic development is primarily regionally oriented and per capita economic growth and technological change more fragmented and slower than other storylines.

B1. The B1 storyline and scenario family describes a convergent world with the same global population, that peaks in mid-century and declines thereafter, as in the A1 storyline, but with rapid change in economic structures toward a service and information economy, with reductions in material intensity and the introduction of clean and resource efficient technologies. The emphasis is on global solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability, including improved equity, but without additional climate initiatives.

B2. The B2 storyline and scenario family describes a world in which the emphasis is on local solutions to economic, social and environmental sustainability. It is a world with continuously increasing global population, at a rate lower than A2, intermediate levels of economic development, and less rapid and more diverse technological change than in the B1 and A1 storylines. While the scenario is also oriented towards environmental protection and social equity, it focuses on local and regional levels.

An illustrative scenario was chosen for each of the six scenario groups A1B, A1FI, A1T, A2, B1 and B2. All should be considered equally sound.

The SRES scenarios do not include additional climate initiatives, which means that no scenarios are included that explicitly assume implementation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the emissions targets of the Kyoto Protocol.

Estimates of the magnitudes of impacts (of increased temperatures)

Since the IPCC Third Assessment, many additional studies, particularly in regions that previously had been little researched, have enabled a more systematic understanding of how the timing and magnitude of impacts may be affected by changes in climate and sea level associated with differing amounts and rates of change in global average temperature.

Examples of this new information are presented in the following table. Entries have been selected which are judged to be relevant for people and the environment and for which there is high confidence in the assessment. All entries of impact are drawn from chapters of the Assessment, where more detailed information is available.

Depending on circumstances, some of these impacts could be associated with ‘key vulnerabilities’, based on a number of criteria in the literature (magnitude, timing, persistence/reversibility, the potential for adaptation, distributional aspects, likelihood and “importance” of the impacts). Assessment of potential key vulnerabilities is intended to provide information on rates and levels of climate change to help decisionmakers make appropriate responses to the risks of climate change.

The ‘reasons for concern’ identified in the Third Assessment remain a viable framework for considering key vulnerabilities. Recent research has updated some of the findings from the Third Assessment. They are presented in the following Table 1(click to enlarge):

Illustrative examples of global impacts projected for climate changes (and sea-level and atmospheric carbon dioxide where relevant) associated with different amounts of increase in global average surface temperature in the 21st century. The black lines link impacts, dotted arrows indicate impacts continuing with increasing temperature. Entries are placed so that the left hand side of text indicates approximate onset of a given impact. Quantitative entries for water scarcity and flooding represent the additional impacts of climate change relative to the conditions projected across the range of SRES scenarios A1FI, A2, B1 and B2. Adaptation to climate change is not included in these estimations. All entries are from published studies recorded in the chapters of the Assessment. Sources are given in the right hand column of the Table. Confidence levels for all statements are high.

Estimates of the magnitudes of impacts (of altered extreme weather, climate and sea level events)
Since the IPCC Third Assessment, confidence has increased that some weather events and extremes will become more frequent, more widespread and/or more intense during the 21st century; and more is known about the potential effects of such changes. A selection of these is presented in Table 2 (click to enlarge):

Examples of possible impacts of climate change due to changes in extreme weather and climate events, based on projections to the mid to late 21st century. These do not take into account any changes or developments in adaptive capacity. Examples of all entries are to be found in chapters in the full Assessment (see source at top of columns). The first two columns of this table are taken directly from the Working Group I SPM (Table SPM-2). The likelihood estimates in Column 2 relate to the phenomena listed in Column 1. The direction of trend and likelihood of phenomena are for IPCC SRES projections of climate change.

Current knowledge about responding to climate change

Some adaptation is occurring now, to observed and projected future climate change, but on a limited basis
There is growing evidence since the IPCC Third Assessment of human activity to adapt to observed and anticipated climate change. For example, climate change is considered in the design of infrastructure projects such as coastal defence in the Maldives and The Netherlands, and the Confederation Bridge in Canada.

Other examples include prevention of glacial lake outburst flooding in Nepal, and policies and strategies such as water management in Australia and government responses to heat waves in, for example, some European countries.

Adaptation will be necessary to address impacts resulting from the warming which is already unavoidable due to past emissions
Past emissions are estimated to involve some unavoidable warming (about a further 0.6°C by the end of the century) even if atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations remain at 2000 levels (see Working Group I Fourth Assessment). There are some impacts for which adaptation is the only available and appropriate response. An indication of these impacts can be seen in table 1.

A wide array of adaptation options is available, but more extensive adaptation than is currently occurring is required to reduce vulnerability to future climate change.
There are barriers, limits and costs, but these are not fully understood. Impacts are expected to increase with increases in global average temperature, as indicated in Table 1.

Although many early impacts of climate change can be effectively addressed through adaptation, the options for successful adaptation diminish and the associated costs increase with increasing climate change. At present we do not have a clear picture of the limits to adaptation, or the cost, partly because effective adaptation measures are highly dependent on specific, geographical and climate risk factors as well as institutional, political and financial constraints.

The array of potential adaptive responses available to human societies is very large, ranging from purely technological (e.g., sea defences), through behavioural (e.g., altered food and recreational choices) to managerial (e.g., altered farm practices), to policy (e.g., planning regulations).

While most technologies and strategies are known and developed in some countries, the assessed literature does not indicate how effective various options are to fully reduce risks, particularly at higher levels of warming and related impacts, and for vulnerable groups. In addition, there are formidable environmental, economic, informational, social, attitudinal and behavioural barriers to implementation of adaptation. For developing countries, availability of resources and building adaptive capacity are particularly important.

However, adaptation alone is not expected to cope with all the projected effects of climate change, and especially not over the long run as most impacts increase in magnitude Table 1.

Vulnerability to climate change can be exacerbated by the presence of other
Non-climate stresses can increase vulnerability to climate change by reducing resilience and can also reduce adaptive capacity because of resource deployment to competing needs. For example, current stresses on some coral reefs include marine pollution and chemical runoff from agriculture as well as increases in water temperature and ocean acidification. Vulnerable regions face multiple stresses that affect their exposure and sensitivity as well as their capacity to adapt. These stresses arise from, for example, current climate hazards, poverty and unequal access to resources, food insecurity, trends in economic globalisation, conflict, and incidence of disease such as HIV/AIDS.

Adaptation measures are seldom undertaken in response to climate change alone but can be integrated within, for example, water resource management, coastal defence, and disaster planning.

Future vulnerability depends not only on climate change but also on development
An important advance since the IPCC Third Assessment has been the completion of impacts studies for a range of different development pathways taking into account not only projected climate change but also projected social and economic changes. Most have been based on characterisations of population and income level drawn from the IPCC Special Report on Emission Scenarios (SRES).

These studies show that the projected impacts of climate change can vary greatly due to the development pathway assumed. For example, there may be large differences in regional population, income and technological development under alternative scenarios, which are often a strong determinant of the level of vulnerability to climate change.

To illustrate, in a number of recent studies of global impacts of climate change on food supply, risk of coastal flooding and water scarcity, the projected number of people affected is considerably greater under the A2-type scenario of development (characterised by relatively low per capita income and large population growth) than under other SRES futures.

This difference is largely explained, not by differences in changes of climate, but by differences in vulnerability. This difference is largely explained, not by
differences in changes of climate, but by differences in vulnerability. Sustainable development15can reduce vulnerability to climate change, and climate change could impede nations’ abilities to achieve sustainable development pathways.

Sustainable development can reduce vulnerability to climate change by enhancing adaptive capacity and increasing resilience. At present, however, few plans for promoting sustainability have explicitly included either adapting to climate change impacts, or promoting adaptive capacity.

On the other hand, it is very likely that climate change can slow the pace of progress toward sustainable development either directly through increased exposure to adverse impact or indirectly through erosion of the capacity to adapt. This point is clearly demonstrated in the sections of the sectoral and regional chapters of this report that discuss implications for sustainable development.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are one measure of progress towards sustainable development.
Over the next half-century, climate change could impede achievement of the MDGs.
Many impacts can be avoided, reduced or delayed by mitigation. A small number of impact assessments have now been completed for scenarios in which future atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are stabilised. Although these studies do not take full account of uncertainties in projected climate under stabilisation, they nevertheless provide indications of damages avoided or vulnerabilities and risks reduced for different amounts of emissions reduction.

A portfolio of adaptation and mitigation measures can diminish the risks associated with climate change. Even the most stringent mitigation efforts cannot avoid further impacts of climate change in the next few decades, which makes adaptation essential, particularly in addressing near-term impacts. Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.

This suggests the value of a portfolio or mix of strategies that includes mitigation, adaptation, technological development (to enhance both adaptation and mitigation) and research (on climate science, impacts, adaptation and mitigation). Such portfolios could combine policies with incentive-based approaches, and actions at all levels from the individual citizen through to national governments and international organizations.

One way of increasing adaptive capacity is by introducing consideration of climate change impacts in development planning, for example, by:
• including adaptation measures in land-use planning and infrastructure design;
• including measures to reduce vulnerability in existing disaster risk reduction strategies.

Impacts of climate change will vary regionally but, aggregated and discounted to the present, they are very likely to impose net annual costs which will increase over time as global temperatures increase.

This Assessment makes it clear that the impacts of future climate change will be mixed across regions. For increases in global mean temperature of less than 1 to 3oC above 1990 levels, some impacts are projected to produce benefits in some places and some sectors, and produce costs in other places and other sectors . It is, however, projected that some low latitude and polar regions will experience net costs even for small increases in temperature. It is very likely that all regions will experience either declines in net benefits or increases in net costs for increases in temperature greater than about 2 to 3°C. These observations re-confirm evidence reported in the Third Assessment that, while developing countries are expected to experience larger percentage losses, global mean losses could be 1-5% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 4oC of warming.

Many estimates of aggregate net economic costs of damages from climate change across the globe (i.e., the social cost of carbon (SCC), expressed in terms of future net benefits and costs that are discounted to the present) are now available.

Peer-reviewed estimates of the social cost of carbon for 2005 have an average value of US$43 per tonne of carbon (tC) (i.e., US$12 per tonne of carbon dioxide) but the range around this mean is large. For example, in a survey of 100 estimates, the values ran from US$-10 per tonne of carbon (US$-3 per tonne of carbon dioxide) up to US$350/tC (US$130 per tonne of carbon dioxide).

The large ranges of SCC are due in the large part to differences in assumptions regarding climate sensitivity, response lags, the treatment of risk and equity, economic and non-economic impacts, the inclusion of potentially catastrophic losses and discount rates. It is very likely that globally aggregated figures underestimate the damage costs because they cannot include many non-quantifiable impacts. Taken as a whole, the range of published evidence indicates that the net damage costs of climate change are likely to be significant and to increase over time.

It is virtually certain that aggregate estimates of costs mask significant differences in impacts across sectors, regions, countries, and populations. In some locations and amongst some groups of people with high exposure, high sensitivity, and/or low adaptive capacity, net costs will be significantly larger than the global

Working Group II paints a grim picture of the impacts of climate change on humanity as a whole. All people on all continents are likely to be affected in one way or another. The poor in the Global South are set to suffer most because their states will not easily find the means to adapt.

From this Summary we retain the observations that agricultural productivity might be affected positively (yield increases by up to 20%) in East and Southeast Asia while it could decrease by up to 30% in Central and South Asia by the mid-21st century.

Sadly, the Summary remains vague about the exact impact on agricultural poverty in the Sahel - an issue that largely determines the bioenergy production potential in the Sahel. It only says that 'particularly along the margins of semi-arid and arid areas' in Africa, the yield potential and the length of growing seasons is expected to decrease. Sadly, there is no detailed information on which semi-arid areas are the object of the statement (it can be either the Sahelian region or the Southern arid zone, or both). Previous studies indicated that for the Southern arid zone, yields would indeed decrease, but that the Sahel would see increases in precipitation and agricultural productivity. We will have to await the final report to get more details.

The projections on agricultural productivity, on ecosystems and biodiversity in Latin America are grim: by mid-century, increases in temperature and associated decreases in soil water are projected to lead to gradual replacement of tropical forest by savanna in eastern Amazonia. Semi-arid vegetation will tend to be replaced by arid-land vegetation. There is a risk of significant biodiversity loss through species extinction in many areas of tropical Latin America.

In drier areas in Latin-America, climate change is expected to lead to salinisation and desertification of agricultural land. Productivity of some important crops are projected to decrease and livestock productivity to decline, with adverse consequences for food security. In temperate zones soybean yields are projected to increase.

Working Group III will now begin its work on writing the report that analyses mitigation options. It is expected to be accepted, negotiated and approved between April 30 and May 03.

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Carbon capture experiment begins in Germany

Testing officially began in Jaenschwalde in eastern Germany of a system to capture carbon dioxide at power stations, with the Swedish owner, Vattenfall Europe, saying it expects the technology to be practical by 2015. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is seen as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions of large power stations that use fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Vattenfall's experiment is the first attempt in the world to generate power from lignite, or brown coal, with no carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The carbon separation technology used by Vattenfal is based on oxyfuel combustion. Other companies are working on similar technologies for use with hard coal. The result of applying CCS to fossil fuels is an almost carbon-neutral energy system.

Different aspects of CCS need further study though. Scientists have warned against risks like CO2 leakage from the geological formations in which the carbon is supposed to be stored for decades and centuries. However, there is a safer way forward: utilising biofuels with CCS.

Biofuels are already carbon-neutral from the start. By capturing and storing their carbon, the energy system becomes radically carbon-negative. According to some researchers, such systems - called 'Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS) - can take us back to pre-industrial CO2 levels by mid-century. BECS effectively takes CO2 out of the carbon cycle; it cleans up our emissions from the past. BECS is a concept that can mitigate climate change radically. Based on the use of competitive biofuels - biomass or biogas - it relies on fuels that can be physically traded on a global market.

We think policy makers should look at and promote BECS today in order to make CCS safer. The reason is obvious: in a worst-case scenario – the failure of storage and CO2 leakage – the carbon dioxide that would be released would not result in a net increase in emissions (since the CO2 was part of the carbon-neutral biomass in the first place). If leakage were to occur with carbon dioxide originating from fossil fuels, the contrary would be the case. In short, starting CCS trials with biomass is the safest way forward.

Oxyfuel combustion
The largest cost hurdle for CCS to become commercially viable is the phase of capturing the carbon from the fuel. Three basic techniques exist: capturing the carbon before the fuel is burned (pre-combustion capture), after it is combusted (post-combustion capture) or during its power generation (oxyfuel combustion). Vattenfall's pilot system uses the latter technique. In oxyfuel combustion the lignite is burned in oxygen instead of air. This produces a flue gas consisting only carbon dioxide and water vapour, which is cooled and condensed. The result is an almost pure carbon dioxide stream that can be transported to the sequestration site and stored. The technique is promising, but the initial air separation step demands a lot of energy:
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Carbon capture energy costs and technology costs are much lower with biogas in a BECS sytem. The carbon fraction present in anaerobically fermented biogas is high, making pre-combustion separation easier (earlier post).

Vattenfall's Chief executive Klaus Rauscher said the oxyfuel technology would next be used at a pilot plant, a bigger, €60 million (US$80 million) system to be commissioned in May next year at Schwarze Pumpe, near the Polish border. He said the Swedish-owned company would ultimately convert all its power stations to oxyfuel technology. "We aim to turn lignite into power in a climate-friendly way," he said in Jaenschwalde.

Scientists from the German University of Cottbus are jointly working on the tests with Vattenfall engineers. After the test and the pilot systems, Vattenfall would commission a 300 megawatt demonstration system between 2012 and 2015 (image, click to enlarge), Rauscher said, with the first economic CO2-free lignite plant likely to go into operation by 2020.

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India launches nationwide 5% ethanol blend

The Chief Minister of India's Andhra Pradesh state, Dr. YSR Reddy, formally announced the nationwide launch of E5 Blending Programme in Hyderabad. Shri Murli Deora, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas presided over the function which was also attended by several dignitaries including Union Minister of Urban Development Shri S. Jaipal Reddy and Minister State for Petroleum and Natural Gas Shri Dinsha Patel, among others. At the same occasion, a new CNG project aimed at making natural gas available as an automotive fuel was kickstarted.

This initiative is part of the government's commitment to put in place policies to enhance the country's energy security. The launch of the programme marks a significant step in the direction of utilizing alternative renewable and environment friendly sources of energy like ethanol, to supplement the hydro-carbon resources of the country.

The E5 Programme of the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas is primarily based on indigenously produced ethanol from sugarcane molasses which besides augmenting fuel availability in the country, also helps sugarcane growing farmers with better returns. Earlier this week, India's sugar industry announced it could already offer around 1 billion liters of sugarcane derived ethanol to the oil companies who will blend it (earlier post).

To implement the programme nationwide, the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas had earlier notified 20 States and 4 Union Territories to implement E5 Programme with effect from November 1, 2006, leaving aside Jammu and Kashmir, North East Sikkim, Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep where ethanol cannot be made available for logistical reasons. So far, tenders to procure Ethanol from indigenous producers have been finalized in the States of Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Delhi, Jharkhand, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. The state of Andhra Pradesh has been covered first time. E5 is being supplied in Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamilnadu. It is expected that E5 supplies would commence in Bihar and Jharkhand shortly:
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On this occasion, Andhra Pradesh's Chief Minister also laid foundation stone of Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) Saroor Nagar (Hyderabad) Mega Station of Bhagyanagar Gas Limited (BGL), a joint venture of HPCL and GAIL. Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) is a clean and eco-friendly fuel being promoted by Government of India, as an alternative fuel for vehicles. CNG is ideal for use by public transport vehicles in major cities and towns.

In Europe, biogas is mixed into the natural gas grid, and enters CNG fleets. This makes for one of the cleanest automotive fuels available. When used as an auto fuel, CNG brings several benefits which include a reduction in vehicle emissions and pollutants like sulphur, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, benzene, and requiring lower engine maintenance as well as contributing to improved engine life. It also reduces vehicular noise levels.

The City Gas Distribution (CGD) network of BGL would also help supply Piped Natural Gas (PNG) in the city of Hyderabad making available to the residents a highly convenient, cheaper and safer cooking fuel right in their kitchens at a mere turn of the cooking-stove knob.

This endeavour is part of the ambitious target set by Shri Murli Deora for oil industry to connect 20 million households in various cities and towns across different States with the PNG cooking fuel supply. This also requires spreading gas pipeline network in different parts of the country so that the upcoming augmentation of gas availability could be distributed through a well developed gas pipeline grid.

The groundwork for this has been completed with the formulation of Policy on Development of Gas Pipeline and City Gas Distribution projects, enactment of Petroleum and Natural Gas Regulatory Board (PNGRB) Act in April 2006,and the process of constituting PNGR Board being at an advance stage.

It may be recalled that acceleration in exploration and production activities off the Andhra Pradesh coast has resulted in large gas discoveries both by public sector and private companies in the recent past. This will not only give a boost to supply of gas for industries and City Gas Distribution projects in Andhra Pradesh but also in several other parts of the country as gas availability is slated to double from the current level of about 95 million metric standard cubic meters per day (MMSCMD) in coming few years.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

Biofuels and the left - who's right: Lula, Prodi, Castro or Chavez?

Brazil's left-wing president Lula da Silva visits with Bush and signs a biofuel cooperation agreement, saying it will help in the fight against global poverty, increase energy security and help mitigate climate change. Fidel Castro lashes out and accuses Bush of promoting global hunger instead. Brazil replies respectfully that Castro 'doesn't really understand a thing about biofuels'. Senior Eurosocialist Romano Prodi for his part goes to Brazil to sign a pact for joint investments in biofuels in Africa, which, he says, will bring jobs, incomes and food security to some of the world's poorest farmers. Venezuela's supreme revolutionary and petroleum exporter Hugo Chavez meanwhile builds 17 ethanol factories at home, and actively supports the construction of another 11 biofuel plants in... Cuba. At the same time he keeps bashing Bush and cautions his collegue Lula against siding with the U.S. on other policy areas. Mexico, which supposedly already experienced first-hand what Castro described - a biofuel-induced food crisis - has meanwhile sided with Brazil and decided to start a biofuels program of its own...

Clearly, biofuels and their potential effects on energy and food security are issues that divide some of the leading left-wing politicians of this world. They have become the kernel of different ideological views on economic development. The complexities of the debate allow for a wide range of positions, which the leaders do not hesitate to express vividly and with the necessary hyperbole. We try to summarise some of these positions in this article, and present a quick overview in the table (but mind you, this is just a rough interpretation and categorisation, based on public statements).

Besides these most outspoken protagonists, virtually all other South American countries ruled by left-wing governments - Chile, Uruguay, Argentina and Ecuador - have launched green fuel policies and production plans of their own, often presented within a social framework aimed at alleviating rural poverty. They proceed rather discreetly though. (Ecuador's socialist president Rafael Correa signs a biofuel cooperation agreement with Brazil as we write this.) Finally, that symbol of the pragmatic global left - the Chinese Communist Party - adds an interesting perspective on bioenergy, which it stressed during its latest party congress: biofuels offer an opportunity to close the dangerously growing income gap between rural China and its wealthy urban citizens; it can slow down rural-urban migration and strengthen the livelihoods of the country's 600 million poor farmers who will be encouraged to become energy producers provided they stop selling grain and food crops to biofuel producers.

Positions taken in the biofuels debate depend on a chosen set of factors, combined and accentuated to form a particular and unique discourse. It is therefor difficult to answer which one of the left-wing politicians is 'right' and who's 'wrong'? What we can do, though, is look at some of the hidden agendas that shadow their publicly expressed points of view.

But in order to do so, we first need to establish a few basic facts about agriculture, trade, biofuels and energy in the developing world:
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1. the world produces a vast amount of agricultural products, more than enough to feed all people on this planet one and a half times. Still, given this enormous abundance, around 800 million people are chronically under-nourished today. On the other hand, according to the International Association of Agricultural Economists there are more overweight and clinically obese people today than under-nourished people. Obesity is becoming the norm globally and under-nutrition, while still important in several countries and in targeted populations in many others, is no longer the dominant disease. It is important however to ask why countries with a very large agricultural potential suffer chronic food deficits.

2. about half of the more than 80 countries facing periodic or chronic food deficits - the bulk of which can be found in Sub-Saharan Africa - have more than enough suitable agricultural land and the right agro-ecological conditions to feed their own populations several times over. With optimal inputs, countries like Mozambique, the Central African Republic, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola or the Democratic Republic of Congo - all 'food insecure' - should be world leading food exporters.

3. more than 60% of sub-Saharan Africa's population is employed in the agricultural sector. In many countries the percentage of the labor force making a living off the land exceeds 70%:

4. there is a consensus amongst development economists about the main macro-economic reasons for food-insecurity in the developing world. These factors are (randomly ranked): (1) lack of investments in agriculture (sub-Saharan Africa's productivity is 30% of what it should be if standard agricultural techniques, knowledge and skills were utilised), (2) lack of investments infrastructure (primary, secondary and tertiary roads, railroads, ports, harbors - obviously, without these infrastructures, there is no way to bring food to market or to export it and create income) and a lack of access to markets, (3) distorted markets (subsidies, tariffs, non-trade barriers - the Doha Development Round has stalled over this, because the US and the EU are not willing to lift their subsidies); this has turned many developing countries into net food-importers, whereas, from a purely agronomic point of view, they should be food exporters, (4) policy and political factors: political instability, bad governance, corruption, weak institutions and a bad investment climate in general, and (5) energy dependence levels and a lack of access to energy.

5. there is a strict correlation between virtually all the factors determining 'Human Development' (as defined by the UN), and access to low-priced fuels and energy. The lower the access to energy, the lower the availability of basic social services (education, health), the lower access to clean drinking water, the higher food insecurity. In short: fuel and energy are absolutely critical for a nation to develop. Without general access to affordable fuels and energy there is no human development and generalised poverty. (We will be exploring the very clear correlation between the HDI and the EDI - the Energy Development Index - in another piece soon; but see Chapter 9 of the IEA's World Energy Outlook 2004, which is entirely devoted to 'Energy and Development' [*.pdf] and which remains one of the most complete analyses on the importance of energy to development).

6. the economies of oil-importing countries with a high 'energy intensity' - the bulk of which can be found in the developing world - suffer greatly under rising fossil fuel prices; the impact is direct and can be felt in all socio-economic sectors, from agriculture and trade to basic social services provided by the state. In every country studied, the IEA found that a combination of capital, labour and energy contributed more to economic growth than did productivity increases; increased fuel prices directly reduce economic growth, in a very straightforward way. So on this front too, there is a strict correlation: the higher the energy intensity of an economy and its oil import burden, the higher the effect of rising energy prices on fundamental macro-economic factors (such as lower GDP growth, increased inflation, debt burden and deficits). Finally, and most obviously, funds that are spent on imported oil cannot be spent on social development, poverty alleviation or indeed on initiatives aimed at strengthening the food security of people [see the IEA report referred to in point 6].

7. biofuels produced in an explicitly sustainable manner in the tropics and the subtropics - such as ethanol from sorghum, sweet potatoes, sugarcane or cassava - are competitive with petroleum today. Brazilian sugarcane-based ethanol costs between US$35 to US$40 per barrel of oil equivalent energy. In other words, for every barrel of biofuels produced, a developing country's economy can mitigate the disastrous socio-economic effects of high fossil fuel prices considerably.

8. biofuels can be produced in an environmentally sound manner; researchers from the a-political International Energy Agency have determined that sugarcane-based ethanol production in Brazil, as it exists today, is 'largely sustainable'.

9. the IEA's Bioenergy Task 40 - an a-political research group uniting some of the leading researchers in (bio)energy - has determined that from a purely technical perspective, around 750 Exajoules of energy can be produced from biofuels the feedstocks of which are grown in the developing world; and this in an explicitly sustainable manner, that is, without destroying any tropical rainforest or established biodiversity hotspots and without threatening the food security of (rapidly) growing populations (earlier post). In short, the technical potential is there; the way this potential is exploited is another matter.

10. another IEA Bioenergy study shows that if the most stringent and complete set of social and environmental sustainability criteria were adopted for biofuels, production costs would only increase marginally (or alternatively the potential would decrease only slightly) - we reviewed this research elsewhere.

Complexity allows different points of view
These are neutral, objective facts. The reader can think of ways to combine them and make up his mind about the challenges, risks, potential advantages and disadvantages associated with biofuels within this context.
Obviously, there are also facts that are not essential to the production of biofuels per se, but that do say a lot about our current economic system and the pressures it exerts on the environment and on the social relations between the poor and the wealthy. Facts like: the destruction of rainforests for palm plantations in South-East Asia, or the fact that sugarcane cutters in Brazil only receive minimum wages and are faced with the grim choice of doing hard, temporary work on a plantation or ending up in even greater poverty in the favelas of the mega-cities. There is also the fact of Brazil's Social Fuel policy, which tackles the problem of a lack of social sustainability in a way that seems to work quite well...

With these basics in mind, biofuels can obviously go many different ways. They can be produced in a sustainable or in a totally unsustainable but highly profitable manner; they can benefit millions of farmers when they are allowed to become energy farmers, or push them out of the market; they can benefit the world's poor (because access to mobility and energy is crucial for development); they can mitigate climate change like no other technology (e.g. in carbon negative energy systems), or they can add to the problem (e.g. when carbon sinks such as rainforests are logged or peatlands damaged to make way for biofuel crops); they can push back environmental degradation and save biodiversity, or destroy it; they can make the poorest economies independent of the high oil prices that devastate them so much...

This complexity and the diversity of possible outcomes is responsible for the confusion about the potential benefits and disadvantages of biofuels and for the way the left-wing politicians mentioned earlier position themselves. Depending on which factors they highlight, they can bring a largely positive story about the opportunities brought by biofuels, or they can paint a dark, threatening situation.

The following is an overview of the different actor's positions. We limit ourselves to describing the views of the four protagonists presented in the table.

The Brazilian government, and president Lula in particular, stress the opportunity biofuels bring to (1) stimulate energy independence, (2) fight climate change, (3) alleviate poverty, especially in developing countries with large rural populations and high oil import bills, (4) protect biodiversity and ecosystem survival on a massive scale (the use of efficient and sustainable biofuels is one of the most effective strategies of rapidly reducing climate change, as it can be implemented on a large scale, both in the power generation and transport sectors, without too much added costs and while still allowing economic growth; pragmatically speaking, not using biofuels results in more greenhouse gas emissions, with potentially disastrous effects on biodiversity and the global environment).

In order to achieve the rapid spread of biofuels across the world and to create a truly global market, cooperation with large consumers and producers (such as the US and the EU) is needed. Brazil intends to lead a revolution in the Global South, by providing developing countries access to its expertise, knowledge and technologies. To this aim, Brazil recently created an Africa office, led by the country's main agricultural research organisation, Embrapa.

Brazil stresses that there is no shortage of land, neither in Brazil itself nor in the developing countries it aims to partner with. It estimates that in Brazil alone, a total of 330 million hectares suitable for energy crops are available, of which some 150 million hectares are former pastures that need reconversion. The country currently utilises less than 6 million hectares of land for the production of ethanol. Sugarcane does not grow in rainforest soils.

The government of Venezuela takes an ambiguous approach towards biofuels. On the one hand the fifth largest oil exporting country is seriously investing in biofuels itself and recently announced it would be building 17 ethanol plants and establish energy plantations across the country, as a way to provide employment to the rural poor. The country also signed a biofuels cooperation pact with Cuba aimed at strengthening energy independence and self-reliance. The deal focuses on the construction of 11 ethanol plants that will make use of Cuba's revived sugarcane industry.

Last year, during a visit to Malaysia, president Hugo Chavez invited Malaysian palm oil companies looking for land to come to Venezuela to establish plantations. He said his country has a large amount of 'excess' land suitable for palm oil, and that it is available to his Asian 'friends' in case they cannot expand in their own country.

Analysts think Chavez's constantly changing position on biofuels, and his criticism of Lula's agreement with the US, can be explained in part by his fear that the US has found a way to negate his attempts to become the dominant political force in South America. The alliance with Brazil effectively weakens Chavez's position and reduces the effectiveness of his use of Venezuela's oil resources as a political weapon. On the other hand, the amount of petroleum that can be replaced by biofuels in the immediate future is marginal, so Chavez doesn't really have to fear losing his grip on his partial control of America's oil supplies. For this reason, the American argument that the green alliance with Brazil side-steps Chavez's influence remains largely symbolical.

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi recently visited Brazil and announced a cooperation agreement to stimulate biofuel expansion in Africa. Two countries were named as first candidates: Angola and Mozambique, which both have a very large sustainable biofuels potential. The motivation is largely similar to that of the Brazilian government's initiatives in Africa: biofuels offer an opportunity to revive, modernise and strengthen the agricultural sector, which employs most of the country's people (the percentage of Mozambique's and Angola's labor force making a living off the land is 81% and 85% respectively). Both countries are still recovering from civil conflict, that ruined their once thriving agricultural sector and the infrastructures that allowed the distribution of agricultural products. From this strengthened agriculture comes rural development, increased food security, access to energy and a new development paradigm. That is the idea. Direct foreign investments provide the capital, Brazilian biofuels expertise the knowledge and the technologies.

Prodi publicly stated that Italy can never free enough arable land to satisfy its own growing thirst for biofuels. Thus its proposition for Africa is at least in part purely opportunistic: to import cheap biofuels from the South, in order to meet the EU's targets in an easy way.

Moreover, the agent who will actively implement Italy's initiative in Africa is ENI, the oil company in which the Italian state holds the majority. ENI is Italy's largest industrial company, but it has been experiencing great problems with its petroleum production activities in Nigeria. For this reason it is exploring new markets in Africa, the last petroleum frontier. Biofuels and the arguments used by ENI to promote them, might be nothing more than window-dressing, even though the oil company has forged its Africa-centered alliance with Petrobras, Brazil's state-run oil company.

Of Petrobras one can be relatively sure that it is serious about promoting biofuels for the sake of biofuels. After all, Petrobras is the company that made Brazil's green revolution happen; it is also actively engaged in promoting Brazil's Social Fuel policy, which ensures biofuels are produced in a socially sustainable way and help lift the rural poor out of poverty.

In two columns, President Fidel Castro has lashed out at President Bush and the ethanol agreement with Brazil. He accuses the American president (but not his Brazilian counterpart) of promoting hunger on a global scale. Brazil has meanwhile responded, saying that Castro's criticisms are very old, have been debunked long ago, and show a deep lack of understanding of what biofuels are about.

Castro's position and the use of the hunger-metaphor must be read as an attack against an economic paradigm that, indeed, has led to a concentration of power and capital, particularly in the agricultural sector. He fears that this model might be replicated in the area of biofuels. In this he does have a point: large multinationals have succeeded in dominating the ethanol industry in Brazil and have pushed small farmers off the land.

But his hyperbole that biofuels automatically lead to increased food shortages is a myth that has no basis in development economics. Biofuels allow a particular group of countries - like Cuba - to mitigate some of the devastating effects of increased energy prices. High oil prices impact food production, trade and the economy at large. Fidel Castro knows this better than anyone else, given his experience with the chronic and dramatic fuel shortages that came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which supplied Cuba with all the oil it needed. This episode brought Cuba's economy to a standstill; shrinking energy supplies were the single biggest factor causing this disaster.

This last point is important, because it has pushed Fidel Castro himself to promote biofuels in Cuba - and not in a particularly marginal way. The island state used to be a major sugar producer, but again, with the USSR gone, the agricultural sector and Cuba's sugar exports collapsed. Today, the Cuban government is extatic about the opportunities biofuels offer to revive the sector and help solve its energy insecurity problem at the same time.

As said earlier, Cuba signed a biofuel cooperation agreement with Venezuela, that will result in the construction of not less than 11 ethanol plants. No doubt, Cuba's biofuels are more innocent that those made in other countries...

Castro has to play his role as symbolic whip. The dictator embodies a critical discourse on globalisation that is legitimate and welcome as it cautions against the dangers inherent in uncontrolled capitalism. Biofuels and the way they are produced are not immune to this danger. But they are not automatically or necessarily the code-word of the laissez-faire capitalism that fuels inequality across the globe. The can fit perfectly into a left-wing paradigm about energy and development. Brazil is making the point.

To conclude this brief panorama of the way the left-wing is divided over biofuels, we wish to present the following, simplified illustration of how bioenergy can be the sign of a new era in which more equality, less poverty, energy access for all and sustainable development go hand in hand. Since we are walking in the minefield of ideology anyways, the reader will forgive us the binary, antagonistic and mildly propagandistic representation:

The Biopact team - explicitly built around the idea that promoting biofuels can open a bright green and somewhat reddish world in the Global South.

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Inter-American Development Bank to invest US$3 billion into biofuels

Calling biofuels a "“transformative opportunity" for Latin America and the Caribbean, Inter American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno detailed a broad pipeline of investment projects and technical assistance programs designed to help the region's countries reach renewable energy targets in a sustainable way.

"Biofuels could bring investment, development and jobs to rural areas with high levels of poverty, while reducing dependence on imported fossil fuels" in several IDB member countries, Moreno said at a briefing at IDB headquarters organized by the Interamerican Ethanol Commission. "In this respect, we think biofuels can further our core mission, which is to bring economic opportunity and a better quality of life to the region’s low-income majority."

Moreno cautioned against unrealistic expectations regarding biofuels. He said the IDB is closely examining questions regarding cost, subsidies, labor conditions and the impact of biofuels on land use and food production.

Given the varied needs and potential of the region's countries, Moreno said the IDB is taking a "deliberately flexible" approach in its biofuels work program. In Brazil, the world leader in biofuels, the Bank is focusing on leveraging private sector investments to expand production capacity.

Moreno said the IDB's Private Sector Department is structuring senior debt financing for three Brazilian ethanol production projects that will have a total cost of $570 million. The department's Brazil pipeline also includes loans for five biofuel transactions or projects with biofuel components that will have a total cost of nearly $2 billion. These investments will contribute to Brazil's goal of tripling annual ethanol production by 2020, according to Moreno.

Technology transfers

The IDB is also eager to support the Brazilian government's goal of becoming a global center of excellence for research and development in biofuels, Moreno said. The Bank is holding discussions with senior Brazilian officials with a view to facilitating technology transfer and technical assistance, so that other countries in the region can benefit from Brazilian know-how:
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Moreno said the Bank is offering a different set of services to countries like Colombia, Costa Rica and El Salvador that have been producing and exporting biofuels on a small scale for several years. In Colombia, the Bank's Inter-American Investment Corporation is considering financing for a $20 million palm-based biodiesel enterprise that will eventually produce up to 100,000 tons of fuel per year.

In Costa Rica and El Salvador, the IDB is financing feasibility studies and technical assistance in areas such as regulation, market development and public education, to help both governments reach their target of replacing 10 percent of domestic gasoline consumption with ethanol.

Recognizing that climate and soil conditions in many rural areas are not ideal for large-scale biofuel production, Moreno said the IDB is also supporting small-scale projects such as biodiesel based on low-input oilseed plants that are already widely cultivated in the region. "These projects could provide an affordable source of fuel to isolated rural communities, while creating a new source of revenue for subsistence farmers," Moreno said.

Green energy lending program
To reflect this diverse reality, Moreno said the Banks' private sector department is preparing a green energy-lending program that will provide at least $300 million in lending and technical assistance for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects throughout the region—with an emphasis on small-scale investments.

Moreno said the IDB has also been financing technical meetings of the Mesoamerican Biofuels Working Group, made up of representatives from Central American and Caribbean governments that are expected to announce a regional biofuels initiative in the coming weeks.

The Interamerican Ethanol Commission is a private sector group cochaired by Moreno, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Roberto Rodrigues, president of Superior Council of Agribusiness of the Sao Paulo State Federation of Industries. It was formed last year as a forum for disseminating information about ethanol, facilitating private investment in biofuels, and promoting the creation of a hemispheric market in biofuels. At the briefing, Moreno described the private sector as a "crucial partner" in the Bank's biofuels strategy, and he invited questions from the audience, which included 250 representatives of business, government, the research community and the media.

In addition to speeches by Moreno, Bush and Rodrigues, the briefing included a first-look presentation of "A Blueprint for Green Energy in the Americas," a comprehensive study of biofuels markets through 2020 commissioned by the IDB and carried out by Garten Rothkopf, an independent consultancy. The study, which surveys the development of biofuels in 50 countries worldwide and the trends shaping markets, policies, regulations, investment and growth, offers strategic recommendations for building and maintaining competitive biofuels industries in the region.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

A closer look at Social Impact Assessments of large biofuel projects

Our bioenergy future will rely on large-scale energy farming. Many of the projects will be located in the Global South where they are set to have both positive, negative and ambiguous impacts on the environment as well as on the socio-economic fabric of the communities that host them.

Whenever large infrastructure and development interventions are carried out - from the construction of dams and pipelines to mining projects or indeed the establishment of biofuel plantations - it is absolutely critical to assess these potential impacts thoroughly before the project is implemented. Failure to do so may result in unwanted and irreversible consequences that threaten the viability of the project over the long-term.

Traditionally, so-called 'Environmental Impact Assessments' (EIA) are undertaken to this aim. The relationship that is analysed in such studies is one of human interventions versus natural ecosystems. But of course, nature and ecology aren't mere inanimate systems, they are social constructs too, imagined, lived, valued and actively used by people and communities. For this reason, 'Social Impact Assessments' (SIA) are now seen as equally, if not more important than EIAs. After all, even if a large project is predicted to have low environmental impacts, it may still fail because of direct social resistance or because of unintended socio-economic changes and perceptions.

Broadly defined, SIA includes the processes of analysing, monitoring and managing the intended and unintended social and cultural consequences, both positive and negative, of planned interventions (policies, programs, plans, projects) and any social change processes invoked by those interventions. Its primary purpose is to bring about a more sustainable and equitable biophysical and human environment. SIAs form the basis of further investment decisions and public policies.

A substantial academic literature has developed around the techniques and the application of SIA, and it is widely taught and practiced. SIA differs from 'monitoring and evaluating' (M&E), in that it typically takes place before a project is implemented. SIA experts have diverse academic backgrounds but most often they include anthropology, applied sociology, geography, development studies, and planning. Companies, investors and governments alike have come to understand that SIA is a cost-effective method of mitigating risks. For this reason, the analysis has become an integral part of the planning stage of large-scale projects (EIAs are integrated with SIAs into ESIAs).

So what would a SIA look like in the context of bioenergy projects? And what is the breadth of such a study? We have an interesting example written by experts from the United Nations Development Program for Stora Enso, a major Finnish forestry company that has entered the biomass industry, and that wants to establish a large (120,000 ha) Eucalyptus plantation project in Guanxi, southern China. At its peak, the project is expected to affect over 650,000 people or 130,000 households. Obviously, with projects of this scale, an in-depth SIA is no luxury:
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SIA and EIA experts from the UNDP's China office were called on to write a thorough ESIA report that presents a prototypical analysis of the potential impacts. It is the first such study ever carried out in China's plantation sector. Even though Stora Enso's plantation project is aimed at producing wood pulp for the paper industry, the basic analyses are roughly the same for large-scale, plantation-based bioenerrgy projects. The ESIA offers several recommendations that, if implemented, could address and mitigate the challenges that can be expected to occur once the project is implemented.

The ESIA must be situated within the broader context of China's development strategy:
The People's Republic's accelerated growth has raised new challenges such as increasing income gaps among people and environmental degradation. The links between human well-being and threats to the ecosystem are complex. Environmental sustainability is a major concern in China and is itself exacerbated by poverty.
The current fragility of China’s ecosystems may well pose serious challenges to sustaining high levels of growth into the first decades of the 21st century. In response to such challenges, China’s new development policy in 2002 called for building a 'well-off society' ('Xiaokang') in an 'all around way' by 2020. This vision for China’s future is very much in line
with the historic compact of the Millennium Declaration and its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000.

In March 2004, the National People’s Congress of China adopted a scientific concept of development around five balances: (1) balancing urban and rural development, (2) balancing development across regions, (3) balancing economic and social development, (4) balancing development of man and nature, and (5) balancing domestic development and opening up to the outside world.

Within this framework, large-scale development projects cannot do without a thorough SIA and EIA analysis. In this piece, we focus on the UNDP's SIA only, because EIAs are more standardized and deal with relatively easily measurable phenomena (such as the analysis of effects on soil, water, biodiversity, pests, and so on). However, in practise, both kinds of analysis are often inseparable (the UNDP's report clearly demonstrates this, as it is divided into three parts: (1) EIA, (2) SIA, and (3) the integration of the two.)

The social assessment used two main methods: (1) an extensive questionnaire-based survey of stakeholders and (2) in-depth interviews of stakeholders conducted by an expert team of ethnographers and sociologists at provincial, county, and community levels. The integrated social-environmental analysis consisted of three main components: (1) analysis of affected communities’ concerns about environmental impacts of eucalypt plantation (based on the social survey), (2) a cost-benefit analysis, and (3) scenario analysis. For the cost-benefit analysis, a simplified matrix of potential beneficial and adverse impacts was developed. The scenario analysis presents two scenarios: (a) with Stora Enso and (b) without Stora Enso. It then evaluates each of these scenarios at the national, provincial, and local levels.

At its anticipated peak of operation, the project would affect over 130,000 households in land leasing alone. This presents income-generating potential for those choosing to lease out their land, which could bring significant improvements in livelihood. The degree to which households benefit depends, in large part, on the contractual terms of that leasing arrangement and alternative land lease options available to them. In terms of employment, as many as 30,000 individuals will gain income-generating work opportunities.

Some of these will be local residents, others will be migrant laborers coming to Guangxi to look for work. The team did not discover any major “show-stoppers” or social or environmental disasters in-the-making having the potential to jeopardize Stora Enso operations in Guangxi. The ESIA, however, did find major challenges in the social dimensions, while environmental impacts are much more related to plantation operations and therefore can be mitigated through rigorous and disciplined management.


Need for communication and social engagement
Stora Enso’s plantation program directly involves more than 10 different types of local affected groups (e.g. farmers renting land, migrant labour, state farm staff, etc). When functioning fully it will affect a population on the order of 650,000 people in 130,000 households through land rental alone. While offering potential income opportunities, especially on formerly unproductive wasteland or slopeland, this project also offers substantial challenges in engaging and communicating effectively.

Poor initial engagement with affected communities could present considerable risks to Stora Enso’s plantation business. Should communities refuse to rent land, or offer labour or, in the worst case, prevent Stora Enso from conducting its legitimate operations through civil disobedience, the business attraction of the Guangxi project will be diminished.

Information Flow and Gap
A critical need exists to improve the flow of information from the company to its "village rental" and other stakeholders and to ensure greater transparency in the process. A striking finding of the survey is that stakeholders have a strong desire for information on the company and its plantation project.

Survey results also show that while stakeholders do have some information on the project, they rarely get it directly from Stora Enso. Information relating to land rental must reach those who use the land, not simply village and community leaders.

Although the scientific review and expert testimonies conducted do not suggest negative environmental impacts, the large scale survey and expert fieldwork found that people appear genuinely worried about the environmental impacts of eucalypt on human, animals, crops, soil, and water. Local communities and households should be given the information they need to alleviate their fears. In addition, some of the ecological concerns voiced may actually have been a means of indirectly expressing overall dissatisfaction with the rental, in which case the roots of this dissatisfaction (e.g rental terms, participation, etc., as discussed elsewhere) must be addressed.

Land Rental Decision Making Process
In terms of village land use rights, land rental in village areas includes both private and collective land. The ESIA found participation in the decision to rent collective land to be weak. The majority of project village households surveyed indicate a small group of people had represented their community in making the collective rental decision, while only about 30 percent indicated that the collective had followed the legal procedure of at least two-thirds vote for the decision of collective land rental. Some village households renting private land also expressed a feeling of not having been given a choice in the matter.

These results are likely linked much more closely to the traditional practices of public decision-making in the areas involved than to any special characteristics of Stora Enso’s project. While it would be difficult and inappropriate for Stora Enso to attempt to directly influence the collective decision-making process, both the company and the government should make greater efforts to ensure that private land rental is in all cases fully voluntary and transparent.

Generally, findings suggest that farmers have made a rational choice to rent out their land, despite the possibly lower income per mu relative to other options, because of certain constraints such as the financial strength, know-how, and economies of scale needed to develop the alternatives. Farmers, however, lack an advocate in the rental process to help them make decisions and consider the longer-term implications. Also, while findings do not indicate that middle-persons (either those that “introduce” rental opportunities to the company or those that rent land from others and then re-rent to the company) benefit excessively from their role, there is a need to monitor their benefits.

Ideally, given increasing divisions (in terms of income) in rural China, Stora Enso would cooperate directly, to the extent possible, with those renting out their land, so as not to promote such divisions.

The ESIA team also revealed that dissatisfaction with the rental process on collective land could originate not in actions made by the company, but in the decisions over whether or not to rent collective land and how collective rental income is spent. In contrast to findings on private land rental, in which households are indeed the final decision-makers, the analysis found participation in decisions over community land to be weak. These decisions are made completely separate from the company, and separate to the company’s lease terms, but might influence overall impression of the company and the desire to lease land in the future. This conflict is best resolved at the local village level, but could be moved along with support and encouragement from the company given the stake that all entities have in making land leasing a win-win situation.

Stora Enso also rents land from state forest farms. Results indicate that state farm staff in project areas, as a group, do not strongly support land rental to Stora Enso, are not involved in the decision (though their involvement is not legally required) to rent, and are not very aware of rental terms. Interestingly, however, 83% of state farm households who participate in work on Stora Enso plantations and who responded to the surveys revealed that their annual cash income had increased by 2872.2 yuan. Findings suggest a need to explore further the issue of participation of state farm workers in rental decisions or at least ensure they are informed and benefit from the rental.

Results suggest the poorest in the community still depend on fuelwood collected from collective and private use forest land. Fieldwork uncovered perceptions that these people will be denied access to fallen woody branches or woody harvesting residues in areas under Stora Enso’s management. Discussions with Stora Enso managers suggest that, while the company wishes to keep leaf and bark residues on site for soil protection, nutrient recycling, and water conservation, it is willing to allow collection of fallen woody branches and woody harvesting residues for fuelwood. This important message has not yet reached the affected people.

Records of Village Stakeholders
Accessible records of village stakeholders will be an important tool for the company as it strengthens its contacts with village and community stakeholders. Computer-based systems will be very useful and the company should upgrade its information systems to accommodate a database including, to the extent possible, the name, location, and nature of rental of each and every household involved in the project. The database might also keep a record of company liaison with and information flow to each of these households.

Perceptions of Slowness
Some villagers are concerned about Stora Enso being "slow" to develop the land. They worry they will not receive rental payments. Particularly, when Stora Enso does not develop the land for some time after rental, their concerns tend to grow. Findings indicate that in some cases rental payments have been delayed because of slowness in determining exact land area and borders, while, these issues are not unique to Stora Enso, and are typical of land boundary issues in rural China.

Employment, minority populations, gender perspective
Stora Enso plantation work presents an opportunity near to home for those locals that do not wish to outmigrate, though may not offer as many months per year of work as out-migration. Across survey groups, results indicate that respondents are not dissatisfied with their working conditions as compared to the alternatives, but nor do they believe their working conditions are particularly good compared to other options.

Employment Opportunities
Full-scale plantation employment generation once operations have reached steady state is estimated to be between 12,400 and 14,400 full-time jobs. A rough industry standard for all direct and indirect jobs, both related to plantations and the pulp mill itself and based on the scale of the planned mill, is 30,000 to 35,000 full-time jobs.

Work Contracts, Wage, Emergency Services, and other Employment Issues
The survey and expert fieldwork indicate that most employment on Stora Enso plantations (handled by contractors that develop the plantations for Stora Enso) is in compliance with local labor regulations and that serious employment problems have not emerged. Yet, there are a number of key areas with regard to employment that Stora Enso may wish to be aware of. First, contractors rarely have formal written contracts with the workers that they employ and have verbal agreements instead.

According to officials at the Guangxi Labor Bureau, if work is both for over three months and for 30 or more hours per week, then, contractors should be providing work contracts. Based on wage rates quoted in fieldwork, the minimum wage level set by the Labor Bureau is in most cases being met by Stora Enso contractors. Labor disputes have not become an important issue for workers involved in Stora Enso plantation development, though Stora Enso should be aware that such disputes do occur in the plantation contracting business. Serious on the job health and safety problems are uncommon among those working on Stora Enso's Guangxi plantations, though one important issue identified in the field is workers' lack of access to emergency services for cases such as urgent illness, injury, or exposure to natural disasters.

Lacking permanent local accommodation, most migrants live in simple work sheds or tents near the work site. Living conditions, while typical for this type of work, are poor.

Overall, work opportunities on the company's plantations do not appear to be higher for women than for men. Women, however, may appreciate the benefits from the project for different reasons: Some women, particularly those with children, do not want to out-migrate for work and appreciate the flexibility of plantation opportunities.

Also, through increased income, their role in decision making is strengthened. A negative impact of involvement on women would be higher work burdens, as most women will still have to perform their traditional household and agricultural activities in addition to their newly found work.

Ethnic Minorities
The proportion of minorities involved in village land rental to Stora Enso is small, but the counties and districts in which Stora Enso currently leases village land or may lease village land in the future have a minority population of about one million, or about nine percent of the total population of these areas. The main minorities in current and future Stora Enso village project areas are Zhuang, Yao, and Jing.

Minorities appear to be much more prevalent among migrant workers on Stora Enso plantations than among land renters. The ESIA team discovered well-integrated relations between Han and minorities.

Poor Households
The large role of migrant labour in the project and the significant proportion of migrants from Northwest Guangxi imply the project areas not to be the poorest within Guangxi. Guangxi has 4,060 "poverty villages." From 2005 to 2010, the province plans to conduct a poverty alleviation program for all these villages in three phases. The first phase will include 1,731 villages. Altogether, there are a total of 150 of these phase one "poverty villages" in the Stora Enso areas, making up about nine percent of phase one poverty alleviation targets.

Poorer households may be more willing to rent land to Stora Enso than others for reasons of: lacking financial resources to invest in their land, insufficient household labor to work on their land, urgent capital requirements for a particular reason, or desire to use the rental money as core investment for shifting themselves out of poverty. Thus, this group deserves special attention from Stora Enso.

Natural and cultural heritage
No major structures or sites of natural or cultural heritage significance were identified in the project area. Tombs and burial sites within plantations are believed a common issue to be addressed. While during the field visits and discussions with field managers and villagers, the team did not observe any evidence of conflicts on such an issue. It is believed, future graves can be an issue.


Local development needs
The ESIA team analysed the most important development needs of the surveyed groups, and used those findings to make recommendations to Stora Enso on how it can integrate its plantation into the local socio-economic fabric so that it addresses these needs and contributes to satisfying them.

The main needs of the local populations were found to be: irrigation, roads, medical services and drinking water.

These priorities provide indications to how Stora Enso might integrate its plantations (e.g. through road development) or non-project development work (e.g. work in healthcare, irrigation, or drinking water) to address the most pressing community development needs.

Results further indicated that interest in getting a loan is high among affected groups in project areas and higher than the proportion that believe they can get a loan through existing channels.

Health Services and Education
Health services and education are priorities for large proportions of project area respondents. The improvement of community medical services could be integrated into Stora Enso's corporate policy for its field workers’ health and safety. Education is also a sector in which needs in the area are strong and which is conducive to development projects.

Rural Tele-centres
While village respondents put a low priority (among other options) on telecommunications and the internet, an idea that would combine the company's needs to communicate with stakeholders with a development project is village tele-centres. The concept would call for the installation of a computer with internet connection (when possible) in project area natural villages. Villagers could use the centre to access information on Stora Enso, communicate with the company, and view materials on eucalypt plantations. Meanwhile, these centers could also function as a social gathering venue for entertainment, market information for their household agricultural and other products, information on employment opportunities, etc.

Small-scale Eucalypt Plantations
The survey and fieldwork indicate that some local people would like to develop their own eucalypt plantations, but lack the necessary funding, knowledge, and technology.

Development Initiatives in Migrant Communities of Origin
Stora Enso may also wish to consider a non-profit development initiative in migrant villages of origin, keeping in mind their top-reported priorities of roads, water supply, medical services, and housing.


Awareness Campaign, Participation and Engagement with Society
The SIA team identified as top priority for communications work that:

• The company should strengthen its communication practices with local communities and seek expert advice on means through which more effective and transparent flow of information to all levels of affected communities can be achieved.
• The company should address, as a matter of urgency, issues surrounding clarity and transparency of rental agreements, fuelwood collection, and community perceptions of slowness. As a specific module in its communication program, the company (and its Government supporters) should not leave the eucalypt rumors within the communities unaddressed. Brochures, field demonstrations, and face to face meetings with concerned communities should all be a part of a program that seeks to reinforce the environmental credentials of the eucalypt program. Many problems in communication and lack of participation stem from the actual rental process itself, one that operates within already established local power frameworks that exist largely independent of Stora Enso, While recognizing this, relationships created between the company representatives, middlemen, decision makers in collectives, local government, and laborers also influence the degree to which households can benefit from new opportunities, on the one hand, or avoid negative impacts of the project on the other. In this light, the company may also wish to employ a number of additional means to support better awareness and participation, such as:
• Maintaining a greater presence of national and foreign staff in the field to help explain the project directly to people.
• Development of peer support groups within villages.
• Establishment and support for forest plantation associations, which include land users and managers, contractors, and other stakeholders.
• Expansion of the functions of the company’s Hotline.
• A strengthened schools' program and additions to the curricula.
• Development of tele-centres (web-based information systems) as a part of the school computer program or general village out-reach.
• Regular excursions organized for local communities to plantation sites. In the longer term, an annual opportunity to visit the pulp mill.
• Introduction of communications approaches with sensitivity for gender, ethnicity, and poverty.

There is a difference between what is legally acceptable for establishment of plantations in rural Guangxi and the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) principles of Stora Enso. To maintain a position as an employer of choice for plantation workers in southern Guangxi, Stora Enso should offer a safe and healthy work environment. The following recommendations are offered:

• Stora Enso provides clear guidelines for minimum working conditions and wages to its contractors, and makes these publicly available to the local communities and migrant workers.
• A comprehensive monitoring system is introduced for contractors to ensure that the legal requirements for minimum wages are met and that they follow corporate guidelines.
• The company works with contractors to improve the living conditions of migrant workers, taking into consideration supply of minimum standard temporary accommodation and drinking water.
• Whilst migrant relationships with local communities are wider problems best dealt with by local governments, Stora Enso sets an example through encouragement of its staff to treat migrants well through a corporate culture that encourages respect.
• The company, in consultation with local authorities, develops processes to resolve labor disputes should these arise (especially important given the general absence of written labor contracts between workers and the contractors).

Development Initiatives
Stora Enso has expressed an interest in continuing to pursue development projects in affected communities. Stora Enso is not a specialized development agency itself. At the same time, in the spirit of Public Private Partnership, Stora Enso may consider cooperating with and engaging international and national development agencies, government institutions, and NGOs to meet priority needs of social and environmental development in its project areas.

The ESIA results indicate that top development priorities of stakeholders in village areas are irrigation, roads, medical services, and drinking water, while for forest farm communities these are medical services, roads, provision for the aged, and improvement of living environment. Education is also an important area for a large proportion of respondents in both groups.

A social development fund could be conceived as an umbrella mechanism to meet these above priorities of development needs of the project communities.


Whilst the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment of Stora Enso’s eucalypt plantation project in Guangxi has an obvious focus upon the company’s operations, other needs were identified during the fieldwork and surveys. Three such needs which deserve attention from Government administrations are:

Revenues and Tax
The study has demonstrated that the Stora Enso project will deliver substantial revenues through taxes, fees, levies and other administrative imposts from local governments. The current ESIA analysis could not identify actual future allocation and expenditure of such tax and revenues. In particular, it is unclear how large a proportion of government revenues from the project will be returned to the plantation
communities for environmental and social needs. It is critical that the investment will directly generate sound social and environmental results, while pro-poor redistribution of the tax revenue is fundamentally important for equity and quality service delivery to vulnerable groups and communities.

In the past, a significant part of the mill door delivered cost of wood in Guangxi was taxes and fees. While these have been reduced substantially, there is still some lack of clarity with regard to taxes and fees. Earlier studies in Guangxi in 2003 identified some 30 different taxes, fees, government charges, and other levies, which were due between harvesting and delivery to the mill gate. In Jiangxi, similar studies have identified some 14 “unofficial forestry fees” imposed by county, prefecture, township and village administrations. Whilst these taxes could potentially benefit the broader community, they have in the past also acted as a serious disincentive to growers of commercially grown wood and successful and competitive wood processors. The issues surrounding tax on commercially grown eucalypt wood in Guangxi are far from clear and there is a pressing responsibility for Governments and administrations at all levels to provide clear and unambiguous rulings.

Advocacy for Viable Land Use Options
As do most plantation companies, Stora Enso disseminates information about the benefits of plantation forestry as a viable land use alternative. Following government priorities to promote the plantation industry, the provincial government and administrations at city, county and collective levels also disseminate information that is pro-plantation. The ESIA study could not identify any source of impartial advice for farmers and communities wishing to assess and discuss land-use options for their private and community lands. The benefits of impartial, third-party information include better-informed land-users with a greater commitment to the land-use choice they have made. Such an impartial information source would avoid land-users placed at a disadvantage due to lack of information, especially when discussing and negotiating land lease contract terms with companies or forestry bureaux. The ESIA team suggests that such a mechanism be put in place.

Support for Stora Enso’s CSR and sustainable plantation policies.
Whilst Stora Enso has a corporate commitment to CSR and to transparency, these worthy principles can only be delivered within the context of China and Guangxi. If Guangxi is to benefit from Stora Enso’s high technical, environmental and social standards, then the Government should be encouraged to work with the company to facilitate achievement of these standards. Examples where such dialogue and cooperation might be required are via accurate mapping of natural habitats not suitable for conversion, equitable and transparent systems for land acquisition, treatment of migrant workers and exchange and transfer of hybrid clones. This issue should remain a regular item of discussion between the company and the Guangxi authorities and is critical in the possible absence of media coverage or supportive NGOs.

Maintenance of Landscape Diversity
In promoting and expanding the substantial eucalypt plantation base in Guangxi, maintenance of landscape diversity will remain an important consideration in sustainability for all plantation growers.
There is a role for the Provincial authorities to offer coordination in southern Guangxi to balance the legitimate commercial needs of Stora Enso, Asia Pulp and Paper, Guangxi Oji Plantation Forest Co and other growers with the needs to maintain healthy landscape diversity.

Need for Monitoring and Adaptive management
Finally, both the Government and Stora Enso will need to monitor and respond to issues which might affect productivity, the environment or the community. Monitoring systems will provide the data against which Stora Enso’s own commitments to Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainable plantation management will be judged. An environmental and social monitoring plan is important and would be integrated with the regular monitoring of plantation productivity and should logically incorporate the elements of maintenance and improvement of site productivity, clone performance, issues relating to soils, quality and quantity of water and biodiversity at species, ecosystem and landscape levels, social issues relating to skills development, poverty, access to infrastructure and services, quality of life, gender and levels of community consultation and participation. Mechanisms should be put in place to provide guidance to plantation managers based on the results of monitoring, so that management practices can be adapted as needed.

This basic overview of issues, opportunities and recommendations resulting from the Social Impact Assessment demonstrates that large-scale bioenergy projects are set to permeate a great variety of aspects of social life and local economies. Land ownership issues and land-lease traditions, labor issues and migration patterns, local political decision making strategies and traditions, gender effects and the impact on ethnic minorities, income and inequality effects, development needs and the impacts on cultural heritage, perceptions about communication, economics and social relations... most of these dynamic social phenomena can be measured and projected if strong analytical frameworks and good ethnographic research is utilised.

Together with general government policies on social sustainability criteria for bioenergy (earlier post), SIAs will determine how a particular project fits into the dense cultural and social fabric of local communities. SIAs not only give private companies an overview of what they can expect once they implement their project, they also offer local, regional, national and even international governments, NGOs and development agencies insights into which practises and projects work and which don't. SIAs can be the basis of social and economic policies.

More information:

United Nations Development Program, Energy & Environment: Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Stora Enso Plantation Project in Guanxi, China [*.pdf] - Publication Date: Feb 2006, UNDP China, 208 pages.

Stora Enso: UNDP and Stora Enso - developing local communities to reduce poverty - March 14, 2007

Biopact: An in-depth look at Brazil's "Social Fuel Seal" - March 23, 2007

Biopact: A closer look at sustainability criteria for biofuels - March 07, 2007

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Scientists break down lignin to enter a world of sugar and energy

With the help of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), researchers at the U.S. Agricultural Research Service's Dairy Forage Research Center (DFRC) are discovering new facts about the complex mechanism known as 'lignification'. The insights are an important step forward towards the efficient production of cellulosic ethanol. The april issue of Agricultural Research has the details.

Sugar and energy locked up
Lignin is the cementing agent that holds plant cell walls together. For bioenergy researchers, lignin and other cell-wall components are significant stumbling blocks to unlocking the enormous energy that’s tied up in plants. Because once you can crack the hard lignin-boundary, you enter a world of sugars - the building blocks of the carbohydrate economy and of a huge quantity of biofuels.

Scientists are now trying to develop so-called 'third generation' biofuels, that are marked by two main features: (1) they make use of efficient biochemical and thermochemical conversion processes aimed at breaking down the lignin and hemicellulose in order to free the sugars contained in the biomass, but (2) critically, the energy crops themselves have been engineered in such a way that the plant's cells contain less lignin (image, click to enlarge). For them to succeed, they need to understand better how plants make lignin.

Plants use three main materials to build their cell walls: the polysaccharides cellulose and hemicellulose and the phenolic polymer lignin. Cellulose is a chain of glucose (sugar) molecules strung together. As these molecules multiply, they organize themselves in linear bundles that crisscross through the cell wall, giving the plant strength and structure.

The cellulose bundles are weakly bound to an encircling matrix of hemicellulose, which is strongly linked to lignin. The gluey lignin polymer further strengthens plants and gives them flexibility. Lignin is the reason plants can pop back up after heavy rains and winds. And it’s how they made the leap from a life in the ocean to one on land eons ago.

Plants have invested great energy in crafting exquisite cell-wall structures that resist degradation and loss of their precious sugars. Over the course of millions of years, they’ve had to fend off an insatiable crowd of energy-hungry fungi, bacteria, herbivores—and now, people.

A tricky and sticky plasticity
John Ralph, a DFRC chemist, is one of the scientists who have been focusing on lignin's structural details. With the help of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR), a technology that takes advantage of the magnetic fields surrounding atoms, Ralph and colleagues have been able to chip away at lignin’s mysteries, including how plants make it. Many of Ralph’s insights have come from years of scrutinizing the lignin structures in transgenic plants. He says there’s much to be learned about a gene by watching what happens when it’s altered.

Almost 10 years ago, Ralph and colleagues published a paper describing what happens to loblolly pine trees when they’re deprived of the gene that codes for cinnamyl alcohol dehydrogenase—an enzyme that helps make vital lignin building blocks. Ralph says that even with extremely low levels of the important lignin-building enzyme, the trees compensated by incorporating novel monomers—small molecules that can bind with others to form polymers—to ensure that they had the necessary lignin-like glue to perform basic functions:
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After having used NMR and other methods to analyze many other genetically transformed plants—including tobacco, aspen, alfalfa, corn, and the model plant Arabidopsis—Ralph and his colleagues and collaborators have laid a foundation of basic knowledge about how lignin production is orchestrated in plants.

Two lignin camps
Ralph belongs to a major camp of scientists who maintain that the formation of the lignin polymer is pretty much a random affair—not strictly controlled by proteins and enzymes like many other plant polymers are. Another group declares that lignification is just like protein building, a process that’s predictable and leaves few surprises.

But Ralph contends that there are a wider number of building blocks the plant has at its disposal for assembling lignified cell walls. And the plant can put these components together in a virtually infinite number of ways, like the pine trees—and many other transgenic plants—did.

This is what Ralph calls “metabolic plasticity.” As he sees it, lignification is “a remarkably evolved solution that allows plants considerable flexibility in dealing with various environmental stresses.”

Even if some don’t appreciate lignin’s evolutionary role in helping plants adapt, that’s okay, Ralph says. “A greater awareness of these plant processes will increase our opportunities to modify lignin composition and content.” Ultimately, the knowledge will lead to the development of biofuels from a third generation.

Zooming in on lignin
Another of DFRC’s many lignin-related discoveries has been especially well received in scientific circles. For the first time, Fachuang Lu, a research associate in Ralph’s group, has found a way to study the highly detailed chemical structure of the entire plant cell wall.

In the past, the job of extracting the various polymers from cell walls for detailed analysis required the deftness of a brain surgeon. There was always a tradeoff between the integrity of the material extracted and the speed with which it could be done.

Now, entire cell walls can be dissolved in a special solution in which all their contents—cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin—are dissolved in a matter of hours instead of weeks, as with traditional methods. Once all the polymers are in the solution, NMR can provide a structural picture of them.

“Traditionally, we could only get a portion of the cell wall into solution,” Ralph says. “By using this new solution and NMR method, we can get a chemical fingerprint of the major and minor structures of the entire cell wall. The amount of detail is striking.”

Researchers interested in running cell-wall samples from either conventionally bred or genetically modified energy crops can use the tool to get a zoomed-in view of what their plants’ modified cell walls look like. With such powerful capabilities, the method can serve as an important gauge of progress.

Low-input plants for energy
In addition to probing minute cell-wall structures, DFRC scientists are also breeding plants that possess energy-friendly qualities. Casler is hanging his hopes on grasses—the perennials that cover an estimated one-third of the nation’s acreage.

Aside from switchgrass, on which he’s built an entire breeding program, Casler is also eyeing the promise of other low-input grasses, such as smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass, and reed canarygrass. He thinks they’ve got the potential to feed both cows and the country’s enormous energy appetite. An ARS researcher in Tifton, Georgia, is also looking at several alternatives to switchgrass.

Casler and colleague Hans Jung, a DFRC dairy scientist based at St. Paul, Minnesota, have been selecting grasses that possess either less lignin or fewer ferulates. “Ferulates” are chemicals that help bind lignin to hemicellulose in the cell wall, impeding access to the sugars.

“When we started these studies,” Casler says, “we wondered: Is it lignin that’s most responsible for binding up the carbohydrates, or is it the way ferulates link the lignin to hemicellulose?”

After running studies in several grass species, Casler, Jung, and collaborators have proved that either approach works when it comes to breaking down tough cell walls. Hoping to breed plants whose cell walls are more easily degraded, Casler and Jung will soon begin crossing promising grass lines.

Focusing on Alfalfa
Other DFRC researchers are focused on alfalfa—a crop that, unlike corn and other grasses, fixes its own nitrogen and so requires less fertilizer. Plant physiologist Ronald Hatfield and molecular geneticist Michael Sullivan are working to boost alfalfa’s biomass by altering genes that affect its development.

“We’re looking at alfalfa’s developmental structure, how it branches,” says Hatfield. “We’re also trying to reduce leaf abscission, or leaf drop.”

Because alfalfa plants are grown close together, many of their understory leaves fall off from lack of sunlight. Hatfield and Sullivan would like to minimize loss of this valuable plant material.

Hatfield, Sullivan, and Ralph are collaborating with the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to build the ideal alfalfa plant.

“The Noble Foundation usually engineers the plants with reduced lignin,” Hatfield explains. “Then we use NMR and other analytical techniques to see what the modified cell walls look like and how easily they can be processed either by the cow or for biomass conversion to energy.”

The alfalfa research team has already discovered that when they transform plants by down-regulating enzymes called “methyl transferases,” they can reduce lignin content, boost cellulose content, and enhance cell-wall digestibility.

Bioenergy’s just part of a bigger picture
In the end, DFRC researchers believe that agriculture’s role in supplying renewable energy to the country is crucial. But Hatfield cautions that the bioenergy movement mustn’t miss the forest for the trees.

“We need to consider the whole agricultural picture,” he says. “You can’t convert everything into bioenergy.” There are other biobased products and niche industries to consider.

Take alfalfa, for instance. DFRC researchers have found that, in addition to providing great grist for the ethanol mill, alfalfa is a source of quality protein and health-promoting nutraceuticals. Plus, its fiber fractions have value as a water-filtering agent, and it’s an ideal substrate for making an all-natural glue. (See "New Bioadhesive's a Super Glue! sidebar" for details.)

“We’ve also got to think in terms of sustainability,” says Hatfield, “for the sake of local agricultural economies and our natural resources.”—By Erin K. Peabody, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.

Beyond switchgrass
Many researchers are investigating switchgrass as a source of bioenergy. But William Anderson, a geneticist in the Crop Genetics and Breeding Research Unit at Tifton, Georgia, says several other perennial grasses could also be developed into biofuels.

Anderson and colleagues are working with plants adapted to the southeastern United States, including bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), bahiagrass (Paspalum notatum), and napiergrass (Pennisetum purpureum). Each has its own advantages:

• Bermudagrass is already grown over millions of acres as forage. It is highly digestible for livestock and has good potential for conversion to ethanol.

• Bahiagrass offers less yield and lower quality than bermudagrass, but it grows well in marginal land and is easily established.

• Napiergrass, unlike the other perennial grasses, could be totally dedicated to energy use. In a 6-year study in Georgia at three locations, it outyielded bermudagrass and switchgrass by 5 tons of dry matter per acre per year. And in preliminary studies, it was converted to ethanol at a rate similar to switchgrass.

Anderson and colleagues are evaluating these grasses for desired genetic traits and breeding them for increased biomass production and better cell-wall degradability. “We’re also crossing napiergrass with pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), which has certain traits that reduce the amount and types of lignin, making the conversion to ethanol easier,” he says.

Image one: Structural cell wall components and third generation biofuels. Courtesy: ARS.
Image two: Chemist Fachuang Lu (pointing) and postdoc Hoon Kim view two-dimensional nuclear magnetic resonance data of a dissolved whole cell wall. Courtesy: ARS.

More information:
Agricultural Research Service: Breaking Down Walls - April 2007.
Agricultural Research Service: Probing Tiny Plant Cells to Unleash Big Bioenergy - April 3, 2007

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Honda and Climate Energy bring micro-CHP to market

Combined-heat-and-power (CHP) or cogeneration systems are becoming popular on a utility scale, because of their high efficiency compared to ordinary power plants that produce a lot of heat that gets lost (image, click to enlarge). Large-scale CHP is tied to the urban fabric of the site where electricity and heat are generated. In so-called 'district heating' concepts, the power plant delivers heat directly to end-users. CHP used in combination with biomass or biogas - already commonly found in Europe - makes for a very clean and efficient energy system.

However, the ultimate dream of energy engineers has been to find ways to scale down CHP systems in such a way that each household can have its own highly efficient power-station at home. Some progress has been made towards the development of such micro-CHP systems that can handle biomass (basically wood pellets). But now Honda Motor and Climate Energy announced they have started retail sales of 'freewatt', micro-CHP cogeneration system for homes that works on natural gas. Obviously, when biogas is used instead - an option becoming feasible where biogas is being fed into the main natural gas grid (as is being done on an ever larger scale in Europe) - then we are en route to a genuinely green revolution.

But let us have a look at the 'freewatt' micro-CHP system that will be for sale in the U.S. (image, click to enlarge). It is comprised of an MCHP cogeneration unit developed by Honda, which is paired with a furnace or boiler produced by Climate Energy. This system provides heat for the home with the added benefit of electricity production. The ultra-quiet MCHP unit produces 3.26 kilowatts of heat and 1.2 kilowatts of electric power. Further, it allows homeowners to reduce their utility bills and curb carbon dioxide emissions while improving overall energy efficiency and comfort.

In relation to energy costs, Climate Energy test data has shown that when the freewatt Micro-CHP system replaces a typical 80% efficiency home heating system, homeowners can realize an average of 30% in energy cost savings:
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The freewatt system produces electric power as a by-product of its heating functionality. The electric power produced displaces electricity that consumers would otherwise purchase from the local electric utility, saving $500 to $1000 per year on their electric bill. An additional unique financial savings benefit of utilizing the freewatt system is realized through the process of net metering.

In states where legislated, net metering allows homeowners to literally sell unused electric power back to the power grid in their community, providing additional savings.

In addition, the system produces 30% less carbon dioxide emissions than a conventional heating system with electricity provided from the grid. This allows homeowners to take an active role in the effort to reduce greenhouse gases.

Comfort is enhanced due to the system's ability to provide constant and extremely quiet circulation of heated air. This produces more uniform and comfortable temperatures in the home without running noisy blowers at high speeds.

Initial sales of the heat and power units will be targeted at customers living in the Northeastern United States in conjunction with select local utility providers.

This is due to the cold climate and high heating demand in the region which allows the system to provide the greatest benefit. The freewatt Micro-CHP systems will only be available through certified, trained, and authorized Climate Energy installation professionals.

Climate Energy and Honda plan to gradually expand production and sales of the freewatt Micro-CHP system and plan to introduce the system to other cold weather climates in the U.S. in the future. The units will be assembled domestically in the United States with components supplied by both companies. Currently, a similar version of an MCHP system is retailed in Japan, with over 45,000 units sold to date since its introduction in 2003.

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Turning pest into profit: but who created the pest in the first place?

In his series of essays titled 'How the World Works', Andrew Leonard offers a sharp view of some of the most challenging issues arising from the rapid globalisation of technology, science, trade and commerce, and how this affects the Global South.

In his analyses, Leonard often takes an ordinary story from the day's news, but deconstructs it, offers suggestions and criticism and puts the story in a new context so that it opens a new series of questions. In a piece titled 'Invader bush and the Namibian savanna', he follows up on the idea of using the pest for bioenergy, which we described earlier.

But Leonard asks a highly interesting question that can be asked for many other 'pest-into-profit' ventures: who created the problem in the first place, and what can we learn from these past mistakes?

The invador bush that plagues Namibia's grasslands is the result of over-grazing by cattle farmers in conjunction with the suppression of naturally occurring fires. In short, quick economic gain in the past has resulted in environmental degradation and consequent economic losses in the present:
I understand the attraction of transforming a nasty weed into an enlightening power source, we shouldn't lose sight of the depressing reality that it was human intervention that screwed up the eco-balance in Namibia, and unless we're extraordinarily careful, our "solutions" to the problems we've caused will only make matters worse. Suppose, for example, the electricity generation plan is a huge success, and there is suddenly a strong economic incentive to hack down all the acacia bushes currently making life so hard for cattle. Complete eradication of the invader bush, declares the bush encroachment report, would further destabilize the savanna.
We would go one step further and highlight the irony of some of the social aspects of the problem. Cattle farmers and ranchers made good profits from degrading the Namibian savanna. Their actions were largely to blame for triggering the invasion of the shrubs. And guess who is asking the Namibian (and European) government today to release massive funds to eradicate the pest? Exactly, the very same cattle farmers who caused it in the first place.

Now government intervention usually relies on utilising money that was collected via taxes levied (progressively or not) on the entire population of a country. In this case, all Namibians would have to contribute to solving a costly problem that was created by only a handful of them. The principle of 'pest-provoker pays' does not hold here:
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The Namibian case offers an interesting inroads into exploring the the tensions between social and environmental sustainability of bioenergy on the one hand, and commercial gain on the other.

The costly interventions to eradicate the pest that were proposed earlier (chemical treatment, controlled burning of the lands) and that would have relied on contributions from all Namibians, have been abandoned and replaced by a proposal the nature of which hints at potential returns for all Namibians. The idea is to use the bushes as a bioenergy feedstock that will fuel a decentralised energy paradigm that might bring much needed electricity to some of the poorest. In principle, such a decentralised energy system can have a redistributive and progressive function, benefiting those who have been abandoned by both the state and the economy.

However, for this to happen, the accent should be shifted radically from the past stress on simple 'commercial gain', to social and environmental sustainability - guaranteed and monitored by government and science. Leonard:
In a perfect world, careful scientists working together with responsible government officials might be able to figure out just how much human commercial activity the savanna could bear, and put into effect policy recommendations that kept everything hanging together.
Leonard quotes from the report on invader bush which we linked to, and which indicates that a careful balance between economic gain and environmental sustainbility is crucial:
The potential wood available for harvesting varies between 10 and 20 tonnes per hectare in the different districts, and total yield is largely influenced by the prevailing invader species. Care needs to be taken that these considerations will not become more important than ecological considerations. Thus, harvesting should take place in accordance with ecological principles.
Mistakes from the past (often the result of a primitive modernistic ideology based on a disconnect between nature and economy), have allowed scientists to learn more about Namibia's complex savanna ecology. This knowledge must now form the basis of a pest-into-profit project that is genuinely sustainable.

After all, bioenergy is not automatically an environmentally friendly or socially sustainable form of energy production. Things can go two ways. If implemented badly, bioenergy projects can mimic and perpetuate the energy paradigm of the past, which was based on uncareful resource extraction and on economics that lead to inequality and to the concentration of capital and power. But in principle, biofuels and bioenergy do offer the potential to build another future. Namibia can cut itself loose from the idea that mere market forces should determine what a country's energy economy should look like. Instead, it can choose for the alternative. And in this case, it might mean that some of the invader bushes are left for what they really are: nature's response to a broken ecological balance.

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The bioeconomy at work: Dutch biorefinery project CATCHBIO receives first nod

As part of a €100 million investment program aimed at boosting innovation in the Netherlands, the ambitious research project CATCHBIO has received backing [*Dutch] from the commission responsible for screening the applications. It was selected as one of the best projects out of a total of 155 other submissions.

CATCHBIO - Catalysis for Sustainable Chemicals from Biomass [*Dutch] - is a project aimed at producing an integrated stream of innovative plant-based products, from fuels and bioplastics to green bulk and specialty chemicals. Built around the concept of biorefineries, the project focuses on optimising transformation and bioconversion processes that make use of all the components of plants.

The CATCHBIO project is a joint initiative of 23 of the Netherlands' leading research organisations, including the NIOK (Netherlands Institute for Research in Catalysis), most universities, led by the University of Utrecht, a host of public research institutes and private companies.

Research has shown that the Netherlands excel in innovation in emerrging fields like green chemistry and advanced biorefinery research (earlier post). By joining the expertise of the country's top researchers, the Netherlands is betting on pushing the 'bioeconomy' forward, in a way similar to how it stimulated the growth of its leading petrochemical industry. The Dutch government is now promoting the work of a high-level Focus Group on Chemistry which prepares the country for a future in which the country's chemical sector halves its consumption of fossil fuels. CATCHBIO is closely linked to this group and prepares the Netherlands for a post-oil world.

Green chemistry is a new field of research that opens tremendous opportunities for the creation of a sustainable economy, even though the challenges are considerable. After all, there are major differences between the new kind of chemistry and the traditional discipline, which was built for a large part on utilising petroleum. In each of the chemical industry's classic sectors - fine chemistry, bulk chemistry and fuels - new processes have to be developed and optimised.

Petroleum offered simple and robust raw materials such as ethane, the basis for robust, well-established chemical conversion paths. Biomass on the contrary offers a much wider variety of useful compounds, even though they are far more fragile and complex (these were lost when biomass underwent its transformation into fossil fuels):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Examples of these complex structures are bonds with oxygen, unsaturated bonds and compounds based on cyclic bonds. Transforming these into useful compounds requires sophisticated and subtle chemistry.

This is the challenge for the catalysis experts participating in the CATCHBIO project. Catalsysts will have to be developed that allow targetted and selective reactions under controlled and mild reaction-conditions.

New concepts for organic synthesis are being looked into, that will allow the integration of the stepts involved in separating compounds, purifying them and utilising them.

This presents a challenge to technology as such. In classic petrochemistry, the separation and purification (e.g. distillation) often requires considerable amounts of costly energy inputs. Chemistry based on biomass is not more cost or energy efficient from the start. Many reactions, for example, are carried out in water, which is is preferrable over using organic solvents, but if the product has to be obtained from a strongly diluted substance and consequently the water must be purified intensively, then we are hardly looking at a more sustainable process. In short, green chemistry is a complex new world that opens opportunities but tremendous challenges as well.

The CATCHBIO project is part of the SmartMix program of the Dutch government, which is aimed at stimulating scientific, technological, economical and socio-cultural innovation.

More information:
Joint release by the University of Utrecht, Nederlands Instituut voor Onderzoek in de Katalyse, and Advanced Chemical Technologies for Sustainability: Duurzame chemie ontwikkelen voor een duurzame samenleving, Positief advies Smart Mix voor CATCHBIO [dutch] - March 29, 2007.

University of Utrecht: Miljoenensubsidie voor onderzoeksproject naar biobrandstof [*Dutch] - March 28, 2007.

University of Groningen: CatchBio presentation [*Dutch]

AgriHolland: Positief advies voor onderzoeksprogramma CATCHBIO [*Dutch] - March 29, 2007.

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Corn ethanol could hurt poor's food security; other biofuels can strengthen it

The push toward corn-based ethanol has the potential to starve millions around the world, two economists from the University of Minnesota say.

The demand for ethanol has pushed corn prices to record highs, and economists C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, writing in the May/June issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, warn that the rise in prices will likely hurt the world's poor.

Energy efficiency should be the Bush administration's mantra, they say, adding that the drive toward ethanol should be tempered until it can be produced efficiently from cellulosic material.

"Resorting to [corn based] biofuels is likely to exacerbate world hunger," they write in Foreign Affairs. "Several studies by economists at the World Bank and elsewhere suggest that caloric consumption among the world's poor declines by about half of one percent whenever the average prices of all major food staples increase by one percent."

In a 2003 study, the two professors showed that given rates of economic and population growth, the number of hungry worldwide would fall by 23 percent, to about 625 million, by 2025, as long as agricultural productivity improved enough to keep the relative price of food constant. But the rise in the price of foodgrains because of the increased demand for biofuels could lead to more hungry people the world over.

"The number of food-insecure people in the world would rise by over 16 million for every percentage increase in the real prices of staple foods," they write. "That means that 1.2 billion people could be chronically hungry by 2025 -- 600 million more than previously predicted."

Although much of the corn used in the United States is not for human but animal consumption, the demand for ethanol has pushed farmers to grow more corn at the expense of other crops, leading to high poultry and related prices:
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The conclusion should be obvious: like the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organisation says, let the poor themselves produce biofuels. There is enough land available in countries often plagued by food insecurity. What these countries need is financial and agronomic inputs, and market access. If these conditions are met, poor farmers in the tropics and subtropics can lift themselves out of poverty and food insecurity by selling biofuels to local and international markets.

Moreover, the effect of high fossil fuel prices and energy insecurity is devastating to the development of the world's poorest economies. A switch to competitive biofuels may temper these effects and save funds that can be invested in social and rural development and in poverty alleviation. In many cases, if a developing country in the tropics and subtropics does not create a biofuels industry, it will lose huge amounts of money on importing expensive fossil fuels.

Economists from the International Energy Agency has clearly shown the strict correlation between Human Development (as defined by the UN) and energy security.

More information:

C. Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer, How Biofuels Could Starve the Poor, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2007

Biopact: ICRISAT launches pro-poor biofuels initiative in drylands - March 15, 2007

IEA: World Energy Outlook, 2004 [*.pdf] [see Chapter 9, entirely devoted to "Energy and Development", one of the best introductions to the subject].

Biopact: Biofuels can cut poverty, provide energy and mitigate climate change – UN, April 14, 2005

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

German dairy products group to make bioethanol from whey

A major advantage of biofuels is that they can be made from a wide variety of biomass feedstocks, including agro-industrial waste-streams. German dairy products group Theo Müller now adds a feedstock by announcing [*German] that it will start to produce bioethanol from whey (lactoserum), a byproduct from cheese production. The group with its seat in Leppersdorf near Dresden, will start the construction of a dedicated ethanol plant this month.

The company is investing €20/US$27 million in the complex, which will be the first to make biofuel from whey. Stefan Müller, CEO of the group, says that by the end of 2007 production will come online and when maximum capacity is reached, the plant will make 10 million liters (2.64 million gallons) of ethanol per year.

Whey or milk plasma is the acidic liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained; it is a by-product of the manufacture of cheese or casein. Typically every 100 kg of milk will give about 10-20 kg of cheese depending on the variety, and about 80-90 kg of liquid whey. Its disposal is a major problem for the dairy industry, partly due to its composition. It has a low solids content and a very unfavorable lactose : protein ratio which makes it difficult to utilize as-is. The biological oxygen demand (BOD) is 32,000 to 60,000 ppm, which creates a very severe disposal problem.

Despite continuing efforts to find uses for the whey, either as-is or in dry form, or its major components (high quality protein and lactose), it is estimated that as much as 40-50% of the whey produced is disposed off as sewage, with the rest being used primarily for animal feed or human food. World production is estimated at 80 to 130 million tons per year:
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Given this waste problem, scientists been looking into ways to utilise the resource, and since the 1980s they have been hinting at the fact that there is an opportunity to use whey as an ethanol feedstock. Global interest in the biofuel and high oil prices now make commercial production viable.

Whey ethanol production is similar to that relying on starchy feedstocks. The lactose present in whey is yeast fermented and the resultant ethanol is distilled off and then purified to one of eight grades depending on its intended end use.

For the German dairy products group, whey is a biofuel feedstock that comes at a very low cost because it produces a vast quantity of it that poses a waste problem. "For this reason, we are very competitive and independent of the price developments on the biofuels market", says Müller.

There is a small body of research on the production of ethanol from whey.

More information:

Scott L. Terrell, Alain Bernard, and Richard B. Bailey, "Ethanol from Whey: Continuous Fermentation with a Catabolite Repression-Resistant Saccharomyces cerevisiae Mutant", Appl Environ Microbiol. 1984 September; 48(3): 577–580.

Ron Hamilton (AnchorProducts, Tirau): The Manufacture of Ethanol from Whey [*.pdf] - s.d. New Zealand Institute of Chemistry.

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Researchers analyse greenhouse gas balance of different biofuels produced in the U.S.

Researchers from Colorado State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service have conducted the first of its kind, complete analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from different forms of biofuel production found in the U.S. The results revealed that a variety of bioenergy crops used for biofuels have the potential to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of energy generated as compared to greenhouse gases emitted from fossil fuels. The researchers published their results in the April 2007 issue of Ecological Applications.

William Parton, researcher from Colorado State's Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, or NREL, says "We have performed a unique analysis of the net biofuel greenhouse emissions from major biofuel cropping systems by combining ecosystem computer model data with estimates of the amount fossil fuels used to grow and produce crops for biofuels."

Study results revealed that when compared with the life cycle of gasoline and diesel, biofuels reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere:
  • grain based, 'first generation' ethanol and biodiesel from corn and soybean rotations reduced greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 40 percent
  • cellulosic ethanol from reed canarygrass reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent
  • cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass and hybrid poplar reduced greenhouse gas emissions by about 115 percent
The numbers for corn based ethanol contradict earlier research, which shows marginal GHG emissions reductions for the fuel (earlier post). In any case, hybrid poplar and switchgrass were found to offset the largest amounts of fossil fuels and therefore reduced emissions the most out of the studied crops. Parton, along with Stephen Del Grosso, USDA scientist and NREL researcher, and Paul Adler from the USDA used the DAYCENT biogeochemistry model [*.pdf, see image, click to enlarge], developed by Parton and Del Grosso, to assess soil greenhouse gas fluxes and biomass yields for corn, soybean, alfalfa, hybrid poplar, reed canarygrass and switchgrass.
"Although fossil fuel inputs are required to produce and process biofuels, hybrid poplar and switchgrass converted to ethanol compensate for these emissions and actually remove greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere when the benefits of co-products are included. Greenhouse gas savings from biomass gasification for electricity generation are even greater. This research provides the basis for evaluating net biofuel greenhouse gas emissions and highlights the need to improve the technologies used for large scale conversion of biomass to energy and to more fully exploit agricultural co-products." -- Stephen Del Grosso, USDA scientist and NREL researcher.
Ethanol and biodiesel from corn and soybean are currently the main biofuel crops in the United States, but the perennial crops alfalfa, hybrid poplar, reed canarygrass and switchgrass have been proposed as future dedicated energy crops:
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Bioenergy crops are able to offset carbon dioxide emissions by converting atmospheric carbon dioxide into organic carbon in biomass and soil, but the production of biofuels requires fossil fuels and impacts greenhouse gas fluxes. The primary sources of greenhouse gas emissions associated with crop production are soil nitrous oxide emissions and the CO2 emissions from farm machinery, farm inputs and agricultural processes. Colorado State and USDA scientists quantified all of these factors to determine the net effect of several bioenergy crops on greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers found that, once the DAYCENT results were combined with estimates of the amounts of fossil fuels used to provide farm inputs and operate agricultural machinery and the amount of fossil fuel offsets from biomass yields, they were able to calculate the net greenhouse gas fluxes for each cropping system.

"We used extensive observed greenhouse gas flux and crop yield data to verify DAYCENT model predictions of crop yields and net greenhouse gas fluxes from all of the biofuel crop rotations. DAYCENT model results were combined with life cycle analyses of crop production, conversion to biofuel, and fossil fuel displaced to estimate net greenhouse gas emissions," said Parton.

This study was a unique and complete analysis of bioenergy cropping for several reasons. Different crops vary with respect to length of plant life cycle, yields, biomass conversion efficiencies, required nutrients, net soil carbon balance, nitrogen losses and other characteristics which in turn impact management operations. Additionally, crops have different requirements for farm machinery inputs from planting, growing, soil tillage, applying fertilizer and pesticide and finally harvesting. The researchers were able to use life cycle analyses and the DAYCENT model to account for all of these factors as well as integrate climate, soil properties and land use to accurately evaluate the impact of bioenergy cropping systems on crop production, soil organic carbon and greenhouse gas fluxes.

Image: the carbon cycle, of which bioenergy cropping systems are a part.

More information:
The article in Ecological Applications is not yet online, but an abstract can be found here:

Adler, P.R., Del Grosso, S.J., Parton, W.J. 2007. "Cellulosic and Grain Bioenergy Crops Reduce Net Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Transportation Fuels" [*abstract]. USDA Symposium on Greenhouse Gases & Carbon Sequestration in Agriculture and Forestry. p.32

On the DAYCENT model, see: D.S. Ojima , S.J. Del Grosso, W.J. Parton, A.R. Mosier and C. Keough, Model Overview, Testing and Application to Agroecosystems [*.pdf], Global Carbon Project.

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Algae biofuel company's claims questioned

At the Biopact, we are critical of biofuel companies who claim they can produce huge amounts of liquid fuels from algae. Often, these claims are mere marketing stunts and not based on any credible science (earlier post). If algae-to-biofuels ventures work out, then the better for all of us. But if they prove to be more difficult to pull off, the hype should end and some modesty would be welcome.

Now South Africa's most important investigative programme 'Carte Blanche' put the matter to the test by investigating the claims made by the much-feted algae biofuels startup De Beers Fuel (previous post). The researchers confirmed our doubts: the company massively exaggerates its ability to produce biodiesel from algae and has been spreading seriously incorrect information.

De Beers Fuel of Mookgopong, in Limpopo – which has no connection to diamond mining giant De Beers – has been claiming production of 6000 litres of algae-based biodiesel an hour. De Beers Fuel founder Frik de Beer is on record saying that “our current production on the pilot plant is 144 000 litres in 24 hours – we’re running the plant 25 days a month, it is all consumed locally, and we have 50-million litres of diesel on our order book per month”.

Based on these and other claims, the company has sold a number of biodiesel franchises to South African investors. Many of the franchises were sold under the Infiniti Biodiesel brand name.

The company’s website – which could still be accessed this morning, but has since been removed from the Internet – claimed that “92 plants involving 18 franchises” had been sold. The company’s website also claimed that five production plants were under construction.

However, when questioned by Carte Blanche, De Beer said that the company had only ever sold 41 000 litres of biodiesel and had 39 000 litres in its tanks, ready to be sold:
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De Beers Fuel was a platinum sponsor of the second African biofuels conference, which was held in Midrand last week. The company had a stand at the conference, at which it continuously showed a promotional video in which De Beer and others expanded on the firm’s production abilities.

What set apart the company from other biofuels producers in South Africa was the fact that it had entered into a partnership with GreenFuel Technologies Corporation of the US to locally promote GreenFuels’ proprietary algae technology. GreenFuels’ technology involves the production of vegetable oil from algae as a feedstock for biofuels.

The successful extraction of biofuels from algae supposedly offered a solution to the envisaged shortage of traditional biofuels feedstocks in South Africa, such as sunflower and soy oil. Investors in De Beers and Infiniti Biodiesel were given the impression that algae was an almost immediate solution to the anticipated shortage of vegetable oil for biofuels production.

However, when approached by Cart Blanche, GreenFuels CEO Paul Rodzianko said that “on an accelerated schedule, from today on, the earliest that a commercial scale facility would be available will probably be the end of next year, to the beginning of 2009.”

When approached for comment by Engineering News earlier today, a spokesperson for De Beers Fuel said that the company was preparing a formal response to the Carte Blanche programme broadcast on Sunday night in which it would comment on the contents of the programme.

This story is certainly to be continued.

More information:
A full transcript of the programme can be found here.
EngineeringNews: Investigative Carte Blanche casts doubt on De Beers Fuel - April 3, 2007.

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Conference explores the global biofuels supply chain

Quicknote bioenergy events
The Singapore based Centre for Management Technology (CMT) is organising a two-day conference on issues relating to the global supply chain of biofuels. The event will take place between June 7 and 8.

A world market for trade in bioenergy products is emerging rapidly, with both liquid and solid fuels being imported and exported, shipped across oceans, stored at ports and distributed to end markets. This new market brings challenges and opportunities to traders, shippers, brokers, logistics firms, ports and harbors.

For this reason, the conference looks at different aspects of biofuels and their supply chain:
  • what do the feedstock and trade flows look like?
  • which specifications and classifications apply to the new fuels?
  • what is the impact of regulation and feedstock availability on domestic production in US and EU and on global biofuels trade?
  • which challenges are ahead for port and terminal management? (Several European ports, like especially in Belgium and the Netherlands, are turning themselves into dedicated 'bioports')
  • what is the storage capacity (potential and current status)?
  • which Marpol regulations apply to which type of biofuels and vessels?
  • how can quality assurance be strentghened when storing and handling biofuels shipped in bulk and by ISO tank containers, road, rail and drummed stock?
  • when, where and how must biofuels be tested and what benchmark and methodologies should be applied?
  • how do oil prices/trends impact the global biofuels market?
  • given China's continuous strong growth and rising energy demand, what will be its role in the biofuels future?
Port authorities and management, shipping companies, risk managers, supply chain analysts, as well as traders and government representatives from Asia, Europe, Brazil and the US are invited as speakers to shed a light on this wide range of issues [entry ends here].
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Giant reversible swelling of nanoporous materials disovered - possible applications for storage of carbon dioxide and gaseous (bio)fuels

Scientists all over the world are participating in the quest for new materials with properties suitable for the environmentally friendly and economically feasible separation, recovery, and reuse of gaseous fuels, such as biogas and (bio-)hydrogen, and greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, for which sequestration options are being researched. We follow developments surrounding carbon capture and storage (CCS), because they can be applied to biofuels and result in radically carbon-negative energy systems (here and here).

In this context, a team of scientists from France, the UK and the European Synchronotron Research Facility (ESRF) have recently discovered an unprecedented giant and reversible swelling of nanoporous materials with exceptional properties: huge flexibility and profound selectivity. They published their results [*abstract] in Science this week.

Porous hybrid solids are the new materials that could make the world more environmentally friendly (earlier post). The team from Institut Lavoisier at University of Versailles have developed metal-organic three-dimensional structures with cages and channels (known as MIL, for Material Institut Lavoisier). These compounds contain metal ions (in this case chromium and iron), with organic linkers and are very flexible, and hence, can change shape very easily. They can open up or close down in response to external factors such as pressure, temperature, light or influence of gases and solvents.

Crystals behaving like lungs
The French researchers, in collaboration with the staff of the Swiss-Norwegian experimental station (called beamline) at the ESRF, have tracked, for the first time, a reversible giant increase in volume of these solids (image, click to enlarge). It ranges from 85% of their size to up the unprecedented 230%. Such a large expansion in crystalline materials has not been observed before. This reversible “breathing” action is similar to the lungs’ function in humans: they grow in size when inhaling and go back to their original size when exhaling. The lungs expand, however, by only around 40%:
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The huge swelling effect has been achieved in a simple way: MIL materials were immersed into solvents, and their cavities were filled and thus opened by entering solvent molecules. This made the structures grow, without breaking bonds and retaining the crystallinity of the materials. This process was monitored at the ESRF, using high-quality synchrotron radiation and the experimental results were combined with computer chemistry simulations.

The swelling process can reversed by heating the solvated form and the dry form is then recovered. In this form, the material exhibited closed pores with almost no accessible porosity. Surprisingly, the same team published a paper last autumn where they showed that some gas molecules can close, but not open, the pores upon absorption. Moreover, the closed hydrated form demonstrates a remarkable selectivity in absorption of polar and nonpolar gases.

The next step for the team is to investigate how hydrogen or green-house gases can be stored in these kinds of materials. This may open a door to ecological applications such as (bio-)hydrogen and (bio-)methane-fuelled cars or the capture of carbon dioxide in the near future.

Structures (along the c axis) of the MIL-88A, B, C, D series in their dry forms (top) and open forms (bottom). Credit: ESRF.

More information:

Serre, C. Mellot-Draznieks, S. Surblé, N. Audebrand, Y. Filinchuk, G. Férey , "Role of Solvent-Host Interactions That Lead to Very Large Swelling of Hybrid Frameworks" [*abstract], Science, 30 March 2007: Vol. 315. no. 5820, pp. 1828 - 1831, DOI: 10.1126/science.1137975.

P. L. Llewellyn, S. Bourrelly,C. Serre, Y. Filinchuk, and G. Férey, "Hydrogen Storage in the Giant-Pore Metal-Organic Frameworks MIL-100 and MIL-101" [*abstract], Angewandte Chemie International Edition, Volume 45, Issue 48, Date: December 11, 2006, Pages: 8227-8231

Philip L. Llewellyn, Sandrine Bourrelly, Christian Serre, Yaroslav Filinchuk, Gérard Férey, "How Hydration Drastically Improves Adsorption Selectivity for CO2 over CH4 in the Flexible Chromium Terephthalate MIL-53" [*abstract], Angewandte Chemie, Volume 118, Issue 46, Date: November 27, 2006, Pages: 7915-7918

On new, high-capacity and biobased methane storage tanks relying on nanoporous materials, see Biopact: The bioeconomy at work: methane storage tanks for cars made from corn cobs - February 18, 2007

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Scientists discover 'master switch' in plant communication about environmental stress

Climate change is set to have an impact on plant biodiversity (see earlier) and on the productivity of agriculture across the planet. For this reason, scientists are trying to understand how plants communicate about environmental stresses, such as a lack of water, increased salinity or nutrient deficiencies. Insights into these processes eventually allow plant biologists to breed new generations of crops that can cope with rapidly changing environments (earlier post).

Scientists have puzzled for years in understanding how plants pass signals of stress from chloroplast to nuclei (image 1, click to enlarge). They know that chloroplasts - the cellular organelles that give plants their green color - have at least three different signals that can indicate a plant is under stress.

But now a team of scientists, including Shai Koussevitzky, a research associate in the University of Nevada's College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, as well as Ron Mittler, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, has made an important step forward in the understanding of how chloroplasts communicate with a cell’s nucleus when stresses such as drought, heat, salinity or light become too great on the organism.

In their study [*abstract], published in Science this week, they determined that multiple distress signals in plants converge on a single pathway, which then channels the information to the nucleus. The study was part of a collaborative effort led by Joanne Chory, professor and director of the Plant Biology Laboratory at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., and investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Koussevitzky, looking at the end of the signaling pathway, found the corresponding binding factor known as ABI4, a plant transcription factor the function of which is well understood. It prevents light-induced regulatory factors from activating gene expression. Additional work in the project had determined that the chloroplast-localized, nuclear-encoded protein GUN1 is required for integrating multiple stress-derived signals within the chloroplast. This work was conducted by the first co-author of the article, Ajit Nott, who was a research associate in Dr. Chory’s lab.

Many of the nuclear genes that encode chloroplast proteins are regulated by a “master switch” in response to environmental conditions. This “master switch,” like a binary computer, can activate or de-activate certain sets of genes based on stress signaling processes (image 2, click to enlarge):
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“One of our suggestions in the paper is that ABI4 seems like a prime candidate to be the ‘master switch,’” Koussevitzky said. “ABI4 binds to a newly identified sequence motif, and by doing so prevents light-induced regulatory factors from activating gene expression. It has a role in so many signaling processes in the plant, it might actually be the ‘master switch’ that researchers have been looking for.”

The discoveries are critical to future research efforts in designing new generations of plants, Mittler said.

“A lot of things that occur in the chloroplast are important for production, for growth, for response to the environment,” he said. “So this is a very basic mechanism of communication between the chloroplast and the nucleus. It had been previously suggested that the elements in this process go through multiple pathways. This work shows that the elements actually go through this one particular route.

“Now we are in much better shape in solving the question of generating plants that can use marginal water, or marginal soil, and do so in a way that the plant won’t completely suppress its normal metabolisms and activate all of its stress metabolisms when faced with a lot of stress. If you want to generate a plant that is more tolerant, you need to deal with these two things.”

Added Koussevitzky: “We’re trying to put the signaling pathways in the context of the plant’s stress response. It will take a little more tweaking, but at least knowing that it is going through a certain particular pathway will enable researchers to design what the targets should be downstream from these pathways.”

Work for the project was supported by a grant from the Department of Energy, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, EMBO long term and Howard Hughes Medical Institute fellowships.

Image 1: the basic structure of a plant cell.

Image 2 (for the experts): Revised model of retrograde signaling pathways from chloroplasts. (A) When plastid development is impaired or when plastids are stressed, inhibition of PGE, accumulation of Mg-ProtoIX and the redox state of the PET generate a common signal depicted by X. X could either be a process facilitated by GUN1 or a product of GUN1 activity. GUN1 may either be required to generate the signal (pathway 1) or perceive it (pathway 2). In response to the GUN1-derived signal ABI4 binds the promoter of Lhcb preventing GBF (a G-box binding factor required for tissue-specific, light-induced expression of Lhcb) from binding. Unknown steps in the pathway are indicated by question marks. (B) In developed, non-stressed plastids no GUN1 derived signal is emitted, ABI4 does not bind the Lhcb promoter and GBF enhanced transcription occurs. The question mark indicates the unknown fate of ABI4. Thus, the data favor a model in which retrograde signals from damaged plastids are transmitted to repressors of nuclear gene expression. From the Supporting Online Materials [*.pdf].

More information:
Shai Koussevitzky, Ajit Nott, et al., "Multiple Signals from Damaged Chloroplasts Converge on a Common Pathway to Regulate Nuclear Gene Expression" [*abstract], Published Online March 29, 2007, Science; DOI: 10.1126/science. 1140516

University of Nevada, College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources

Ron Mittler's research page.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Namibia to use invasive shrubs for bioenergy, to meet all power needs

An interesting large-scale bioenergy project aimed at reducing extreme rural poverty and environmental degradation is underway in Namibia. Vast tracts of the country's scarce farmland have become uncultivable because of encroachment by hardy shrubs and trees, generically known as 'invader bush'. Studies indicate that not less than 26 million hectares of agricultural land are infested, which is preventing the growth of useful grass species and which results in the compaction of soils in the bush encroached areas. The disastrous plague has reduced the land's carrying capacity resulting in reduced cattle numbers over the years and leading to economic losses of N$700 million (€72/US$96.1 million) every year. Small farmers suffer under the plague which fuels rural poverty (even though agriculture contributes less than 5% to Namibia's GDP, over 70% of the country's population is dependent on the sector).

Previous efforts to find ways of clearing the invader bush, such as massive herbicide spraying or burning campaigns, are hardly sustainable, cost-effective or environmentally friendly. Burning would result in large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, whereas herbicides kill the ecosystem alltogether. Moreover, estimates show that it would cost up to N$5.2 billion (€534/US$714 million) to combat the infestation with these techniques. For a country like Namibia, this is a tall order. Individual, small farmers whose land is invaded say it is cheaper to buy a new farm than to try to eradicate the hardy bushes. (See the Bush Encroachment Research, Monitoring and Management project of the Ministry of the Environment).

Now bioenergy is coming to the rescue. Research shows that the woody shrubs make for an excellent solid biofuel that can be used in decentralised biomass power plants for the production of electricity. The potential is large: if a fraction (6%) of the infested areas were to be harvested, Namibia could meet all its domestic electricy needs. Instead of trying to eradicate the plants by aggressive herbicides or by burning them without recuperating the energy they contain, they are simply converted 'conceptually' into a short-rotation energy crop that can be harvested sustainably and that delivers climate-neutral, clean and renewable energy.

If all goes according to plan the 'bush-to-power' project will kick off in June of this year. The project - Combating Bush Encroachment for Namibia's Development (C-Bend) - is a collaborative effort of three organizations, namely, the Desert Research Foundation Namibia (DRFN), Namibia Agricultural Union and Namibia National Farmers' Union. Plans are for it to be implemented between 2007 and 2008, as part of the EU-funded Rural Poverty Reduction Programme, which is expected to approve financing the project.

The project will be located in one of the areas with a high density of invader bush around the north-central areas of Tsumeb, Otavi and Grootfontein. Other conditions of the project site will be the proximity of the areas to electricity, where the generated power can be fed into the national grid and the cooperation of farmers around those areas to have their farms used.

C-Bend's fact sheet says that Namibia's bush-to-electricity energy potential in bush-infested areas lies in using available electricity-generating technologies and applying ecological management principles that can generate between 0.5 and 2.5 MWh per hectares per year. At a sustainable yield of 2 MWh per hectare, some 1.5 million hectares of bush harvested each year would ensure that Namibia's entire annual electricity consumption of 3000 GWh is generated.

Studies conducted in 2000 assessed both large-scale (10-30 MW) and small-scale (0.2 - 0.5 MW) biomass technologies, and although both were found to be technically feasible, the economic feasibility was undermined because of cheaper electricity imports from South Africa. But the current situation of lack of generation capacity, the energy crisis in South Africa, high fossil fuel prices and energy security as well as technology developments present new opportunities for the introduction of small-scale decentralised wood gasification technologies:
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A 0.5MW wood gasification plant costs over N$4 million and produces 3 500 MWh per hectare and taking into account sales of N$0.3 per KWh, annual revenues from the sale of electricity would yield some N$1 million. This would also result in an increased carrying capacity of debushed land and also yield additional income.

At a meeting on bioenergy recently, DRFN's Detlof von Oertzen said the project would also address productivity issues, job creation and improved livelihoods.

"Poverty statistics are shocking. We face an uncertain energy future while we have a very high unemployment rate," he said, adding that the project gave the country a unique opportunity to address local problems with local solutions. "This is a first tiny step to use local resources in finding solutions," he added.

He said the project has the endorsement of the country's power utility, Nampower, the Ministry of Agriculture, Water and Forestry, the Namibia Women's Association and the regional councils.

C-Bend aims at assessing the actual economics and developing the best management practices for rural bush-to-energy, which paves the way for the introduction of such technologies in rural communities and areas.

Apart from generating electricity, invader bush is a resource from which animal fed, charcoal products, chipboards and bush blocks can be produced.

Although there are other methods to limit bush encroachment such as herbicides, use of browsers, fire, stumping or felling and bulldozing among others, many of these methods have been found to be so costly that farmers say it is cheaper to buy another farm than to debush.

The objective of the project is to get a bush-to-electricity enterprise up and running and through the enterprise hopefully change the perception that invader bush is a nuisance. The bush will be harvested sustainably as a resource in a way that it can be re-harvested in future.

More information:
Ministry of Environment and Tourism: Bush Encroachment - Report on Phase 1 of the Bush Encroachment Research, Monitoring and Management Project.
The Namibian (via AllAfrica): Namibia: N$5.2 Billion Needed for Bush Clearing - March 12, 2007.
New Era (Windhoek) (via AllAfrica): There's Power in the Bush - April 2, 2007.

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Indian companies offer 1 billion liters of ethanol to oil marketing companies

Fifty-two companies from nine States in India have offered to supply 1 billion liters (280.3 million gallons) of ethanol to the country's oil marketing companies for five per cent blending with gasoline.

The oil marketing companies had floated tenders and received offers from companies in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, Goa, Maharashtra (partial), Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh (partial) and Karnataka. Earlier, the Government had notified supply of ethanol-blended petrol in 20 States and four Union Territories. They are to be delivered at the oil marketing companies' depots-terminals for three years with an option for a two-year extension on mutual consent.

The top suppliers are: Shree Renuka Sugars with 217 million liters (20.84%), Bajaj Hindustan group 99 million liters (10%) and Balrampur Chini Group 44 million liters (4.5%). The ex-factory price for the biofuel will be 21.50 rupiah per liter (€0.37/liter, US$1.89/gallon) with State taxes being borne by the oil marketing companies.

India is the largest producer of sugar in the world. In terms of sugarcane production, India and Brazil are almost equally placed. The annual projected growth rate in the area under sugarcane at 1.5% per annum has doubled during the last five years. This is because it is considered to be an assured cash crop with good returns to the farmers vis-a-vis other competing crops.

The Indian sugar industry employs millions of Indian rural families, especially in the North-Central (Uttar Pradesh) and the South-Western parts of the subcontinent (map, click to enlarge), where agro-climatic conditions are such that high and continuous yields are guaranteed. The rise of the ethanol industry is a boon for these households, since increased raw materials prices have taken the industry out of a decade-long glut.

To meet the 5% ethanol mandate, India's oil marketing companies will require 565 million litres annually or about 1.7 billion litres during the tender period of three years. However, the current response meets about 70 per cent of this required quantity:
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"The shortfall can be easily met. We are in the process of stepping up ethanol production. Our total ethanol production will reach 110 million litres by May from 60 million litres and is to be enhanced further. Similarly, other sugar companies are also planning to up their production capacities," says Mr Narenda Murkumbi, Managing Director of Shree Renuka Sugars, the largest supplier. And "though our factories are in Karnataka we have bagged orders for Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Goa," he added.

Early this month, the Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Mr Dinsha Patel, had said that tenders for other States and locations were being finalised.

In 2005, the public sector oil marketing companies, led by Indian Oil Corporation, had signed an MoU with Indian Sugar Mills Association for supply of ethanol to implement the ethanol blended petrol programme.

Apart from the ethanol programme, recent Government initiatives appear to be pushing up sugar scrips on the bourses.

For the week ended March 30, Sakthi Sugars gained 58.49% to 100.80 rupiah, Shree Renuka Sugars went up 18.47% to 467 rupiah, Bajaj Hindustan jumped 15.66% to 194 rupiah and Oudh Sugars posted a 12.23% gain to 65.15 rupiah.

More information:
Ethanol India: A sugar industry perspective on ethanol production.

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Cellulose ethanol pioneer receives US$100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability

Dartmouth College Engineering Professor and Mascoma co-founder Lee Lynd is honored for 25 years of inventive achievements and research into biofuels. He received the first-ever US$100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability for a career that ultimately led to the development of one of the most promising cellulose ethanol production processes - a process configuration known as 'consolidated bioprocessing' (CBP) which allows the transformation of biomass into ethanol in one single step by using special ethanogenic microbes. A look back at the way Lynd came to this technique can teach us something about the challenges ahead.

Lynd and his colleagues’ inventions are at the forefront of advanced technologies for converting biomass feedstocks into motor vehicle fuels. Lynd is being recognized for these inventions, as well as his vision and long-term advocacy of biofuels as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.

“Decades ago, Lee Lynd started doing something about global warming and the rapid depletion of the world’s non-renewable energy resources,” said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “He continued to experiment and pursue his ideas even when the conventional wisdom said they couldn’t be done.”

“Lee’s groundbreaking research has driven forward the public policy debate, the business world, and the fundamental science of bioenergy,” said Nathanael Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and one of Lynd’s nominators for the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability. “His work has helped frame our basic understanding of the sustainable potential for bioenergy and especially biofuels.”

A ‘Harebrained Idea’ from a compost heap
In 1977, while an undergraduate biology major at Bates College, Lynd spent a summer working on an organic farm in North Reading, Massachusetts and was struck by how much heat a compost heap could generate. “I said, my goodness, that pile of grass and whatnot is four-feet high, and if you put a thermometer down into the bottom of that, it’s 150 degrees Fahrenheit,” he recalled.

At first, Lynd thought about using compost heaps as a source of heat. Although he soon realized that was not promising, the idea of using biology to produce energy stayed with him. “An initially harebrained idea can lead you to something worthwhile if you run with it for awhile,” Lynd said.

As Lynd’s vision for biofuels took shape in the late 70s, he realized that cellulose-utilizing bacteria that produced ethanol were known, and that production and utilization of cellulosic biofuels could involve a sustainable carbon cycle with no net emissions of carbon dioxide. These initial insights have served him well over several decades of continuous focused effort, during much of which the world showed little enthusiasm for renewable fuels. “I think the thing that served me the best is clarity of purpose,” he explained. “For decades when biofuels were not popular, I thought the topic was exciting and important, and so I worked on it anyway.”

Step-by-step progress toward a big idea
In the United States today, fuel ethanol is derived from corn, which is available in limited quantities and consumes substantial amounts of fossil energy as currently produced. “On the other hand,” Lynd observed, “cellulose is the most abundant organic compound on the face of the Earth and production of fuel from cellulosic biomass displaces far more fossil fuel than is required to produce it.”

Lynd has identified one-step fermentation of cellulosic biomass into ethanol or other biofuels—a process configuration known as consolidated bioprocessing (CBP)—as a potentially transformative breakthrough for low-cost processing:
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While the vast majority of research on processing cellulosic biomass has focused on separately-produced enzymes used in multi-step biological processing, Lynd's group is the most active worldwide in research on the one-step, CBP approach.

“Developing a microbe that can convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol can be approached in one of two ways,” said Lynd. “Either start with organisms that are able to grow well on biomass and modify them to produce ethanol better, or start with organisms that produce ethanol well and modify them so that they can grow on biomass.” Lynd’s group is investigating both approaches. His group has recently engineered thermophilic bacteria – similar to those present in the compost heap that captured his imagination years before – to produce ethanol as the only fermentation product. Working in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, the group has also engineered yeast to grow on cellulose.

“Originally, we were motivated to look at CBP by process engineering considerations – fewer tanks and fewer process steps,” said Lynd. “However, as we have learned more about how microorganisms utilize cellulose, we are finding additional, biological, advantages to the CBP strategy.”

“Microbes grow on cellulose by producing cellulase enzymes, which hydrolyze cellulosic biomass into sugars that can be fermented to ethanol,” he explained. “Producing cellulases requires expenditure of the cell’s energy currency, a molecule called ATP.” A key doubt about the feasibility of CBP was whether ethanol producing microbes could produce enough ATP to make cellulase in sufficient quantities to allow rapid cellulose hydrolysis. Lynd’s group showed, however, that a naturally-occurring cellulolytic bacterium actually has several ATP-generating mechanisms that are specific to cellulose utilization and that these mechanisms more than compensate for the ATP requirement of cellulase synthesis.

In an additional development, the Lynd group showed that cellulase enzymes are several-fold more effective when they are present on the surface of a metabolically-active cell as compared to when the enzymes act independently of cells. “Nature has solved many of the challenges associated with microbial cellulose utilization, which we are gradually discovering,” said Lynd.

Largely as a result of Lynd’s efforts, the potential of CBP has been increasingly recognized of late. For example, a recent DOE roadmap states, “CBP is widely considered to be the ultimate low-cost configuration for cellulose hydrolysis and fermentation.”

“The difference of opinion is how long it will take,” said Lynd. “Most people still think CBP is a decade off, but I think we can get there much faster than that.”

A Mission to commercialize biofuels
Recently, there has been a renewed interest in alternative fuels, especially after oil reached $70 a barrel in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the political instability in the Middle East. In 2006, with Series A funding from Khosla Ventures and other financiers, Lynd co-founded a start-up company called Mascoma Corporation to advance technologies such as consolidated bioprocessing and make fuel production from cellulosic biomass a commercial reality.

In his nomination letter for the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, renowned venture capitalist Vinod Khosla said he has become a “big believer” in the ability of ethanol to reduce America’s dependence on petroleum. “While corn-based ethanol is a great start toward this goal, the ability to convert cellulosic feedstocks to ethanol is the Holy Grail,” he wrote.

In addition to Lynd’s invention work, he is also one of the leading analysts and advocates addressing the need to develop and adopt alternative fuels. He co-led a multi-institution research project that produced the seminal report, “Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can Help End America’s Oil Dependence,” published in 2004 by the National Resources Defense Council. Lynd was also the biofuels industry representative on an advisory committee to the Executive Office of President Clinton on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from personal vehicles, and has twice testified before Congress.

Lynd is also an inspiring mentor to others. He manages the only graduate fellowship program in the general energy field, and has supervised dozens of students who share his passion for alternative fuels.

“Energy is and always has been important,” he said. “Right now, it’s the critical issue of our time and a huge determinant of human well-being and prosperity. In the future people will look back and judge us by how well we responded to this challenge.”

In addition to the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, the Lemelson-MIT Program also named Timothy M. Swager as the 2007 winner of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize today. Swager is the Department Head and John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is being recognized for inventing a range of materials and devices using original molecular-based designs, including sensors with increased sensitivity that are ideal for detecting explosives.

From May 2-5, Lynd and Swager will participate in the first-ever EurekaFest, a multi-day celebration of the inventive spirit presented by the Lemelson-MIT Program in partnership with the Museum of Science, Boston.

Image: Clostridium thermocellum, an anaerobic, thermophilic, cellulolytic, and ethanogenic bacterium capable of directly converting cellulosic substrate into ethanol.

More information:
Lynd has published extensively about the processes he developed, but a good overview of CBP can be found in the following open access article:

Lee R. Lynd, and Yi-Heng Percival Zhang, "Cellulose utilization by Clostridium thermocellum: Bioenergetics and hydrolysis product assimilation", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, May 17, 2005 | vol. 102 | no. 20 | 7321-7325

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

West-Africa launches 'African Miscanthus Plantations' project

A very interesting development is underway in West-Africa. In order to tap the rapidly growing global market for biomass and to strengthen local energy security, West-African countries are launching the 'African Miscanthus Plantations' project or 'Plantations Africaines de Miscanthus' - PAMI [*French]. The project aims to create a network of energy plantations across the region, that will export biomass to world markets and fuel local development. The biomass comes in the form of the perennial tropical grass species known as 'elephant grass' or Miscanthus giganteus.

The crop will first be used as a source of solid biofuels that can be used in biomass power plants or co-fired with coal; later on, when technologies mature, it will become a feedstock for the production of liquid biofuels (cellulosic ethanol and synthetic biofuels). The project also envisages the use of miscanthus for the production of innovative bioproducts, such as fiber-reinforced bioplastics, biocomposites and renewable building materials.

A pan-African network
The PAMI consists of the establishment of a first experimental but prototypical plantation of 200 hectares (500 acres) of miscanthus and will evolve over the coming 15 years to become a large pan-African network of plantations that exchange knowledge, technologies and management skills.

Each PAMI plantation is expected to show the following numbers:
  • An investment in the order of €800,000 (US$1.07 million), with an expected turnover of approximately €6/US$8 million and a predicted ROI in the order of 20 to 30%.
  • The creation of minimally 130 jobs per plantation, 30 of which are direct and 100 are indirect jobs both for highly qualified people (in the R&D, planning, consulting sector) and for lower-qualified labor (in the harvesting, storing, processing and transport sector); finally, jobs become available in the agricultural extension service sector
  • To cover the 200 ha with optimally spaced plants, 3 million high yield seedlings are required that will be bred and distributed by special centers.
The project's first plantation is based in Benin, a country with 7 million inhabitants in West Africa, where PAMI's initiators think the biomass-related industry will bring numerous employment opportunities and a rural revival.

Benin is currently experiencing a socio-economic boom, largely the result of the fact that it is taking advantage of the crisis in nearby Côte d'Ivoire, and because of a rigorous structural adjustment policy. But even though the country is politically stable and shows encouraging macro-economic results, the challenge is to diversify the bases of its economy. Investing in bioenergy - an industry that integrates a great diversity of economic sectors, from agriculture, technology and engineering, to transport, logistics and distribution - is seen as a strategy to do exactly that. Benin is a test-case for other countries in the region.

Socio-economic goals
The PAMI is placed within the context of the development of a new sustainable energy paradigm, based on agriculture and rural revival, as it was outlined by a Beninese Council of Ministers last month. As such, the project has the following aims:
  • to fight against unemployment and rural poverty
  • to create solid and secure energy markets in non-oil producing African countries
  • to create new export opportunities
  • to fight against climate change
Miscanthus is a polyvalent and rapidly growing perennial crop native to tropical and subtropical Asia and Africa. It has received a lot of attention both in the US and the EU, where research and actual trials are under way to test the crop's suitability for the production of energy (for two examples, see here and here). In the subtropical environment of West-Africa, the grass species is expected to attain average dry weight biomass yields of up to 30tons/ha (12tons/acre), which exceeds the amount generally deemed necessary for commercial production. Miscanthus requires relatively low amounts of fertiliser and pesticide inputs:
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The PAMI project clearly outlines the logic behind the choice for miscanthus. As a pure ligno-cellulosic biomass crop, it offers a complement and an alternative to crops that are currently being used for the production of biofuels:
Current biofuel production relies on the utilisation of oil, sugar and starch-rich crops. This limits the quantitative potential as these crops require good land.
The path based on using lignocellulosic crops will complement the production of first generation biofuels and will result in more land becoming available. If this fact is true for developed countries, then this is true for African countries and we must aim to create concrete partnerships with the countries of the North, to master our energy policies collectively.

Hints: a 'biopact' with the North?
Interestingly, the presentation of the project includes some references to the opportunity for the developed countries of the North to cooperate with the South on the PAMI venture. The Global South, the initiators say, must hedge against the risks of globalisation and increasing energy prices. In this context, technology transfers, capital, and knowledge from the North are more than welcome, in exchange for a new stream of bioenergy from the South:
In this century of globalisation and rapid change, we cannot deny the many advantages presented by an energy crop like miscanthus. [...] One must understand the course taken by the countries of the South, which is aimed at opening a new era in the energy politics of this world. A new era of cooperation with the North will emerge, because now African countries have a strong asset in their hands that can contribute to satisfying the energy demand of developed countries.

This form of cooperation will offer opportunities to tackle the many challenges [faced by the developing world], both on a macro-economic as well as on a micro-economic level. It will benefit both government and people.

Apart from the announcement that tax incentives might be looked into and that agricultural credit institutions will create financial instruments for the project, no concrete policy initiatives or directions were announced within the context of PAMI.

Still, it is refreshing to see this initiative coming out of West-Africa, which is clearly waking up to its large bioenergy potential (earlier post), and which is well aware of the challenges and debates surrounding biofuels. The choice for the creation of non-food biomass plantations from the start, with the ambition to address both the issues of local energy security and international export opportunities, while keeping a long-term view on a post-petroleum future in which plant-based alternatives to oil-based products will be introduced on a large scale, shows the breadth of the initiative.

In 2006, non-oil producing African countries created a 'Green OPEC' of sorts, the PANPP, which aims to introduce biofuels on the continent to boost energy security and lessen the negative impacts of dependence on increasingly costly fossil fuels.

More information:

Jean-Noel Ahondjon: Plantations Africaines de Miscanthus, Tela Botanica [French portal focusing on agriculture in the South], March 26, 2007.

Fraternité Matin (Côte d'Ivoire) (via AllAfrica): Recherche agro-industrielle: le Miscanthus comme alternative à la production du biocarburant - March 30, 2007.

EU BioBase: Miscanthus Handbook.

Website dedicated to miscanthus as an energy and fiber crop (*German).

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German researchers double biogas plant productivity

Some major news just in from Germany, where biogas has become the fastest growing renewable energy segment. Researchers at the Leibniz-Institut für Agrartechnik in Potsdam-Bornim announce [*German/*.pdf] they have developed a new technology that doubles the productivity of biogas digestion.

Currently, biogas production consists of feeding biomass to a large digester, where methane-producing bacteria, under anaerobic conditions, convert it into the energy-rich gas. After the fermentation, the remaining slurry is channeled out of the fermenter, and the bacteria disappear along with the waste stream (which is often used as an organic fertiliser). The bacteria take a relatively long time to grow into concentrations high enough for the bioconversion, so removing them after all that work is not smart. This way, the retention time needed to perform the conversion of organic matter into gas, remains high.

The researchers now found a simple physical technique to keep the methanogenic micro-organisms inside the digester right before the would normally be removed and exactly at the time they have reached their optimal productivity level. By introducing a small dose of magnetic particles into the digester, the bacteria 'flocculate' around the particles, and they can be scooped off the slurry. This way, they can be reintroduced into the system to feed on a new batch of biomass. The recuperation operation is straightforward and involves a simple hard magnet to attract the micro-organisms that have flocculated around the particles:
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To 'magnetise' the bacteria, ferrite can be used, which is widely available. The researchers found that only 0.1 grams per gram of organic matter introduced into the biogas digester suffices to trigger the flocculation process. Alternatively, less costly magnetic particles from brown coal flue gas can be used.

Trials with the technique have shown that the retention time can at least be halved, which means the productivity of the biogas plant doubles.

The researchers think the magnetic flocculation technique will find its best application first in systems that ferment water-rich substrates, such as wet distillers grains. But the technique is certainly not limited to this kind of substrates, since trials with two-phase and co-digestion of biomass from renewable energy crops has shown similarly positive results.

After the successful laboratory trials, the Leibniz-Institut für Agrartechnik is now searching for partners to test the technique on a large scale and on a continuous basis.

Image: Methanosarcina barkeri fusaro, an methanogenic Archaebacterium. Methanogens are organisms that make methane via a unique metabolic pathway with unique enzymes.

More information:
Leibniz-Institut für Agrartechnik: Mehr Leistung im Kessel - neues Verfahren macht die Biogaserzeugung effizienter [*.pdf] - March 29, 2007.

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Cummins announces approval of B20 blends

We often hear: biofuel production will always be dependent on oil, because it takes a lot of fossil fuel to power all the farm machinery and tractors to plant, harvest and transport biofuel feedstocks. Obviously, the green fuels can and are being used by farmers themselves to power their machines. In principle, the entire production chain can be fossil fuel free.

Cummins Inc., manufacturer of heavy duty engines used in the extractive industries and agriculture across the world, recently announced the approval of biodiesel B20 blends for use in its 2002 and later emissions-compliant ISX, ISM, ISL, ISC and ISB engines, mainly used in heavy-duty trucks. This includes the recently released 2007 products.

Cummins is able to upgrade its previous position on the use of biodiesel fuel, which limited the use to B5 blends only, up to B20 for three key reasons:
  • First, the American Society of Testing Materials specification ASTM D6751 now includes an important stability specification for B100 biodiesel.
  • Second, the availability of quality fuels from BQ-9000 Certified Marketers and Accredited Producers is rapidly growing.
  • Third, Cummins has completed the necessary testing and evaluations to ensure that customers can reliably operate their equipment with confidence using B20 fuel.
Blends above 5 percent generally are not approved by most of the engine manufacturers, but some such as Caterpillar are exceptions. Some blends up to B30, if they meet certain very specific standards, have been approved [entry ends here].
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Swedish scientist predicts 'Peak Oil' to occur between 2008 and 2018

The idea that 'Peak Oil' is closing in on us, is of course highly relevant to the future of biofuels. When the era of cheap petroleum is over, our heavily oil-dependent economies face serious risks, and the planet's environment is set to suffer. Biofuels offer a way out.

However, predicting the arrival of 'Peak Oil' remains a largely speculative affair that has long been the terrain of amateurs, obscure oil experts, marginal pseudo-scientists and shrude entrepreneurs looking to write bestsellers on the topic to cash-in on peak oil panic. But gradually, the topic has come out of its shadows, and credible voices are now having their say about it.

Fredrik Robelius, researcher at Uppsala University's, Department of Nuclear and Particle Physics, wrote his PhD thesis on the subject, titled "Giant Oil Fields - The Highway to Oil: Giant Oil Fields and their Importance for Future Oil Production". In it, he takes the analysis of the depletion trend in the largest oil fields as a starting point for a prediction about Peak Oil. Robelius made four scenarios for the arrival of the peak, which he situates anywhere between 2008 and 2018 (see graph, click to enlarge).

Looking at giant oil fields offers more reliable indicators than analysing the mere price of oil. The reliability of the oil price as a single parameter can be questioned, as earlier times of high prices have occurred without having anything to do with a lack of oil.

So what is a 'giant' oil field? It is a field that contains at least 500 million barrels of recoverable oil. Only 507, or 1 % of the total number of fields, are giants:
Although the number of giant oil fields is very limited, only 507 out of some 47 500, their contribution is far from limited. About 65 per cent of the global ultimate recoverable reserves (URR) is found in them. Historically, giant fields have been the main contributor to global oil production and in 2005, their share was over 60 per cent. Thus, giant oil fields are and will continue to be important for global oil production. However, the largest giantfields are old and many of them have been producing oil for over 50 years.
The greatest number of giant fields were discovered during the 1960s. This decade also proved to be the time when the largest URR in giant fields were discovered. Since then, both the number of giant fields discovered and the reserves discovered in giant fields have been declining. Although indications of two possible giant field discoveries during 2006, the last confirmed giant oil field discovery was in 2003.
At a first look, the importance of this might not be obvious, but the crucial point is the oil production rate in giant fields compared to smaller fields. In general, giant oil fields can sustain a high oil production rate for a long time. Even a large amount of small fields might not be enough to offset declining production from a giant field. This is the case with Norway,where the giant fields peaked a few years before the total production peaked. On a larger scale, the same is true for both Europe and North America. Consequently, this in combination with the declining discovery trend, strongly suggests a concept of peak oil governed by giant oil fields.
By looking at the investment patterns of the largest oil companies into advanced technology involved in deepwater exploration, Robelius found that in all likeliness the good prospects have already been drilled:
The declining trend in giant field discoveries suggests the good prospects are already drilled. Studying the four largest private oil companies and their effort in exploration and production during a 10 year period of both high and low prices should indicate the role of the oil price. Although their investments in exploration and production has increased, the companies have not succeeded in increasing neither production nor reserves despite an increase of the oil price. On the contrary, from 2003, reserve additions have decreased below annual production and the companies have produced oil from old discoveries, a situation which also applies on the global scale.
Robelius then created four scenarios around his giant oil field model, which show different dates for the arrival of Peak Oil:
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The giant oil field model is based on past annual production, URR and three different assumed decline rates. The results from the modeling of 333 giant fields are used in combination with the other forecasts in order to predict future oil production. Four different scenarios have been modeled and peak oil governed by the giant oil fields is a common result for the scenarios. The worst case scenario shows a peak in 2008, while the best case peaks in 2013 although at a higher production level. The production in the best case scenario increases more rapidly than a future demand growth of 1.4 per cent. Therefore the production can be adjusted to follow the demand growth, resulting in a postponed peak oil to 2018. Thus, global peak oil will occur in the ten year span between 2008 and 2018.
Analysing the economic, social, political and geopolitical effects of Peak Oil for the world economy is a highly controversial, difficult and complex affair. The concept also puts investors before great difficulties and unknowns: to invest in biofuels today without knowing for sure whether oil prices will remain high, is risky. Some bioenergy investors, like Vinod Khosla, have even asked for some kind of government intervention in the form of bottom price guarantee, to protect biofuels investments against a potential collapse of oil prices. The perception that Peak Oil is real may drive investments into bioenergy, but as long as Peak Oil is not 'real' enough, strong doubts remain and the fear for falling prices stiffles further investments.

One thing is certain, though, if Peak Oil were to arrive and show itself clearly, then the rush towards biofuels will be unstoppable. Only biofuels can immediately supply liquid fuels that can be used in existing infrastructures and vehicles, trains, airplanes and ships. However, the consequences of such a massive rally around biofuels could be disastrous for the environment, as the easiest lands and biofuel sources would be used up first (this could mean rapid deforestation for the production of annual crops like soy and semi-perennials like sugarcane).

It is therefor important to start to invest in biofuels today, but in places where production costs are low (that is in the subtropics and the tropics). This way, biofuels investors are guaranteed a return, and will invest more, which results in the gradual build up of a global 'green reserve' that is economically and environmentally sustainable. Such a broadly defined investment strategy may push back the actual Peak Oil date and give us more time to invest in advanced technologies and science (such as cellulosic ethanol and new crops).

More information:
Robelius, Fredrik, Giant Oil Fields - The Highway to Oil: Giant Oil Fields and their Importance for Future Oil Production [*.pdf], Uppsala: Uppsala University, Interfaculty Units, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, March 30, 2007.

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Biofuels industry creates large number of jobs for lab workers

The nascent biofuels sector is not only reviving the rural economy across the world, bringing new opportunities to farmers, it is also resulting in a large number of new jobs for laboratory workers, engineers, researchers, and trained employees. An illustration comes from Iowa, the center of the U.S. biofuels industry.

Instructor Donald Heck, who coordinates the 'Biotechnology and Biofuels Technology' program Iowa Central Community College teaches students how biodiesel and ethanol are made and learn testing them for temperature, reaction time and other factors.

"There is a huge need for trained employees in the biofuels industry. Everywhere I go, people in the industry are saying to me, 'Give me your students. I need them all,'" says Heck.

Located in the bulls-eye of Iowa's ethanol and biodiesel plants, Iowa Central's Biofuels Technology Degree Program began last fall. Training ethanol and biodiesel plant workers is a priority, industry officials say, and having a pool of lab-savvy workers will support the three biorefineries nearby.

A similar program is getting off the ground at Ellsworth Community College near Iowa Falls, where an ethanol plant and a biodiesel plant are operating. What distinguishes the Iowa Central biofuels program is a proposal to establish a biofuels testing lab for state and national regulators.

Iowa Central's program began 18 months ago, when Heck came from Iowa State University, where he did post-doctoral research and taught for five years. "We're trying to bring the same level of ambition and commitment to the sciences here that we had at Iowa State. I'm going to push them to it" Heck says:
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Alicia Clancy, communications specialist for the Renewable Energy Group in Ralston - a biodiesel producer, marketer and plant developer - said biodiesel plants employ about 30 workers, from general manager on down. "The Iowa Central program will really help people so they can hit the ground running when they are hired," Clancy said.

Biofuels plant employee salaries can start at $35,000 a year, Heck said. Bob Paxton, president of Iowa Central Community College, said the biofuels industry will create 900 jobs in the next year in the Midwest.

"Our mission is to provide the plants with trained workers for these jobs," he said. "I knew there would be demand for a program to train employees of ethanol and biodiesel plants as they are springing up in Iowa."

Farmer Bill Horan of Rockwell City, a director of several Renewable Energy Group-affiliated biodiesel plants, pointed to tight competition for trained biofuels employees. "Our plants are training employees and then the employees are getting stolen by other companies," he said.

Clancy and Horan said the biofuels program has given Iowa Central a leg up in its effort to establish a fuel testing lab.

"It's an essential element to give people confidence that they can run their engines safely," Clancy said.

Horan said that delays in getting test results back to the plants is costing money.

"We are sending our samples out of state and waiting three weeks for results," Horan said. "If we can have our test results back in 24 hours, that's millions and millions and millions of dollars that can be saved."

Now, samples of Iowa biofuels are shipped by the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship to the University of Missouri for testing.

Matt Caswell, public affairs director for the Iowa Soybean Association, said Iowa Central's testing lab has impressed biodiesel industry leaders.

"It's time for Iowa to get serious about fuel testing," Caswell said. "We need to leverage what the Iowa Central lab has now and take them to the next level."

Caswell said $250,000 is being sought from the Iowa Power Fund, if it is approved by the Legislature this year.

The state money will be matched by $1 million in federal funds, Caswell said, to help finance the fuel testing lab.

"We're right in the middle of the renewable energy heartland," he said. "We want to exploit what's at Iowa Central right now because we don't have time to wait for it. We needed it yesterday."

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey hasn't endorsed a specific site, but he does want a biofuels testing lab in Iowa.

"At this time, multiple facilities are still under consideration for funding, and the department is willing to work with the Legislature on moving forward through this process," Northey said.

James Kersten, associate vice president of development and government relations at Iowa Central, said the college's board is expected to seek voter approval in June to raise money, in part, for a Bioscience Building and Training Center that would include a biofuels testing lab on the Fort Dodge campus.

The testing lab could be another training ground for Iowa Central students, Kersten said.

Back in the lab, Heck watched the students run a variety of tests on the biodiesel they made from soy, coconut, peanut and other oils.

Heck answered a question or two and directed students to lab equipment they needed, but he stayed out of their way as they ran their tests.

"They figure out how they are going to do the experiments, so they are engaged in the thinking process," Heck said. "They can do it. They just need someone to teach them."

Paxton said Heck's commitment to the biofuels program is one of the reasons it has progressed so far so fast.

"Don has a passion for this," Paxton said. "For rural Iowa, this is our opportunity for economic growth. Hopefully, as those plants evolve, our students will be able to evolve with them."

Image: Andrew Harris, 19, of Perry drains off a biodiesel sample during a class in the biofuels program at Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge. Graduates are highly sought after because of the rapid growth of the industry and a shortage of trained employees. Don Heck runs the two-year biofuels program. Credit: Justin Hayworth/Register Photos

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