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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, May 12, 2007

Researchers develop biomass powered "refrigerator-stove-generator" for developing world

The following three problems are well known energy-related obstacles for development in poor countries: (1) primitive biomass used for cooking and heating is highly inefficient and a killer in the kitchen claiming two million lives each year (earlier post), (2) the lack of reliable and affordable refrigerators prevents the development of efficient food and medicine markets where products need to be kept fresh and cool, (3) finally, the lack of rural electrification limits the opportunity for people to study, to connect to the broader world and to spend their time efficiently.

Now wouldn't it be great if you could solve all these problems by creating one single device? Imagine an affordable three-in-one technology that consists of an efficient, low-cost refrigerator, combined with a safe and clean cooking stove, and an electric generator added to it. To make things better, imagine the device being powered by the very biomass rural people in the South already use on a daily basis, albeit in a wasteful manner.

Well, the SCORE project (Stove for Cooking, Refrigeration and Electricity) is developing exactly such a machine. What is more, the device will rely on the physics of thermoacoustic heating and cooling - a field of research that has resulted in such high-tech applications as devices to cool satellites, radars and to liquefy natural gas. The £2 million (€2.93/US$3.96 million) project brings together four major UK universities, the US Los Alamos National Laboratory, a multi-national electrical goods manufacturer, an international charity and numerous universities in Asia and Africa.

The consortium's goal is to reduce poverty in Africa and Asia by understanding the energy needs of rural communities and working with them to develop the affordable, versatile, domestic appliance. The collaboration will ensure the device is affordable, socially acceptable, and there is scope for communities to develop numerous businesses from the manufacture, repair and innovative usage.

The University of Manchester's Dr Artur Jaworski, an expert in thermoacoustic engineering in The School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering, will lead the vital research into the engine design for the SCORE device.

In simple terms, thermoacoustics refers to generation of sound waves due to the non-uniform heating of gas - a typical example being the 'singing' of hot glass vessels during glass blowing processes, a phenomenon known for centuries. The process works in reverse as well. The idea is to couple the heat generated by the biomass-powered thermoacoustic engine and cooking stove, to the resonator that contains pressurised gas which, when heated, generates soundwaves that power the thermoacoustic freezer and that is coupled back to the engine, while at the same time generating electricity (see diagram, click to enlarge). If you have some free time, why not make your own [*.pdf] tabletop thermoacoustic refrigerator to learn more about the science?

Using thermoacoustic technology is a more efficient way of using wood as a fuel than using an open fire to cook. It produces less pollutants. Like a Stirling engine, the device will also have fewer moving parts than ordinary engines and freezers, making it more reliable. The efficiency of thermoacoustic engines (40%) is considerably higher than that of ordinary combustion engines:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The concept of the device is based on the proven thermoacoustic Stirling engines and refrigerators developed by Los Alamos, NASA and the US military for applications including: cooling of satellite systems and radar arrays, gas liquefaction and cryogenics, use of waste heat for air conditioning, separation of binary gas mixtures and many others. There is a significant level of innovation in the proposed work in three respects:
  1. research into the combination of the thermoacoustic engine, linear alternator and cool box in a single device, powered by a biomass stove, which has not been attempted before
  2. design of a rugged and inexpensive linear alternator that could be easily mass-produced
  3. the overall system design from the viewpoint of low cost, application of indigenous materials, use of local manufacturing skills and simplicity of assembly, which are major research issues compared to the high-cost and high-tech thermoacoustic systems produced so far.
These challenges form the backbone of the proposed scientific and technological work programme.

Within the overall 5-year duration, there will be two stages to the project: the first 3 years will mainly focus on conducting the necessary social and scientific research, while the last 2 years will broadly focus on technology hand-over, including representative field trials and a wide dissemination among target communities.

Dr Jaworski says: "A multi-purpose thermoacoustic device such as this, powered by biomass, has never been attempted before. Although we have wide experience of this technology and applying it in different ways, this new and exciting project will require plenty of ingenuity and innovation."

Making a difference
"With the depth of experience and expertise we have assembled as part of this international project, we are confident we can meet our aims, deliver a viable appliance and make a real difference to people living in the developing world."

"The benefits could be huge, ranging from better health due to the correct storage of medicines, to improved education through electricity for computers and lighting, to a higher standard of living through the creation of employment opportunities and associated businesses."

Researchers will need to look carefully at ways of ensuring any design can be assembled cheaply and easily using local labour and indigenous materials. Given the high cost and high-tech nature of current thermoacoustic systems, this represents a significant challenge.

Dr Jaworski, who is an EPSRC Advanced Research Fellow, will work closely with academics at The University of Nottingham, Imperial College London and Queen Mary, University of London.

Other partners are the international charity Practical Action, Los Alamos National Laboratory and GP Acoustics. Universities in developing countries in Africa and Asia will also assist with the design, development, production and introduction of the device.

The SCORE consortium is funded by grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as part of its initiative on energy and international development.

More information:
The SCORE project website.

The Thermoacoustics web-server at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, with an overview of the physics.

Daniel A. Russell and Pontus Weibulla, "Tabletop thermoacoustic refrigerator for demonstrations" [*.pdf], American Association of Physics Teachers, 2002.

Steven L. Garrett, Scott Backhaus, "The Power of Sound", American Scientist, November-December 2000, Volume: 88 Number: 6 Page: 516 DOI: 10.1511/2000.6.516

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Scientist studies effects of high gas prices on American workers

The socio-economic effects of high energy prices are most dramatic in the developing world and amongst the poor. There, the situation is catastrophic, so much so that the UN stated the following in its latest report on bioenergy: "Recent oil price increases have had devastating effects on many of the world's poor countries, some of which now spend as much as six times as much on fuel as they do on health. Others spend twice the money on fuel as they do on poverty alleviation. And in still others, the foreign exchange drain from higher oil prices is five times the gain from recent debt relief."

But even in highly developed countries, like the US, the phenomenon has considerable impacts on workers and their families. Research conducted by Wayne Hochwarter, a professor of management in Florida State University's College of Business, documents that Americans' work attitudes have been affected as the cost to fill a tank of gas has nearly doubled over the past few years. In his research, approximately 1,000 full-time employees were asked to note how gas prices have affected their disposable spending patterns. They also were asked how these changes affected their stress levels and willingness to participate at work. (Respondents, who worked in both blue- and white-collar occupations, reported paying an average of US$2.83 a gallon during their previous visit to the gas station at the time they were surveyed earlier this year.)

Sixty percent of employees confirmed that the price of gas has significantly reduced the amount of money they have to spend on other things, while 45 percent reported the need to pay off debts more slowly or not at all. Finally, 26 percent indicated that the cost of gas has necessitated going without basics such as heat or air conditioning, or even cutting back on food purchases, over the past few months.

Further, Hochwarter found that those most affected by gas prices were prone to experience stress both on and off the job. Specifically, negative views of work and the company, sluggishness, antagonistic behavior, feeling overwhelmed and sadness were significantly higher for those indicating gas-price-related effects on spending behavior:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"Most of these effects can be attributed directly to distraction while at work," Hochwarter said. "Those I've talked to spent a significant amount of time worrying about their financial situation."

The research also indicated much higher levels of family conflict for those required to modify spending habits.

Finally, Hochwarter was interested in whether employees felt alone in their sacrifices or if their company had to tighten its belt as well.

"Certainly, only a handful of employees noted that their company changed plans or had to go without because of the price of gas - even companies that rely heavily on fuel for their operations," he said.

Those personally affected by gas prices who did not see the company sacrificing were less committed to getting things done while at work. Compared to those who felt that their company was doing without, those who felt alone in their sacrifice:
  • Were 15 percent less committed to the company.
  • Had job performance levels that were 12 percent lower.
  • Were 20 percent less willing to stay late or work extra if needed.
  • Were 25 percent less likely to give "maximum effort."
It appears that misery does indeed love company. When employees have to go without, they get very upset when they see the CEO pulling into the parking lot in a new Jaguar.

"The price of gas has contributed to the perceptions of many that they are simply never going to get ahead," Hochwarter said. Hochwarter's research is being prepared for presentation and publication.

More information:
Florida State University: Higher gas prices leave many workers running on empty - May 11, 2007.

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Ocean's capacity to store carbon may alter because of climate change

A study released today provides some of the first solid evidence that warming-induced changes in ocean circulation at the end of the last Ice Age caused vast quantities of ancient carbon dioxide to belch from the deep sea into the atmosphere. Scientists believe the carbon dioxide (CO2) releases helped propel the world into further warming. The research is significant to understand how oceans with their large carbon storage capacity will react to human induced climate change.

Atmospheric CO2, also produced by burning of fossil fuels, is thought to be largely responsible for current warming. However, scientists have known for some time that the gas also goes through natural cycles. By far most of the world's mobile carbon is stored in the oceans - 40 trillion metric tons, or 15 times more than in air, soil and water combined. But how this vast marine reservoir interacts with the atmosphere has been a subject of debate for the last 25 years.

The new study shows carbon that had built up in the ocean over millennia was released in two big pulses at about 18,000 years ago and 13,000 years ago, says Dr. Thomas Marchitto of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who jointly led the study with colleague Dr. Scott Lehman.This is some of the clearest evidence yet that the enormous carbon release into the atmosphere during the last deglaciation was triggered by abrupt changes in deep ocean circulation.

The study, done by researchers at the University of Colorado, Kent State University and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, appears in the May 10 advance online version of the leading journal Science.

While much of the CO2 released by the ocean after the end of the last ice age about 18,000 years ago was taken up by the re-growth of forests in areas previously covered by ice sheets, enough remained in the atmosphere to pump up CO2 concentrations significantly, the authors said. Today, CO2 levels are higher than at any time in at least the past 650,000 years because of increased fossil fuel burning.
“The timing of the major CO2 release after the last ice age corresponds closely with deep sea circulation changes caused by ice melting in the North Atlantic at that time. So our study really underscores ongoing concerns about the ocean’s capacity to take up fossil fuel CO2 in the future, since continued warming will almost certainly impact the mode and speed of ocean circulation.” - Dr. Scott Lehman, University of Colorado at Boulder.
The researchers found the evidence in a core of Pacific Ocean sediment brought up from 705 meters off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. The core held the remains of bottom-dwelling protozoa called foraminifera, which take up carbon from surrounding water and use it to build their shells. The isotope carbon 14 - normally used to date organic remains such as wood and bones - can also be used to date the water in which the foraminifera grew (image, click to enlarge). Going back through layers built up over the past 38,000 years, the researchers found the shells contained expected levels of C14 in all but two brief periods, beginning roughly 18,000 years and 13,000 years ago. That meant the protozoa were using older sources of carbon, long isolated from the atmosphere:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The carbon could come from only one place: upwelling of the deep sea, from depths of 3 kilometers (nearly two miles) or more. The researchers believe the water came not from the Pacific, but from the faraway Antarctic Ocean--the only part of the world where great upwelling can occur, due to the bottom topography and wind patterns. Most of the rising C02 probably poured out into the air in southern latitudes, but some carbon-rich water traveled on currents at intermediate depths to the north, where the foraminifera recorded its C14 signature.

The upwelling and release of this carbon dioxide matches well with rapid warming and rises in atmospheric CO2 shown in glacial ice cores from Antarctica and other far-flung records. The researchers believe that largely as a result of these episodes, CO2 in the atmosphere went from 190 parts per million (ppm) during glacial times to about 270 ppm, and remained at that level until recently. A similar but much more rapid rise, to 380 ppm, has taken place since the Industrial Revolution - most of it in the last few decades. Both rises almost certainly stoked climate warming.

Exactly what caused the upwelling is not clear, but many scientists believe the world was already undergoing a natural warming cycle, possibly due to a slight periodic change in earth's orbit. This suddenly ended the last Ice Age, in turn changing ocean currents and wind patterns. The hypothesis favored by paper's authors is that sudden disintegration of northern ice sheets during this initial warming slowed or halted deep Atlantic Ocean circulation. This in turn warmed the Antarctic, causing massive retreats of sea ice and allowing deep Antarctic waters to surface. Thus, it is possible that the signal detected in the Pacific ultimately originated on the other side of the world.

"Once the CO2 started rising, it probably helped the warming process along - but exactly how much, we can't say," said Robert Anderson, a Lamont-Doherty expert in ocean circulation who was not involved in the study. "And there is still huge uncertainty as to how the oceans will respond to current warming." Anderson says the study should be a wake-up call to the scientific community to expand studies of the oceans' relationship to climate change.

“If the oceans were not such a large storage ‘sink’ for carbon, atmospheric CO2 increases in recent decades would be considerably higher,” Lehman says. “Since the uptake of CO2 on Earth’s land surface is being offset almost entirely by the cutting and burning of forests, any decrease in the uptake of fossil fuel CO2 by the world’s oceans could pose some very serious problems,” he says.

“This study provides strong indicators of just how intimately coupled the connection between the ocean and atmosphere can be,” Ortiz says. “The findings should give us pause to consider the impact that fossil fuel release will have on ocean circulation and future climate change.”

“When the ocean circulation system changes, it alters how carbon-rich deep water rises to the surface to release its carbon to the atmosphere,” says the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Dr. James White, a climate scientist who was not involved in the study. “This is important not only for understanding why glacial times came and went in the past, but it is crucial information we need to understand how the oceans will respond to future climate change.”

Studies in the past several years have shown sharp declines in Arctic sea ice in recent decades and a loss in ice mass from Greenland, which some believe could combine to alter North Atlantic circulation and disrupt ocean circulation patterns worldwide.

Image: Oceans are vast carbon sinks. Scientists use radioactive and stable isotopes to date and study carbon cycling processes and events. Courtesy: International Atomic Energy Agency, Marine Environment Laboratory.

More information:
Marchitto, T.M. et al. "Marine Radiocarbon Evidence for the Mechanism of Deglacial Atmospheric CO2 Rise", [*abstract] Science, May 10, 2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1138679

Eurekalert: Climate swings have brought great CO2 pulses up from the deep sea - May 11, 2007.

Kent State University: Study Sheds Light on Earth’s CO2 Cycles, Possible Impacts of Climate Change - May 10, 2007.

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Forest-rich developing nations willing to slow deforestation, on their own terms

Tropical deforestation, which releases more than 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year, is a major contributor to global climate change. Recognizing this, a group of forest-rich developing nations have called for a strategy to make forest preservation politically and economically attractive. The result is a two-year initiative, dubbed "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation" (RED), launched by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The key driver behind deforestation in the tropics is poverty, which is why economic incentives to slow down the practise must be strong enough and actually reach the communities on the ground. Several concepts like 'compensated reduction' (also known as 'avoided deforestation') have been proposed, but implementing them would be very difficult.

In a Policy Forum article appearing in the May 10 edition of Science Express, an international team of climate researchers now proposes alternative financing schemes.

The team first makes a case for the RED initiative from a scientific and technological standpoint. Christopher Field, director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology and a co-author on the policy article says "many of these countries resisted certain provisions of the Kyoto Protocol because they felt that it intruded on their national sovereignty. Now, they are ready and willing to address forestry strategies in a constructive manner, on their own terms. It is very encouraging."

Scientific and technical perspectives
On the scientific and technical side, the authors address two main questions. First, can preserving tropical forests make a significant dent in climate-threatening carbon emissions?". And second, will these preserved forests be able to survive in an environment altered by the climate change that cannot be avoided?":
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"The answer in both cases is a qualified 'yes,'" Field said. "As with all measures to address global warming, the key is immediate and aggressive action."

On the first question, the authors found that reducing deforestation rates by 50% over the next century will save an average of about half a billion metric tons of carbon every year. This by itself could account for as much as 12% of the total reductions needed from all carbon sources to meet the IPCC target of 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by the year 2100.

As for the second issue, computer models that link climate effects to changes in the carbon cycle have predicted that tropical forests will survive and continue to act as a "sink" by absorbing carbon, provided that emissions can be kept under control . The efficiency of the tropical forest as a carbon sink might in fact diminish over time, but the authors expect that it will not disappear completely.

Policies and implementation
The political challenges to reducing deforestation in the tropical developing world are varied and complex. Traditionally, many countries have viewed their forests as an economic resource that they have the right to harvest, much as oil- and ore-rich nations exercise the right to harvest those resources. As such, many proposed solutions are centered on direct economic incentives to reduce rates of tree clearing.

However, the authors of the policy article describe low-cost measures that can enhance the success of carbon-trade systems and subsidized low-carbon development programs. For example, by strategically evaluating forest land to determine its value for other uses, developing countries can focus on clearing only areas with high agricultural value.

"It will require political will and sound economic strategy to make the RED initiative work," explains Field. "But the initiative provides a big reduction in emissions at low cost. It is a good example of the kind of creative thinking that can help solve the climate problem."


The Biopact hopes this kind of schemes works out, but remains sceptical for several reasons: the initiative requires considerable investments in capacity building in the developing countries, to make sure that funds actually reach the poorest communities who else have no alternative but to deforest. A culture of corruption and bureaucracy will make it very difficult to have the funds trickle down to the bottom, where they are needed most. Moreover, such an initiative entails the risk of pushing people into poverty, as those at the top who receive and manage the incentive to preserve forests (politicians, bureaucrats, local authorities) might force communities who make a living from deforestation-based agriculture off their lands without providing them an alternative. If not monitored well, the scheme could trigger a war against the poor.

Secondly, there is a more fundamental economic problem. If oil prices were to increase strongly (not unlikely if 'Peak Oil' is real), forest land becomes valuable as a resource to grow certain biofuel crops. The opportunity costs of 'RED' will then be examined, and it is not unthinkable that biofuels - which can replace costly fossil fuels - will be seen as a more interesting economic opportunity. Biofuels in that case would have nothing to do any longer with reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but would become pure energy sources grown in order to boost energy security.

Given the high energy intensity of the economies of developing nations, the strict correlation between access to low cost energy and economic development, the very low demand elasticity of oil and transport fuels, and the relatively low investments needed to convert some biofuel feedstocks (like palm oil and sugarcane) into diesel and gasoline substitutes, this scenario is not unrealistic. Sadly, projections showing the effects of serious oil price increases on the viability of 'compensated reduction' schemes are left out of the analysis too often. We urge policy makers and analysts to include them.

More information:
UNFCC: Workshop on reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries, 7-9 March 2007 in Cairns, Australia.

UNFCC: Report on the second workshop on reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries - [*.pdf] April 17, 2007.

Raymond E. Gullison, et al, "Tropical Forests and Climate Policy", Science Express, May 10, 2007, DOI: 10.1126/science.1136163

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CDM projects to convert palm oil waste into biogas

Sime Plantations, a subsidiary of Sime Darby Berhad, and BioX Carbon, part of the BioX Group, have signed an agreement to jointly develop Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) projects at the palm oil mills of Sime Darby in Malaysia.

These CDM projects are based on the concept of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, in this particular instance, methane gas, by capturing the gas emitted from palm oil mill effluent (POME) and transforming it into renewable biogas that can be used for combustion in gas engines or boilers.

Through this process, the carbon dioxide footprint of the production process at the mills is reduced. The life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of palm based biofuels are also strongly enhanced, whereas their already strong energy balance is given a boost as well.

When palm fruit bunches are harvested and processed into palm oil, a large amount of organic slurry becomes available. Until now, most of this energy-rich waste-stream was not recovered and left to settle in ponds, where it emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas. By anaerobically digesting the POME, biogas can be obtained and used to power the mill or plantation equipment. This way, fossil fuels can be replaced with the renewable biogas from palm oil waste. It is estimated that for each hectare of oil palms between 400 and 500 cubic meters of biogas can be obtained from the POME released during the processing alone.

The Clean Development Mechanism is one of the systems introduced in the Kyoto Protocol, to assist countries in achieving their emission reduction targets. Apart from the environmental benefits of reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, CDM projects are potentially profitable and can reduce fuel costs by using, in this case, captured methane as a replacement.

The BioX Group is currently the largest and fastest growing supplier of liquid biomass to the energy sector in Europe. It strives to be a fully integrated renewable and sustainable energy producer and as such has included the development of CDM projects as part of its business model. These projects are to be undertaken under the purview of the Kyoto Protocol (United Nations) and will generate Certified Emission Reduction certificates (CERs):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Talking to reporters, BioX Group chief financial officer and head in Asia, Edgare Kerkwijk said the group would initially invest 2.5 million ringitt (€544,000/US$733,000) in the project. “From 2008 to 2012, we will be looking at an investment worth 12.5 million ringitt. We plan to sign CDM project agreements with two or three more listed plantation companies this year,” he added.

He added, "Implementing CDM takes Sime Plantations' corporate social responsibility to a higher level since CDM is one of the few environmental initiatives recognized by national and international bodies".

"The implementation of CDM projects can be a specialised and lengthy process and we are therefore proud that Sime Plantations has chosen our company to be their partner in the development of these projects. Adopting CDM enables Sime Plantations to deliver value in environmental consciousness even while it strives to deliver value in its operations", he added.

Kerkwijk said BioX Group was also developing four liquid biomass power plants in the European Union (EU). “We are interested to acquire or form joint ventures in biomass plantations in South-East Asia,” he added.

Azhar Abdul Hamid, Managing Director of Sime Plantations, said, "The CDM projects are expected to generate an annual income of 7.5 million ringitt (€1.5/US$2.2 million). Greenhouse gases are reduced and this is in compliance with the Kyoto Protocol and the Principles and Criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil".

"There is potential savings in energy costs at the mills using this concept, as fossil fuel can be replaced with the renewable biogas. Apart from the additional income from the sale of CERs, the concept also enhances the sustainability and environmental management of our palm oil mills. The trapping of the methane reduces the foul odour from the POME ponds to the surrounding community", he added.

Stakeholder consultations for the bundled CDM projects have been completed successfully, which means that individuals, groups and communities likely to be affected by the projects have been given the opportunity to express their views and express their concerns, if any. The project received the Letter of Approval by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment on April 12th, after which the project will be delivered to the CDM Executive Board in Bonn, Germany, for registration.

Sime Plantations manages about 80,000ha of oil palm plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. A total of eight palm oil mills are in operation to process harvested palm fruit bunches from its estates.

The Malaysia Energy Centre recently reported that the nation had carbon credit potential of up to 100 million tonnes for the 2006-2012 period. Japan and the EU are among the biggest carbon credit buyers in the world.

More information:
BioX: Sime Plantations and BioX Carbon sign agreement to jointly develop CDM Projects [*.pdf] - May 10, 2007.

The Star: Sime Plantations, Dutch firm in greenhouse gas control project - May 11, 2007.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, an ongoing dialogue on palm oil bringing together NGOs, businesses and scientists.

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Brazil tells Pope it wants to help Africa grow biofuels to combat poverty

Will biofuels get the Vatican's blessing? Maybe. During his visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI and president Lula discussed some of the latter's plans aimed at alleviating poverty in the country.

Amongst the pro-poor initiatives introduced by the socialist leader in this very catholic country is the famous 'Fome Zero' (Zero Hunger) program. It ranges from giving direct financial aid to the poorest families, creating cisterns in Brazil's semi-arid region, creating popular restaurants with low prices, educating about healthy eating habits, distributing vitamins and iron suplements, suporting family farming, giving access to credit by microcredit, and a few other programs.

The 'Bolsa Familia' program is equally part of the initiative, and has been praised by economists and sociologists across the ideological spectrum. Under the scheme the poorest families receive a substantial grant in return for sending their children to school. The system is effectively breaking some aspects of the poverty cycle.

A less well known pro-poor initiative is Brazil's Pro-Biodiesel program, which includes policies that offer incentives to biofuel producers who integrate poor rural family farmers in their activities (earlier post on Brazil's so-called 'Social Fuel Seal').

President Lula recently went a step further by expanding the pro-poor biofuels initiative to Africa, at least conceptually. In a close-door meeting with Pope Benedict XVI he told the Pontiff the South American nation wants to help African countries develop biofuels because they offer a tremendous opportunity to alleviate poverty on the continent.

Brazil's ambassador to the Vatican, Vera Machado, told the Agencia Estado news agency that the pope said he did not know much about biofuels but appreciated any action in support of Africa.

Brazil, the world leader in developing ethanol from sugarcane, is already working with African crop scientists in Ghana, where it has established a special Africa Cell of its state-owned agricultural research organisation Embrapa. Negotiations are underway with several African countries to assist them in kickstarting a biofuels industry (earlier post). Both Italy, France and the UK have teamed up with Africa to create 'South-North-South' alliances aimed at investing jointly in Africa's biofuels potential.

Officials added it is also in Brazil's economic interest to help create new ethanol-producing markets in order to expand global trade of the renewable fuel. Brazil is the world's only major ethanol exporter, but thinks many African countries have a very large potential to follow in its tracks [entry ends here].
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

Little Green Data Book 2007 focuses on emissions and energy

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – the principal man-made cause of global warming – continue to rise, with the world producing today 16 percent more CO2 than in 1990, according to the Little Green Data Book 2007, launched today on the occasion of the 15th Session of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-15), which is focusing its deliberations on issues of energy and climate change.

In its eighth annual edition, the World Bank’s Little Green Data Book 2007 [*.pdf] is a pocket-sized quick reference on key environmental and development data for over 200 countries, based on the World Development Indicators 2007. Country, regional, and income group profiles provide a baseline for comparison on the state of the environment and its linkages with the economy and people.

Emission growing world wide, EU efforts work
According to this year’s edition of this annual World Bank publication, emissions from fossil fuels and cement manufacturing today are originated in equal shares from the industrialized and the developing worlds. In 1960, low and middle income countries only accounted for one third of world emissions (graph, click to enlarge).

Emissions have been growing faster in the poorer countries, the report says, especially in East and South Asia. But the upward trend is also a feature of high income countries. The United States and Japan show very high increases in CO2 emissions: 20 and 15 percent respectively between 1990 and 2003. The European Monetary Union countries grew only 3 percent in large part because of successful efforts to reduce emissions (graph, click to enlarge).

As a group, rich countries are largely off-track with respect to the Kyoto commitments, which established an average reduction of 5.2 percent from 1990 levels by 2012. The only exception is constituted by the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where emissions have gone down owing to the recession of the 1990s.

China and India becoming major contributors
According to the report, among the group of developing countries, China and India stand out as major emitters. Carbon dioxide emissions in China have increased by 1,700 million tons between 1990 and 2003 (73 percent more), and in India by 700 million tons (88 percent more). While contributing heavily to the world’s total, emissions from China and India are very low in per-capita terms. The average Chinese still emits 16 percent of the average citizen from the United States, and the average Indian emits 6 percent of the United States average (graph, click to enlarge).

Energy system must change
Carbon dioxide emissions stem mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels and the manufacture of cement. The Little Green Data Book 2007 shows that this is true especially for industrialized countries and a group of fast growing developing economies, such as China and India. The report says that fossil fuels (i.e. oil, natural gas, or coal) are used to generate 66 percent of electricity worldwide. In the Middle East, the share of fossil fuels in electricity generation is 93 percent, and in East Asia and the Pacific and in South Asia it is 82 percent. At the other end of the spectrum is Latin America and the Caribbean, with 38 percent of its electricity produced from fossil fuels:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

“Energy policy will play a crucial role in determining future emissions,” said Warren Evans, Director of Environment, World Bank. “Technologies are already available to minimize emissions in the energy sector. They include the use of ultra-efficient coal-fired plants, the use of natural gas and advanced renewable energies”.

In the developing world, greenhouse gases emissions are mainly originated from agriculture and land use changes such as deforestation. For example, a recent report titled “Indonesia and Climate Change” and published by the World Bank and the British government, shows that deforestation puts Indonesia as the world’s third largest emitter after the United States and China. (DFID and World Bank, “Indonesia and Climate Change”, Working Paper on Current Status and Policies, March 2007)

“On average, land use change, forestry, and agriculture account for more than half of the emissions of greenhouse gases in developing countries, compared to 10 percent in industrialized countries,” added Evans. “In order for a post-Kyoto climate change agreement to work, developed and developing nations should take into account the benefits of avoided deforestation and create the necessary financial mechanisms to transfer resources to countries that effectively protect their forests.”

Speaking at the publication launch, Mark Radka, Chief, Energy branch, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said, “The Little Green Data Book highlights the need to reverse the alarming trend of continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions. Fortunately we seem to be witnessing a growing recognition of the problem and an increasing willingness to take action. By providing such a wealth of information, the Little Green Data Book can only help stimulate such interest.”

Jacqueline Cote, Senior Advisor Advocacy & Partnerships, World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) said at the launch that, “The Little Green Data Book 2007 confirms the need for rapid and radical changes in the global energy system. Such data not only promotes mutual understanding between business and non-business stakeholders, but supports progressive business’ commitment to partner with governments in developing and implementing energy-related measures that are benchmarked against the threefold objectives of competitiveness, energy security, and environment.”

Poverty, deforestation and land use change driving forces in the developing world
The Little Green Data Book 2007 shows that deforestation has essentially been a feature of the poorer countries. Between 1990 and 2005, nearly 45,000 square kilometers of forest were lost in low income countries (corresponding to an annual deforestation rate of 0.5 percent) and 38,000 square kilometers in lower middle income countries (annual deforestation: 0.16 percent).

“Deforestation is not only a cause of increased carbon dioxide emissions,” according to Kirk Hamilton, Lead Environmental Economist, World Bank, and lead author of the report, “but it is in itself a consequence of poverty. Tropical rain forests are diminishing at an alarming rate because of the human need for food and demands for timber, energy, minerals, and other resources. Forests host at least half of all life forms on earth, and as deforestation continues, the biodiversity of the planet is being seriously affected.”

Hamilton concluded that, “There is growing recognition that wise forest management is critical to sustainable development, particularly where the local or national economy is based directly on the use of forest resources. In addition, forest ecosystems have major impacts on soil, water, and coastal marine productivity over very large areas. They also have a significant influence on the global carbon cycle, which plays a crucial role in local and global climate regulation.”

Reducing deforestation partly entails providing access to electricity to local communities. In Sub-Saharan Africa, electric power consumption per capita is 550 kWh, which is seven times smaller than the average for high income countries, where electricity consumption per capita is 3,454 kWh. Better access to electricity, in turn, will also mean lower reliance on traditional fuels. Currently, wood fuels are still the primary source of energy for approximately 2 billion people in poor countries. Solid biomass is associated with respiratory problems caused by indoor smoke. Most of the victims are infants, children, and women from poor rural families. Acute respiratory infections in children and chronic pulmonary disease in women are a common feature.

According to the report, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 56 percent of total energy use comes from traditional biomass. If one ranks countries of the World, the top 20 are all African countries, with the exception of Nepal (fourth in the list), Haiti (eleventh) and Myanmar (twelfth).

More information:
World Bank: The Little Green Data Book 2007 [*.pdf] - May, 2007.

World Bank: country data in *.excel format.

World Bank: “Little Green Data Book 2007”: Carbon Dioxide Emissions on the Rise, Warns World Bank Publication - May, 2007.

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Wärtsilä to build six biomass power plants in Germany

Finnish engineering company Wärtsilä has announced it received an order for six turnkey biomass-fuelled power plants in April. The total value of the order is approximately €100/US$135 million. The customer is the German-based company Bayernfonds BestEnergy GmbH & Co, which will utilize forestry residues to fuel the plants.

Construction is planned to start in July 2007, depending on the construction and operational permits being issued by the local authorities. It is anticipated that all six biomass power plants will have been completed towards the end of 2008.

Wärtsilä has so far installed more than 100 of its 'Biograte' burners in plants in the EU, Russia and Canada. The plants based on this technology have a set of properties [*.pdf] that make them one of the most successful products in the sector (diagram, click to enlarge):
  • Optimised energy production for different needs: plants can be used for electricity generation only (condense plant) or for co-generation solutions designed for optimized heat recovery.
  • High reliability through proven technology and extensive operational experience
  • A patented rotating BioGrate combustion technology that has taken the universal grate technology into a new level of operational performance in terms of:
  • Low emissions, on Nox and CO emissions it can be reached the strictest limits demanded at the market place
  • High combustion efficiency with low unburned content in the ashes
  • No supplementary firing required. The BioGrate is ignited and kept running purely with biofuels only up to 65% fuel moisture
  • Modern automation allows unmanned operation with daily attendance.
  • The standard plant design is based on modern architecture which allows the plant to be installed into urban surroundings. This combined with a low noise option makes it possible to locate the plant even next to a living area with housing close by.
At the heart of the biofuel power plants is an innovative combustion system that was developed over the course of 15 years. This patented BioGrate (image, click to enlarge) is a new-generation moving grate technique. The fuel input ranges from 3 to 25 MW. BioGrate is a rotating grate with a conical primary combustion chamber. The fresh biomass fuel - wood chips, bark, pellets - is fed from underneath to the centre of the grate. Since the heat radiates from the refractory lining bricks and the flames, the fuel dries in the middle of the grate without disturbing the burning fuel bed in the combustion zone. After the complete combustion of the residual carbon the ash falls from the edge of the grate to the ash space filled with quenching water.

BioGrate combustion results in a significantly lower levels of emissions compared to conventional grate technologies:
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The wide grate area and the optimized grate construction ensure complete combustion with low unburned carbon content in the ash and low CO emissions in the flue gases. Precise division of combustion air in the grate enables very low NOX emissions. Even lower NOX emissions can be reached by applying SNCR technology to the system. Particle emission limits vary from country to country. Efficient and reliable electrostatic precipitators are used to remove dust from the flue gases.

All six plants to be build in Germany have an identical configuration based on the BioGrate, with an electrical power output of 5.6 MWe. The plants will burn wood residues from local forests, and the electricity that they generate will be fed to the main grid.

Bayernfonds BestEnergy GmbH & Co. KG is a unit trust company of Real I.S. AG, one of Germany’s biggest bank-related fund initiators and a wholly owned subsidiary of Bayerische Landesbank.

The commercial viability of the plants is supported by the German EEG law that was specifically created to promote investments in renewable energy.

“Wärtsilä Biomass-fuelled plants are clean and efficient. They are practical solutions for meeting need for renewable energy supplies with minimum environmental impact”, says Andreas Heibrock, member of the executive board of Real I.S. AG, enthusiastically. The plants incorporate patented Wärtsilä BioGrate combustion technology to burn biomass fuels with high combustion efficiency and low NOx and CO emissions. The moisture content of the fuel can be as high as 55%.

BioPower plants are highly modular, being based on well-proven standardised components with a reliable design approach. The plants can thus be delivered and installed quickly. Their proven technology results in a reliable, durable plant.

“With this product, Real I.S. demonstrates again in 2007 that it stands for innovative and trend-setting investment offers for private investors”, according to Andreas Heibrock.

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Biofuels becoming a headache for OPEC

Quicknote biofuels economics
A few years ago, energy experts would have laughed if you said biofuels were going to attract massive investments and even impact OPEC decisions. Today, there is no longer a doubt that this is happening.

Fuad Siala, alternative energy sources analyst at the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, said at the World Refining & Fuels Conference organised by Hart energy conferences in Brussels yesterday that increased use of biofuels and other measures that steer consumers away from oil could prompt OPEC to rethink its investment plans.

The European Union and nations around the world are looking at biofuels, made from plant biomass, to boost energy security, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and open new markets for farmers.
"We have great concerns about this ... about policies which discriminate against oil," the official from the crude producer group said. "We have legitimate concerns to revisit our investment plans."
Though Siala said biofuels are not necessarily a big competitor for crude oil today, OPEC is worried they could replace a significant portion of its projected output in coming years.
"In 2030 our projections say that OPEC will be called upon to produce about 49 million barrels (of oil) per day. By that time if biofuels are able to supply 5 million barrels per day, that's 10 per cent of the quota on OPEC oil. That is significant."
The EU, the world's largest economy, imports 45% of its oil from OPEC countries but has set a binding target for biofuels to make up 10 per cent of all vehicle fuels by 2020. The US has introduced equally ambitious targets. Siala said there are more "downside risks" than "upside potential" for oil demand despite rapid industrialization in emerging countries such as India and China:
"Security of supply and security of demand are two sides of the same coin. Without the confidence that demand will emerge, the incentive to undertake upstream investments can be reduced."
OPEC produces about one-third of the world's oil [entry ends here].
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Australia's CSIRO receives A$59 million for research into low-carbon fuels, energy security

Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are 43 per cent above the International Energy Agency's average for developed countries per unit of GDP. 68 percent of this amount is related to stationary energy and transport.

The country's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) has now been allocated A$59.6 million (€36.6/US$49.6 million) over four years to increase research into renewable and non-renewable natural resources which can produce low emission transport fuels.

Under the 'Energy Transformed National Research Flagship', work will be expanded to include research related to the conversion of coal to liquids, gas to liquids, solar gas to liquids, bio-fuels and storage of high density natural gas for transport.

The work is designed to help secure Australia’s transport fuel future, which is coming under increasing pressure. It is predicted that by 2030 our self-sufficiency in oil supplies will drop from 78 per cent to 49 per cent.
“The opportunity for Australia, and CSIRO, is to reduce the likelihood of an economic and social shock of a major disruption to oil supplies and to minimise the cost of implementing change in the transport sector.” - CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Geoff Garrett
CSIRO’s National Research Flagships were launched in 2003 to address major national challenges in areas such as energy, water and health and also opportunities for industry development and job creation:
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A new 'Climate Adaptation National Research Flagship' was also formed in collaboration with partners such as the Bureau of Meteorology and the Australian Greenhouse Office and will receive A$43.6 over the next four years.

The fuels research is part of an A$2.8 billion (€1.7/US$2.3 billion), four-year funding package awarded to CSIRO. Other transportation-related research projects include a focus on lithium-ion batteries and supercapacitors (see map, click to enlarge).

CSIRO researchers have earlier developed a large simulation of biofuels potentials in the country and concluded Australia has around 12 to 30 million hectares of land available for the production of energy crops.

More information:
CSIRO: Fuelling research into cutting greenhouse emissions - May 8, 2007.
CSIRO: Could alcohol fuels be cropped? April, 2004

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Metabolix to develop bioplastics from sugarcane

Quicknote bioplastics
According to the Boston Globe, Metabolix announced a collaboration today with the Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology, an alliance of Australia's sugarcane biotechnology research organizations, to develop natural plastics from sugarcane.

Metabolix is a Cambridge developer of biodegradable plastics whose stock jumped last month after it said it would join Archer Daniels Midland Co. to make the first fully biodegradable plastics from corn.

The company is now looking at the tropical grass crop as an alternative feedstock: "Sugarcane is currently the premier biomass crop for biofuels, and we believe it can be developed to produce an advanced biorefinery feedstock for the production of natural plastics, fuels, and chemicals, significantly expanding Metabolix's global reach," Metabolix chief scientific officer Oliver Peoples said in a statement.

Many scientists, including researchers in small developing countries have recognized the potential of sugarcane as a leading crop for the development of 'green chemistry'. The tiny island state of Réunion, for example, recently launched an ambitious research program aimed at building a biorefinery in the next four years, that will produce bioplastics, detergents, tinctures, drugs, glues, gels, and biopolymers resembling nylon, from molecules and chemical building blocks derived from sugar cane (earlier post) [entry ends here].
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Biogas to power fuel cell power plant in city of Rialto

Chevron Energy Solutions, a Chevron subsidiary, today announced that it has begun engineering and construction of an innovative and ultra-clean energy system at the Californian city of Rialto's wastewater treatment facility that will transform wastewater sludge and kitchen grease from local restaurants into biogas.

The environmentally friendly system will increase municipal revenues, reduce landfill wastes and lower greenhouse emissions by nearly 5.5 million tons annually, while decreasing the city's energy costs by about $800,000 a year.

The system includes a 900-kilowatt fuel cell power plant, manufactured by FuelCell Energy, that will generate electricity without combustion using methane, a biogas produced naturally on site by the organic materials contained in wastewater.

The same company earlier delivered the technology for the first large biogas powered fuel cell system in Germany, where dedicated energy crops are used for the production of the methane (earlier post).

"Through energy efficiency, renewable power and innovation, this system solves a messy problem for cities," said Jim Davis, president of Chevron Energy Solutions. "By looking at wastewater treatment operations holistically, we're helping Rialto and other cities transform an urban waste into an asset."

The new system will provide a beneficial use for the thousands of gallons of fats, oils and grease (FOG) that are washed daily from restaurant grills and pans. The watery liquid is collected by grease hauling companies and often disposed of in landfills, where it releases methane - a potent greenhouse gas - as it decomposes, sometimes directly into the atmosphere:
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At the Rialto facility, a FOG-receiving station will provide an effective disposal alternative, reducing the amount of FOG sent to landfills. It also will provide a revenue stream to the city through "tipping fees" paid by grease haulers for each disposal. Meanwhile, the fuel cell plant and other energy-efficient improvements will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11 million pounds of carbon dioxide annually, equivalent to removing 1,080 cars from the road each year.

In Rialto, a Los Angeles suburb of about 100,000 residents, forecasted population growth necessitated the expansion and upgrade of the city's aging wastewater treatment facility. The project, which costs $15.1 million, is eligible for a $4.05 million rebate on the fuel cell plant cost from California's Self-Generation Incentive Program, administered by Southern California Gas. The remaining cost will be self-funded through energy cost savings and FOG station revenues, without any impact on local taxpayers.

"Our city council and I are delighted to have found a solution with so many benefits all around," said Grace Vargas, Rialto's mayor. "It's a 'win' for multiple stakeholders -- our city taxpayers, restaurants, grease haulers, and the environment."

Chevron Energy Solutions will proceed with engineering and construction of the project over the next few months. Project highlights include installation of the FOG-receiving station; repairs to the current digester equipment, where methane is naturally produced from organic matter; a new automation system and controls; a high-efficiency boiler; and three 300-kilowatt Direct FuelCell(R) units that will convert methane into hydrogen and then use the hydrogen to generate power electrochemically, without combustion. In addition, the residual waste heat from the fuel cells will be put to work to warm the digesters to human body temperature, to stimulate further methane production.

Fuelcell Energy sold its fuel cell plant to Rialto through Chevron Energy Solutions and will maintain the plant after it is installed. Because of its ultra-clean emission profile, the plant meets California's stringent air quality standards and is expected to be sited easily. It will also provide baseload power around the clock.

"Rialto can make use of existing resources and generate high efficiency power that is environmentally friendly while saving money on its energy costs," said William Karambelas, vice president of business development of FuelCell Energy. "This is a consistent and compelling story from both economic and environmental standpoints."

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Brazilian legislation to offer incentives for conversion of degraded pastures into biofuel plantations

Quicknote bioenergy policies
Federal member of parliament Eliene Lima (Progressive Party) is to present [*Portuguese] a proposal for legislation today that aims to offer incentives to cattle farmers and ranchers to help produce biofuels in Brazil.

According to the proposal, pasture and land owners (many of whom do not use their land to rear livestock at all) will be encouraged to plant jatropha, sugar cane and other biomass energy crops. The incentive consists of special credit and financing means that can be obtained from the Sudam (Superintendência de Desenvolvimento da Amazônia) and the BNDES (Banco Nacional de Desenvolvimento Econômico e Social).

Brazilian researchers say some 200 million hectares of pastures in the country are currently not used for productive purposes because they are degraded. This massive expanse of land can be restored by planting biofuel crops (earlier post). Eliene Lima says "On a global scale, both in Brazil as elsewhere, ethanol and biodiesel are the focus of attention. In order to manage and expand the 'boom' in biofuels and to share profits amongst key stakeholders, banks, industrial ethanol producers, manufacturers and farmers are collaborating intensively. This interest shows the market is very promising and expanding rapidly. We must now give incentives to rural producers so they can participate more in this market."

Lima adds that in 2007, Brazil will achieve its largest sugar cane harvest in its history. Estimates put it at 491 million tons. "The world is beginning to understand the importance of this potential. Brazil can supply the market and will become the global leader in biofuels."

With the incentives put forward in the legislation, all farmers including smallholders in the country are given an opportunity to help strengthen Brazil's agro-industrial base. Lima thinks the law, which guarantees access to capital, will boost the number of jobs in the sector and keep Brazil becoming more energy independent.

In order to encourage the production of biofuels that benefit small farmers, Brazil earlier introduced a policy called "Social Fuel", that offers incentives to producers who invest in and involve poor rural families in feedstock production (see our in-depth analysis of the "Social Fuel Seal" policy) [entry ends here].
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India launches biofuels mission, focuses on Karanj and Jatropha

Karanj (Pongamia pinnata) and Jatropha are the two plants India is focusing on for promoting the production of biodiesel, as the country launches a nationwide biofuel mission. Meanwhile, India has started blending 5% ethanol in its gasoline supply, starting in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

A committee of experts was set up by the Federal Planning Commission, which will study and suggest measures for the promotion of biofuels development. In a recent report submitted by the committee before the commission, the committee has recommended the government to launch a countrywide biofuels mission focusing on encouraging the cultivation of the two seed-baring, drought-tolerant perennial tree-crops.

India’s spending on oil imports is currently somewhere around 1600 billion rupiah (€28.8/US$39 billion) per year. Nearly 70% of oil demands are met by imports in the country. Considering the global spike in oil prices, India urgently wants to reduce these imports, partly by investing in biofuels.

Chandra Shekar Sahu, Jr. minister for rural development said, that the national mission would shortly be launched in two phases with one goal:
  • the objective of the mission is to attain the goal of 20% blending of biofuels with diesel and gasoline nationwide.
  • under a first demonstration phase Jatropha and Karanj plantations would be established on 400,000 hectares of government-owned land.
  • in the second phase of the mission, Jatropha will be cultivated on not less than 11.2 million hectares of government-owned as well as private land for increasing biodiesel production.
If India wants to replace 5% of its liquid fossil fuels with biodiesel it must produce some 2.6 million tons per year.

A number of private players in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have already commenced the plantation of Jatropha under a contract farming system.

A report by industry research organisation RNCOS on the Indian Biofuel Industry notes that "The biofuels market in India is largely based on ethanol - derived from the molasses of sugarcane - and biodiesel obtained through non edible oil seeds, for example pongamia and jatropha. The primary objectives of the government for encouraging the biofuels industry include environmental factors, plus security and diversity of energy supply. This is also working as the key driver for the growth of biofuel industry in India."

Meanwhile, Dr.YSR Reddy, Chief Minister of the state of Andhra Pradesh, formally proclaimed the countrywide launch of the "5% EBP" (Ethanol Blended Petrol) Program in Hyderabad:
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As part of its commitment to set up policies for enhancing energy security in the country, the government has taken up this initiative. Launch of the EBP program is viewed as a remarkable step towards the use of alternative renewable, eco-friendly energy sources such as ethanol so that hydrocarbon resources can be supplemented in the country.

The interest of India in ethanol was manifested when the country embarked on three pilot projects. Of which one was launched during June 2001 in Uttar Pradesh and the other two were in Maharashtra during April same year. During 2002 a policy for ethanol was announced, which envisaged blending 5% ethanol (obtained through sugarcane) with petrol.

There are various proportions in which ethanol can be blended with petrol. Often, 5-10% of ethanol is mixed with petrol and this blend can drive most cars, without requiring any modification in their engines. In fact, percentage of ethanol can be augmented up to 24%.

The EPB program is managed by the Petroleum & Natural Gas Ministry and is primarily anchored in domestically produced ethanol - obtained through sugarcane molasses. The project will augment availability of fuel in the country and help sugarcane-growing farmers get better returns. It will also help in saving some foreign exchange as well as ease up the impact of tensions in oil-producing regions on oil suppliers in India.

Image: Pongamia pinnata seeds.

More information:

PRMinds: India Launches 5% EBP Program in Hyderabad - May 7, 2007.

Newswire: Karanj and Jatropha - Key Elements of New Biofuel Mission in India - May 7, 2007.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

UN publishes its long-awaited report on bioenergy - opportunities and risks

The worldwide transition to biofuels and bioenergy offers many opportunities, but also involves a number of trade-offs and risks, the United Nations says in its long-awaited and most comprehensive review of the likely impacts of the emerging bioenergy market, which was released today.

The document entitled “Sustainable Energy: A Framework for Decision Makers” was prepared by UN-Energy, a group of all UN agencies, programmes and organizations working in the area of energy. It was sponsored by the Rome-based UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (earlier post). The UN report highlights many of the points elaborated here at the Biopact and refers to some of our analyses.

In general, the study acknowledges that biofuels can go many ways and that outcomes depend on local circumstances: if produced uncarefully, they can threaten the environment, biodiversity and the food security of people, but if projects are implemented wisely, they offer major opportunities to fight poverty and climate change, and to boost the incomes and food security of millions of subsistence farmers in the South.

Catastrophic effect of high oil prices on poor countries
The report is unambiguous about the dramatic effects of high oil prices on the development of poor economies, saying "Recent oil price increases have had devastating effects on many of the world's poor countries, some of which now spend as much as six times as much on fuel as they do on health. Others spend twice the money on fuel as they do on poverty alleviation. And in still others, the foreign exchange drain from higher oil prices is five times the gain from recent debt relief."

At a time when energy analysts predict a period of unpredictable oil markets, with prices dependent on developments in some of the world's least stable regions, fossil fuel dependence has become a major risk for many developing nations. Biofuels may come to the rescue, since "in such national settings, the macroeconomic benefits of channeling fuel revenues into poor, rural economies could be substantial."

The report is optimistic about the technical potential for liquid biofuels: "The gradual move away from oil has begun. Over the next 15 to 20 years, we may see biofuels providing a full 25 percent of the world's energy needs".

Growing opportunities
The analysis notes that the market for biofuel feedstocks offers new and rapidly growing opportunities for agricultural producers. “Modern bioenergy could make energy services more widely and cheaply available in remote rural areas, supporting productivity growth in agriculture and other sectors with positive implications for food availability and access”.

Modern bioenergy can also help to meet the needs of the 1.6 billion people worldwide who lack access to electricity in their homes, and the 2.4 billion who rely on straw, dung and other traditional biomass fuels to meet their energy requirements. Overall, in taking decisions, policy makers “should ensure that food security considerations are given priority,” the report stresses.

Bringing down trade barriers
The document is critical of tariff barriers currently erected against ethanol imports by some countries. Impeding imports of more efficiently produced biofuels from abroad, such as sugarcane based ethanol and palm oil based biodiesel, while simultaneously mandating the blending of biofuel with fossil fuels at home could divert more land than necessary from food production, it said:
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Involving farmers and mixed production
As to the implications for agriculture in general, the report notes that "at their best, liquid biofuel products can enrich farmers by helping to add value to their products. But at their worst, biofuel programmes can result in concentration of ownership that could drive the world’s poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty."

Most likely, "the biofuel economy of the future will be characterized by a mix of production types, some dominated by large, capital-intensive businesses, some marked by farmer co-ops that compete with large companies ... and some where liquid biofuels are produced on a smaller scale and used locally." "Regardless of the scale of production, however, one thing is clear: the more involved farmers are in the production, processing and use of biofuels, the more likely they are to share in the benefits."

Kitchen killer
On health, UN-Energy says that modern bioenergy held out the promise of dramatically reducing the death toll caused in developing countries by the “kitchen killer” – smoke inhalation from cooking with fuelwood or traditional biomass, which is responsible for more fatalities each year than malaria (earlier post). Women could also be freed from the drudgery of collecting firewood, thus providing them with greater opportunities for education and employment.

Assessing impacts
“The economic, environmental and social impacts of bioenergy development must be assessed carefully before deciding if and how rapidly to develop the industry and what technologies, policies and investment strategies to pursue,” the report says.

Purpose of the study is to help ensure that “the energy needs of people are met and the local and global environment is adequately protected,” said UN-Energy Chair Mats Karlsson of the World Bank. “We hope to use the collective strength of the UN system to affect change”.

Key policy issues
The report points out the many benefits of bioenergy systems in relation to poverty alleviation, access to energy services, rural development and rural infrastructure. It reviews the likely impact of bioenergy in terms of food security, climate change, biodiversity and natural resources, employment and trade. It also identifieds the vital points decision makers need to consider and stresses that, “unless new policies are enacted to protect threatened lands, secure socially acceptable land use, and steer bioenergy development in a sustainable direction overall, the environmental and social damage could in some cases outweigh the benefits”.

In an apparent reference to the use of some grains as a biofuel feedstock, UN-Energy noted, "in general, crops that require high fossil energy inputs (such as conventional fertilizer) and valuable (farm) land, and that have relatively low energy yields per hectare, should be avoided." This means most biofuels made in the US and Europe are not deemed to be viable.

Sustainable bioenergy use
Moreover, even “sustainably"-produced energy crops could have negative impacts if they replaced primary forests, “resulting in large releases of carbon from the soil and forest biomass that negate any benefits from biofuels for decades,” the report said.

To minimize greenhouse gas emissions associated with bioenergy production, policy makers needed to safeguard virgin grasslands, primary forests and other lands with high nature value, UN-Energy recommended. Governments should also encourage the use of sustainable bioenergy production and management practices. An international certification scheme, including greenhouse gas verification, should be set up to ensure that bioenergy products, and biofuels in particular, meet environmental standards all the way from fields to fuel tanks.

On food security, the report said that the availability of adequate food supplies could be threatened by biofuel production as land, water and other resources were diverted from food production. Similarly, food access could be compromised by higher basic food prices resulting from increased bioenergy feedstock demand, thus driving the poor and food insecure into even greater poverty.

We will be analysing the report more in-depth soon and report further on some of its findings and recommendations.

More information
UN Energy: Sustainable Bioenergy: A Framework for Decision Makers - May 8, 2007.

FAO: UN weighs impact of bioenergy - Comprehensive report offers policy framework for decision makers - May, 8, 2007.

FAO: FAO sees major shift to bioenergy - April 25, 2006

FAO: Bioenergy, key to the fight against hunger - April 14, 2005.

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Tropical plants may adapt more easily to climate change than thought

As rainfall patterns change due to global warming, tropical plants may acclimate more easily than commonly thought, new research shows. The findings are highly important for countries in the South who are set to become biofuel producers, relying on tropical energy crops, and for the livelihoods of millions of smallholders in the developing world who make a living from agro-forestry.

Scientists from Princeton University and from the University of Florida have found that plants in tropical Hawaii have the ability to adapt to big changes in rainfall in at least one major respect - how they get nutrients. The plants largely rely on one form of the vital nutrient nitrogen in moist areas. But in the still wetter terrain that characterizes some rainforests, they switch to another form of nitrogen that becomes more available in those conditions.

The findings, reported in paper set to appear this week in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, present a notable exception to the commonly held idea that tropical plants are highly specialized in their own little environmental niches - and thus very sensitive to disturbances of those niches.

The results of the study could be good news for the plants because, according to the scientific consensus of the IPCC's Working Group II on the impacts of climate change on the environment, global warming is expected to alter rainfall patterns in the tropics (earlier post). But it comes with a caveat: nutrient uptake is only one of many ingredients in plant life. Other unrelated changes that accompany a warming climate could still affect plant distribution and growth, such as those that hold sway over pollinators, insect predators or invasive plants.

Flexibility in nutrient uptake
Nitrogen is an essential nutrient that plants must absorb from the soil to survive. Most land plants outside the tropics appear to have evolved to rely on just one of three common sources of nitrogen: nitrate (NO3-), ammonium (NH4+), or dissolved organic nitrogen (DON). As a result of this limitation, they usually inhabit "niches" defined largely by the available nitrogen source. When that source crashes for any reason - often because of shifts in climate - the plants cannot adapt, with potentially disastrous consequences for natural ecosystems.

However, tropical species appear to be far more adaptable than their temperate kin when it comes to their nitrogen needs, the researchers found. When confronted with shifts in nitrogen availability, these plants simply "flip a switch" and use whatever is handy.

"These plants should be able to do OK in terms of their nitrogen nutrition, even with the climate changing," said Ted Schuur, a UF assistant professor of ecology and one of four authors of the paper:
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"But of course, we only studied one group of organisms and one mechanism in this study" and plants depend on many different mechanisms to coexist, some of which may also change with changing rainfall.

The scientists researched plant growth at six sites on the slopes of Mount Haleakala, a volcano on the island of Maui. The sites were ideal because they share the same species, elevations and soils but have vastly different rainfall. The wettest rainforest sites receive an astonishing 196 inches of rain annually, while the driest sites in this study get about 79 inches.

"That's the range of rainfall you might find across the entire tropics, but that would usually be over hundreds or thousands of kilometers," Schuur said. "I can visit all of these forest sites in a single day."

The scientists analyzed nitrogen isotopes in the soil and leaf samples of four plant species at each site. They learned that drier soils contained more nitrogen in the form of nitrate, while wetter soils contained more nitrogen in the form of ammonia. Isotopic analysis of the plants revealed that they switched from nitrate to ammonia "abruptly, and in unison" once the rainfall reached a certain level.

"There's an abrupt change halfway through the rainfall gradient, and they all switch to this other form for their nutrition," Schuur said.

That's a surprise partly because of the uniformity of response, he said. Such uniformity sharply contrasts the conventional notion that tropical plant species coexist by adopting widely different strategies to getting what they need. At least with regard to nitrogen uptake, all the Hawaiian plants acted the same -- and at the same time.

"This does not support the idea that natural selection has caused species to diverge into highly specialized niches for nitrogen consumption," the PNAS paper says.

That's a positive sign considering that as the Earth warms, some areas of the tropics are widely expected to be wetter, some drier. So, at least one of dozens of variables that will change with precipitation changes - nutrient uptake - might not affect tropical plants. That said, plenty of others could, Schuur said.

More information:
Eurekalert: Scientists: As rainfall changes, tropical plants may acclimate - May, 7, 2007.

Eurekalert: Tropical plants go with the flow ... of nitrogen - May 7, 2007.

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Missouri House caps ethanol subsidies

Quicknote bioenergy subsidies
The US subsidizes its farmers and ethanol producers with billions each year. In combination with a tariff on imported ethanol, this creates a serious barrier to international biofuel trade. Countries with a large and efficient biofuel industry - most notably Brazil - have been calling for the US to abandon this lavish and market-distorting state funding, but to no avail.

Some in the US though are waking up to the reality that, indeed, importing biofuels from the South is not a bad idea: fuels made there are less costly, less environmentally damaging and have a far better energy and greenhouse gas balance than fuels produced in more temperate climates. Moreover, imports would benefit American consumers who are now forced to subsidize their own uncompetitive farmers, which costs them billions each year (earlier post).

The House of Representatives of the state of Missouri has now taken a first, small step in reducing these subsidies for ethanol producers (and especially for those who only use corn as a feedstock). New legislation would cap subsidies at US$10 million while expanding what the subsidy covers. Without that cap, the Department of Agriculture expects the current subsidy program would pay out US$15 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1, according to a legislative cost estimate.

Currently, only grain-produced ethanol qualifies, but the new legislation expands that to cover all agriculture and wood products used in bioenergy production. In the US, the reign of corn is not over yet, but at least legislators are beginning to open their eyes to the diversity of other production paths and feedstocks [entry ends here].
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Turning oil refineries into biorefineries: EU launches BIOCOUP project

Adapting existing mineral oil refineries for use as biorefineries is the goal of an ambitious new EU funded project called BIOCOUP.

BIOCOUP is supported by the European Commission through the Sixth Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development, under the theme 'Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems'. Its aim is to develop a chain of process steps, which would allow biomass feedstocks to be co-fed to a conventional oil refinery. Energy and oxygenated chemicals will be co-produced as well as bio-liquids. The overall innovation derives from the integration of bio-feedstock procurement with existing industries (energy, pulp and paper, food) and processing of upgraded biomass forms in existing mineral oil refineries.

The project has six sub-projects, each of which deals with critical areas of the proposed biomass utilization chain (diagram, click to enlarge). The overall objectives in each sub-project are:
  1. Biomass liquefaction and energy production: to reduce bio-oil production costs;
  2. Upgrading technologies: to develop de-oxygenation technology and scale it up to process development unit-scale
  3. Evaluation of upgraded bio-liquids in standard refinery units: to assess the viability of upgraded bio-liquids co-processing in a standard refinery
  4. Conversion to chemicals: to identify optimal recovery and fractionation strategies and technologies for the production of discrete target compounds from bio-liquids
  5. Scenario and life cycle analysis: to outline a low-risk, low-cost development path for the most promising biorefinery chains, a path based on stage-wise validation, demonstration and implementation
  6. Transversal activities: to optimise the impact of the project by a structured management and the efficient coordination of transversal activities (standardisation, exploitation and dissemination)
A comprehensive EU-wide consortium has been established in order to achieve these ambitious goals. It will also aim at finding solutions to secure energy supply in Europe and expects to enhance the competitiveness of European petrochemicals and chemicals industries:
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It is hoped that the project's efforts will lead to a greater choice of products such as transport fuels and green chemicals for consumers, as well as an acceptance of biomass as a sustainable source of energy. Project partners also expect that their work will lead to further technological development of biomass production processes.

'We believe there are good opportunities for both new companies because of new technologies being developed, and existing companies, because eventually the biorefinery will be integrated to existing industries,' says Yrjö Solantausta, coordinator of the project.

Moreover, BIOCOUP aims at addressing the following European strategic objectives:
  • Reduction of greenhouse gases – The proposed concept aims at an efficient utilisation of biomass thus securing cost effective reduction of greenhouse gases in the transportation sector;
  • Security of energy supply – The proposed concept uses European biomass as feedstock, and is aimed at increasing internal EU energy supply;
  • Develop cost-effective value chains for a range of biomass feedstocks – The project is utilising different biomass fractions in appropriate conversion stages for cost effective conversion;
  • Increase the market share of bio-fuels (alternative transportation fuels) – The proposed concept aims at increasing the market share of biofuels through reducing their production cost;
  • Production of “green products” through innovative processes - Increasing the competitiveness of the European Chemicals, and Petrochemicals industries.

More information:

BIOCOUP brochure [*.pdf].

CORDIS News: EU project puts the 'bio' in refineries - May 7, 2007.

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UNCTAD calls for greater use of biofuels worldwide, sees opportunity in the South

The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), has called for wider acceptance and greater use of biofuels world-wide, as a fuel for transport and for power generation, saying that biofuels such as biodiesel, ethanol, biogas and solid biomass offer a promising alternative source of energy with many advantages.

The UN group says that due to increases and fluctuations in global oil prices and growing concern about global warming, policy makers and the public are more interested in finding alternatives to petrol than at any time since the mid-1970s.

Biofuels production is based on agricultural production and therefore many countries can produce them easily. According to the UNCTAD, the importance of energy for development can not be underestimated. Biofuels offer several major benefits:
  • reduction of oil import bills, which drain developing countries' treasuries (savings because of biofuels can be invested in poverty alleviation, development, social services and more efficient agriculture)
  • better energy security and diversification of energy sources
  • diversification of agricultural output allowing farmers to broaden their crop portfolio and break their dependence on single cash crops for which market prices have been low or sometimes even collapse (as has been the case for many crops, like coffee and cocoa - a situation that has resulted many times in mass poverty amongst smallholders)
  • accelerated development of rural areas
  • increased rural employment, and a curb in unsustainable internal migration from the countryside to the cities
  • the possibility to raise export earnings and boost the economy
  • mitigating climate change because biofuels are carbon-neutral and in some systems even carbon negative (see Bio-Energy with Carbon Storage)
Focus on the tropics and the subtropics
However, the UNCTAD stated that not all agricultural countries are best suited to produce biofuels. The economic viability of biofuels production depends on crop yields and the efficiency of the processing, it said. Producing ethanol from sugarcane is far more efficient than producing it from corn, both from the economic point of view and for achieving the greatest reduction of GHG emissions. The reason is that there is much more solar energy available for the plants in the tropics than in a temperate climate:
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As stated by Mr. Claude Mandil, head of the International Energy Agency which has been focusing on biofuels for many years, "the corn and wheat methods to produce ethanol are the worst imaginable, because they are only commercially viable with permanent subsidies and trade barriers, and their production requires a large amount of fossil fuels inputs, which is not the case for ethanol produced from sugar cane and other tropical biofuels" (earlier post). Later, the Chief Economist of the IEA too reiterated this message (earlier post).

They are part of a growing number of scientists, economists, development think tanks and international institutions who are calling for a 'biopact' of sorts, in which the industrialised countries open their markets for competitive and sustainable fuels from the developing world (earlier post).

While biofuels production using present processes in developed countries is not economically viable without subsidies and barriers to imports, biofuels production in developing countries (or more specifically in tropical and subtropical countries) offers interesting economic opportunities.

Careful management needed
However, UNCTAD notes there are also some concerns. These relate mainly to environmental issues such as deforestation (clearing virgin forest may be uneconomic and also results in the release of large amounts of carbon), worsening of water scarcity and loss of biodiversity. It is also argued that higher food prices resulting from competition over land between food and energy crops may raise issues of food security.

Proper management of land - Africa has hundreds of millions of hectares of currently unused non-forest land (earlier post and here) - can limit the extension of agricultural land and preserve primary forests. It should be mentioned that there is much more land available for biofuels production in developing countries, particularly Africa, than in developed countries, the UNCTAD added.

The UNCTAD has been quite active on the front of promoting biofuels in the developing world. Last year, it organised a high-level meeting on jatropha in West Africa, which resulted in committments of governments of the region to invest in the crop (earlier post), as well as a

More information:
AllAfrica: Africa: UNCTAD Seeks Focus On Bio-Fuels - May 2, 2007.

Biopact: Analysts see Africa as a potential global leader in biofuel production - November 22, 2006

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Ethanol byproduct boosts crop yields, acts as herbicide

Distiller’s dried grains (DDGs) are the leftovers from converting corn into fuel ethanol. In the US Midwest alone, ethanol producers generate 10 million tons of DDGs annually. Farmers buy the residue for between US$85 and US$110 per ton and feed it to livestock. The rapidly expanding ethanol market may imply that meat prices will drop because of lower feed prices. This is the case in Europe, where, according to an EU study, the large new stream of biodiesel residues (glycerin) and ethanol byproducts suitable as feed components will result in lower meat prices (earlier post).

Several scientists of the US Department of Agriculture's research service (ARS) have now found an interesting alternative use for the DDGs. The byproduct makes for an excellent herbicide and mulch, boosting crop yields. Since US ethanol production is expected to climb from 4.4 billion gallons annually to 7.5 billion by 2012, this means even more DDGs and other byproducts will flood the market.

Through laboratory, greenhouse, and field experiments, the researchers have shown that using DDGs as mulch not only suppresses weeds, but also bolsters growth in tomatoes and some turfgrasses.

Significant yield increases
Steven F. Vaughn, a plant physiologist with ARS’s National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research (NCAUR) in Peoria, Illinois, notes that DDGs worked best when incorporated into the soil and left to decompose for a few months. DDG mulch applied in this manner promoted Kentucky bluegrass growth while inhibiting seed germination of annual bluegrass—which is considered a weed.

Similarly, Vaughn applied DDGs to Roma tomato plots in November 2005, at rates of 1, 2, and 3 kilograms per square meter, and transplanted the crop in early May. At the end of September, the yield was 226 pounds of tomatoes from plots treated with the lowest rate of DDGs and 149 from control plots, which received no DDGs. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients from the decomposing mulch probably contributed to much of that significant yield increase. At the higher DDG rates, however, plants grew large but did not yield as much fruit as the low-DDG plants did. That’s a symptom of too much nitrogen, Vaughn points out:
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Weed-seed inhibition is a bit more complicated, adds Mark A. Berhow, an NCAUR chemist. Using various analytical methods, he is trying to identify, measure, and monitor the yearly fluctuations of DDG chemicals that may have inhibited germination in crabgrass, chickweed, annual rye, and other weeds studied.

So why wasn’t growth of the tomato plants inhibited? One possibility may be that they were planted in the treated plots as seedlings rather than as seed, which may be more sensitive to the mulch, Berhow says.

The situation was a bit different for potted ornamentals. Transplanted plugs of rose, coreopsis, and garden phlox benefited from the DDG mulch’s suppression of chickweed and other weeds—but only when it was applied to the soil’s surface. “When mixed into potting soils, DDGs were toxic to the ornamentals,” reports Rick A. Boydston, an agronomist with ARS’s Vegetable and Forage Crops Research Laboratory, Prosser, Washington.

Besides weed inhibition, Berhow is examining DDGs for phytosterols (added to some margarines), lecithin, and other health-promoting substances. Antioxidants are of particular interest for their ability to neutralize cell-damaging molecules called “free radicals.”

Extracting valuable products from DDG
NCAUR chemist Rogers E. Harry-O’kuru is examining processing methods for removing economically important materials from the DDGs, such as phytosterols and oil (DDGs are about 10 percent corn oil by weight), which can be made into biodiesel.

Vaughn, meanwhile, plans on expanding the turfgrass studies. He’ll also try the mulch with Swiss chard, a relative of beets whose leaves may flourish with the added nitrogen.

ARS has applied for a patent on the mulch and is negotiating terms for the scientists to collaborate with an Illinois-based turfgrass company.

: Tons of distiller’s dried grains being held in storage at a Midwest ethanol plant. Credit: ARS.

More information:
Agricultural Research magazine: "DDGs—Ethanol Byproduct Fights Weeds, Boosts Crop Yields", May/June 2007.

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CNOOC to build 3 biodiesel plants in West Kalimantan

China's largest offshore oil producer by output, CNOOC, plans to build three biodiesel plants in West Kalimantan, Indonesia, this year, a government official announced.

Evita H. Legowo, an assistant to the energy and mineral resources minister and also the first secretary of the National Biofuel Development Committee, said the plan was part of the firm's commitment to invest in Indonesia's renewable energy sector following the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the government in January (earlier post).

According to the MOU, the state-owned oil company's total investment is expected to reach €4.0/US$5.5 billion. The Chinese oil producer was among investors who signed 67 agreements worth €9/US$12.2 billion with the government for the development of a bioenergy and biofuels sector in Indonesia. Under the Sino-Indonesian deal, CNOOC, which is teaming up with Hong Kong Energy and local company Sinar Mas Resources and Technology, struck the biggest investment value.

M. Zeet Hamdy Assovie, head of West Kalimantan's Capital Investment Board, told national news agency Antara that the three plants would be built in the districts of Sanggau, Sambas and Ketapang (map, click to enlarge):
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CNOOC did not disclose the capacity of the biofuel facilities it plans to build.

The province of West Kalimantan, Indonesia's second largest producer of crude palm oil (CPO) - the major feedstock for biofuel - boasts 400,000 hectares of palm oil plantations. Indonesia's palm oil plantations cover some 5.5 million hectares of land, making it the world's second largest CPO exporter after Malaysia.

This year, Indonesia, which produces 15 to 16 million tons of CPO each year, is projected to surpass Malaysia by producing 17.1 million tons. Under the government's biofuel promotion plan, Indonesia will boost its use of biofuels to 5.29 billion liters by 2010 and 9.84 billion liters by 2015.

The bioenergy program is expected to provide some 2.5 million new direct and indirect jobs mainly to smallholders (earlier post). For the ambitious program, the Indonesian government has allotted 6 million hectares of land nation-wide on which cassava, jatropha, palm oil and sugar cane will be grown as feedstocks for biodiesel, bioethanol and bioenergy (earlier post).

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

CO2 balance of large-scale electricity production: nuclear good, biogas best

A new life-cycle study prepared by Germany's Öko-Institut (Institute for Applied Ecology) looks at 16 different power systems and the greenhouse gas emissions balance as well as the cost of offsetting the CO2 emissions of the electricity generated from these systems.

The research [*German] was prepared as a working paper to guide discussions about the future of nuclear power in Europe. In many EU-member states, the issue is extremely controversial, as several governments have decided to phase out this energy source. But the twin-problems of climate change and energy security have re-opened the debate, with advocates saying nuclear power is very clean and that the benefits of the technology far outweigh the risks associated with it. The report on mitigating global warming, published recently by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has included nuclear power as a technology that may contribute positively to strategies aimed at reducing climate-destructive emissions (earlier post). However, not withstanding the good CO2 balance of electricity from nuclear, the Öko-Institut advises against the technology for a series of reasons (see below).

Nuclear good, biogas best
The study by the Öko-Institut contains a comparison of the amount of greenhouse gases released over the entire life-cycle of 16 different power systems - wind, solar, biogas, hydropower, nuclear, natural gas and coal, in different configurations - per unit of electricity produced (see table1). Of course, renewables score very well, but nuclear does so too, emitting 6 times less CO2 than common power plants using brown coal (lignite). Most importantly, biogas used in a combined heat-and-power plant with district heating has the best balance by far and actually results in a negative emissions system. This is so when the feedstock for biogas is derived from biomass waste-streams:
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The study did not look at 'Bio-energy with Carbon Storage' (BECS) systems, which would score even better. It does include a rather detailed calculus of the net and gross GHG balance of the different technologies, as well as a separate balance for the heat and the power part of the system (in as far as it concerns CHP and cogeneration plants).

Importantly, the study has not taken into account the greenhouse gases released during the mining, transformation and transport of the fuels and materials used in the power system (e.g. the GHG's released during the production of the materials used for the construction of wind turbines have not been taken into account, neither the emissions that enter the atmosphere when fuel is transported to power plants, etc...). But in any case, the comparison offers a basic overview of which technologies will offer the best opportunity to fight climate change.

Note that for all systems that actually 'burn' a fuel (coal, brown coal, biogas, natural gas, nuclear), combined heat and power/cogeneration systems naturally offer considerable advantages over ordinary power plants; their higher costs are largely negated by the large amount of carbon dioxide emissions they save.

Costs of offsetting carbon emissions
The report also looks at how much it would cost to offset the emissions of a particular power system. Here again, biogas scores best (apart from efficiency increases, which score even better). As table 2 (click to enlarge) indicates, brown coal, imported coal and natural gas in cogeneration plants shows a negative offsetting cost, but this is so because the baseline is coal in ordinary plants. This simply means switching to cogeneration plants is a highly cost-effective option.

The costs associated with offsetting the CO2 generated by offshore wind and nuclear power (with a balanced mix of uranium supplies), are relatively low, but for onshore wind and imported solar electricity, costs are more than three and four times as high as those for biogas.

To know the carbon offsetting costs of different technologies allows decision makers to assess whether it is worth investing in a particular power system, depending on the value of carbon (as it is set on markets like the European Emissions Trading Scheme - ETS). The other major and most obvious factor determining these decisions is simply the cost of generating electricity. Renewables have a clear disadvantage over fossil fuels and nuclear here, but the gap is closing (table 3, click to enlarge). These numbers are largely consistent with those of other studies (but note that the Öko-Institut did not take into account solid biomass, which has become quite competitive with fossil fuels - earlier post).

Depending on the evolution of carbon prices, fossil fuel prices and government incentives, we will see a smaller or larger number of large-scale renewable energy systems appear in the future.

Nuclear should be phased out
The Öko-Institut stresses that, despite the interesting CO2-balance of electricity generated from nuclear power, the technology must be phased out for a set of different reasons: (1) the risks associated with nuclear remain high, and the waste problem has not been solved, (2) uranium supplies are finite and may peak relatively soon, certainly given the fact that rapidly developing countries are investing heavily in the technology, which drives up prices and depletes uranium resources, (3) fourth generation nuclear power plants (which recycle spent fuel) are experimental and there is no clear evidence for the viability of these reactors, neither a clear assessment of their costs or a time-frame indicating when they could be realistically built, (4) finally, the potential for renewables is large enough to make the transition to a post-nuclear future.

When it comes to this potential, we only need to refer to recent studies on biogas in Europe, which estimate that the Union can produce some 500 billion cubic metres of the natural gas equivalent renewable, clean and low-carbon biomethane by 2020-30 (earlier post). This means the continent can replace all imports from Russia, or supply the energy needed to decommission a substantial number of Europe's 173 nuclear plants. Adding other (more costly) renewables like wind, solar and hydro gives us a strong enough portfolio of alternative energy sources with which to enter the post-nuclear future.

This kind of studies is important for decision makers in the Global South, who are not burdened yet by old technologies and the political lobbies that have been created around them. By making smart decisions based on historic and current data from highly industrialised nations they can 'leapfrog' straight into a cleaner, more sustainable and greener future.

More information:
Öko-Institut, Uwe R. Fritsche: Treibhausgasemissionen und Vermeidungskosten der nuk-learen, fossilen und erneuer-baren Strombereitstellung [*.pdf] - March 2007.

Öko-Institut: Studie des Öko-Instituts zeigt CO2-Bilanz von Strom auf - March 14, 2007.

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Small CDM projects bring cash to Nepal: biogas for rural households

Quicknote bioenergy and the CDM
Nepal will receive US$500,000 (33 million rupiah) each year as part of two biogas-related 'Clean Development Mechanism' (CDM) projects. Under the CDM, a mechanism under the Kyoto Protocol, industrialised countries that emit high amounts of green house gases into the atmosphere help finance emissions reduction projects in developing countries. This results in 'certified emission reductions' (CERs) that can further be traded.

All renewable energy projects as well as other emission reduction interventions in a wide range of (semi-)industrial sectors in the South are eligible for approval under the CDM, but biomass-related projects receive the bulk of CERs (an overview of certificates issued so far). However, there is a set of important rules to which the project must conform before it can parttake in the financing mechanism (for example, under the 'additionality' criterium, it must be a project that would not have been implemented anyways; so a commercial renewable energy project that would have gone ahead without the CDM cannot be registered; there is some controversy over the way 'additionality' is established). There's also a problem with the distribution of CDM-projects, with Africa attracting far less interest than China, India or Brazil (earlier post, and see this interactive map of CDM projects).

The Nepal-based Alternative Energy Promotion Center, which is the authorized participant in the scheme, registered its projects as small-scale CDM project activities on December 27, 2005. They are: "Project 0136: Biogas Support Program - Nepal (BSP-Nepal) Activity-1", and "Project 0139: Biogas Support Program - Nepal (BSP-Nepal) Activity-2".

The small projects are part of the Alternative Energy Promotion Center's aim to sell biogas digesters (biogas plants) to households located primarily in the rural areas of Nepal. The project activities will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by displacing conventionally used fuel sources for cooking, such as fuel wood and kerosene and produce a bio-slurry for replacing consumption of chemical fertilizers.

The efforts are part of a sub-project of the Nepal umbrella biogas program that aims to install a total of 200,000 small biogas digesters all over Nepal. With help of German and Dutch development assistance, a total of 111,395 biogas plants have been installed so far (earlier post).

According to Batu Krishna Uprety, under secretary at the Ministry of Environment Science and Technology (MoEST), the Community Developed Carbon Fund (CDCF) of the World Bank agreed to back the two biogas support programs and sends US$500,000 per year from next week onwards, he said. "This is a part of carbon credits given to the country after its endorsement of the Kyoto protocol by pursuing CDM projects," according to Uprety. It is estimated that the projects, registered at the CDM Executive Board, will reduce around 94,000 metric tones of CO2 equivalent per year [entry ends here].
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