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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Scientist skeptical of algae-to-biofuels potential - interview

Several recent developments have shed doubt on the viability of algae-to-biofuels concepts. Companies have exaggerated their production capacity, experienced serious failures, switched technologies (greenhouses instead of photobioreactors) or simply decided to give up on the concept all together and started investing in terrestrial energy crops instead. Biopact has always been open minded about algae and their potential as biofuel feedstocks: if the technology works out, then all the better for all of us, but if progress is slow and the concept needs much more research, then we think this should be stated in earnest (previous post).

Laurens Rademakers conducted the following interview with Dr. Krassen Dimitrov, who recently made an in-depth analysis of algae-to-biofuel concepts. The scientist remains a skeptic and outlines why he thinks it won't be easy to utilize the micro-organisms to produce large amounts of renewable fuels. He also sketches his view on more promising sustainable energy concepts, and on the challenges ahead to mitigate climate change. Dr. Dimitrov works at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN, University of Queensland), where he carries out research at the interface of biotech and nanotech.

Biopact: A while ago, you started writing about biofuels made from algae and you have serious doubts about the potential of this technology. What is the basis of your skepticism?
Dr. Dimitrov: Interest in biofuels rises with clockwork regularity whenever the words 'energy crisis' enter the news. This was the case in the 1980s and all of the options, including microalgae, were considered and heavily researched back then. My own interests in biofuels began in the 90s as I considered them for my next career move.

The reason algae are always quoted as the 'perfect' feedstock is that they can grow extremely fast in optimal conditions. In Mother Nature, however, 'fast' is not always a winner, or else the entire biosphere would have been overtaken by bacteria, which can divide every twenty minutes.

Fast proliferation is usually at the expense of rigour and adaptability. Plants do not grow as quickly as algae, however, they have elaborate mechanisms that allow them to survive and grow in various conditions, so they require less care and lower expenses for cultivation.

Therefore, with algae one has to always consider the trade-off between high growth rates and how expensive it is to maintain conditions that would allow them. The other very important boundary is imposed by thermodynamics - the yield is limited by the amount of energy (sunlight) available – so improving the cultivating conditions follows the law of diminishing returns, as every percentage of yield that one can wrestle out becomes harder and harder as one approaches the theoretical limit.

Biopact: You made things concrete by writing a case study on the technology of a particular algae-to-biofuels company, GreenFuels Technologies. What were your findings?
Dr. Dimitrov: GreenFuel Technologies gained notoriety for their heavy promotion of microalgae cultivation in photobioreactors (PBRs), however, following the considerations above, this is probably the most absurd approach that can be undertaken. While it is expected that PBRs would be best suited to allow maximum growth rates, these are hardly devices that cancel the laws of thermodynamics. In my study I have shown that while it may be theoretically possible to achieve growth rates that are up to ten times higher than the best terrestrial growth rates (in the tropics), the expenses associated with PBRs are hundreds of times larger than terrestrial cultivation, making PBRs economically illogical:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

My GreenFuel study [*.pdf] focused on industrial photosynthetic capture through PBRs, which are the most expensive extreme in the algae sector. Going down the expense curve, there are approaches - such as open ponds - that are less expensive; potentially there may be some optimum, where microalgae cultivation becomes cheap enough yet with sufficient control over external conditions to secure reasonable yields. Open ponds, are still iffy in my opinion, however, they are not as absurd as PBRs.

I presented my study to Jennifer Fonstad, who is currently the chairman of GreenFuel, on March 15th. I have not heard directly back from the company, however, they had circulated a response, that I found lacking, and that can be found here.

Interestingly in their latest releases, GreenFuel avoids using the word 'photobioreactor', and instead prefers 'greenhouses'. I have seen a schematic of their 'third generation design' and it is basically an algal pond with bubbling CO2 that is housed in a greenhouse. From that we can safely assume that the bioreactor is dead, after millions of dollars were spent on it and GreenFuel is now in the business of greenhouse aquaculture. This is not going to work either, eventually they will either have to shut down, or join the other companies that pursue open ponds.

Speaking of how GreenFuel responds to criticism, I just have to mention that the company had threatened a very prominent scientist, with decades of experience in algal research who, when asked about their approach, had expressed a strong skepticism. When I saw the legalistic threat against this legitimate skeptic, it made me truly infuriated. Misusing the legal process to shut up scientific experts can only be described as medieval.

Biopact: So what's your assessment of algae-based biofuels for the longer term? Will the technology ever be viable on a large scale?
Dr. Dimitrov: The answers above partially address this issue. There is no question that microalgae have the potential for high productivity per area, albeit with all associated high cultivation costs. In certain Malthusian scenarios of the future one can envision that land becomes so expensive that humans will need to highly optimize its use, for animal feed, for example. In terms of making significant contribution to energy in the next 20-30 years, though, the answer is a sound 'no', and if somebody wants to bet me on that, I would gladly take that bet.

Biopact: You conclude that there is a real 'hype' surrounding algae biofuels. But the sector is attracting some serious money from venture capitalists. How can investors be so blind to basic physics and biological laws, which you demonstrated to work against algae biofuels?
Dr. Dimitrov: Some venture capitalists can be blind, ignorant and disrespectful towards science, there is no question about that and I have experienced it firsthand. This is, however, only one third of the answer; there are two other factors at play.

First, some venture investors operate on the principle 'find the bigger fool'. When they start a company they don’t think about building a long-lasting business, but rather making it attractive to somebody who is less sophisticated, such as a big bureaucratic corporation, or alternatively, promoting it to the public with the help of corrupt investment bankers. We saw this with the internet bubble a decade ago: established businesses paid crazy money for unproven internet startups; the scandals with investor bankers and analysts shamelessly promoting Internet IPOs. Undoubtedly, there is a current hope that something like that will develop around alternative energy.

Second, investing in fancy alternative energy startups helps some venture capitalists in their fundraising. VCs are paid a fixed percentage of assets, which is irrespective of how well they do. Getting money from limited partners is extremely competitive and it helps their 'dog and pony show' to demonstrate that they are abreast the fashionable green energy wave.

Ultimately money changes hands, but no value is created, so who is left holding the bag? All evidence points that it is the pension funds who will get shafted. Due to demographics in the Western world there is lot of retirement money that need to be invested now; unfortunately with investor managers like these some people will have retirements that are less comfortable that they would have hoped for.

Biopact: So let's consider algae to be out of the race for now. The global energy and fuel crisis, as well as climate change, will have to be tackled in other ways. What do you see as absolute priorities to help solve these intertwined crises, when it comes to our energy consumption?
Dr. Dimitrov: These are two separate issues: for the energy and fuel crisis we have strong market forces in place, while for global climate change we don’t.

Because of that the fuel issue is actually being addressed, here are examples of things that are significant now and that were not fifteen years ago:
  • Tar sands are increasingly becoming exploited for oil production, the volumes have grown a lot, especially in Canada.
  • In some countries, for example in Eastern Europe, people are en masse retrofitting their cars to run on compressed gas. [Note: Pakistan would be another example of a successful CNG program; the country succeeded in converting 1 million cars in under two years time - more here]
  • Bioethanol has grown dramatically. At current oil prices ethanol from sugarcane is very competitive: Brazil has the land and the intent to go much further in that regard.
  • Hybrid cars that consume significantly less fuels are becoming very popular in the Western world.
  • There are many gas-to-liquid and coal-to-liquid projects in various stages of development around the world, in Qatar, China, and Papua New Guinea.
All these things are happening, and will continue for the next 15-20 years. People need to understand that in energy we cannot expect dramatic changes overnight. The sector is so enormously huge, it takes many years to design and build an energy project. We have become used to the fast pace in the IT world, if you write a new software you can distribute it over the Internet and it can become adopted worldwide within months. Nothing like that will happen with fuels.

In terms of climate change the market just doesn’t work and things will get much worse before they get better. Especially since some of these fuel alternatives above that are most cost effective, such as CTL and tar sands, actually have a larger CO2 footprint than conventional oil. There is a great article on that by UC-Berkeley. This CO2 from emerging liquid fuels is in addition to the new cohort of coal-fired power plants that is coming online.

When the world gets to actually doing something concrete and meaningful in regard to global warming, I strongly believe that the only option left would be to scrub CO2 from the air, I will be writing on that in the near future.

Biopact: You are working in the field of nanotechnology and at the interface of nano- and biotech. Do you see any interesting developments in these disciplines that could lead to clean and affordable energy?
Dr. Dimitrov: Yes, as a way of introduction, let me continue from the previous question. One approach that experts agree is a most technologically ready form of non-carbon energy production is Concentrated Solar Power. It is a viable solar conversion approach and we will likely see CSP grow in significance. CSP generates electricity, however that does not address the transportation sector, as the problem with electric cars is still their range. We believe that nanotechnology can play significant role in designing batteries with higher and higher energy densities so that electric cars charged on CSP electricity can become reality. At AIBN we have several projects on using nanotechnology for improved battery performance.

Realistically, I don’t expect that energy densities will ever approach these of liquid hydrocarbons, however, electric cars, in addition to lowering emissions have other benefits:
  1. better efficiencies of electric motors compared to ICE. While a tank of gas will always contain more energy than a battery with a similar volume, less of this energy goes to the wheels in the ICE than in the electric car
  2. less noise pollution: a factor in big cities
  3. better acceleration, electric cars are fun to drive
So, if you are to ask me today, what 'sustainable future' I believe has the best chance of succeeding in the long run, it will be electricity generation via CSP tied to electric cars for transportation. That’s something that could take 25-30 years to materialize in scale, but it has a shot.

Biopact, cc, 2007.

: Tetraselmis Suecica, a large green flagellate with a high lipid level that was tested extensively during the U.S. Aquatic Species Program in the 1980s.

Dimitrov, K. "GreenFuel Technologies, a Case Study for Industrial Photosynthetic Energy Capture" [*.pdf] - Brisbane, Australia, March 2007.

Dimitrov, K. "GreenFuel Technologies: Case Study for Industrial Photosynthetic Capture - Follow-up Discussion" [*.pdf] - Brisbane, Australia, April 2007.

Updates on Dimitrov's analyses of algae biofuels can be found here.

Biopact: An in-depth look at biofuels from algae - January 19, 2007

Article continues

Report: community forest enterprises drive sustainable forestry, but stifled by red tape

A new study reports that Community Forest Enterprises (CFEs) represent an invisible investment of US$2.5 billion in management and conservation in some of the planet's richest forest habitats. This is more than governments in tropical regions spend directly on forest conservation. However, these enterprises are being side-lined in the international forestry arena, putting forests at risk the world over. The report was commissioned by the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO), an intergovernmental NGO based in Yokohama, Japan. The report was released at a conference on the subject in the capital of Acre, one of eight states that comprise the Brazilian Amazon.

According to the new report titled Community-based Forest Enterprises in Tropical Forest Countries: Status and Potential, the sector employs more than 110 million people worldwide. Such community forest enterprises harvest wood on a sustainable basis, and collect bamboo, rattan, fibers, nuts, resins, medicinal herbs, honey and wood for energy and other natural products to increase local wealth. At the same time, they are having an important impact on conservation of natural resources.
As the fastest growing segment of the global forest sector, community forest enterprises (CFEs) have the potential to lift millions of forest communities out of poverty. But only if they are given secure rights to forest resources and assistance with removing the red tape that impedes progress in almost every tropical region. - Andy White, Coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative, and a co-author of the report.
The report concludes that the potential for growth of the CFE sector is 'huge' but will require government action to provide clear rights to forest resources for community enterprises, fewer burdensome taxes, greater flexibility in the way rules are applied, rapid approval of applications submitted to relevant agencies, and an end to indirect subsidies to large-scale producers.

Produced for ITTO by Forest Trends and its partners in a global coalition, the Rights and Resources Initiative, the report bases its conclusions on a review of current research and on 20 case-studies of successful enterprises in Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific Islands:
The report shows that there is a great deal of untapped potential for CFE development in many tropical countries. In the Gambia, for example, 170,000 hectares have been categorized as community forests, but only 13,000 hectares are in the hands of local villagers. In Cameroon, 4 million hectares are designated for communities, yet only 40,000 hectares are approved for legal use. - Manoel Sobral Filho, ITTO Executive Director
A growing force of conservation
Despite the continuing challenges, CFEs are becoming a significant force, particularly in terms of their impact on the economies of poor nations, according to the study. Communities worldwide now own or have the right to manage 11 percent of the world's natural forests, and in developing countries, this share rises to 22 percent:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The study suggests that CFEs can generate a wide range of goods and services, while reducing poverty among local populations, and fostering biodiversity conservation and investments in social infrastructure, including schools and healthcare facilities. Several of the enterprises studied, including two in Mexico and one in the Gambia, reported returns of 10 to 30 percent from forest-based activities.

"This report uncovers something that only a few experts have recognized so far: if allowed to be real players, community forest enterprises can become very profitable, many of them with return rates above 10 percent," said Sobral. And the growing market for ecosystem services promises even greater returns, he added.

Community enterprises augment local incomes and sustain traditional ways of life by establishing environment-friendly plantations, or by gathering forest products in ways that don't normally register in national production and trade figures. But they represent significant wealth, all the same. Rattan, for instance, is a forest product that is worth US$5b in the international markets. An herb used in West African cooking generates US$220m in Europe and the US, and US$20m in Ghana. The wood carving industry in Jodhpur, India, generates US$200m and employs 85,000 people.

Authors of the report argue, however, that much more could be done to support CFEs. Of the 600 million people in Africa, 400 million depend directly or indirectly on the forests. In all, more than 1 billion mostly poor people live within and around the world's forests.

The authors further found that:
  • Illegal logging undermines price structures for forest products and acts as a disincentive for members to remain part of a 'legal' organization.
  • Too much control by government or donor supporters can stifle the ability of CFEs to develop innovative management.
"The study reflects the experience of communities worldwide," said Alberto Chinchilla, a founding board member of the Global Alliance of Community Forestry, a worldwide network of community forestry organizations. "A top-down approach on the part of national governments and international NGOs and donor countries has prevented forestry enterprises from thriving. The bottom line is that local communities need to be part of the equation and not just bystanders."

Among those who rely on the forests for their livelihoods and a significant part of their cash income are indigenous peoples, small landholders, craftsmen and individuals employed by informal forestry enterprises. They are all threatened in their way of life by the destruction of natural habitat.

"In those countries where efforts have been made to reduce barriers and guarantee ownership of forested land, as is the case in Mexico and Guatemala, community-based enterprises soar," said White from Rights and Resources Initiative, who co-authored the study with Augusta Molnar, Megan Liddle, Carina Bracer, Arvind Khare and Justin Bull and a diverse set of case study authors. "And we've found that besides improving income and social cohesion in the communities, these organizations become important biodiversity conservation agents."

Market Evolution in the forestry sector
Growing domestic markets in emerging economies have triggered new demand and new opportunities. China alone more than doubled its imports of forest products in seven years, climbing from US$6.4b in 1997 to US$13b in 2004. CFEs now manage 370 million hectares of forest, about 10% of the world's total. They are expected to jump to 700-800 million hectares in 2015 and reach 50% by 2050, according to estimates from the World Resources Institute (WRI). A growing consumer preference for materials produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable fashion offers a new area for growth, as does interest in services that help the world to combat climate change.

"The market for such services offers new perspectives for equitable payment to local communities involved in the conservation of watersheds and carbon sequestration," said Chinchilla. "But we need the means to develop this enormous social and environmental potential."

"And we need people, particularly in the richer countries, to start paying for these global services," added Sobral. "The benefits in terms of poverty alleviation, forest conservation and community development could be huge."

The ITTO is an intergovernmental organization promoting the conservation and sustainable management, use and trade of tropical forest resources. Its 60 members represent about 80% of the world's tropical forests and 90% of the global tropical timber trade. ITTO's policy work stresses the need for equitable, participatory and community-based processes in forest management and forest landscape restoration and provides practical advice to forest managers on how to develop such processes. ITTO's project work is assisting many small forest communities to develop sustainable, forest-based enterprises.

The Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI) is a new coalition of organizations dedicated to raising global awareness of the critical need for forest tenure, policy and market reforms, in order to achieve global goals of poverty alleviation, biodiversity conservation and forest-based economic growth. Partners currently include ACICAFOC (Coordinating Association of Indigenous and Agroforestry Communities of Central America), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Civic Response, the Foundation for People and Community Development (FPCD), Forest Peoples Programme, Forest Trends, the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), Intercooperation, the World Conservation Union (IUCN), and the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC).

Picture: Women tend their plantation in the Volta region, Ghana. Courtesy: J. Gasana


Eurekalert: Report finds forest enterprises stifled by red tape, putting forests, incomes at risk - July 16, 2007.

RRI: Community Forest Management and Enterprises, Global Issues and Opportunities, Conference overview - July 2007.

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Schmack Biogas and E.ON to build Europe's largest biogas plant, will feed gas into natural gas grid

Schmack Biogas AG, the world's largest biogas plant manufacturer and service company, announces [*German] it will build Europe's biggest biogas plant together with E.ON Ruhrgas and E.ON Bayern. The investment for the 4MW facility is around €15.8 million, with each partner contributing a third. After upgrading, high quality bio-methane produced from renewable biomass will be fed into the natural gas grid.

The total output of the new plant will be 10 MWGas which is the equivalent of around 4MW of electric power. The construction of the facility will take place in Schmack's industrial park in Schwandorf and will begin mid-2007. From December 2007 onwards, biogas will begin to be fed into the natural gas grid.

To get a grip on the scale of the plant, consider that most currently built biogas plant in Germany are in the 150kW to 500kW range. The new facility has a much larger capacity and was designed to ferment 61.500 tonnes of biomass per year. Using current technologies, some 16 million cubic meters of biogas can be obtained, which translates into energy for around 5000 households.

The project management, construction and operation of the mega-plant will be taken care of by the Schmack Energie Holding GmbH. E.ON Bayern Wärme, will market the heat, whereas E.ON Bioerdgas GmbH will market the biogas and feed it into the natural gas pipelines.

Biogas has a huge potential on a global scale, with some experts seeing it so large that the plant based methane could replace all of the EU's natural gas imports from Russia by 2030 (earlier post):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Schmack's use of renewably grown biomass is a boon to the economy and agricultural sector of the region around Schwandorf. For the first time, the region's farmers have an opportunity to start growing bioenergy crops that are certain to be taken off by the biogas plant.

Compared to other biogas companies, Schmack uses dedicated biogas crops (energy maize), which reduced the land needed to grow feedstocks by up to a third. The energy crops restore degraded land and increase its fertility.

Ulrich Schmack, CEO of Schmack Biogas said: "We are pleased to be working with two of the most prominent energy companies to build this large plant. By marketing the heat generated, an important new stream of income is obtained. We think this scale represents the future of the biogas market."

Dr. Peter Deml, E.ON Bayern AG: "With Schmack Biogas we have a highly competent partner for this project. With this investment, we are showing that E.ON Bayern is committed to renewable energy, both in the short as the long term."

Schmack Biogas AG is the world leading provider of biogas plants and services. The company was founded in 1995 and has quickly become a provider of total solutions. Besides technical services, it offers microbiological expertise. Recently it created a subsidiary, Schmack Energie Holding, with which it invests in operations of biogas facilities owned by Schmack. Up to today, the company has built 179 plants with a combined capacity of 45MW.

Schmack's announcement comes after another German player, Nawaro Bioenergie AG, said its vast 20MW biogas complex is nearing completion. Contrary to Schmack's project which is based on one large plant, that of Nawaro consists of 40 smaller units (earlier post).

Translated by Laurens Rademakers, for Biopact, CC, 2007.

Schmack Biogas AG: Schmack Biogas plant Bau einer 4 MW-Biogas- Anlage zur Gaseinspeisung Gemeinsame Investition mit E.ON Ruhrgas und E.ON Bayern [*.pdf] - July 13, 2007.

Article continues

EU biodiesel output doubles in 2 years, may reach 2010 targets early

The European Biodiesel Board (EBB) announces its official figures [*.pdf] for the year 2006, which confirm that the overall biodiesel production the EU increased from 3.2 million tonnes in 2005 to nearly 4.9 tonnes last year. This represents a 54% yearly growth, which follows a 65% record high growth in the previous year 2005. But the EBB also warns that lack of clear standards and legislation may put a dent in this growth. It offers recommendations for much needed interventions. Finally, the board lashes out at the American "B99" export subsidy for biodiesel, which is disrupting EU biodiesel markets. This international trade violation will be disputed before the WTO.

Continued growth
EU biodiesel production has more than doubled in the last two years (from 1.9 million tonnes in 2004), marking a further acceleration in the continuous expansion of the European biodiesel sector. Growth rates in 2002, 2003 and 2004 were 30-35%. Biodiesel now makes up 80% of the EU's total biofuel output. European producers account for 77% of world-wide biodiesel production.

Germany remains by far the largest producer, accounting for more than half of the entire EU's output. France and Italy follow. In the UK, output is still relatively low, but tripled from 2005 to 2006. New entrants include Belgium, the Netherlands and Portugal (table 1, click to enlarge).

Today, in Europe, there are already 185 fully operational biodiesel plants. Over 58 are under construction. In 2007, capacities for biodiesel production reached 10.2 million tonnes (table 2, click to enlarge), setting the foundation for a further strong expansion of the sector, which will be able to meet the 2010 EU targets two years early. Thanks to the plants currently under construction, production capacities are expected to reach even much higher levels, growing by the same rate at least until the end of 2008.

In terms of industrial capacities, the EU biodiesel industry is ready to reach the 2010 EU target and will certainly be ready, well in advance, to fulfil the 10% biofuel targets endorsed by the EU heads of state last March at the Spring Summit (earlier post).

'Legislative desert'
However, the EBB warns that in the EU, biodiesel is still strongly hindered by the lack of appropriate market measures able to create a real market for the biofuel in member states. As a result, the important increase in industrial biodiesel capacity risks to remain very largely underutilized and production may start stagnating if not declining already from this year onwards, unless urgent action is taken. This would be a paradox, taking into account that such industrial capacity has been developed in order to respond to the EU biodiesel targets, which EU authorities recently doubled.

The EBB says this paradox needs to be avoided: the EU cannot on the one hand ask the biodiesel industry to undertake a long walk to reacht very high levels of production in the long run, and on the other hand leave this same industry alone to cross a legislative and standards desert over the next two years.

Urgent legislative and standardisation provisions need to be adopted in many member states and by the CEN in order to create a real market for the biodiesel quantities that will be needed to fulfil the 2010 and 2020 targets. The EBB suggests the following interventions:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

  • Member States legislations and new EU law need to create the real conditions in order to sell biodiesel in the various countries: real conditions means not just only 'theoretical' targets or mandates with no practical impact, as so far occured in Italy, Spain, Poland and many other countries, but efficient legislations enabling the biodiesel capacities already present in these countries to produce and sell the high quality product that they are able to deliver;
  • To this aim, the biodiesel incorporation rate in EN 590 diesel (with no labelling) needs to be increased quickly from the 5% to 10% and then again to a 15% biodiesel in diesel rate by 2015 if we are seriously aiming at a 10% minimum target in all Member States in 2020;
  • In this sense, the EBB urges the CEN to accelerate its work in order to amend the European diesel standard EN590 to include a 10% biodiesel incorporation (the work is lagging behind because of the strong opposition of some vehicle manufacturers) and to start adapting technology and norms to incorporate 15% biodiesel by 2015; if conservatism and inertial logics will continue to prevail in the CEN, this could be achieved by way of legislation introducing once and for all these percentages under the EU definition of diesel fuel (i.e. with no separate labelling), detailed by the fuel quality Directive 98/70 currently under revision.
Diesel deficit, gasoline surplus
At the European level, biodiesel makes up precisely 80% of EU biofuels production (bioethanol output stood at 1.2 million tonnes in 2006) and is very likely to carry on being the biofuel most demanded in order to fill future ambitious EU targets. EU fuel markets are experiencing increasing diesel deficits and gasoline surpluses - we imported 24 million tonnes of diesel from Russia already in 2005 and the same year we exported 19 million tonnes of gasoline to the U.S. In 2006 and 2007 this trend is being amplified by the genereal dieselisation of EU vehicles. Biodiesel and diesel substitutes demand as a "security of supply" demand will be the main driver for future EU fuel distribution markets.

With its strong diesel demand, at the international level, the European Union continues to excel as "biodiesel land": the EU is the worldwide leader in biodiesel production, both in terms of biodiesel capacities and production. In 2006 we produced 77% of biodiesel produced world-wide. In the U.S., the world's second largest biodiesel producer, production amounted to around 250 million gallons (approx. 836,000 tonnes) in 2006.

American export subsidy
The international context is however perturbed by the continuing negative effects of the "B99" U.S. export subsidy, which is disrupting the EU biodiesel market. Through the B99 scheme - which the EBB deems 'unfair' -, American producers can access EU markets with a competitive advantage of roughly €200/m³ when compared to EU manufacturers, and they are able to sell U.S. originated biodiesel at the same or even at a lower price than the cost of the EU's industry's raw materials.

After having alerted EU authorities about urgent action to be taken at WTO level against this scheme, the EBB is now preparing a countervailing duty complaint to be filed against this international trade violation. Mostly due to the negative impact of B99 exports, EU biodiesel production is expected to stagnate in the year 2007, in spite of the 50-60% growth of the last two years and in spite of the fact that EU production capacities have reached more than 10 million tonnes in 2007.

Finally, the EBB notes that it is worth underlining that major EU agricultural organisations have recently officially indicated that the very largest part of future biodiesel demand, even in the perspective of 2020 targets, can be produced from raw materials originated in the EU thanks to the yield potential growth for EU oilseeds. (Biopact and others think this will not be the case and the EU will have to rely on imported feedstocks.)

The European Biodiesel Board, also known as EBB is a non-profit organisation established in 1997. It represents the voice of the EU biodiesel industry by gathering 55 companies and associations. It aims to promote the use of biodiesel in the EU. EBB members represent an 80% share of the EU's biodiesel output.

EBB: 2006, 2007 production and capacity statistics [*.pdf] - July 17, 2007.

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Bioenergy in the UK could 'threaten wildlife'

British environmental groups are making an urgent plea to the UK government not to downgrade other environmental concerns in promoting bioenergy to help tackle climate change. Their call comes after the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Transport released their joint Biomass Strategy for the UK (earlier post).

In a policy paper titled Bioenergy in the UK, turning green promises into environmental reality [*.pdf], they say crops such as willow, oil-seed rape and miscanthus or elephant grass, grown for energy generation, could be sown over large areas of the UK, forming monocultures that provide little sustenance for wildlife.

It warns that without proper management, cultivation of crops for fuel, electricity and heat could cause further declines of farmland wildlife, damage the character of landscapes, harm historic and archaeological sites and damage soil and water quality.

The policy paper calls for:
  • A UK-wide assessment of bioenergy's potential and drawbacks
  • Certification of all bioenergy schemes to ensure producers prove cuts to greenhouse gas emissions
  • Planning policies that guard against unsuitable bioenergy developments and changes in land use
The report, being published by 11 organisations, including the The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, National Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Council for British Archaeology, and The Wildlife Trusts welcomes the opportunities bioenergy development creates and says the potential for environmental harm from new energy schemes can be avoided.

Sian Atkinson, Conservation Policy Officer at the Woodland Trust, said:
This is a crucial time. Bioenergy offers some positive opportunities, not just for reduction of greenhouse gases, but also to improve biodiversity. For example, development of the wood fuel industry could stimulate markets for low-grade timber, enabling much-needed restoration of ancient woodland sites planted with conifers. However, there are also grave risks associated with the development of bioenergy, and we would urge the government to address these concerns as a matter of urgency.
Ian Woodhurst, CPRE's farm campaigner and chairman of the group, said:
With the right crop, in the right place, managed in the right way we can provide our communities with the sustainable energy supplies they need to tackle climate change. But we need to make sure we don't end up with an agro-fuel industry that ends up wrecking the very thing we seek to protect.
The organisations believe that where farmers are paid to grow bioenergy crops, they should be required to assess their environmental impact:
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Abi Bunker, Agriculture Policy Officer at the RSPB, said:
This report should serve as a wake-up call to government. Instead of jumping on the bioenergy bandwagon and regretting the damage later, the UK should be developing the bioenergy sector with care, avoiding damage to wildlife and making sure that emissions really are reduced. Nearly 2.5 million acres could soon be planted with crops for biofuels and heat and power generation by 2020. That is a lot of land to sacrifice if environmental safeguards are not put in place first.
Ian Woodhurst, CPRE's Farming Campaigner and Chair of Link's Farming and Rural Development Group, said:
It's vital that bioenergy crops deliver the real carbon savings that they promise without damaging the character of our landscapes and our wildlife. With the right crop, in the right place, managed in the right way we can provide our communities with the sustainable energy supplies they need to tackle climate change. But we need to make sure we don't end up with an agro-fuel industry that ends up wrecking the very thing we seek to protect.
Frances Griffith, Hon Vice-President, Council for British Archaeology, said:
Although bioenergy offers a good potential avenue for reducing fossil fuel use, we must take care. Some of the establishment and cultivation processes for energy crops cause a great deal of soil disturbance. It is essential that proper advice is taken to ensure that we avoid archaeological sites - they may have survived in the ground for thousands of years, but they can be destroyed for ever in an afternoon.
Helen Meech, Senior Policy and Campaigns Officer at the National Trust, said:
At many of our properties, the National Trust is using small-scale biomass for heating and hot water. It's a positive and practical way to cut our carbon emissions. However, it is crucial that the growth of bioenergy in the UK does not come at a high price - serious damage to our natural and historic environment. We're particularly concerned about potential environmental damage from intensively grown biofuel crops used for transport fuels. This report is a timely reminder that government has a key role to play to ensure that the growth of bioenergy in the UK is sustainable, working in partnership with conservation organisations, farmers and land managers.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: Bioenergy could do more harm than good - July 18, 2007.

Wildlife and Countryside Link et. al., Bioenergy in the UK - turning green promises into environmental reality [*.pdf] - July, 2007.

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Sunflower Integrated Bioenergy Center begins testing of coal-based algae-to-biofuels system

Recently, algae company GreenFuel Technologies experienced setbacks with its bioreactor system which led to the layoff of half the company’s 50-person staff and Bob Metcalfe’s appointment as interim CEO. Cambridge-based GreenFuel seeks to use algae to convert carbon dioxide emissions (e.g. from coal plants) into biofuel, by feeding the emissions to algae (schematic, click to enlarge).

The company has meanwhile abandoned the idea of using the hyper-expensive photobioreactors (a technology Biopact has always seen as unfeasible), and quickly started testing 'greenhouses' instead. Recent experiments with this technology in the desert of Arizona resulted in unstable cultures, and the greenhouses had to be shut down. GreenFuel Technologies described the event as a 'sucessful failure' (legendary words in the renewable energy community). But worse was yet to come: it suffered another blow when it learned that its algae-harvesting system would cost twice as much as anticipated.

In short, on all key parameters and processing steps, there have been failures. Earlier, South African algae company De Beers broke down because it could not perform what it had promised its investors (more here). Other hyped algae companies have meanwhile silently switched to growing terrestrial energy crops (e.g. Algodyne). Biopact's scepticism towards algae biofuels (previous post) is being substantiated. As we have always said, this technology may have some merit and may become feasible in open ponds, over the ultra-long term, if costs can be reduced by a factor of 20 and if major breakthroughs are made in biotechnology (creation of strains that can be carefully controlled).

Still, some keep believing in the viability of algae systems as they are currently being hyped. The Sunflower Integrated Bioenergy Center project announces it reached a 'milestone' recently when equipment arrived to begin the first phase of on-site testing for the coal-based algae-to-biofuels system. Following testing and demonstration of the technology, the system will be used to produce renewable fuels from carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions at the existing and two proposed coal-fired generating units at Holcomb Station.

The equipment will soon be used to identify the strains of algae that grow best in western Kansas when attached to Sunflower's coal-based plant at Holcomb, Kansas. Funding for this initial phase of development is being provided by Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc., Westminster, Colorado, and Sunflower, both partners in the Holcomb Expansion project.

GreenFuel Technologies delivered a mobile laboratory last week that will be used to ensure that flue gas from Sunflower's power plant can be used to grow microalgae in an enclosed environment. If this test is successful, additional tests will determine which specific strain will grow best in western Kansas with Sunflower's plant:
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About the recent 'succesful failures', Clare Gustin, Sunflower's Vice President, Member Services and External Affairs says:
GreenFuel Technologies recently learned valuable production lessons at their Arizona algae project that will benefit the Holcomb Expansion partners, so we are pleased they have decided to focus their efforts on five projects globally and provide us with their newest technology. We are dealing with leading edge technologies, so we understand that as we move from an emerging technology to one that is commercially viable, we will have obstacles to overcome.
GreenFuel's 'Emissions-to-Biofuels' process uses naturally occurring algae to capture and reduce flue gas CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. When the algae farm is commercially operational, the algae will be harvested daily and be converted into a broad range of biofuels or high-value animal feed supplements.

Development of an anaerobic digester, biodiesel plant, and dairy subsystems is ongoing with the ethanol plant projected to be under construction later this fall. The total projected investment is expected to be $417 million and will create 161 new jobs.

Schematic: GreenFuel Technologies' idealized scheme to use carbon emissions from power plants to grow algae. Credit: GreenFuel Technologies.

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GreenField Ethanol demonstrates membrane technology, may save 40% energy costs

GreenField Ethanol, Canada’s largest ethanol producer, announced it has completed a successful trial demonstration of new technology that will dramatically improve the ethanol production process.

At a project at its plant in Tiverton, Ontario, GreenField joined with Quebec-based Vaperma to demonstrate and study their membrane technology. The Vaperma Siftek membrane can remove more than 40 per cent water from an alcohol water mixture producing a 99 per cent fuel-grade ethanol product. Vaperma's process is unique to the industry and has the potential to revolutionize the alcohol production process.

GreenField Ethanol began discussions with Vaperma two years ago about installing a demonstration project at its Tiverton, Ontario ethanol plant. This project proved to be the first large-scale demonstration in North America of membrane technology for the dewatering of ethanol.

The Vaperma Siftek membrane is a high-performance, highly stable polymer membrane. The proprietary technology uses a polyimide-based material forming a solvent-resistant, asymmetric, integrally-skinned permeation membrane (schematic, click to enlarge).

To separate water from ethanol, water vapor permeates across the membrane at a much greater flux than ethanol. The high permeability of water is due to its relatively high adsorption and high diffusion rate in the membrane. The higher selectivity and permeance of water compared to ethanol are attributed to the unique polymer formulation and the membrane fabrication process.

Over the last 20 years, the Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) process using molecular sieve dehydration (MSD) has earned industry-wide acceptance in the separation of ethanol from water. This semi-continuous process produces a purge stream which contains between 60% and 80% ethanol that must be reboiled in the distillation process.

The Vaperma process allows for significant energy savings because the membrane eliminates distillation and molecular sieve units. By replacing these, GreenField would be able to save up to 40 per cent in energy costs:
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The unit in Tiverton used substantially less energy and therefore fewer greenhouse gases were created in the process – reducing the plant's CO2 footprint. While our plants are all extremely efficient, the less natural gas we use to make steam, the better for the environment. - Robert Gallant, GreenField President and CEO
GreenField Ethanol, formerly Commercial Alcohols, is Canada’s leading ethanol producer. The company produces 250 million litres a year of corn-based fuel ethanol at its plants in Chatham and Tiverton, Ontario and Varennes, Quebec. Two more plants are under construction in Hensall and Johnstown, Ontario, and will be operational in 2008. GreenField Ethanol will be one of the top producers in North America with five operating plants, producing more than 700 million litres of ethanol per year by 2008. GreenField's Ethanol is available at more than 1,500 gas stations across Canada.

Vaperma is an emerging developer, manufacturer and supplier of advanced
gas separation systems. Vaperma breakthrough patented polymer membrane technology combines solvent and high temperature resistances into a strong hollow fibre which enables it to address new industrial applications. Yesterday, it officially opened its new 22,000 square-foot research and technology centre for the development and pilot testing of clean energy gas separation membranes.

Vaperma’s innovative hollow fiber membrane is a proprietary, made-in-Canada technology that represents a new “dewatering” process for the production of fuel ethanol. The technology also has strong potential for the dehydration of natural gas.

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