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    Dutch researcher Bas Bougie has developed a laser system to investigate soot development in diesel engines. Small soot particles are not retained by a soot filter but are, however, more harmful than larger soot particles. Therefore, soot development needs to be tackled at the source. Laser Induced Incandescence is a technique that reveals exactly where soot is generated and can be used by project partners to develop cleaner diesel engines. Terry Meyer, an Iowa State University assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is using similar laser technology to develop advanced sensors capable of screening the combustion behavior and soot characteristics specifically of biofuels. Eurekalert and - December 7, 2007.

    Lithuania's first dedicated biofuel terminal has started operating in Klaipeda port. At the end of November 2007, the stevedoring company Vakaru krova (VK) started activities to manage transshipments. The infrastructure of the biodiesel complex allows for storage of up to 4000 cubic meters of products. During the first year, the terminal plans to transship about 70.000 tonnes of methyl ether, after that the capacities of the terminal would be increased. Investments to the project totaled €2.3 million. Agrimarket - December 5, 2007.

    New Holland supports the use of B100 biodiesel in all equipment with New Holland-manufactured diesel engines, including electronic injection engines with common rail technology. Overall, nearly 80 percent of the tractor and equipment manufacturer's New Holland-branded products with diesel engines are now available to operate on B100 biodiesel. Tractor and equipment maker John Deere meanwhile clarified its position for customers that want to use biodiesel blends up to B20. Grainnet - December 5, 2007.

    According to Wetlands International, an NGO, the Kyoto Protocol as it currently stands does not take into account possible emissions from palm oil grown on a particular type of land found in Indonesia and Malaysia, namely peatlands. Mongabay - December 5, 2007.

    Malaysia's oil & gas giant Petronas considers entering the biofuels sector. Zamri Jusoh, senior manager of Petronas' petroleum development management unit told reporters "of course our focus is on oil and gas, but I think as we move into the future we cannot ignore the importance of biofuels." AFP - December 5, 2007.

    In just four months, the use of biodiesel in the transport sector has substantially improved air quality in Metro Manila, data from the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) showed. A blend of one percent coco-biodiesel is mandated by the Biofuels Act of 2007 which took effect last May. By 2009, it would be increased to two percent. Philippine Star - December 4, 2007.

    Kazakhstan will next year adopt laws to regulate its fledgling biofuel industry and plans to construct at least two more plants in the next 18 months to produce environmentally friendly fuel from crops, industry officials said. According to Akylbek Kurishbayev, vice-minister for agriculture, he Central Asian country has the potential to produce 300,000 tons a year of biodiesel and export half. Kazakhstan could also produce up to 1 billion liters of bioethanol, he said. "The potential is huge. If we use this potential wisely, we can become one of the world's top five producers of biofuels," Beisen Donenov, executive director of the Kazakhstan Biofuels Association, said on the sidelines of a grains forum. Reuters - November 30, 2007.

    SRI Consulting released a report on chemicals from biomass. The analysis highlights six major contributing sources of green and renewable chemicals: increasing production of biofuels will yield increasing amounts of biofuels by-products; partial decomposition of certain biomass fractions can yield organic chemicals or feedstocks for the manufacture of various chemicals; forestry has been and will continue to be a source of pine chemicals; evolving fermentation technology and new substrates will also produce an increasing number of chemicals. Chemical Online - November 27, 2007.

    German industrial conglomerate MAN AG plans to expand into renewable energies such as biofuels and solar power. Chief Executive Hakan Samuelsson said services unit Ferrostaal would lead the expansion. Reuters - November 24, 2007.

    Analysts think Vancouver-based Ballard Power Systems, which pumped hundreds of millions and decades of research into developing hydrogen fuel cells for cars, is going to sell its automotive division. Experts describe the development as "the death of the hydrogen highway". The problems with H2 fuel cell cars are manifold: hydrogen is a mere energy carrier and its production requires a primary energy input; production is expensive, as would be storage and distribution; finally, scaling fuel cells and storage tanks down to fit in cars remains a huge challenge. Meanwhile, critics have said that the primary energy for hydrogen can better be used for electricity and electric vehicles. On a well-to-wheel basis, the cleanest and most efficient way to produce hydrogen is via biomass, so the news is a set-back for the biohydrogen community. But then again, biomass can be used more efficiently as electricity for battery cars. Canada.com - November 21, 2007.

    South Korea plans to invest 20 billion won (€14.8/$21.8 million) by 2010 on securing technologies to develop synthetic fuels from biomass, coal and natural gas, as well as biobutanol. 29 private companies, research institutes and universities will join this first stage of the "next-generation clean energy development project" led by South Korea's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Energy. Korea Times - November 19, 2007.

    OPEC leaders began a summit today with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez issuing a chilling warning that crude prices could double to US$200 from their already-record level if the United States attacked Iran or Venezuela. He urged assembled leaders from the OPEC, meeting for only the third time in the cartel's 47-year history, to club together for geopolitical reasons. But the cartel is split between an 'anti-US' block including Venezuela, Iran, and soon to return ex-member Ecuador, and a 'neutral' group comprising most Gulf States. France24 - November 17, 2007.

    The article "Biofuels: What a Biopact between North and South could achieve" published in the scientific journal Energy Policy (Volume 35, Issue 7, 1 July 2007, Pages 3550-3570) ranks number 1 in the 'Top 25 hottest articles'. The article was written by professor John A. Mathews, Macquarie University (Sydney, Autralia), and presents a case for a win-win bioenergy relationship between the industrialised and the developing world. Mathews holds the Chair of Strategic Management at the university, and is a leading expert in the analysis of the evolution and emergence of disruptive technologies and their global strategic management. ScienceDirect - November 16, 2007.

    Timber products company China Grand Forestry Resources Group announced that it would acquire Yunnan Shenyu New Energy, a biofuels research group, for €560/$822 million. Yunnan Shenyu New Energy has developed an entire industrial biofuel production chain, from a fully active energy crop seedling nursery to a biorefinery. Cleantech - November 16, 2007.

    Northern European countries launch the Nordic Bioenergy Project - "Opportunities and consequences of an expanding bio energy market in the Nordic countries" - with the aim to help coordinate bioenergy activities in the Nordic countries and improve the visibility of existing and future Nordic solutions in the complex field of bioenergy, energy security, competing uses of resources and land, regional development and environmental impacts. A wealth of data, analyses and cases will be presented on a new website - Nordic Energy - along with announcements of workshops during the duration of project. Nordic Energy - November 14, 2007.

    Global Partners has announced that it is planning to increase its refined products and biofuels storage capacity in Providence, Rhode Island by 474,000 barrels. The partnership has entered into agreements with New England Petroleum Terminal, at a deepwater marine terminal located at the Port of Providence. PRInside - November 14, 2007.

    The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) kicks off the meeting in Valencia, Spain, which will result in the production of the Synthesis Report on climate change. The report will summarize the core findings of the three volumes published earlier by the separate working groups. IPCC - November 12, 2007.

    Biopact's Laurens Rademakers is interviewed by Mongabay on the risks of large-scale bioenergy with carbon storage (BECS) proposals. Even though Biopact remains positive about BECS, because it offers one of the few safe systems to mitigate climate change in a drastic way, care must be take to avoid negative impacts on tropical forests. Mongabay - November 10, 2007.

    According to the latest annual ranking produced by The Scientist, Belgium is the world's best country for academic research, followed by the U.S. and Canada. Belgium's top position is especially relevant for plant, biology, biotechnology and bioenergy research, as these are amongst the science fields on which it scores best. The Scientist - November 8, 2007.

    Mascoma Corporation, a cellulosic ethanol company, today announced the acquisition of Celsys BioFuels, Inc. Celsys BioFuels was formed in 2006 to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production technology developed in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue University. The Celsys technology is based on proprietary pretreatment processes for multiple biomass feedstocks, including corn fiber and distiller grains. The technology was developed by Dr. Michael Ladisch, an internationally known leader in the field of renewable fuels and cellulosic biofuels. He will be taking a two-year leave of absence from Purdue University to join Mascoma as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Business Wire - November 7, 2007.

    Bemis Company, Inc. announced today that it will partner with Plantic Technologies Limited, an Australian company specializing in starch-based biopolymers, to develop and sell renewably resourced flexible films using patented Plantic technology. Bemis - November 7, 2007.

    Hungary's Kalocsa Hõerõmû Kft is to build a HUF 40 billion (€158.2 million) straw-fired biomass power plant with a maximum capacity of 49.9 megawatts near Kalocsa in southern Hungary. Portfolio Hungary - November 7, 2007.

    Canada's Gemini Corporation has received approval to proceed into the detailed engineering, fabrication and construction phases of a biogas cogeneration facility located in the Lethbridge, Alberta area, the first of its kind whereby biogas production is enhanced through the use of Thermal Hydrolysis technology, a high temperature, high pressure process for the safe destruction of SRM material from the beef industry. The technology enables a facility to redirect waste material, previously shipped to landfills, into a valuable feedstock for the generation of electricity and thermal energy. This eliminates the release of methane into the environment and the resultant solids are approved for use as a land amendment rather than re-entering the waste stream. In addition, it enhances the biogas production process by more than 25%. Market Wire - November 7, 2007.

    A new Agency to manage Britain's commitment to biofuels was established today by Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly. The Renewable Fuels Agency will be responsible for the day to day running of the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, coming into force in April next year. By 2010, the Obligation will mean that 5% of all the fuels sold in the UK should come from biofuels, which could save 2.6m to 3m tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. eGov Monitor - November 5, 2007.

    Prices for prompt loading South African coal cargoes reached a new record last week with a trade at $85.00 a tonne free-on-board (FOB) for a February cargo. Strong Indian demand and tight supply has pushed South African prices up to record levels from around $47.00 at the beginning of the year. European DES/CIF ARA coal prices have remained fairly stable over the past few days, having traded up to a record $130.00 a tonne DES ARA late last week. Fair value is probably just below $130.00 a tonne, traders said. At this price, some forms of biomass become directly competitive with coal. Reuters Africa - November 4, 2007.

    The government of India's Harayana state has decided to promote biomass power projects based on gasification in a move to help rural communities replace costly diesel and furnace oil. The news was announced during a meeting of the Haryana Renewable Energy Development Agency (HAREDA). Six pilot plants have demonstrated the efficiency and practicability of small-scale biomass gasification. Capital subsidies will now be made available to similar projects at the rate of Rs 2.5 lakh (€4400) per 100 KW for electrical applications and Rs 2 lakh (€3500) per 300 KW for thermal applications. New Kerala - November 1, 2007.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Scientists warn forest carbon payment schemes could increase poverty

A new study by one of the world's leading forestry research institutes warns that the new push to 'reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation', known by the acronym REDD, is imperiled by a routine failure to grasp the root causes of deforestation. The study sought to link what is known about the underlying causes of the loss of 13 million hectares of forest each year to the promise and potential pitfalls of REDD schemes. Without a major overhaul of policies dealing with land and forest property rights, such schemes could intensify poverty, the scientists warn.

Based on more than a decade of in-depth research on the forces driving deforestation worldwide, the report [*.pdf] by researchers at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) found that there is ample opportunity to reduce carbon emissions if financial incentives will be sufficient enough to flip political and economic realities that cause deforestation. The report was released today at the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP-13) in Bali, where environment ministers from 190 countries are meeting to plot a long-term strategy for combating global warming. High on the agenda is reducing the 1.6 billion tons of carbon emissions caused each year by deforestation, which amounts to one-fifth of global carbon emissions and more than the combined total contributed by the world�s energy-intensive transport sectors.
After being left out of the Kyoto agreement, it's promising that deforestation is commanding center-stage at the Bali climate talks. But the danger is that policy-makers will fail to appreciate that forest destruction is caused by an incredibly wide variety of political, economic, and other factors that originate outside the forestry sector, and require different solutions. - Frances Seymour, CIFOR Director General
In other words, stopping deforestation in Indonesia caused by overcapacity in the wood processing industry is a completely different challenge from dealing with deforestation stemming from a road project in the Amazon or forest degradation caused by charcoal production in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to CIFOR, careful examination reveals that complex, indirect forces are often more important than the logging and slash and burn activities popularly understood as the main causes of deforestation. Forces such as fluctuations in international commodity prices; agricultural and, more recently, biofuel subsidies; roads and other infrastructure projects can encourage forest clearing; finally, high energy prices can drive forest destruction as communities seek to rely more on biomass. Moreover, deeply ingrained and routinely corrupt government practices often favor large corporate interests over community rights to forest resources.

Seymour said the CIFOR analysis, which draws on a range of studies of the economic, social and political conditions affecting the world's most vulnerable forests, seeks to ensure that any initiatives to stem deforestation that might emerge in future climate change agreements are firmly grounded in reality:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Most importantly, CIFOR advises decision makers to learn from the past and look beyond the confines of the forestry sector to the array of market failures and governance failures that spark a chain of events culminating in deforestation.

For example, according to the study, Indonesia, which is estimated to lose 1.9 million hectares of forest each year, has emerged as one of the world's leading sources of carbon emissions in part due to a global spike in prices for palm oil and a surge in China's demand for wood pulp. Together, these forces have pushed deforestation into carbon-rich peatlands that are being cleared and drained to make way for oil palm and pulpwood plantations. Limiting deforestation in Indonesia�s peatlands should be a high priority because the carbon losses per hectare are substantial.

Meanwhile, CIFOR notes that in South America, the loss of 4.3 million hectares a year is driven in part by meat consumption that encourages conversion of forests to pasture lands throughout the region. In Ecuador, road building has been a major cause of deforestation. In sub-Saharan Africa, fuelwood extraction and charcoal production are factors behind the continent's loss of 4 million hectares a year.
Policies that seek to halt deforestation will need to be crafted to address diverse local situations and target activities in areas such as agriculture, transportation and finance that lie well beyond the boundaries of the forest sector. - Markku Kanninen, author
The perverse subsidies that provide incentives for clearing forest must be removed and efforts to secure property rights for local forest communities should be encouraged, Kanninen said.

The report also sees promise in the increasingly popular notion that deforestation can be addressed with financial incentives that compensate landowners for 'environmental services'. Seymour said discussions in Bali to fight deforestation by compensating forest stewards for protecting the carbon-storage capacity of forests through what is now a multi-billion dollar global market for carbon credit are potentially powerful.

Poverty warning
Such payments to individual land-users have the potential to 'flip' financial incentives from favoring forest destruction, as they now do, to favoring conservation, Seymour said. But the key question is whether or not REDD incentives will be sufficient to flip political and economic decisions at the national level that drive deforestation.

Appealing as they are, Seymour said it's critical to understand that, due to decades of inattention to the rights of forest dwellers, new payment streams tied to conservation could intensify the severe poverty that now afflicts the majority of rural forest communities in the developing world.
Since forest property rights are often very unclear, payment for carbon services could end up providing incentives for corrupt officials or local elites to appropriate this new forest value from local communities. We've seen this happen before in similar situations, and there�s every reason to believe, given the kind of money now being paid for carbon credits, that it could happen again. - Frances Seymour
Seymour said such problems can be avoided if policy makers enter the process of designing REDD strategies with a clear understanding of potential pitfalls and what can be done to avoid them. The report advises that reducing carbon emissions from forests will require strengthening the weak governance mechanisms that have long proven unable to enforce many existing prohibitions on forest clearing.

Finally, the report calls for ensuring that the REDD process is fair to poor forest communities. According to Seymour, there is a need to temper the desire for maximum reduction in forest-based carbon emissions with regard for the legitimate rights of forest communities to realize the income potential of their forestlands.

At times there will be trade-offs between reducing carbon emissions and reducing poverty, she adds.

Biofuels to the rescue?
Biopact agrees that, in theory, REDD schemes could offer forest communities and poor farmers an opportunity to benefit from carbon credits. But the schemes also entail the major risk of 'forest carbon grabs' and could increase poverty when forest communities are chased off their land or farmers out of their livelihoods by those who control and seek to profit from REDD. When farmers and communities convert forest into land to grow crops or for the production of energy (fuel wood, charcoal), they are guaranteed an income, because they are the suppliers of the products for which there is a demand. Income is generated and controlled from the bottom up. REDD schemes on the contrary are based on 'trickle down' payments and require a highly efficient bureaucracy, strong monitoring capacities, good governance and a whole set of guarantees to ensure that the money arrives at the communities whose forests are taken up in the scheme.

Moreover, a perspective that often lacks from discussions about avoided deforestation or compensated reduction schemes is the threat of increasing energy prices and the appeal of biomass. If energy prices continue to increase at the pace we have seen over the past years, biofuels and energy crops grown on forest land could potentially generate more profits than carbon credits.

In this context, a case could be made in favor of promoting the mass-production of biofuels on non-forest land, because this is one of the most direct and feasible ways to stop oil prices from increasing further (previous post). The explicitly sustainable bioenergy potential found in non-forest zones is large enough to curb the trend. The potential for biofuels without deforestation is estimated to be around 1100 to 1400 Exajoules (max) by 2050 - that is around 7 times as much oil as is currently being consumed worldwide (earlier post, here and here). This potential takes into account all food, fiber, fodder and forest product needs of growing populations. In short, tapping this enormous resource base could help limit the increase in oil and energy prices, and thus partly limit the appeal of growing energy crops on forest land. The problem remains, though, that crops thriving in rainforest climes, like palm oil, are so efficient and profitable. Developing energy crops on non-forest land could be more costly.

Biopact has called repeatedly on conservationists and environmentalists to study the root causes of deforestation more in depth, and in particular to analyse the new interplay between the potential for biofuels as it is related to energy prices, and deforestation. The CIFOR report offers a first step in that direction, but more focused research is urgently needed.

Headquartered in Indonesia and with offices in Latin America and Africa, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is a leading international forestry research organization established in response to global concerns about the social, environmental, and economic consequences of forest loss and degradation. CIFOR is one of 15 research centers within the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

Image: Borneo, Indonesia - forest being cleared to grow palm oil, a very lucrative crop. Credit: CIFOR.

CIFOR: Do Trees Grow on Money? The implications of deforestation research for policies to promote REDD [*.pdf] - December 7, 2007.

CIFOR: New Report Warns Failure to Understand Root Causes of Deforestation Imperils New Efforts to Curb Forest-Based Carbon Emissions - December 7, 2007.

Biopact: Harvard Center for International Development: "Biofuels can match oil production" - November 06, 2007

Biopact: IEA study: large potential for biomass trade, under different scenarios - May 13, 2007

Biopact: A look at Africa's biofuels potential - July 30, 2006

Article continues

India to add 1700MW of biomass co-generation by 2012; 18,000MW potential from agro-residues

Under its 11th Plan period (2007-2012), the government of India aims to add 1,700 MW capacity through biomass and bagasse cogeneration in various states, including Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, the Lok Sabha (Lower House) was informed today.

The target consists of 500 MW from biomass projects and 1,200 MW from projects based on utilizing bagasse (the fibrous pulp byproduct of sugarcane processing) as a source of bioenergy, Minister of State for New and Renewable Energy Vilas Muttemwar announced in a written statement.
As per the National Biomass Resource Atlas prepared by the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, under a project sponsored by the Ministry, a cumulative biomass power potential of about 18,000 MWe from surplus agro-residues has been estimated in the country.
The total technical biomass potential from residues and energy crops in India is estimated to be around 66,880MW (table, click to enlarge). In order to turn this potential efficiently into energy, an inter-ministerial initiative was recently launched: the production of a detailed atlas to accurately asses the nation-wide biomass resource base, including agricultural residues suitable for conversion into energy, which must allow the planning of the most optimal use of the resource (previous post).

Under the new bioenergy plan, the states of Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have been estimated to have a potential to set up biomass based power projects of 100 MW or above.

Sugar mills with a crushing capacity of 2,500 tons per day in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Punjab and Haryana have an estimated potential of about 5,000 MW surplus power generation through optimum bagasse-based co-generation. India is the world's second largest sugarcane producer, and the sector represents the country's second largest agro-industrial segment. Sugar production was estimated to top a record 28 million tonnes this year, resulting in a vast stream of bagasse from the 322 million tonnes of stalks harvested (previous post).

The government is providing incentives for setting up of power generation projects based on biomass and bagasse cogeneration in the form of capital subsidy and fiscal incentives such as accelerated depreciation, relief from taxes and duties, term loans from Indian Renewable Energy Development Agency (IREDA):
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

This apart, policies have been introduced in potential states for wheeling, banking and buy-back of electricity generated from commercial biomass power and bagasse cogeneration projects.

In reply to another query, Muttemwar said an expert committee constituted by the Planning Commission has prepared an Integrated Energy Policy Report covering all sources of energy, including renewable energy sources.

This report has highlighted the need to maximally develop domestic supply options and diversify energy sources. It has also projected that renewables may account for 5-6 per cent of India's energy mix by 2031-32, the minister said.

Press Bureau of India: Addition of 1700MW Biomass Cogeneration Power by 2012 - December 7, 2007.

Earthtimes: Agro-residues can yield 18,000-MW power: minister - December 7, 2007.

Biopact: India prepares 'Biomass Atlas' to map and tap bioenergy potential - November 26, 2007

Article continues

Biofuels: Africa's new oil?

SciDev is running an interesting series on the potential benefits and risks of the biofuels revolution. In several opinion pieces, doomers, realists and utopians have their say. The essays are accompanied by a nuanced editorial that outlines some of the complexities of the emerging sector. The following feature was written by Kimani Chege and looks at the potential of (first generation) biofuels in Africa. The green fuels hold great promise for the continent, but local research isn't yet in place to reap the rewards or analyse the pitfalls, he suggests.

It is only ten o'clock in the morning and Kenyan taxi-van driver Richard Kamiri is already tired. Throughout the morning he has had to explain to his passengers the reason he has repeatedly hiked the fare. In just a week, crude oil prices have risen twice — with the people bearing the costs.

This scenario is increasingly common in energy-constrained Africa. Over-reliance on fossil fuels has long drained national budgets. Fuel prices are rising by the day and with little control over internationally determined prices, governments are seeking alternatives to meet the fuel needs of a rising urban population.

African governments are increasingly looking to biofuel as a viable way to do this.

Africa's 'oil fields'
According to Njeri Wamukonya, an energy expert with the UN Environment Programme, worldwide investment in bioenergy reached US$21 billion last year.

"Governments in developed and developing countries are putting in place bioenergy targets, with the main drivers being the energy security, climate change and development concerns," says Wamukonya. The European Union, for example, has announced that it targets its member states to generate at least ten per cent of their energy from biofuels by 2020.

This increased demand for biofuel provides a market opportunity for the South, with its available natural resources. For instance, Brazil was producing 33 per cent of the world's biofuel ethanol by the end of last year.

African countries are keen on transforming their expansive farmlands into the next 'oil fields'.

The choices of crop are diverse — from corn to rapeseed and jatropha. Liquid biofuels include biodiesel derived from plant oils and bioethanol made from sugarcane, maize and other starchy crops. Global production of biofuels consists primarily of ethanol.

According to Cornelis van der Waal, an industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan — a South Africa-based consultation company providing advice on development policies — Africa has great biofuel potential due to its vast arable land and workforce.

He says, "Africa is by no means a current participant in the biofuels race compared to the rest of the world, but could potentially become the most important contributor to alternative fuels."

"The question is not so much on whether Africa is ready for a biofuel revolution, but rather can Africa afford to miss the biofuels opportunity?":
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Lagging behind in the biofuel race
A pan-African ministerial meeting held in March this year in Maputo, Mozambique marked a turning point. African ministers responsible for energy development in their countries announced a declaration committing to increased research in the development of renewable energy — notably biofuels. This has made many investors take a keen interest in the production of biofuels in Africa.

However, energy analysts say that investment in Africa has failed to take note of basic research needed. Despite well-established national agricultural research centres across Africa, there is little research to improve crops to yield more ethanol and biodiesel.

Van der Waal says that many African countries investigating biofuels, such as Kenya and Mozambique, do not currently have a large enough capacity for biofuels research.

He adds that biofuels research in Africa is inadequately funded, with most of it coming from governments and conducted in universities.

According to van der Waal, African countries should follow Brazil's lead, where both the government and the private sector conduct research, sustaining an ethanol industry for more than 20 years. He says one of the continent's strong points is its capacity to combine government and private research on biofuels, something it is not yet taking advantage of.

Current biofuels research also focuses too much on increased production efficiency rather than quality products, he says, adding that there are opportunities for many other biofuel products and applications besides ethanol and biodiesel. For instance, home-use fuel, such as paraffin, wood and coal, could be replaced by ethanol gel, made by mixing ethanol with a thickening agent and water. The gel fuel burns without smoke, and so does not cause respiratory problems associated with current fuels used in the home.

Catching up
Several African countries have biofuel research projects underway.

Nigeria, the world largest producer of cassava, is keen to use its major crop as an alternative to fossil fuel. The country currently uses a ten per cent blending standard of cassava ethanol with gasoline, though this is not compulsory.

Nigeria aims to produce cassava ethanol worth over US$150 million every year, once it establishes a suitable infrastructure. This includes construction of 15 ethanol plants with assistance from Brazil.

And in May, the government announced plans to establish a US$100 million 'biofuel town' near the capital, Lagos. This will create a 600 hectare settlement of 1,000 bioenergy experts — primarily from Nigeria, but also from other African countries and Brazil — who will work on novel technologies to improve bioenergy production.

Nigeria also aims to start importing Brazilian ethanol-powered vehicles by 2010.

This ambition is mirrored by Malawi. In October, the Ethanol Company of Malawi, a private fuel company, announced that it will import flex-fuel vehicles from Brazil to be used in a government-backed initiative to investigate the practicability of using ethanol-based fuels to power vehicles.

Malawi currently uses gasoline blended with ten per cent locally-made sugarcane ethanol. Through a public-private venture, the Malawi department of science and technology is implementing a research project to explore how local biofuels could alleviate the country's energy needs. The highlight of research so far is the testing of a Mitsubishi Pajero car modified to run on ethanol in place of petrol for a distance of 1,000 kilometres.

The Brazilian influence is also apparent in neighbouring Mozambique, which shares a connection with Brazil as another former Portuguese colony. The southern African country has developed an effective biofuel sector based on sorghum and sugarcane, and the government has set aside over US$700 million for biofuel research, production and promotion.

Energy experts say Mozambique has potential to be a 'biofuel superpower'. Van der Waal says the country has sufficient rainfall for extensive production of sugarcane, which is currently the most efficient crop for ethanol in terms of production cost, being much faster to process and producing more sugar (thanks to its water content) than maize or sorghum.

Scientists from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) are developing sorghum varieties and hybrids that have higher amount of sugar-rich juice in their stalks for Mozambique.

ICRISAT is also working with a private Mozambican company, Rusni Distilleries Ltd, to establish a facility capable of producing 100,000 litres of sorghum ethanol a year. The venture has received a total investment of around US$30 million from Rusni, ICRISAT, and the Mozambique government, and, if successful, could boost the livelihood of 5,000 smallholder farmers through contract farming. ICRISAT and Rusni plan to collaborate with Petromoc, the national petroleum company of Mozambique to market the fuel.

Assessing the risk
Increased attention on biofuel research and development is, however, bringing a new debate to the continent. There is the worry that an increase in the use of food crops such as maize, cassava and sorghum is likely to increase the food price of most staple foods in Africa, notably corn.

"Price rise will depend on whether or not oil crops are planted on arable land that could otherwise be used for growing food crops, and whether water is diverted from food crops to irrigate the biofuel plantations," says Jeremy Wakeford, a senior lecturer in economics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

The debate of crops for food versus crops for biofuels remains one of the major problems yet to be resolved in the sector. And it may affect Africa even if the continent does not enter the biofuels market.

Njeri Wamukoya says increasing biofuel development is likely to affect food aid. The United States for example, provides food aid from its surplus crops. "[But] if the surplus is used for [US] biofuels, will the United States supplement [food aid] with cash, and will the cost of food go up as a result?"

Wakeford says producing food for the population should be given priority, and suggests that new developments from research programmes will keep the biofuel sector going.

There is a need to diversify the sources and methods used to generate biofuel products, according to Mpoko Bokanga, director general of the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, which promotes technology transfer in Africa.

Addressing an African conference on biofuels in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in August, Bokanga said one possibility is to move from ethanol to butanol fuel production.

Butanol fuel can be manufactured from corn and molasses, has a high energy content and can be shipped through existing fuel pipelines. It is also safer to use than ethanol and gasoline, as it is less likely to evaporate into the surrounding air (which creates a fire risk). However, there has been little to no effort to promote butanol fuel because of historically low production yields compared to ethanol.

Bokanga also called for the establishment of 'bioenergy scientific units' in African countries conducting biofuels research, with experts available to advise governments on improving production efficiency.

The triple challenge facing Africa is achieving food security, energy security and sustainable development. Biofuels provides an opportunity to harness Africa's vast biomass resources, but for that more research on better yielding crops, production methods, and use is needed. The journey has only just begun.

Reprinted with permission. Thanks to SciDev's David Dickson.

SciDev: Biofuel: Africa's new oil? - December 5, 2007.

SciDev: Spotlight on Biofuels: The research challenge - Dossier, December 2007.

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France introduces impressive bonus system for low emissions vehicles; €5000 for electric cars

As a result of its recently held 'Grenelle Environnement' (national environment summit), the French government initiated an impressive bonus/malus system for new vehicle purchases based on their CO2 emissions per kilometer. Buyers of eco-friendly cars receive rebates ranging from €200 to up to €5000. The system is financed by a malus imposed on those who buy vehicles with a high emissions profile.

Electric vehicle purchases are rewarded most. In France, electric cars would be very green on a well-to-wheel basis because over 75% of the country's electricity is generated from nuclear sources. Electric cars can also be powered by carbon neutral renewables like biomass, wind or solar energy. In the future, they could even utilize negative emissions electricity obtained from biomass the CO2 of which is geosequestered (so-called 'bio-energy with carbon storage'). In such a case, driving a car would mean actively taking emissions from the past out of the atmosphere (previous post on 'driving in the strange world of carbon negative energy').

The ecobonus starts for vehicles which emit less than 130 g CO2/km, which covers around 30% of current sales. This rebates will be complemented by a 'superbonus' when the buyer offers a vehicle older than 15 years for scrapping. Those who buy a new car that emits more than 160g CO2/km receive a malus; this concerns roughly 25% of all vehicles currently sold in France.

The new mechanism, which constitutes the first application of the ecological 'price signal' strategy proposed by the Grenelle, is purely indicative. It has been created in such a way that the malus finances the expenses needed to cover the bonuses. Therefor, the system does not imply new government expenses or taxes for households or businesses.

The rebates are progressive: the lower the CO2 emissions of the new car, the higher the bonus:
  • €1000 for vechiles emitting less than 100gCO2/km
  • €700 for vehicles the emissions of which range between 101 and 120gCO2/km
  • €200 for cars with modest emission reductions ranging between 121 and 130gCO2/km
The malus progresses along the lines of the following scale:
  • €200 for vehicles the emissions of which range between 161 and 165gCO2/km
  • €750 for cars with emissions between 166 and 200gCO2/km
  • €1600 for emissions between 201 and 250gCO2/km
  • €2600 when the vechiles are extremely climate unfriendly with emissions of over 250gCO2/km
The highest penalty involves large, polluting 'luxury' cars as well as some classes of SUVs which represent around 1% of the market.

There is no bonus nor a malus for cars the emissions of which are close to the current average - namely between 130 and 160gCO2/km. This 'neutral zone' represents roughly 45% of all new cars sold in France:
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The superbonus of €300 will be paid when the purchase of a new car eligible for a bonus is accompanied by the scrapping of a car older than 15 years. This super bonus comes on top of the already existing eco-boni for the scrapping of old cars offered by auto manufacturers. This system will encourage the withdrawal of old cars from the roads and contribute significantly to reducing air pollution.

In order to promote ultra-clean and efficient vehicles, the French government will also reward those who buy an electric car. A payment of €5000 is foreseen for cars that emit less than 60gCO2/km.

The trehsholds of the bonus/malus system will be tightened by 5gCO2/km every two years, in order to encourage auto manufacturers to produce more and more low emissions vechicles.

The French government hopes to have the legislation for this new mechanism formalized before the end of the year.

With this range of measures, the Grenelle proves its usefulness. The Summit united all stakeholders - industry, civil society, government, non-governmental organisations - with the aim to find compromises on ways to tackle the most urgent environmental matters, in particular climate change. The feebate system will not impact the purchasing power of households, because the operation is budgetary neutral. In total, over 75% of all new vechiles sold in France will benefit either from a bonus or from a tax exemption (on the basis of numbers for vehicle sales in the year 2006.)

The scheme was announced by minister for the environment Jean-Louis Borloo, minister of economic affairs Christine Lagarde and by Eric Woerth, minister of the budget. They think it will "reduce the price of eco-friendly cars, make the consumer more responsible, speed up the greening of the country's vehicle fleet and stimulate technological innovation in the automobile sector, allowing car manufacturers to create and offer cleaner vehicles".

Ministère de l'Écologie, du Développement et de l'Aménagement Durable: "Le bonus écologique incitera dès aujourd’hui les acheteurs de voitures neuves à se porter vers les véhicules les plus sobres en carbone" - December 5, 2007.

Biopact: The strange world of carbon-negative bioenergy: the more you drive your car, the more you tackle climate change - October 29, 2007

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