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

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Choren announces site for world's first large-scale biomass-to-liquids plant

German biofuels company Choren announces [*German] it is to build the world's first large-scale biomass-to-liquids (BtL) plant in Schwedt, a city in Brandenburg, near the Polish border. The facility will be built in the vicinity of the PCK Refinery, where it will convert 200,000 tons of biomass into ultra-clean synthetic biofuels. Choren's site selection offers an insight into the complex logistical, technical, and scientific infrastructures that drive the production of next-generation biofuels.

Choren managing director Tom Blades presented 2010 as the year in which construction would begin with fall 2009 being the period in which the €800 million investment should be finalized. The announcement was hailed by both federal, state and local politicians.

Schwedt came out as the best of 60 possible locations in Germany. Five further locations were drawn onto a map where future plants could be built. Which factors did Choren look at when selecting this site? The proximity to the oil refinery made Schwedt a site where synergies can be created concering the supply of heat and energy. In addition the Uckermark region has sufficient land potential for raw material production and an abundance of existing biomass residues that can be converted into synfuel (table, click to enlarge).

Moreover the presence of the Fachhochschule Eberswalde (University of Applied Sciences) in the area makes it possible to draw on advanced scientific research into bioenergy (on fast-rotation energy trees). The university already operates experimental fields in the proximity of Schwedt, on which it trials fast-growing woody energy crops for cellulosic biofuels.

Synthetic biofuels such as Choren's 'SunDiesel' are considered to be renewable fuels of the of the second generation. The ultra-clean fuels have an exceptionally low emissions profile. They are obtained from the gasification of a wide range of biomass feedstocks with the syngas liquefied via the Fischer-Tropsch process. Choren's technology, the 'Carbo-V Process' is a three-stage gasification process involving the following sub-processes: (1) low temperature gasification, (2) high temperature gasification and (3) endothermic entrained bed gasification.

During the first stage of the process, the biomass (with a water content of 15 – 20 %) is continually carbonized through partial oxidation (low temperature pyrolysis) with air or oxygen at temperatures between 400 and 500 °C, i.e. it is broken down into a gas containing tar (volatile parts) and solid carbon (char).

During the second stage of the process, the gas containing tar is post-oxidized hypostoichiometrically using air and/or oxygen in a combustion chamber operating above the melting point of the fuel’s ash to turn it into a hot gasification medium.

During the third stage of the process, the char is ground down into pulverized fuel and is blown into the hot gasification medium. The pulverized fuel and the gasification medium react endothermically in the gasification reactor and are converted into a raw synthesis gas. Once this has been treated in the appropriate manner, it can be used as a combustible gas for generating electricity, steam and heat or as a synthesis gas for producing SunDiesel.

The Carbo-V process has the following advantages over conventional biomass gasification:
  • A wide range of feed materials can be used
  • A high-quality gas with a tar content below minimum detection limits and a very low concentration of methane (<>
  • Complete exploitation of the feed material used * Numerous fields of application (electricity, heat, cold, methanol, synthetic automotive fuels, waxes etc.) * Conversion efficiency for gasification (cold gas efficiency) > 80 %
  • Electrical energy efficiency levels of up to 35 %
  • Low emission levels
  • The ash is converted into a solid bonded slag granulate suitable for building purposes
High-quality synthetic automotive fuels are obtained from the synthesis gas via Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis. During this process, the reactive fractions of the synthesis gas (CO and H2) interact with a catalyst to form hydrocarbons. In order to maximize the output of synthetic biodiesel, the waxes formed during the FT synthesis process are further processed using hydrocracking techniques, a standard process that is used in the petrochemical sector to recycle waste substances at refineries.

The synthetic biodiesel is an ultra-clean fuel which:
  • has a high cetane number and therefore much better ignition performance than conventional diesel fuel,
  • has no aromatics or sulfur and significantly reduces pollutants from exhaust emissions,
  • can be used without any adjustment to existing infrastructure or engine systems,
  • is largely CO2-neutral
The first BtL plant in Schwedt will bring about 700 jobs could develop, with 100 direct jobs at the facility with the remainder expected to develop in the forestry, transport, distribution and disposal sectors that will form around Choren's activities:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Schwedt wants to become a leading bioenergy hub. In the vicinity of the oil refinery a set of new biofuel factories have already been established, in which biodiesel, bio-ethanol and wood pellets for heating purposes are produced.
On the one hand we are pleased with each new job which revitalizes our city. On the other hand we are even more excited to be the host to the development of an entirely new industrial sector with enormous growth potential. - Juergen Polzehl, mayor of Schwedt
The city of Choren's choice is located in one of former East Germany's most economically problematic regions. The Federal Government's Special Envoy for the New States ('Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für die neuen Länder', who is still tasked with integrating Eastern German 'Länder' into the more prosperous West), also the Federal Minister of Transport, Wolfgang Tiefensee, said the investment is 'a trailblazing project for the development of second generation biofuel production' and it proves that investment assistance for companies that want to establish themselves in East Germany remains a central component of the policy for the reconstruction of the regions economic structure.

The company is currently building the world’s industrial scale BTL plant (Beta plant) at its Freiberg site. From 2008, the plant is expected to produce approximately 15,000 metric tons of fuel a year. This would be sufficient to meet the annual requirements of some 15,000 cars.

But Choren's large plans for biomass-to-liquids and the first 200,000 ton plant to be located in Schwedt received a boost recently when both Volkswagen and Daimler - two of Germany's largest automakers - became minority shareolders in the company. These companies offer the key to ensure that a framework is created for the sustainable market introduction of the BtL fuels.

Last month the German Government also announced an ambitious new Biofuels Roadmap in which it massively increases the country's biofuels target, doubling it from 5% by 2010 to 10% by that year, and to 20% by 2020. This way it doubles the EU's biofuel targets (which require 10% of all fuels to be biofuels by 2020). The new plan is aimed at encouraging the development of next-generation biofuels such as synthetic biodiesel.

Choren: Weltweit erste Großanlage für Biomasse-Kraftstoff soll in Schwedt entstehen - December 18, 2007.

Biopact: Volkswagen and Daimler become shareholders of BTL company CHOREN, aim to mass introduce ultra-clean synthetic biofuels - October 11, 2007

Biopact: Germany massively increases biofuels targets to kickstart next generation fuels: 10% in 2010, 20% in 2020 - November 22, 2007

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Friday, December 21, 2007

EPSO vice-president: developing countries to play key role in climate-friendly bioenergy

Much is expected of biotechnology this century. The prospect of a growing world population and increasing energy needs has prompted plant scientists to design new crops that must make it possible to both feed the planet and provide it with climate friendly bioenergy in a sustainable way. In the following interview, Dirk Inzé, Plant Systems Biology professor at the University of Ghent (Belgium), co-founder of biotech firm Crop Design (recently acquired by chemical giant BASF) and vice-president of the European Plant Science Organisation (EPSO) discusses some of these challenges.

Inzé's team at the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) played an important role in mapping the poplar genome and in several other projects under the Joint Genome Institute which investigates energy crops. The VIB was founded by the father of modern plant bio-engineering, Marc Van Montagu (previous post). The breakthrough work of Inzé and the organisation of Ghent's plant sciences has contributed much to Belgium achieving the the title of being the 'world's best place' to work in scientific research (more here).

In the interview, Inzé says the developing world stands to gain from its enormous potential to produce biofuels and energy crops. The scientist also warns that if Europe doesn't ease its stance on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), its citizens will find it impossible to buy affordable food in the future.

Professor Inzé, you are focused on increasing the productivity and yield of crops. Can you describe the main challenges?

In the next decades we will have to feed three billion more people than today. Their living standard will be higher than that of the current generation, so they will want to consume more meat. Per kilogram of animal protein, you need seven kilograms of grain. The yield per hectare of crops will therefor have to increase significantly. Experiments with prototypes of genetically modified crops show we can increase production by 50 percent without extra inputs of nitrogen and other fertilizers.

Which crops are we talking about?

The main grain crops, like rice and maize. There is a tremendous amount of natural variation in plant growth. Some species remain tiny, while others grow in a spectacular manner, most notably a type of bamboo, the record holder - you can literally see it grow with the naked eye, at 1.2 meters per day. This opens interesting perspectives.

Isn't plant growth regulated by a whole range of genes?
Of course, and this is where systems biology proves to be so useful: we try to grasp the complexities of the entire process. It's possible to learn to understand the workings of all the components of an airplane, but really understanding how it stays in the air is something else. In the same way we try to gain insight into life in its full complexity, and to get there we start by learing what happens to the entire system when you push one of its buttons. It's excruciatingly complex, but we are making progress.

How many patents do you and your biotech team hold?
A very large number, and this is important because our investments must be protected. No company will ever invest tens of millions of euros in research and development if it can't enjoy the fruits of its own innovations. In 1998 we launched Crop Design. Last year we sold it to chemical giant BASF, which wants to commercialize our developments together with Monsanto. I expect our first genetically modified high yield crops to be on the market by 2013.

The public doesn't have a problem with genetic experiments in the field of human medicine. But in agriculture this is another matter, especially in Europe.

This is mainly a political problem. A select group of organisations has taken the issue of genetically modified organisms as a rallying point, uses it to scare people and to gain them for their cause. That's their only raison d'être. But you cannot apply the precautionary principle - which tells you to be careful for the effects of innovations and scientific interventions - endlessly. This stifles human progress. There are hundreds of scientific studies which prove our technologies are safe. Each day, hundreds of millions of people eat GMOs. You cannot continue to say that this is dangerous when you see, on a daily basis, that it's not.

Why don't you stress the environmental benefits of GMOs more often?

We try to do this, continuously. But organisations like Greenpeace and others refuse to understand that our technologies serve their cause. Isn't it useful to develop plants that can defend themselves against pests, so that we can radically cut back our use of pesticides? Our products aren't merely commercially interesting, they make sense from an ecological point of view.

Agriculture as it is being practised today can be quite polluting because of the heavy use of fertilizers. Moreover, fertilizers become ever more expensive because of high energy prices. With our technologies we can make agriculture both much cleaner and more efficient.

We are also developing dedicated energy crops for biofuels, which will allow us to make fuels in such a way that they do not impact food markets. This is important to all of us:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Europe remains very skeptical and doesn't seem to be willing to ease its stance on GMOs.
I think things are changing. Europe doesn't have a choice because in the Americas and Asia the technology is gaining ground. Europe will start to lose and suffer if it can't compete in this field.

Some say that large companies are responsible for pushing a complex net of regulations in order to make it impossible for small biotech companies to compete.
This analysis isn't correct, I feel. Look at the pharmaceutical sector: small companies don't get any further than the first stages which consist of testing a new product. It then costs around 1 billion dollars to get such a new product to market. This is too much to ask of small biotech companies. In the agricultural sector it takes about 80 million euros to make something useful out of an innovation. These are gigantic sums of money. The point is that scale-advantages are crucial but can only be reaped by large companies. This trend is irreversible.

Do your patents get attacked?
Yes, all the time. It can take ages before you are granted a patent. My predecessors, professors Marc Van Montagu and Jef Schell, are the founding fathers of plant genetic engineering. Worldwide, some 110 million hectares of land grow crops based on their technologies. But it took them 20 years to get their final patents. Procedural attacks kept delaying the recognition. Only lawyers got better of this. But the simple fact remains: the patent system is the only approach that allows investors to get a return on their investments in this type of research.

But it is very important to understand the following: there is a consensus on the fact that genes as such should not be patentable, only innovations that allow you to work with these genes. The search for ways to side-step the full implications of a patented process often leads to new innovations. This way patents stimulate research, through scientific competitition.

In the patent for so-called 'golden rice' - the crop containing a gene that stimulates the production of the vitamin A precursor - it is stipulated that the technology must be made available for free to developing countries. Is this a good approach?
I think so. Billions of people eat white rice, which doesn't contain sufficient amounts of vitamin A. This can lead to blindness, especially amongst children. By inserting a gene from the wild daffodil into it, the rice produces beta-carotene. All studies demonstrate that this is a very safe product, but still it doesn't find its way to market. Syngenta, which developed the crop, is now offering it for free to countries whose people enjoy average living standards.

But is this profitable? Vitamin A deficiency manifests itself most amongst people in the poorest countries, doesn't it?

This is indeed the case and the return on investment would be low if the crop were to be sold in these countries. The same problem can be found in the field of tropical medicine - drugs are costly to develop but the purchasing power of those who need these medicines is too low to make an investment viable. This is why I think it would be useful to create separate international organisations both in the field of agriculture and in medical sciences to tackle this impasse.

But the third world does have an enormous potential in another sector: the field of bioenergy which must be tapped urgently as an alternative to fossil fuels. Plants convert the greenhouse gas CO2 into food and energy. Many developing countries have suitable agro-climatic conditions and could thus play a key role in producing climate friendly energy.

Shouldn't we be planting more trees here in Europe and Belgium?

Absolutely, that too. At our institute we have developed a fantastic technology to produce bioenergy from poplar trees [note: Inzé and his collegues helped map the genome of the poplar tree - the first tree to have had its entire genetic profile published; the effort was part of the international Joint Genome Institute's research into genomics of bioenergy crops - previous post; on the basis of their research they designed a poplar with low lignin and high biomass yields]. Crops like rapeseed, which receive a lot of attention today, are less interesting for biofuels, because they require too many inputs. A tree grows all by itself. With minimal inputs you get a maximal output. We have now filed for a permission to trial our genetically modified energy poplar in the field.

Aren't you afraid that people will resist this? It's been five years since the last GMO field trials in our country.
Luckily, we play a role on a world scale. Europe's agriculture can only survive because of massive subsidies. If the Union doesn't relax its rules for new technologies, European citizens will no longer be able to buy food. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States, which regulates new technologies and approves new products, is an excellent institution, an oracle of scientific common sense. We urgently need a similar body here in Europe.

Today we are too dependent on the vagaries of idiosyncratic opinions in Europe - of what the German Greens think at a particular moment in time or of a sentiment uttered by the new french President.

Translated from Dutch for Biopact.

sun setting over a sugarcane field in Malawi. A new dawn for Africa?

Dirk Draulans, "Niemand mag genen bezitten" [Nobody should own genes], Knack, pp. 89-94, December 19, 2007.

Biopact: Celebrity spotting: Marc Van Montagu and GM energy crops - July 05, 2007

Biopact: The first tree genome is published: Poplar holds promise as renewable bioenergy resource - September 14, 2006

Biopact: Moss genome sequenced: shows how aquatic plants adapted to dry land - key to development of drought-tolerant energy crops, cellulosic biofuels - December 14, 2007

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NCSU researchers develop 'self-processing' sweet potato for efficient ethanol production

Sweet potatoes are being re-engineered by North Carolina State University (NCSU) scientists as source of ethanol and bioplastics to help the U.S. bioproducts industry’s reliance on corn. The researchers' goal is to embed enzymes straight into the starch-rich tuber, so that it grows its own bioconversion enzymes and processes itself into biofuels. This would be yet another example of 'third generation' energy crops, which are being developed by several biotech firms and science teams (pevious post, here and here).

The industrial sweet potato can produce twice the starch content of corn – the leading source of ethanol in the U.S. Using plants from China, Africa, and South America, the NCSU scientists have created hybrids with starch contents over 50 percent higher than the sweet potatoes most Americans eat. These industrial sweet potatoes are capable of producing 'tremendous amounts of biomass', mostly starch-based. More starch means more sugars that can be fermented into ethanol.

Dr. Craig Yencho, an NC State associate professor of Horticultural Science, who is leading a project to develop alternative uses for the vegetable says the industrial sweet potato is edible, but not palatable. While the table version is orange inside and becomes sweet during baking as enzymes break down starch into sugar, the industrial sweet potato typically has a purple or white skin and white inside with a much higher starch content that limits its sweet taste.

North Carolina produces about 40 percent of the U.S. sweet potato crop. The industrial sweet potato could help diversify the state’s farm income. NCSU has several Potato and Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Programs running to research the use of the crop for the production of energy and bioproducts.

The biggest challenge is lowering production costs to take advantage of that higher starch content. Sweet potatoes traditionally are planted by hand using transplants, a process that costs up to 10 times as much as planting corn. But if a technique is developed to plant them the same way Irish potatoes are planted – by planting cut 'seed' pieces and mechanically planting them into the ground - planting costs could be cut in half.

In that case, ethanol production from sweet potatoes then becomes much more cost effective and feasible. Not only would these sweet potatoes be a much more viable ethanol source than corn, but because they are industrial sweet potatoes, farmers wouldn’t be taking away from a food source, says Yencho, who is currently in China helping the world’s number one producer of sweet potatoes tap the crop’s biofuel potential.

'Self-processing' crop
While the best of conventional breeding techniques have been used to develop NC State’s industrial sweet potato, Yencho is also teaming with colleague Bryon Sosinski, an associate professor of horticulture and the director of the Genome Research Lab, on an unconventional approach to further boost sugar – and thus ethanol – yield. Sosinski is trying to insert genes from bacteria that live in the hot waters around thermal vents on the ocean floor into sweet potato plants. The genes are active only at high temperatures, producing enzymes that break starch chains apart into much smaller sugars.

The goal is to produce what Yencho calls a 'self-processing' sweet potato that doesn’t need additives to be prepared for fermentation. The harvested roots could be thrown into a vat, and when the heat is turned up, the internal enzymes would digest the starch to a point where the resulting sugars could be fermented into fuel. Sosinski is now growing genetically modified sweet potato seedlings in the lab, and he hopes to move into greenhouse trials next year and into field plantings within three years:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The special genes used to grow the self-processing tuber would reduce the cost of enzymes that are used by biofuel processors to break down the starch in corn to sugars which are then converted into alcohol by fermentation.

Ultimately, NC State scientists believe the industrial sweet potato can compete with corn – now much cheaper to produce – as a viable alternative source of ethanol. Corn is by far the leading source of ethanol, but corn-based biofuel has come under increasing attack by poverty-fighting and other groups who argue, among other things, that diversion of corn crops for biofuels aggravates world-hunger problems. At the same time, Congress and state legislative leaders concerned about dependence on imported oil are pushing for increased use of biofuels. The new Energy Bill has given the corn ethanol industry a major boost.
There isn’t one magical crop that will solve our energy problems, but the industrial sweet potato can play an important role, especially in the southeastern U.S. where the crop is grown. - Dr. Craig Yencho, NC State associate professor of Horticultural Science
Research into the sweet potato for biofuels has added advantages: it can further enhance its value as a nutritional food staple while simultaneously finding new ways the crop can help replace petroleum as source for industrial products ranging from plastics to natural colorants and high-value specialty chemicals.

And in their zeal to mine the tuber’s variability, Yencho and his team of NC State researchers have created a hybrid intended for neither food nor fuel – the non-bearing “Sweet Caroline” variety developed strictly for ornamental use.

North Carolina State University News: NC State University Researchers Brewing Energy From Sweet Potatoes - November 30, 2007.

NCSU: Brewing Energy from Natural Resources [*.pdf].

North Carolina State University Potato and Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Website.

Biopact: Third generation biofuels: scientists patent corn variety with embedded cellulase enzymes - May 05, 2007

Biopact: Syngenta to trial third generation biofuel crop that grows its own bioconversion enzyme - November 12, 2007

Biopact: Agrivida and Codon Devices to partner on third-generation biofuels - August 03, 2007

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Petrobras to build 10 biodiesel plants by 2012

Petrobras plans to construct as many as 10 biodiesel plants by 2012 as part of a plan to become the leading producer of the fuel in Brazil with an estimated annual output of 850 million liters (224 million gallons).

Currently, the company is finalising the construction of three units that will start to operate in March of 2008, in the states of the Ceará, Minas Gerais and Bahia.

According to Petrobras' director of supply, Pablo Robert Coast, each of the new plants will have capacity of 60 million liters (15.8 million gallons) of biodiesel per year and cost between R$ 60 million and R$ 70 million (€23.2-27 / US$33.3-38.9 million).

From January onwards, all diesel fuel in Brazil is required to have a 2% biodiesel (B2) content. Today (Friday 21 December) the Brazilian government will carry out an auction to purchase biodiesel to supply the market under the new scheme. The objective is to acquire 100 million liters, to be delivered and blended into diesel between January 1 and February 28.

According to Coast, the Brazilian government could decide to start organising auctions based on a B3 target later this year, as a way to stimulate and offer guarantees to biodiesel producers. Under the Pro-Biodiesel plant, the B3 target is foreseen as a step to prepare the market to reach the B5 target to be reached in 2013. Coast says producers anticipate that this target will be reached already in 2010:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Pro-Biodiesel program is the legacy of president Lula, who, in contrast to the designers of the much older Pro-Alcool program, put social sustainability at the heart of the production chain from the start.

Under a special scheme, biodiesel producers who source their feedstock from small family farms receive incentives and a 'Social Fuel' label. According to the latest estimates the Social Fuel scheme is benefiting some 60,000 rural families in the semi-arid Northeast of the country. They are supported by agricultural experts, organised in cooperatives and registered with the government.

Crops used for the production of first-generation biodiesel are castor, jatropha, palm oil and soybean.

Petrobras meanwhile also developed a next-generation biodiesel production process called 'H-Bio' which consists of hydrogenating vegetable oils at oil refineries. This allows the use of its existing infrastructures instead of the need to build new plants.

O Globo Online: Petrobras pode construir mais 10 unidades de biodiesel para atingir liderança do mercado em 2012 - December 200, 2007.

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

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Southridge Enterprises to build sugarcane ethanol plant in El Salvador

U.S.-based renewable energy company Southridge Enterprises Inc. announces it plans to build an ethanol plant with an annual capacity of 5 million gallons (18.9 million liters) in El Salvador.

The new plant will be constructed on a parcel of land covering around 4,500 acres (1,821 hectares). Southridge was recently granted approval by the local government to lease the land with a purchase option. The land area offers abundant sugar cane production capacity, providing access to sufficient feedstock to supply the proposed 5 million gallon plant at an average yield of between 30 and 40 tons per acre (74 - 98 tonnes/ha).

The site for the plant is located close to a river, making it easily accessible to transport product to an ocean port for transport to the United States.

The initial plan is to build a facility that will have the capacity to dry up to 15 million gallons a year of hydrous ethanol from Brazil to be imported into the United States. In El Salvador the company can benefit from the Caribbean Basins Initiative (CBI), a trade agreement signed in 2000, allowing exports of ethanol without facing the $0.54/gallon tariff.

The second phase would be to build the plant capable of producing 5 million gallons a year of ethanol using sugar cane as feedstock. Having the capability to use feedstock grown and cut straight out its own plantation gives the company a strong advantage.

Bagasse, the fibrous material that remains from sugar cane, will be burned as fuel and cut down energy costs by 75 per cent compared to a plant that would buy energy from elsewhere:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Southridge's CEO, Ken Milken, said "Lower energy and feedstock costs will bring profits to record highs in the industry".

He added that this 'strategic' new facility in El Salvador will allow the company to become one of the lowest cost producers in the industry through the benefits of export incentives and supply of its own raw materials.

The comparative advantage of vertical integration and production diversification will act as a hedge against rising costs and will ensure the stability of future production levels.

Southridge is currently developing another ethanol facility in Quitman County Mississippi for a total annual production of 60 million gallons.


Trading Markets: Southridge Enterprises Inc to construct ethanol facility in El Salvador - December 20, 2007.

Energy Current: Southridge building ethanol plant in El Savador - December 21, 2007.

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Report: CHP to power corn ethanol production boosts energy balance of fuel, reduces emissions

One of the reasons why Brazil's sugarcane ethanol has such a strong energy balance and low carbon emissions profile is to be found in the fact that biomass (bagasse) is used as the energy source to power the production of the fuel. The renewable biomass cogenerates both heat and power to the biofuel plant, with excess electricity sold to the grid. Now a report by the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) CHP Partnership shows that the adoption of combined heat and power (CHP) can achieve similar benefits in dry mill corn ethanol plants. CHP can reduce total energy use by up to 55% over state-of-the-art dry mill ethanol plants that purchase central station power, and can result in negative net CO2 emissions depending upon the fuel type used and CHP configuration.

The revised report, 'Impact of Combined Heat and Power on Energy Use and Carbon Emissions in the Dry Mill Ethanol Process' [*.pdf], includes updated data on energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions for state-of-the-art dry mill ethanol plants fueled by natural gas, coal, and biomass with and without CHP systems.

Dry milling has become the primary production process for corn ethanol. In the process, whole dry kernels are milled and sent to fermenters where the starch portion is fermented into ethanol. The remaining, unfermentable portions are produced as distilled grains and solubles (DGS) and used for animal feed.

Most dry mill ethanol plants use natural gas as the process fuel for raising steam for mash cooking, distillation, and evaporation. It is also used directly in DGS dryers and in thermal oxidizers that destroy the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in the dryer exhaust.

Although new plants use only about half of the energy used by the earliest ethanol plants, the rising price of natural gas is pushing the industry to explore other means to cut energy consumption, or to switch from natural gas to other fuels such as coal, wood chips, or even the use of DGS and other process byproducts.

The report evaluated five CHP system configurations and compared them to three base-case non-CHP ethanol plants (powered by natural-gas, coal and biomass).
Case 1: Natural gas in a gas turbine/supplemental-fired heat recovery steam generator (HRSG)—Electric output sized to meet plant demand; supplemental firing needed in the HRSG to augment steam recovered from the gas turbine exhaust.
Case 2: Natural gas in gas turbine with power export—Thermal output sized to meet plant steam load without supplemental firing; excess power generated for export.

Case 3: Natural gas in a gas turbine/steam turbine with power export (combined cycle)—Thermal output sized to meet plant steam load without supplemental firing; steam turbine added to generate additional power from high-pressure steam before going to process; maximum power generated for export.

Case 4: Coal CHP, High-pressure fluidized bed coal boiler with steam turbine generator—Exhaust from steam-heated DDGS dryer integrated into the boiler intake for combustion air and VOC destruction.

Case 5: Biomass CHP, High-pressure fluidized bed biomass boiler with steam turbine generator—Exhaust from steam-heated DDGS dryer integrated into the boiler intake for combustion air and VOC destruction:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

In all cases, fuel consumption at the plant increases with the use of CHP. However, total net fuel consumption is reduced, as electricity generated by the CHP systems displaces less efficient central station power (graph 1, click to enlarge). In the two natural gas CHP cases with excess power available for export (Cases 2 and 3), the displaced central station fuel represents a significant credit against increased fuel use at the plant. The total fuel savings for Cases 2 and 3 are 44 percent and 55 percent, respectively, over the natural gas base case.

Total CO2 emissions are reduced for all CHP cases compared to their respective base case plants. Total net CO2 emissions in Case 2 represent an 87% reduction compared to the natural gas base case. Total plant CO2 emissions for Case 3 are actually less than the displaced central station emissions, resulting in a negative (-0.71 pounds per gallon) net CO2 emissions rate compared to the base case. The lowest net CO2 emissions at the plant are obtained when biomass is used as the fuel (graph 2, click to enlarge).

The report is set to undermine many of the critiques leveled against corn ethanol. Some have argued that the biofuel - as it is currently produced - requires more energy to produce than consumers get out of it and that it doesn't contribute much to lowering carbon emissions. But when efficient cogeneration is used as the power and heat source to drive processes at the plant, both the energy and GHG balance of the fuel improves considerably.

Add the fact that in the future CO2 from the fermentation of ethanol will be captured and geosequestered, and the carbon balance of the fuel improves still further. Just recently, the US Department of Energy announced it is funding such a project.


EPA CHP Partnership: Impact of Combined Heat and Power on Energy Use and Carbon Emissions in the Dry Mill Ethanol Process [*.pdf] - November 2007.

Biopact: Towards carbon-negative biofuels: US DOE awards $66.7 million for large-scale CO2 capture and storage from ethanol plant - December 19, 2007

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Scientists find link between carbon dioxide and evolution of C4 grasses

How a changing climate can affect ecosystems is an important and timely question, especially considering the recent global rise in greenhouse gases. Now, in an article published online on December 20th in the journal Current Biology, a team of European and American evolutionary biologists provide strong evidence that changes in global carbon dioxide levels probably had an important influence on the emergence of a specific group of highly efficient plants, termed C4 grasses, which includes major cereal crops, plants used for biofuels (sugarcane, sorghum), and species that represent important components of grasslands across the world.

C4 photosynthesis in grasses is one of the most successful ecological and evolutionary innovations in plant history, the scientists write. The C4 pathway is a fuel injection system for photosynthesis that increases the rate of leaf sugar production in hot climates. Most plants on Earth use the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which fixes carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere using the enzyme Rubisco. The C3 cycle uses this fixed CO2 and energy from sunlight to manufacture sugars. The process is inefficient because Rubisco is not saturated and not very specific, which means that it also fixes atmospheric oxygen. This inefficiency increases at high temperatures and low CO2 concentrations.

C4 plants overcome the inefficiency of C3 photosynthesis using a combination of anatomical and physiological tricks. First, the C3 cycle is isolated from the atmosphere within a leaf compartment. Secondly, the C4 cycle pumps CO2 into this compartment, filling it with CO2 and ensuring that Rubisco fixes nothing else. The 'pump' is powered by energy from sunlight, and works by using the enzyme PEPc to fix carbon in the form of bicarbonate (HCO3).

C4 plants are especially equipped to combat the energetically costly process known as photorespiration, that can occur under conditions of high temperature, drought, high salinity, and — with relevance to these latest findings — low carbon dioxide levels.

Although a combination of any of these factors might have provided the impetus behind the evolution of the various C4 lineages, it had been widely speculated that a drop in global carbon dioxide levels, occurring approximately 30 million years ago during the Oligocene period, may have been the major driving force. Establishing the link between the two, however, has proven difficult partly because there are no known fossils of C4 plants from this period.

Enter Pascal-Antoine Christin and colleagues from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, who decided to take an alternative approach to date a large group of grasses. By using a 'molecular clock' technique, the authors were able to determine that the Chloridoideae subfamily of grasses emerged approximately 30 million years ago, right around the time global carbon dioxide levels were dropping. Furthermore, a model of the evolution of these grasses suggests that this correlation is not a trivial coincidence and instead reflects a causal relationship:
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As the authors noted in their study, many of the C4 grasses evolved after the drop in global carbon dioxide levels 30 million years ago. How to explain this? The authors speculate that while an atmosphere low in carbon dioxide established the basic conditions necessary for C4 evolution, other ecological factors might be at work.

In light of this, the authors hope to apply the same approaches used in the paper described here to investigate the role of other variables, such as drought, salinity, and flooding, in the evolution of C4 plants.

In addition to improving our understanding of how climate changes influenced ecosystems in the past, such studies may allow predictions of how human activities could affect the planet in the future.

Indeed, with regard to global carbon dioxide levels, Christin and colleagues write, “besides its influence on climatic variables, increased CO2 concentration could trigger important ecological changes in major terrestrial ecosystems by affecting the distribution of C4-dominated biomes and the affiliated flora and fauna.”

This implies that a reversal of the conditions that favored C4 plants could potentially lead to their demise — a startling prospect if one considers the human race’s reliance on C4 crops like corn, sugarcane, sorghum, and millets.

The researchers include Pascal-Antoine Christin, Guillaume Besnard, Emanuela Samaritani, and Nicolas Salamin, all of the Department of Ecology and Evolution, Biophore, University of Lausanne, Switzerland; Melvin R. Duvall, Department of Biological Sciences, Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Ill., USA; Trevor R. Hodkinson, Department of Botany, School of Natural Sciences, University of Dublin, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, and Vincent Savolainen, Imperial College, Berkshire, UK.

Pascal-Antoine Christin, et al, "Oligocene CO2 Decline Promoted C4 Photosynthesis in Grasses", Current Biology, published online before print, December 20, 2007, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2007.11.058

Eurekalert: A link between greenhouse gases and the evolution of C4 grasses - December 20, 2007.

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Canadian researchers study co-firing of peat and biomass with coal

Peat Resources Limited announces it will collaborate with the Ontario Centre for Excellence for Energy (OCE), Lakehead University and other partners on two research programs to examine peat fuel harvesting and processing systems. Funding for the program is managed by OCE under the auspices of the provincially-financed Atikokan Bioenergy Research Centre. OCE has allocated $720,000 over two years to a project aimed at sustainably harvesting the resource, while $880,000 has been granted for research on co-firing peat and biomass with coal, to lower the carbon emissions from power generation.

The first project, 'Environmental Effects of Wet Harvesting Peat as an Alternative Energy Source for the Atikokan Generating Station', will be led by scientists at Lakehead University (Thunder Bay) in conjunction with peatland experts from McMaster University (Hamilton). Peat Resources Limited is contributing to the project through provision of its unique knowledge and experience in peat fuel development and by providing access to peatlands in its licensed areas near Upsala (northwest Ontario) for demonstration and monitoring of restoration models. Results of related activities by the Company on its licensed peatland areas in western Newfoundland will also be contributed to the project.

In a second project partners will analyse the co-firing of peat and biomass with coal for power generation. This research is also being led by Lakehead University in partnership with CANMET Energy Technology Centre (Ottawa) and Ontario Power Generation. Peat Resources Limited will be supplying processed peat fuel pellets from its small-scale production facility in Stephenville (Newfoundland), firstly for pilot scale trials at CANMET and later, in 2008, for a large 500 tonne combustion trial by Ontario Power Generation at the Atikokan Generating Station.

Peat is found in deposits mainly in the earth’s north temperate latitudes. It is partially carbonized organic matter, originating from the decomposition of vegetation in bogs, marshes or heathland under waterlogged (anaerobic) conditions. Peat is an early stage of the development of coal and in the dried state is comprised of approximately 60% carbon:
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Peat bogs develop over 10 to 12 thousand years, about 1 to 2 millimeters a year. A bog depends on rainfall to support its waterlogged condition. Generally the water table is very stable remaining within a few centimeters of the bog’s surface. The bogs contain both decomposed (fuel) and surficial (horticultural) peat, which is less humified and typically found in the top layers of the bog. Peat has two main applications: general soil improvement/growing medium (horticultural and agricultural) and increasingly as a fuel source for power generation.

World’s Peat Deposits
Peat has been used as a fuel for thousands of years, particularly in Northern Europe. Peat resources throughout the world are enormous. In Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Russia peat is a significant source of electrical energy. Operations in these countries have mastered the harvest of peat bogs and the use of peat as a fuel for electrical power generation. In Canada and the United States, peat has been used most commonly as a soil conditioner in horticulture. Canada’s peat resources in Ontario have been mapped and tested. Their development for power generation is overdue given the need for clean power at a reduced environmental impact.

Ontario’s Peat Deposits
Canada has the world’s largest peat fuel resources estimated to be 41% of the world’s total of 43 billion tonnes, equivalent to 29 billion tonnes of coal.

A large proportion of these resources is found in Ontario (map, click to enlarge). Reserves are equivalent to 14 billion tonnes of coal, sufficient to satisfy its use for energy for centuries. Peat fuel development will reduce dependence upon out-of-province energy supplies, and will help Ontario achieve energy self-sufficiency.

There would be an opportunity, through local initiatives, for northern communities to play a dynamic long term role in Ontario’s peat fuel future. Peat utilization and associated development with participation by private industries could spur economic revival across Northern Ontario.

Peat Fuel Characteristics
Basic requirements for peat fuel are high calorific value, low ash content, low levels of sulphur and mercury, and high bulk density. Raw peat in Ontario which has undergone sufficient in-situ decomposition, meets these requirements.

To use raw peat as a fuel, dewatering is essential. In various parts of the world, bulk peat is burned at 50% moisture content, achieved by air drying raw peat, with or without mechanical dewatering. At this moisture content, its calorific value typically will range from 4,000 - 5,500 BTU/lb, similar to lignite.

Company sampling indicates the probable average will be approximately 9,600 BTU/lb in the dry state within the area of interest.

For peat fuel to compete with higher calorific fuels, it must be dewatered to about 10% moisture content. At that level, its calorific value will increase to between 7,200 - 10,000 BTU/lb, with the higher range levels from pre-selected bogs.

Both new research projects will provide important scientific and technical data supporting the application of peat fuel as an economic and environmentally attractive alternative to fossil fuels, such as coal, for power generation in Ontario and other North American jurisdictions.

Peat Resources Limited was formed to explore, develop and produce peat fuel for use in electricity generating stations and other facilities that require a long-term assured supply of economically competitive, environmentally favourable, and consistent quality fuel. With a strong resource base in Ontario and Newfoundland, an expert management team and unique knowledge of peat processing technology, the company is positioned to be the pre-eminent leader in this new North American energy industry.

Peat Resources: Peat Resources Limited signs research collaboration agreement - December 12, 2007.

Ontario Center for Excellence for Energy.

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Boeing imagines future network of decentralised biofuel producers

Increasing air traffic is the ultimate symbol of the world's rapid globalisation. Large jets take thousands of people to the other side of the planet in a matter of hours, fill up their tanks at the airport and carry on to their next destination. Non-stop. One factor that has made this revolution possible is the availability of inexpensive, standardized jet-fuel, made from petroleum. The fuel is the same in Singapore and Boston, in Rio de Janeiro and in Brussels.

However, if it is up to Boeing, this will soon change. The aiframer imagines a world in which there are thousands of independent biofuel producers each making their own fuel from the most efficient local feedstocks and to a common global standard. Boeing's biofuel strategy has greatly expanded and is moving in this direction as the company prepares to select a specific biofuel source for two demonstration flights scheduled next year.

A series of laboratory tests completed by Boeing in the third quarter of this year confirmed that biofuels for large aircraft can be practically derived from far more feedstocks than previously believed, says Bill Glover, Boeing's director of environmental strategy. Glover wrote the report titled 'Alternate Fuels for use in Commercial Aircraft' [*.pdf] in which different biofuel production pathways for aviation fuels are explored. Boeing's lab tests showed that a variety of feedstocks can produce biofuels with kerosene-like freezing characteristics. Boeing also now believes a number of such biofuels can be affordably mass-produced for the aviation industry.

Distributed network
These findings have widened Boeing's vision for the future use of biofuel by airlines. Instead of a single, huge repository of biofuel feedstock to supply the world's airlines, Boeing envisions the growth of a distributed network with multiple feedstocks harvested for biofuel around the world, says Glover. The shift in strategy may have serious implications for the future of the energy industry. Glover likens the change to the way personal computers overtook mainframes about 20 years ago:
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Industrial energy production may shift from monolithic producers of petroleum to a distributed network of biofuel providers, each cultivating the feedstock most appropriate for its geography and climate, he says. Each biofuel type will be produced to meet the industry's current fuel standard, he adds. So an airliner fuelled by one feedstock type can be refuelled by another biofuel source.

Boeing believes its role will be to serve as a catalyst for a distributed biofuel production system that it sees emerging within the next five years. Unlike an airline, Boeing does not buy fuel in bulk, but it may be able to provide other means of financing and technical support.

The first step is to prove the feasibility of biofuel-powered commercial aircraft. Boeing has teamed with Virgin Atlantic to test a General Electric-powered 747 (more here) and with Air New Zealand to test a Rolls-Royce-powered 747 (earlier post).

The flight-test programme is likely to consist of a single flight and consume a total of about 3,800 litres (1,000 gallons) of biofuel, says Glover. The company is close to selecting a feedstock for the flight-test programme, but Glover emphasises that this biofuel type is for demonstration purposes only.

Research into bio-jet fuels has exploded over the past years, partly because airlines' profitability strongly depends on fuel costs and because bio-jet fuels promise to reduce emissions considerably. But biofuels for aviation present several challenges: they require high-performance characteristics, in particular the capacity to remain fluid at low temperatures and the need for smooth blending with petroleum based fuels. Gradually, biofuels are being designed that approach the required cold tolerance threshold.

Likely candidates are synthetic biofuels, obtained from gasifying biomass that is liquefied by Fischer-Tropsch synthesis ('biomass-to-liquids'). Such fuels can be refined into designer fuels with specific characteristics. Another potential fuel is 'green diesel' based on a hydrogenation process of vegetable oils.

Some recent initiatives in bio-jet fuel research include a large program by the French aerospace industry into second-generation (synthetic) biofuels and other candidates. The project, known as CALIN is being initiated by a conglomerate of research organisations consisting of France's aerospace research agency ONERA, propulsion company Snecma and members of the country's Aerospace Valley group which unites most of Europe's leading aerospace manufacturers, including EADS, Airbus, Air France Industries, Alstom and Dassault (earlier post).

Snecma recently succeeded in testing a CFM56-7B jet engine with an ester-based biofuel at a Snecma site in Villaroche. The engine is produced by a joint venture between Snecma, CFM International, and General Electric Company. The fuel used was a methylester derived from plant oil, mixed with 70% Jet-A1 kerosene. The successful test with the unmodified engine reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 20% (earlier post and here).

A large number of private initiatives are underway to develop biokerosene. Amongst them Diversified Energy which developed biofuels that withstand very cold temperatures and can be used in aviation. Their process consists of freeing up the free fatty acids contained in triglycerides from glycerol and passing them through a catalyst after which a resulting gas is synthesized into a liquid (earlier post)

UOP, a Honeywell company, has accelerated research and development on renewable energy technology to convert vegetable oils to military jet fuels. UOP developed a technique based on hydroprocessing that may yield fuels that meet the stringent requirements (more here).

The University of North Dakota recently received a US$5 million grant to develop military bio-jet fuels (earlier post). Whereas North Carolina State University found an innovative technology for the production of biofuels for jet aircraft based on transforming glycerol, the major byproduct of biodiesel (earlier post).

Obviously, several armies are looking into biofuels for aviation as well. A study for the US Military, written by Sasol, concluded that synthetic biofuels (Fischer-Tropsch) can power the entire military - including its airforce - in case of severe oil supply disruptions (earlier post). Finally, the U.S. Air Force has been experimenting extensively with synthetic fuels, which can be made from biomass. It already ground-tested them in real engines (earlier post).

Brazil's state-owned Petrobras announced it plans to introduce a type of bio-jet fuel named 'Bio QAV' in 120 of the country's airports, with concrete trials to begin in 2008. 'Bio QAV' ('Biokerosene for Aviation') is based on the H-bio second-generation biodiesel production process, which relies on hydrotreating vegetable oils (more here).

And most recently, the US Airforce made the first ever transcontinental flight of a C-17 on synthetic fuels, which can be made from biomass (previous post).

FlightGlobal: Boeing expands biofuel strategy - December 20, 2007.

David L. Daggett, Robert C. Hendricks, Rainer Walther, Edwin Corporan, "Alternate Fuels for use in Commercial Aircraft" [*.pdf], Boeing, 2007.

Biopact: Virgin Atlantic to test biofuel in 747 in early 2008 - October 16, 2007

Biopact: Boeing, Air New Zealand and Rolls-Royce to conduct biofuel flight demonstration - September 28, 2007

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North Carolina State University develops experimental biomass harvester

Forestry engineers from North Carolina State University (NCSU) are developing an experimental biomass harvester that sucks up and pulverizes woody undergrowth and trunks from forest floors. The biomass can then be used for the production of cellulosic biofuels or as a feedstock for biomass power plants. Several similar machines are under development elsewhere, with a first one in Finland already being commercialised; it provides wood chips on the spot, for the emerging forest-based bioenergy sector (previous post).

A prototype of the new machine being developed by NCSU had its first public demonstration in woods east of New Bern, North Carolina, where it gobbled trees in the forest off County Line Road. The event was attended by the gamut of public and private forest-related industries and service in the state.

The harvester works as follows:
  • the 56,000-pound machine is pushed by a tractor on treads; it boasts a 440-horsepower engine, making it a quite powerful tool
  • despite its weight, the machine produces ground pressure of only 7.1 pounds per square foot, so it moves easily over soft forest bed and pocosin.
  • the harvester cuts a trail after which its carbide teeth pulverize everything in its six-foot path
  • a belt-driven vacuum sucks the ground-up cuttings through an extended chute over the cab and into an agricultural silage wagon hitched to the tractor
  • the pulverised biomass is then ready to be utilized as an energy source
  • the machine can now harvest between two and four tons of forest bulk an hour
  • to break even when the biomass is sold as a low-cost feedstock for electricity production at a biomass plant, it would have to double its current output; cellulosic biofuels offer a more promising market
The experimental biomass harvester may be four or five years away from profitable use but offers real promise for renewable energy, said Joseph Roise, professor of forestry and operations research at NCSU’s College of Natural Resources:
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The machine is being developed by NCSU engineers in cooperation with Tim Tabak, a forestry management consultant, for Fecon Inc., manufacturer of the heavy equipment and attachments including Bull Hog commercial mulchers.

The new harvester allows more of the forest’s organic products — bushes, leaves and needles, and trees under 6 inches in diameter — to be used for biomass based biofuels such as Fischer-Tropsch diesel and cellulosic ethanol in addition to its present market in steam-generated electric production, Roise said. When perfected, it is expected to be used mostly for plantation thinning in tree farming, for clearing between the rows, and for forest management, he added.

Roise has been working since the summer with Tabak and NCSU Forestry graduate students Lindsay Hannum and Glen Catts to correct design flaws. Tabak said, that they have to sharpen the teeth during clearing, and that changing the teeth is a challenge. Without air wrenches it took up to 2 hours.

But Roise said the work thus far has produced results much better than they ever thought. A representative for Fecor, Bill Causey of Pittsboro, said the machine offers 'an exciting deal' if you can get it to work. The machine can now harvest between two and four tons of forest bulk an hour. But it needs to be able to harvest about 10 tons an hour to break even on the money it can make selling the harvest for fuel to Craven Wood Energy for steam-generated electricity.

Croatan National Forest District Ranger Lauren Hillman sees potential for forest management in fire prevention and habitat preservation or restoration. Camp Lejeune’s efforts to restore habitat for red-cockaded woodpeckers might be able helped by the machine, said Danny Marshburn, base forest manager. John Duff of Rankin Timber Company in New Bern said, it will be a useful tool on a lot of forest land that is tough to manage.

Its real profitability, however, lies in harvesting brush for next generation biofuels. Its advantage for that use is that it blows underbrush upward without picking up the dirt. The product saved from just being mulch on the forest floor contains the necessary chemical compounds for the manufacture of liquid fuels, Roise and fellow NCSU professor Dennis Hazel said. The professors are already debating which element of the biomass grabbed by the harvester will make it pay off first.

: NCSU Forestry professor Joseph Roise is dwarfed by the 56,000-pound biomass harvester. Credit: Sue Book/Sun Journal.

Sun Journal: Prototype biomass harvester devours small trees, underbrush - December 19, 2007.

Biopact: Efficient timber harvester delivers wood chips on the spot, improves biomass logistics - August 19, 2007

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ISU survey: Iowa farmland prices keep breaking records on biofuels

The Iowa State University Extension's annual survey on land prices shows that because of a surging demand for corn and soybeans for a rapidly expanding biofuels industry farmland prices in Iowa keep breaking records. The average value of an acre of farmland in Iowa - the heart of America's 'Grain Belt' - increased by just over $700 during the past year, to an all-time high of $3,908 ($9,656 per hectare). The trend confirmed that of last year's survey, when cropland in Iowa rose to a record US$3,204 per acre (US$7917 per hectare) (previous post).

The land boom is being driven by the developing biofuel economy, according to Mike Duffy, ISU Extension farm economist who conducts the survey. Duffy said the 22 percent increase recorded this year is the greatest one-year increase since 1976, and marks a new record for the fifth year in a row. Since the year 2000, Iowa land values have increased an average of $2,051 per acre, more than a 100 percent increase over the 2000 average value of $1,857.

The increases in values were reported statewide, with the survey recording averages above $5,000 an acre in five counties, and between $4,000 and $5,000 an acre in 51 counties. Nineteen counties reported increases of more than 25 percent, and 59 counties had increases between 20 and 25 percent (map, click to enlarge).

Duffy noted that some of the smaller percentage increases occurred in the counties and crop reporting districts along Iowa’s eastern and western borders. He said this reflects the impact of local demand for corn from ethanol plants. Counties along the border rivers previously received the best prices for crops due to low transportation costs to gulf port markets, but now those crops are being used locally by the ethanol plants, which is driving up prices in interior counties.

Duffy said he frequently is asked whether the land market will crash, and how high it might go before it tops out. He also is questioned about the impact of the weakening dollar, the new farm bill, and the current subprime mortgage crisis.
The world of agriculture as we know it here in Iowa has changed. Where the changes will settle out and when is not known. My general feeling is that the land market will remain strong for at least the next five years. We have seen a fundamental shift in demand for corn due to ethanol production. I don’t think this demand will diminish in the near future. - Mike Duffy, ISU Extension farm economist
Of the nine crop reporting districts in the state, northwest Iowa reported the highest average value at $4,699 per acre. The lowest average in the state was in south central Iowa at $2,325 per acre. North central Iowa was the leader in percentage increase at 25.3 percent, while east central Iowa had the lowest percentage increase at 14.7 percent:
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The highest county average in the state was Scott County at $5,699 per acre, while Decatur County was lowest at $1,828 per acre. Sioux County led the state with the largest dollar increase at $1,142 per acre, while Floyd County had the largest percentage increase at 30.3 percent.

Low grade land in the state averaged $2,655 per acre, an increase of $460 or 21 percent over the 2006 survey. Medium grade land averaged $3,666 per acre, a $655 increase or 21.8 percent. High grade land averaged $4,686 per acre, an increase of $851 or 22.2 percent.

Survey participants were asked to indicate positive and negative factors that affected land prices during 2007. Good grain prices was by far the most frequently mentioned positive factor, listed by 35 percent of the respondents. Another 10 percent mentioned low interest rates as a major factor.

Three negative factors impacting land values were listed by more than 10 percent of the respondents. They included high costs for the inputs needed to grow crops, listed by 25 percent; high land prices in general, listed by 12 percent; and a concern over how long the market would remain at high levels, listed by 11 percent.

Thirty-seven percent of the respondents to this year’s survey reported more land sales in 2007 than in the previous year. That was the highest percentage since 1988. Buyers were existing farmers in 60 percent of the sales, and investors in 34 percent of the sales, essentially unchanged from the previous year, but down considerably from a decade ago when existing farmers represented nearly 75 percent of the buyers.

Data on farmland sales has been collected by Iowa State University annually since 1941. About 1,100 copies of the survey are mailed each year to licensed real estate brokers, ag lenders, and others knowledgeable of Iowa land values. Respondents are asked to report values as of Nov. 1. Average response is 500 to 600 completed surveys, with 499 usable surveys returned this year. Respondents provided 668 individual county estimates, including land values in nearby counties if they had knowledge of values in those counties.

Crossing the pond
Farmland will become a very valuable resource in the future global bio-economy. Industrial countries have already used up most of their suitable acreage and can expect a continuous rise in prices. Some have warned that new farmers will find it increasingly difficult to start a business because of this. However, in both Africa and Latin America, farmland is abundant and far less costly.

Some adventurous people will want to cross the Atlantic or the Mediterranean to start up in the bioenergy and agriculture sector in Africa. Tens of thousands of landless Chinese farmers are already doing this, encouraged by their government, with rising land prices in the People's Republic playing a key role (previous post).

The price of land is only one of many factors determining the viability of an agricultural enterprise. In increasingly science and tech driven agriculture its relative importance has declined over the decades. But the trend is now reversing. For farmers in emerging economies with scarce land resources (China, India) and whose farm practises are not comparable to the highly mechanised, intensive practises of their collegues in the West, venturing abroad might be an option.

So how much does farmland cost in African countries? Data are scarce and not kept up to date. But from what little data we have, the sheer difference in value can be sketched.

The World Bank Global Approach to Environmental Analyses (GAEA) made land price estimates back in 2000. The GAEA study attempts to build on earlier World Bank work that suggested that national land prices would be roughly equal to a multiple of per capita income. Estimates of land value calculated in this way were then adjusted to incorporate broader factors, such as proportions of pasture, cropland, forestland and arid land in the total land area, to arrive at indicative national land prices. In short, the land price data are very rough and only useful for broad comparative purposes.

The following tables were compiled from these data:

More on these data can be found here.

Iowa State University Extension: 2007 Iowa Land Value Survey.

Iowa State University Extension: Average Value of Iowa Farmland Tops $3,900 an Acre in 2007 Survey - December 18, 2007.

Biopact: Ethanol boosts farmland prices in the US - December 22, 2006

Biopact: Landless Chinese farmers migrate to Africa in search of agricultural opportunities - December 02, 2007

Biopact: Land prices in Africa - September 15, 2006

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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Yanmar launches biogas micro-cogeneration business

Japanese engine and agricultural machinery manufacturer Yanmar announces it is commercializing highly efficient biogas powered micro-cogeneration plants. The compact 25kWh combined heat and power (CHP) plants were developed over several years from systems that originally worked on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). Through its fully owned subsidiary Yanmar Energy System, the company hopes to sell 1000 of the renewable energy units per year by 2012.

The compact biogas power plants target livestock production facilities, small household and municipal waste treatment facilities and the food processing industry in which large streams of waste biomass are available, suitable for the production of biogas. Biogas obtained via the anaerobic digestion of organic materials consists mainly of methane and CO2. The cogeneration plants work on raw, unprocessed biogas (60-70% CH4) to yield carbon neutral energy but are more efficient when upgraded biogas ('biomethane') is utilized.

After a testing and verification process, the company's internal project team found the system to be highly reliable and efficient, with the number of sales of test-units increasing fast enough during 2006-2007, leading to the decision to launch a full commercialisation effort. The cogeneration plants will likely be priced at 12 million yen (€73,000/US$ 105,800).

The units have the following characteristics [*Japanese] (schematic, click to enlarge):
  • a rated power output of 25kWh (three phase, 200V)
  • an overall efficiency of over 84% in CHP-mode; an electric efficiency of 33% when biogas with an 80-90% methane content is used and 32% when raw biogas (60-70% methane) is used; a thermal efficiency of respectively 52% and 53%
  • a low noise profile
  • continuous operational capacity of 6000 hours per year
On an annual basis, the micro-cogeneration plant can save up to 70 tonnes of CO2 compared to a similar output obtained from fossil fuel (LPG) powered units:
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The calculation of the CO2 savings is based on computation methods provided by the Ministry for Environmental, Economic and Industrial Affairs and based on a typical biogas production operation.

According to Yanmar Energy System, the 1000 biogas units it hopes to sell will avoid as much CO2 as is sequestered in 5 million cedar trees, thus contributing to mitigating climate change.

Combined, the plants will generate around 50,000MWh of electricity, enough to power 40,000 homes, and 230000 MW of heat, enough to take 53,000,000 hot baths. Kerosene boilers would require around 25 million liters of the fossil fuel to heat an equivalent amount of water.

According to the company, Japan's average carbon dioxide price between April 2006 and August 2007 was 1212 Yen per ton (max. 2500 Yen, min. 900 Yen). Taking an average value, the 1000 units Yanmar hopes to sell would thus yield around 85 million Yen worth of carbon credits.

An interesting market that will be explored besides the farm and food processing sector, is that of coupling geothermal energy to methane recovery. The micro-generation units can thus be utilized as renewable home energy systems scavenging off the waste product of another form of renewable energy.

Yanmar: Biogas micro-cogeneration sales to start - December 19, 2007.

Yanmar Energy System: dedicated biogas micro-cogeneration website.

JCN Network: Yanmar Unit to Fully Launch Biogas Cogeneration System - December 19, 2007.

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Elevated CO2 changes soil microbe mix below plants; frees nutrients, allows plants to sequester more CO2

A detailed analysis of soil samples taken from a forest ecosystem with artificially elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) reveals distinct changes in the mix of microorganisms living in the soil below trembling aspen. These changes could increase the availability of essential soil nutrients, thereby supporting increased plant growth and the plants' ability to "lock up," or sequester, excess carbon from the atmosphere. The research will be published online this week in the journal Environmental Microbiology. It confirms previously reported increases in biomass turnover rates and sustained availability and translocation of the essential nutrients required for increased plant growth under elevated CO2 - an observation with high relevance to the bioenergy and forestry sector.

The discovered changes in soil biota are evidence for altered interactions between trembling aspen trees and the microorganisms in the surrounding soil, says Daniel van der Lelie, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory, who led the research. The findings support the idea that greater plant detritus production under elevated CO2 has altered microbial community composition in the soil. Understanding the effect these microbial changes have on ecosystem function, especially via effects on the cycling of essential elements, will be important for evaluating the potential of forests and energy crops to act as carbon sinks in mitigating the effects of rising CO2.

Atmospheric CO2, the most abundant greenhouse gas, has been increasing since the start of the industrial age, and is one of the main contributing factors associated with climate change. Since plants take in CO2 and convert it to biomass during photosynthesis, much research has focused on the potential of forests to sequester excess carbon and offset the rise in CO2.

Various studies have demonstrated increased plant growth under elevated CO2, but there is no consensus on many of the secondary effects associated with these plant responses. The goal of this study was to investigate the composition and role of microbial communities, which help to regulate the cycling of carbon and nitrogen in terrestrial ecosystems.

The study was conducted on soil samples collected at an experimental trembling aspen forest in Rhinelander, Wisconsin - home to the Aspen FACE II experiment (picture, click to enlarge). That forest is outfitted with a series rings made of large pipes that can pump a controlled amount of carbon dioxide (or other gases) into the air to artificially mimic expected environmental changes in an otherwise open-air environment. This and other similar Free-Air Carbon dioxide Enrichment (FACE) facilities around the world were developed by the Department of Energy to help estimate how plants and ecosystems will respond to increasing CO2. Before FACE, much of what scientists knew about plant and ecosystem responses to rising CO2 came from studies conducted in enclosures, where the response of plants is modified by their growth conditions:
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In this study, the scientists compared the microbial content of soil taken from three FACE rings receiving ambient levels of CO2 (about 383 parts per million, as of January 2007) with that from soil taken from three FACE rings that have been receiving elevated CO2 (560 parts per million) - a level expected to be ambient on Earth in the year 2100 if the current rate of CO2 increase remains constant at 1.9 parts per million per year.

The scientists first isolated the genetic material from each soil sample. They then used molecular genetics techniques to isolate regions of genetic material known to be highly species-specific, sequenced these regions, and compared them with genetic sequence libraries of known bacteria, eukaryotic microbes (those with nuclei, such as fungi and protozoa), and archaea, a group of microbes that are genetically distinct from bacteria and often dwell in extreme environments.

Main findings

There were no differences in total abundance of bacteria or eukaryotic microbes between ambient and high CO2 soil samples. But elevated CO2 samples showed significant changes in the composition of these communities, including:
  • an increase in heterotrophic decomposers - microbes that rely on an external food source and break down organic matter to recycle carbon and nitrogen
  • an increase in ectomycorrhizal fungi - which gain nutrients by living in association with plant roots and help to provide the plants with essential minerals
  • a decrease in fungi that commonly cause disease in plants - perhaps because increased plant growth stimulated by CO2 makes the plants less hospitable/susceptible to the fungi.
  • a significant decrease in nitrate-reducers of the domain bacteria and archaea potentially implicated in ammonium oxidation.
The increased plant growth associated with elevated CO2 environments has often been observed to be temporary because of the progressive depletion of the element nitrogen from the soil. Such a limitation has not yet been observed at the Rhinelander FACE site.

"Overall, the changes we observed support previously reported increases in biomass turnover rates and sustained availability and translocation of the essential nutrients required for increased plant growth under elevated CO2," van der Lelie said.

This study was funded by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research within the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science and by the Laboratory Directed Research and Development program at Brookhaven Lab.

Brookhaven National Laboratory: Elevated Carbon Dioxide Changes Soil Microbe Mix Below Plants - December 19, 2007.

Website of the Aspen FACE II experiment.

Overview of all FACE projects.

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Towards carbon-negative biofuels: US DOE awards $66.7 million for large-scale CO2 capture and storage from ethanol plant

We have been predicting the coupling of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies to biofuel production for a while. A first such large-scale project is now being funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Following closely on the heels of three recent awards through the DOE's Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership Program, the department today awarded $66.7 million to the Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium (MGSC) for the Department’s fourth large-scale carbon sequestration project which involves the capture and geosequestration of 1 million tonnes of CO2 from Archer Daniels Midland's ethanol plant in Decatur, Illinois.

This project will demonstrate that it is possible to make 'carbon neutral' biofuels even greener than they are. During the fermentation of biomass, a stream of CO2 is released that is taken up by the new energy crops as they grow, closing the carbon cycle. But if this stream is captured before it enters the atmosphere and then sequestered in a geological formation to stay there for centuries or millenia, the greenhouse gas balance of the biofuel improves dramatically. The amount of CO2 that can be captured from ethanol production is around 5 to 10% of the original carbon input (roughly 3 tonnes of CO2 per 1000 liters of ethanol) (schematic, click to enlarge).

Capturing and sequestering CO2 from fermentation processes can be called a 'first generation' of CCS-to-biofuels coupling. When the ethanol from such a plant is burned in an ICE, it still releases CO2 into the atmosphere that is taken up again by the plants ('carbon neutral'), but a considerable fraction of the CO2 that occured during the production process has been taken out of this carbon cycle, making the fuel a lot greener. However, it is possible to make biofuels and bioenergy far more radical tools in the fight against climate change still, by completely decarbonizing them. This can be done by capturing and sequestering the CO2 from biohydrogen and during the combustion of biomass. The result is radically 'carbon negative' fuel and energy.

Such 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) systems yield 'negative emissions' energy. All other renewables, like wind power, biofuels-without-CCS, solar energy or even nuclear power are all 'carbon neutral' at best. That is, they do not add any or only small amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. BECS however is 'carbon negative' and takes CO2 out of the atmosphere (schematic, click to enlarge). Scientists have found that if radical BECS systems were to replace coal fired power stations on a global scale, atmospheric CO2 levels can be brought back to pre-industrial levels by mid-century (2060), thus solving the climate crisis.

Capturing CO2 from ethanol plants is a relatively straightforward and cost-effective 'cold' process (CO2 can be drawn from the fermentation chamber easily). Next generation CCS-to-biofuels systems are more complex, because they involve the capture of CO2 before, during or after 'hot' processes such as gasification. This requires specially designed membranes or gas capture technologies still under development.

One great advantage of coupling CCS to bioenergy is that it overcomes the criticism often heard against carbon sequestration, namely that CO2 leakage from the geological formation would be catastrophic for the climate. This would be true if the stored CO2 were to come originally from fossil fuels because in that case, the leak would add CO2 to the atmosphere. But under BECS, the CO2 is biogenic and would not result in a net increase in CO2. Thus, this argument against CCS becomes senseless when the technology is coupled to biological CO2 sources.

In any case, the DOE's new project allows us to begin to take 'bio-energy with carbon storage' seriously. We have been hinting at the prospect for a long time. Now a first step towards the concept is being taken with considerable funding.

The Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership Program's project will be led by the Illinois State Geological Survey will conduct large volume tests in the Illinois Basin to demonstrate the ability of a geologic formation to safely, permanently, and economically store more than one million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2). Subject to annual appropriations from Congress, this project including the partnership’s cost share is estimated to cost $84.3 million. Advancing carbon sequestration is a key component of the Bush Administration’s comprehensive efforts to pursue clean coal technology to meet current and future energy needs and meet President Bush’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions intensity 18 percent by 2012.

This partnership will demonstrate CO2 storage in the Mount Simon Sandstone Formation, a prolific geologic formation throughout Illinois, Kentucky, Indiana, and portions of Ohio. This formation offers great potential to store more than 100 years of carbon dioxide emissions from major point sources in the region. The partnership will inject one million tons of CO2 into one of the thickest portions of the Mount Simon Formation testing how the heterogeneity of the formation can increase the effectiveness of storage and demonstrate that the massive seals can contain the CO2 for millennia. The results of this project will provide the foundation for the future development of CO2 capture and storage opportunities in the region.

Researchers and industry partners will characterize the injection sites and complete modeling, monitoring, and infrastructure assessments needed before CO2 can be injected. MGSC plans to drill a CO2 injection well and then inject about 1,000 tons per day of carbon dioxide into the Mt. Simon sandstone, which is approximately 5,500 feet below the surface. The project will inject CO2 for three years before closing the injection site and monitoring and modeling the injected carbon dioxide to determine the effectiveness of the storage reservoir:

The Midwest Geological Sequestration Consortium will work with the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) Company to demonstrate the entire CO2 injection process—pre-injection characterization, injection process monitoring, and post-injection monitoring—at large volumes to determine the ability of different geologic settings to permanently store CO2. ADM’s ethanol plant in Decatur, IL, will serve as the source of CO2 for the project:
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ADM will cost share the expense of the CO2, which will come from the company’s ethanol production operation. DOE will fund the dehydration, compression, short pipeline, and related facility costs to deliver the CO2 to the wellhead.
These projects demonstrate the potential of carbon sequestration technology, which will play a crucial role in achieving President Bush’s goal to harness advanced clean energy technologies to meet growing demand and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We continue to make robust investments aimed at moving carbon sequestration technology from the laboratory to actual large-scale field demonstrations and ultimately to the marketplace to with the help of our regional partners. - Bud Albright, Under Secretary of Energy
Today’s award to MGSC is the fourth of seven awards in the third phase of the Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnerships program. In October, Deputy Secretary of Energy Clay Sell announced the first three large volume carbon sequestration projects that total $318 million for Plains Carbon Dioxide Reduction Partnership, Southeast Regional Carbon Sequestration Partnership, and Southwest Regional Partnership for Carbon Sequestration.

This ten year initiative, launched by DOE in 2003, forms the centerpiece of national efforts to develop the infrastructure and knowledge base needed to place carbon sequestration technologies on the path to commercialization. The seven regional partnerships include more than 350 state agencies, universities, and private companies within 41 states, two Indian nations, and four Canadian provinces. During the first phase of the program, seven partnerships characterized the potential for CO2 storage in deep oil-, gas-, coal-, and saline-bearing formations. When Phase I ended in 2005, the partnerships had identified more than 3,000 billion metric tons of potential storage capacity in promising sinks. This has the potential to represent more than 1,000 years of storage capacity from point sources in North America. In the program’s second phase, the partnerships implemented a portfolio of small-scale geologic and terrestrial sequestration projects. The purpose of these tests was to validate that different geologic formations have the injectivity, containment, and storage effectiveness needed for long-term sequestration. The third phase, large volume tests are designed to validate that the capture, transportation, injection, and long term storage of over one million tons of carbon dioxide can be done safely, permanently, and economically.

US DOE: Energy Department Awards $66.7 Million for Large-Scale Carbon Sequestration Project - December 19, 2007.

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US becomes biofuel nation as Congress approves Energy Bill

The US House of Representatives has approved what lawmakers have described as a 'historic' energy bill to improve fuel economy and reduce demand for oil by massively pushing biofuels. The legislation, passed by the Senate last week (previous post), is due to be signed into law by President George W. Bush. It will mandate the first increase in vehicle fuel economy since 1975 while boosting ethanol production six-fold. With the law, the United States is set to become the world's leading biofuel nation.

The bill deals with four primary categories of biofuels that define the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS): conventional biofuel which is ethanol produced from corn starch; cellulosic biofuels derived from any type of biomass; biomass-based diesel including fatty acid methyl esters; and other 'advanced biofuels'.

Under the bill, the RFS increases to 36 billion gallons (136 billion liters) by 2022, roughly the equivalent of between 1.8 and 2 million barrels of oil per day. Of that, corn ethanol production is capped at 15 billion gallons per year starting in 2015 (56.8 billion liters), a three-fold increase of current production levels; the remainder is expected provided by 'advanced biofuels', the majority of which are cellulosic biofuels. In the final year of the standard (2022), cellulosic biofuels should contribute more (16 billion gallons) than does corn ethanol (15 billion gallons) (graph, click to enlarge).

The law assigns minimum lifecycle greenhouse gas improvements, measured against a baseline of the lifecycle emissions from gasoline or diesel (whichever is being replaced) on sale in 2005. The minimum GHG improvement is 20%; biomass-based diesel must deliver a 50% GHG improvement, and cellulosic biofuels must deliver a 60% improvement in lifecycle GHG emissions.

The bill defines 'Advanced Biofuels' as renewable fuel, other than ethanol derived from corn starch, including:
  • Ethanol produced from cellulose, hemicelluloses, and lignin;
  • Ethanol derived from sugar other than from corn starch;
  • Ethanol derived from waste materials, including crop residue;
  • Butanol or other alcohols produced via conversion of organic materials;
  • Biomass-based diesel;
  • Biogas (including landfill gas and sewage waste treatment gas) produced through the conversion of organic matter from renewable biomass; and
  • Other fuels derived from cellulosic biomass.
The RFS provides significant allowances for adjustments and revisions based on determination of the Administrator of the EPA. For example, the Administrator can reduce the percentage reductions in greenhouse gas emissions specified in the bill by up to 10 percentage points for each category if he or she determines that the reduction is not commercially feasible:
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As another example, if the production of cellulosic biofuel is projected to be less than that required by the RFS, the Administrator can reduce the applicable volume in the standard.

The bill requires the DOE, USDA, and EPA to engage the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study to assess the impact of the RFS on feed grains; livestock; food; forest products; and energy.

It also requires DOE, DOT and EPA to study the optimization of flexible fuel vehicles to determine what fuel efficiencies could exist when operating on E85. The bill also requires a study on the effects of different levels of biodiesel blends (B5, B10, B20, B30 and B100) on engine and engine systems performance and durability.

Should ASTM no have established a standard for B20 biodiesel within a year following the enactment of the bill, the Administrator of the EPA is tasked to initiate a rulemaking to establish a uniform per gallon fuel standard for such a fuel.

The bill authorizes the appropriation of $500 million for the period of fiscal years 2008 through 2015 for grants to encourage the production of advanced biofuels. A project much achieve at least an 80% reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions to be eligible for such a grant.

The bill also requires a report to Congress on any research and development challenges inherent in increasing the biodiesel and biogas components of the fuel pool in the US. Another required report will update Congress on the status of the R&D on the use of algae as a feedstock for biofuels.

Other aspects of the bill touch on the development of a biofuel refueling infrastructure, an ethanol pipeline feasibility study, and transportation of renewable fuel via railroad and other modes of transportation.
With a stroke of the pen, both here and then tomorrow when the President signs the bill, we will set America on a path to save more than 4 million barrels of oil per day by 2030. That’s twice the amount of oil we import from the Persian Gulf alone.

With one stroke of the pen, America can be on a path to cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 25 percent of what we need to do to save the planet. With one stroke of the pen, we set America on a path to produce $22 billion in annual savings to our consumers. With one stroke of the pen, we take America down a path to create hundreds of thousands of new green jobs and train 3 million workers for new green jobs.
- Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House
Fuel economy
In addition to raising CAFE standards to an average 35 mpg by 2020, the bill also contains some provisions that provide support for the electrification of transportation; improved standards for appliances and lighting; energy savings in buildings and industry; energy savings in government and public institutions; support for research into solar, geothermal, marine and hydrokinetic energy technologies, and energy storage for transportation and electric power; research, development and demonstration of carbon capture and sequestration; the modernization of the electric grid; and a variety of other initiatives.


GCC: House Sends Energy Bill to President Bush; New Renewable Fuel Standard - December 19, 2007.

Speaker of the House: Pelosi Statement on Signing Energy Bill and Sending It to the President - December 18, 2007.

Biopact: U.S. Senate passes weakened energy bill: six-fold increase in ethanol target - December 14, 2007

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: Solvay to produce green PVC from sugarcane ethanol

Brussels-based chemical giant Solvay announces that the board of its affiliate, Solvay Indupa, has approved a further US$ 135 million investment program to expand and increase the competitiveness of its vinyls production plant of Santo Andre, Brazil. This second stage of expansion, following a plan announced in August 2006, comprises the creation of an integrated plant to produce ethylene with ethanol originating from sugar cane. Ethylene is one of the two main feedstocks needed to manufacture polyvinyl chloride (PVC) - together with chlorine, which is produced through a salt-based electrolysis process.

Santo Andre would be the first industrial project in the Americas implementing renewable, green resources for the production of PVC. This innovation will prevent the emission of large quantities of C02 into the atmosphere. In the case of sugarcane based 'bio-ethylene', the reduction can even be larger than 100% (check out why, here).

Just recently, scientists reported that the utilisation of bio-based feedstocks for the production of 16 of the most commonly used bulk chemicals can reduce emissions by up to a billion tonnes of CO2 in future scenarios (earlier post). Sugarcane was identified as the leading candidate for efficient bio-based chemicals and is attracting considerable attention from manufacturers and researchers (here, here, here and here). Bulk chemicals, currently made from petroleum and natural gas, are used in the production of everything from plastics and fertilizers to electronic components and medicines.

Ethylene (C2H4) is the most produced organic compound in the world with global production exceeding 75 million metric tonnes per year. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a thermoplastic polymer and one of the most valuable products of the chemical industry. PVC can be found in thousands of commonly used products, ranging from pipelines and hoses to traffic signs and floors.

Solvay Indupa’s ambition is to complete the expansion of Santo Andre by 2010. The plant would then have an installed capacity of 360,000 tons/year of PVC; 360,000 tons /year of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), 235,000 tons/year of Caustic Soda and 60,000 tons/year of bio-ethylene.

Solvay Indupa is also studying with Argentinean energy group Albanesi S.A. the construction of a 165 megawatt combined cycle electrical power plant on Solvay Indupa’s site in Bahia Blanca, Argentina. The project would require an investment of USD 135 million and would provide for a reliable and competitive coverage of the site’s entire energy needs:
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In order to finance these investments, Solvay Indupa is considering a capital increase of approximately USD 130 million, to be placed in local and international capital markets through Brazilian Depositary Receipts (BDRs) at the São Paulo Stock Exchange (Bovespa).
Latin American markets are among the most promising targets of our geographical expansion. Demand for vinyl products is experiencing continued and dynamic growth there. With these ambitious expansion plans, Solvay Indupa will be at the leading edge of competitiveness and innovation to serve the fast-growing Latin American economies with sustainable vinyl material. - Jacques van Rijckevorsel, General Manager of the Plastics Sector, Solvay
The Solvay group is one of the world’s leading vinyls producer, ranking second in Europe and third globally. In addition to SolVin, its joint venture with BASF in Europe, the Group’s activities in PVC and other products of the vinyl chain span across Asia and Latin America, through the affiliates Vinythai in Thailand and Solvay Indupa in Argentina and Brazil.

Solvay Indupa, a company of the Solvay group, is one of the most important petrochemical companies in the Mercosur. Its main products are PVC resins and Caustic Soda. Solvay Indupa has its main offices in Buenos Aires, Argentina and two industrial sites: in Bahía Blanca (Argentina) and Santo André (Brazil). Solvay holds 70.1% of Solvay Indupa, which is listed on the Buenos Aires stock market.

Solvay is an international chemical and pharmaceutical group employing some 29,000 people in 50 countries. In 2006, its consolidated sales amounted to €9.4 billion, generated by its three sectors of activity: chemicals, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

In June, a competitor to Solvay, Braskem (the leading company in Latin America's thermoplastic resins segment and Brazil's second largest privately owned industrial company), announced it had produced the first batch of internationally certified polyethylene made from sugarcane ethanol (more here). The Dow Chemical Company and Crystalsev, one of Brazil's largest ethanol players also unnveiled plans for a world-scale facility to manufacture polyethylene from sugar cane (earlier post).

Solvay: Solvay Indupa will produce bioethanol-based vinyl in Brasil & considers state-of-the-art power generation in Argentina - December 14, 2007.

Biopact: Researchers find bio-based bulk chemicals could save up to 1 billion tonnes of CO2 - December 17, 2007

Biopact: The bioeconomy at work: Braskem develops polyethylene from sugarcane ethanol - June 25, 2007

Biopact: Dow and Crystalsev to make polyethylene from sugar cane in Brazil - July 19, 2007

Biopact: Australia and South Korea team up to produce bioproducts from sugarcane - May 18, 2007

Biopact: Metabolix to develop bioplastics from sugarcane - May 09, 2007

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Bangladesh to dramatically expand technology that doubles efficiency of urea fertilizer use

Malawi's much discussed super harvests, which turned the country from a food aid dependent begging bowl into a major food exporter, were the result of a simple, coordinated government intervention: the subsidization of fertilizers for small farmers. This example is important to the bioenergy community because it proves food insecure countries with a large agricultural potential can turn their fate around with modest means and simply by improving access to the most basic modern farm inputs. If all developing countries with a large biofuel potential were to introduce similar measures - and the FAO recently called for such interventions - then the huge global bioenergy potential could begin to be tapped in a safe manner without provoking a food versus fuel debate.

Countries and regions that have already undergone the Green Revolution can still boost farm outputs simply by targetting fertilizer inputs better. Interesting recent results from precision farming trials in Punjab, India, showed rice yields can be increased consistently and fertilizer use reduced (previous post).

Now the Government of Bangladesh announces that it will expand a similar technology, known as 'urea deep placement' (UDP) - a successful technique that doubles the efficiency of urea fertilizer use - to almost 1 million hectares of rice land, reaching about 1.6 million farm families, in the coming 'boro' or dry season. Bangladesh's successful trials with the technique are now being replicated elsewhere in South Asia and in Africa.

UDP is the insertion of large urea briquettes into the rice root zone after transplanting. UDP cuts nitrogen losses significantly. Farmers who use UDP can increase yields by 25% while using less than 50% as much urea as before.

The effectiveness of UDP technology in Bangladesh was proven through research funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, also active in promoting bioenergy in the South) and implemented with the assistance of IFDC - an International Center for Soil Fertility and Agricultural Development. The Ministry of Agriculture of Bangladesh has requested that IFDC help implement the expanded project.

Millions of rice farmers in Asia depend on urea fertilizer to meet the nitrogen needs of high-yielding rice varieties, says Dr. Amit Roy, IFDC CEO. Most farmers, including those in Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia, broadcast urea into the floodwater.

But broadcasting is a highly inefficient application method because most of the nitrogen is lost to the air and water. Only one bag of urea in three is used by the plants. Using UDP, Bangladesh's dry season rice production is expected to increase by 548,000 tons, according to the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE).
Yields were comparatively good where urea was deep placed. If we can save at least 20% of the urea by adopting UDP technology, we can supply a large part of the country's demand from our own factories. - Dr. C.S. Karim, Advisor, Bangladesh Ministry of Agriculture
UDP technology improves nitrogen use efficiency by keeping most of the urea nitrogen in the soil close to the rice roots and out of the floodwater, where it is more susceptible to loss as gaseous compounds or runoff:
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The technology not only improves farmer income, but creates employment because of the need for the briquettes. Ten Bangladeshi manufacturers have produced and sold more than 2,000 briquette-making machines. The new UDP program will include the manufacture and establishment of some 300 briquetting machines to manufacture 2.7-gram briquettes.

UDP technology was introduced in Bangladesh in the late 1990s; by 2006 more than half a million farmers had adopted UDP. Average paddy yields had increased 20% to 25%, and income from paddy sales increased by 10%, while urea expenditures decreased 32%. Farmers who use UDP can reduce urea use by 78 to 150 kg/ha and increase paddy yields by 900 to 1,100 kg/ha. The net return to farmers of using UDP versus broadcasting urea averages $188/ha.

Bangladesh's success with UDP has become a model for other rice-growing countries, Roy says. IFDC has also introduced UDP in Cambodia, Vietnam, Nepal, Nigeria, Mali, Togo, and Malawi.

Improved rice production implies a greater availability of the already abundant rice by-products such as hulls and straw. These biomass streams can be utilized as feedstock in biomass power plants, some of which are being improved to burn this dedicated resource in a highly efficient manner (see the Fraunhofer Institute's work on dedicated fluidized bed combustion systems). The straw would also be an abundant feedstock for next generation cellulosic ethanol and synthetic biofuels.

Image: A vendor selling urea briquettes in Bangladesh. Credit: IFDC

Eurekalert: Bangladesh to dramatically expand technology that doubles efficiency of urea fertilizer use - December 18, 200

Biopact: Malawi's super harvest proves biofuel critics wrong - or, how to beat hunger and produce more oil than OPEC - December 04, 2007

Biopact: Site-specific nutrient management sees increases in rice yields - December 11, 2007

Biopact: Unlocking the vast energy potential of rice husks - August 15, 2006

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Florida goes green: PEF to buy all electricity from second, 75MW biomass plant

Progress Energy Florida (PEF) announces it has signed another contract with Biomass Gas & Electric LLC (BG&E) to purchase the electricity from a second waste-wood biomass plant planned for Florida.

BG&E, based in Atlanta, Ga., plans to build a power plant in north or Central Florida that will use waste wood products - such as yard trimmings, tree bark and wood knots from paper mills - to generate electricity. It would produce around 75 megawatts, or enough electricity to power 46,000 homes. The plant is expected to avoid the need to burn nearly 5 million tons of coal over the 20-year life of the contract. It would be identical to BG&E's waste-wood plant announced in July. Progress Energy Florida agreed to buy the output of that plant as well (previous post).

The green energy plant will use a gasification process to turn biomass into an easily combustible, hydrogen rich syngas. To do so, BG&E's waste-wood plant relies on the SilvaGas process developed by Future Energy Resources Corporation. Historically, biomass gasification technologies have been based on coal gasification designs. Those conventional combustion technologies do not take advantage of the high chemical reactivity of biomass, wasting energy and leaving behind residue typically generated through a burning process.

The SilvaGas process focuses on advanced gasification technologies specifically designed to gasify biomass and utilize the high chemical reactivity of the biomass feedstock. These processes typically feature a compact plant footprint and are not an incineration or combustion processes. Including the elimination of net CO2 additions to the environment, these advanced processes reduce the environmental impact of power generation by 90% compared to typical fossil fuel based power plants.

The process consists of the following steps (diagram, click to enlarge):
  1. Wood chips or other biomass materials are loaded into the gasifier
  2. In the gasifier the biomass is mixed with hot sand (1,800º F / ~1000°C), turning it into product gas and residual char; a small amount of steam and the rapid release product gas provides the conveying force for the reaction
  3. The residual char and cooled sand (1,500 º F / ~800°C) are separated from the product gas by a cyclone separator and discharged to the combustor
  4. The sand is reheated in the combustor by adding air and burning the residual char; the reheated sand is removed from the combustion gas by a cyclone separator and returned to the gasifier
  5. The product gas is cleaned in a scrubber and can be used for a variety of applications such as direct use in gas turbines, boilers, fuel cells or the production of chemicals
  6. The flue gas is a valuable source of heat that can be recovered for uses such as biomass drying, steam production or direct heating
Projected commercial operation is expected to begin in June 2011, about six months after the first waste-wood plant. In total, BG&E has four biomass power plants planned for construction in the next four years:
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The contract will be filed for consideration with the Florida Public Service Commission (PSC). The company seeks PSC approval of the contract and certification of the proposed plant as a qualifying facility under Florida laws and regulations that encourage renewable energy.

In the past two years, Progress Energy has signed contracts to add nearly 300 megawatts of renewable energy to its system - which is enough to power 170,000 homes. In July, the company issued a request for renewables in an effort to continue to expand its alternative-energy portfolio.

In May 2006, Progress Energy signed a contract to purchase the energy output (130 MW) from the nation's largest biomass plant to be built in Central Florida. The project, which will utilize an environmentally friendly, dedicated energy crop known as 'E-grass' (Miscanthus x giganteus) as its fuel source, will reduce carbon emissions by more than 20 million tons over the 25-year life of the contract when compared to coal (earlier post) .

PEF purchases more than 800 megawatts from a number of qualifying facilities. They use various fuel sources, including biomass, waste heat from agricultural processes and municipal solid waste.

Progress Energy Florida is a subsidiary of Progress Energy, and provides electricity and related services to nearly 1.7 million customers in Florida.

Progress Energy Florida: Progress Energy Florida signs contract for second waste-wood plant - December 18, 2007.

Biopact: Progress Energy Florida to buy electricity from largest biomass gasification plant - July 27, 2007

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USAF C-17 makes first ever transcontinental flight on synthetic fuel blend

In the search for renewable and alternative aviation fuels, the US Air Force (USAF) completed the first ever transcontinental flight of an aircraft using a blend of regular aviation and synthetic fuel. These synfuels can be produced from virtually any type of carbonaceous feedstock, including any type of renewable biomass.

A C-17 Globemaster III using the synthetic fuel blend lifted off shortly before dawn at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., and arrived in the early afternoon at McGuire AFB, N.J., where it was greeted by Secretary of the Air Force Michael W. Wynne, New Jersey Rep. Jim Saxton, and a number of officials from both the airline and energy industries.
The Air Force is taking a leadership role in testing and certifying the use of synthetic fuel in aircraft. We're working very closely with our Army and Navy colleagues to ensure that this fuel is capable of operating in all of our aircraft. This is especially important because JP-8 military jet fuel is commonly used in the battlefield by the Army and Marines tactical vehicles and generators, as well as our respective aircraft. - Michael Wynne Secretary of the Air Force
The flight follows successful tests of the fuel blend in C-17 engines in October, and is the next step in the Air Force's effort to have its entire C-17 fleet certified to use the mixture. Air Force officials certified B-52 Stratotankers to use the mixture in August, and hope to certify the fuel blend for use in all its aircraft within the next five years.

Synthetic (bio)fuels are obtained from the gasification of carbonaceous feedstocks, after which the syngas is then liquefied via Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis. The process can use both biomass (biomass-to-liquids; BtL), gas (GtL) or coal (CtL). The resulting fuels are ultra-clean, and when biomass is the feedstock both CO2, NOx and SOx emissions are reduced greatly.

The USAF has explicitly stated renewable biomass will be a potential feedstock for these synthetic fuels. By demonstrating their capacity to power large jet airplanes, these fuels are promising as a second generation source of energy for transport:
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The synthetic fuels have the potential to reduce the United States' dependency on foreign energy sources.
The Air Force alternative fuel program is as important to the nation as it is to the Air Force because it keeps focus on alternative fuels by the largest user of fuel in the U.S. government. We must continue to support the research ... to find cleaner, more environmentally friendly fuels that include both renewable and unconventional fuel. - Jim Saxton, New Jersey Congressman
The fuel blend used by the Air Force mixes JP-8 with the Fischer-Tropsch fuel. The FT process is a method that can convert virtually any carbon-based material into synthetic fuel and was invented by German chemists Franz Fischer and Hans Tropsch developed the method in the 1920s.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (DOE/NETL) and the U.S. Air Force released a study that examines the feasibility of producing 100,000 barrels per day of synthetic jet fuel from coal combined with biomass. The study made a life-cycle analysis and showed the coal+biomass-to-liquids (CBTL) facilities could cut emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary greenhouse gas, by 20 percent compared to conventional petroleum processes. The resulting fuels would be competitive at current oil prices.

Picture: A C-17 Globemaster III flies over New York City after completing the first transcontinental flight on synthetic fuel Dec. 17. The C-17 took off before dawn from McChord Air Force Base, Wash., and landed in the early afternoon at McGuire AFB, N.J. Credit: USAF.

Air Force Link: C-17 uses synthetic fuel blend on transcontinental flight - December 18, 2007.

Biopact: NETL and USAF release feasibility study for conceptual Coal+Biomass-to-Liquids facility - August 30, 2007

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South American countries develop joint strategy to promote sustainable biofuels

Members of the Southern Agricultural Council (Consejo Agropecuario del Sur, CAS) have agreed to carry out research and develop policies to increase sustainable biofuel production across South America. The decision was made during the 13th CAS Regular Meeting, in Asunción, Paraguay.

CAS is a forum for the ministers of agriculture of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. The Declaration of the Ministers [*.pdf] states that:
We stress the importance of bioenergy for the CAS member states and take account of the social, techno-political and environmental implications of the sector. From now on we consider bioenergy to be a priority for the CAS, as it can contribute to local and territorial development.
Importantly, the countries agreed to develop a policy framework that will ensure bioenergy becomes a productive sector that yields social benefits and employment, without damaging the environment and without displacing food production. It will also work to protect and recognize land rights to farmers, and will promote the participation of family run farms in the sector.

The framework will identify the zones suitable for agriculture, forestry and pasture development in the member states and analyse which regions should preferrably be devoted to bioenergy production and food production respectively.

CAS will foster scientific, technical, financial and policy cooperation amongst its member states because the sector spans several common themes found in all countries.

They further agreed to develop a dialogue on issues such as scientific and technological exchange, comparative review of legislation, biofuel production and frameworks to monitor environmental impacts. This dialogue will be shared throughout the hemisphere and with other regions in the world. To do this, the declaration mentions the establishment of an ad-hoc Coordination Group for Biofuels which will strive towards managing this cooperation throughout MERCOSUR.

The technical bureaus of the REDPA (Red de Coordinación de Políticas Agropecuarias) receive a mandate to track the technological, market regulation, management and legal developments on biofuels internationally and report to CAS member states.

Besides the production of liquid biofuels such as bioethanol and biodiesel, the development of other forms of bioenergy, based on forestry, will be identified and their technical and economic aspects analysed:
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CAS member states will develop a common strategy to attract (foreign) investments in the biofuels sector throughout the region and will cooperate on designing the most optimal investment climate to that end.

All of the countries involved — except Chile — already have national legislation on biofuels. Every country will consider their national strategies, to set their own goals and deadlines to move agro-energy development forward.

For example, Chile intends to consolidate its use and production of biofuel —mainly bioethanol — by 2012. In Argentina the Biofuels Promotion Law, passed last year, says that from 2010 fuels such as gasoil and diesel will have to be blended with five per cent biofuel.

Earlier this month sugar cane-derived ethanol was included in a list of biofuels that can be added to conventional fuel in Argentina (previous post).

Consejo Agropecuario del Sur: Declaración de Ministros y representantes de Agricultura [*.pdf] - December 3 - 4, 2007.

Consejo Agropecuario del Sur: CAS expresa posición regional sobre agroenergía y agricultura familiar - December 4, 2007.

Biopact: Argentina's government amends biofuels law to include incentives for sugarcane ethanol - October 12, 2007

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Phase-out of biofuel tax relief disappoints German biofuel industry - fears competition from the South

According to Germany's VERBIO (Vereinigte BioEnergie AG), one of the largest biofuel producers in Europe, the German government's recent decision to phase out tax relief on biodiesel and bioethanol will damage the industry. It fears German producers will not be able to withstand competition from biofuels made in the South, notably Brazil.

Earlier, the German Social Democratic Party proposed a total biodiesel quotum of 7 % and a general exemption of public transportation and agriculture from the petroleum tax. To VERBIO, this would have been a sustainable concept for a continuance of the German biodiesel industry which the entire sector could have accepted.
The general conditions put forth in the proposal could have strengthened the demand for biofuel through the increased and more heavily increasing mixing quotas and as a result ensured the investments made by the industry through higher utilization of the available plants. Even a further tax increase for pure biodiesel (B100) could have been compensated for with a stronger establishment of the market. - Claus Sauter, Chief Executive Officer of VERBIO
But the government did not take up the proposal, and pursues its course, which means a further reduction of the tax relief for biofuel and leaving the regulations on admixing, introduced at the end of 2006, unchanged. VERBIO thinks the German government thus blocks the chance for the new biofuel industry in Germany to establish its market. It is to be expected that at the beginning of 2008 more than 50 % of the biodiesel plants will have to be shut down for good since no market will exist. Added to this is pressure from biodiesel 'dumping' from the US, via an export subsidy, which has hit German biodiesel producers badly (more here).

The bioethanol market in Germany will continue to suffer due to insufficient demand and cheap imports from Brazil, VERBIO says.

However, in November, the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection adopted a new 'Biofuel Roadmap' which calls for ambitious targets for next generations of biofuels, such as biomass-to-liquids and cellulosic ethanol. The plan aims for a 10% share of biofuels in the fuel mix by 2010 and a 20% share in 2020 (previous post):
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VERBIO is not certain whether this plan will have positive effects on domestic biofuel production and its suppliers.

VERBIO calls on the government instead to focus more on measures to halt to the undesirable developments arising from the use of biofuels, for instance, the deforestation of the rain forests in South America and the tropical forests in Asia.

Despite what it calls an 'unsatisfactory decision' of the German government, the management board for VERBIO continues to assume that the long-term growth trend in the biofuel market will remain intact in Europe. The management board says it will continue to implement measures to strengthen competitiveness in order to profit from an improvement of the biofuel industry's economic situation in 2008.

DJ DGAP: VERBIO: Biofuels contribute to climate protection and provide new jobs - Outlook for 2008 confirmed - December 18, 2007.

Biopact: Germany massively increases biofuels targets to kickstart next generation fuels: 10% in 2010, 20% in 2020 - November 22, 2007

Biopact: German biodiesel industry faces collapse over taxes, US subsidies, competition from the South - June 03, 2007

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Biofuels from food: no more, please

A few years ago, a group of socially engaged students decided to explore the potential of biofuels to contribute to sustainable development in the countries of the South, and to investigate whether they could lead to new agricultural opportunities for farmers there. Biopact had a vision: in a world of ever increasing oil prices and the need to address climate change, developing countries with lots of land resources and in search of new agricultural markets would enjoy their comparative advantages and produce fuels from energy crops for their own and for international markets. Given their abundant natural resources and the lack of these in energy hungry economies, a relationship connecting efficient producers in the South to wealthy consumers in the North would have been an interesting option. Such a 'win-win' could have brought rural development in places where it is much needed, and perhaps a form of global social and environmental justice.

Reason and reform
When we launched this small idea of a rational 'pact' we were aware of the fact that it calls for thorough reform of many current practises, so that poorer farmers in the developing world can compete: (1) a reduction of farm and biofuel subsidies in the wealthy countries (EU, US); (2) trade reform and the abandonment of biofuel import tariffs in these same countries (Doha, but as the G20 sees it; recognizing biofuels as 'environmental goods' under the WTO regime); a commitment by industrialised nations to assist developing countries in tapping their abundant resources in an environmentally and socially acceptable way.

The concept furthermore called for courageous investments from Europe and other industrialised nations in the South, which could have taken the form of targeted development assistance: investments in science and agricultural research capacities; biofuel technology transfers; investments in transport infrastructures, in improved marketing and in market access; supporting efforts to promote good governance and putting pressure on local governments to make work of land reform and rural development; a strengthening of the cooperative movement and of other communal modes of production.

Even though many organisations have signalled that they basically agree with the organisation of such a pact and with the reforms that are needed to make it work, very few concrete steps towards it have actually been taken.

The wrong path
Meanwhile, biofuels have boomed in places where their production makes least sense and where they contribute least to development: namely in the countries that can easily cope with food price increases and fuel price highs, that is, the wealthy West. American and European farmers have become rich, but risk ruining both the food and energy security of hundreds of millions of the world's poor. The rush into outright destructive palm oil production for biodiesel has been completely irresponsible as well - rainforests are being razed resulting in unacceptably high amounts of carbon emissions and the destruction of countless species that will never appear on this planet again once they're gone.

But the continuous food price increases resulting from the wholesale conversion of millions of tonnes of the most basic foodstuffs on which we all depend - wheat, maize, vegetable oils, sugar - into fuels for the wealthy urban classes of this world, are the single most important factor that makes the current mode of production of biofuels totally unethical. The trend of multinationals 'capturing' cheap land, cheap labor, and cheap governments in developing countries is nothing less of a new form of commodity driven colonialism.

In short, the gap between, on the one hand, our ideal of a rational North-South pact based on biofuels that contribute to sustainable development and result in social benefits for those who need it most, and, on the other hand, the actual situation, which represents the complete opposite, has become too great.

Scaling down
Therefor Biopact can no longer support nor report in a neutral way on biofuel ventures that still produce fuel from food. Not for as long as newer generations of biofuel technologies don't become available on a larger scale and completely push food based production out of the market; and not for as long as the most basic steps needed for a 'biopact' haven't been realised (unambiguous trade reform, farm policy reform in the wealthy countries, and so on), so that rural populations in less developed countries for once get a chance to guard themselves against the vagaries of global commodity markets and instead can benefit from these markets.

For the time being, we will only support the small scale, local use of biofuels for communities that decide for themselves - in full sovereignty and independence - that it makes sense to do so, for them and for whichever reason (improved farm incomes, greater mobility or energy security at the household, local or regional level). We think of a community of farmers in Ghana (picture) who decided to produce biodiesel from their palm oil for themselves, because local diesel fuel is more expensive but extensively used in the most basic of operations: irrigating fields, pumping drinking water, powering electricity generators, transporting farm goods to market. We think of Practical Action's project in Peru, which helps poor riverine communities out of their isolation with biodiesel they make themselves and which they use in their boats, to transport people and goods to nearby markets. We think of the many initiatives involving household biofuels, such as gelfuels for cooking or biogas for heating, cooking and lighting. Think of ICRISAT's 'pro-poor' biofuels initiative based on opening new markets for farmers in drylands. Such initiatives - and there are many of those but they don't make the headlines easily - can have genuine social, economic and environmental benefits for vulnerable communities.

What we think worth supporting too, are national efforts developed by governments in dialogue with civil society, to develop biofuel programs that are explicitly aimed at achieving social justice and rural development. We think of Brazil's 'Social Fuel' scheme, which offers poor farmers an opportunity to produce oil crops on land where not much else grows, and under strictly regulated conditions, as part of cooperatives, taking into account the recognition of land titles, with guaranteed prices for the feedstock and guided by expert assistance allowing them to acquire farming skills they can apply in other contexts - a long list of preconditions makes this a genuinely social program. We think of Nepal's national biogas project, which succeeds in reducing the unsustainable consumption of primitive biomass, and which offers an inexpensive, clean and practical alternative form of household energy that directly benefits thousands of people and the immediate environment in which they live.

However, the large-scale production of food based biofuels grown in unsustainable monocultures for 'export' and for 'the global market' - that anonymous, abstract, at times dangerously perverse system - does not make sense.

Biofuels may well have a 'theoretical' and 'technical' potential that puts them on a par with fossil oil over the long term - and much to the dismay of some, we have continuously referred to this 'potential' - but the sheer number of conditions that must be met to actually utilize these resources in a socially acceptable and genuinely environmentally sane way, is simply too large and can't be implemented rapidly enough.

For all these reasons, Biopact joins those who call for a real moratorium on (1) biofuels made from food crops, (2) biofuels that are obtained from destructive (plantation) practises such as palm oil in South East Asia or soybean in Brazil, (3) biofuels of which it cannot be demonstrated that they do not contribute in an indirect way to such destructive pressures on the environment and on biodiversity (these would include some sugarcane plantations in Brazil), (4) biofuels based on practises that result in the displacement of people from their lands or in the weakening of their livelihoods and local environment, (5) or that contribute to any kind of social or economic developments leading in any indirect way to such negative social and environmental consequences on communties that already have it difficult enough to defend their interests.

Social and environmental biofuels criteria developed by Europe are a minimum minimorum, but even this will not suffice to avoid these risks or to curb the current trends. Such criteria will be used as tools for an easy greenwash by companies who know very well that (non)adherence to the rules will never be monitored let alone sanctioned thoroughly enough. If we take palm oil made by companies adhering to the criteria developed by the 'Sustainable Roundtable on Palm Oil' as an example for such rules, we can only fear the worst.

Back burner
In conclusion, from now on Biopact will only report on small scale bioenergy and biofuel initiatives, will scrutinize and criticize the many developments that drive food and energy insecurity in developing countries (and even in highly developed countries, because even there many less well-off people are finding it difficult to cope with rising food prices), will no longer legitimise 'temporary negative effects' of biofuels by thinking that somehow, miraculously, they will disappear in a larger, future context. Biopact will continue to track technological and scientific developments in the sector, debates about subsidies and trade reform, investments in physical, economic and social infrastructures related to biofuels in developing countries and other conditions that need to be met in order for us to begin to take the chances for such a future pact seriously.

We don't think we have been wrong in promoting the idea we stand for. Naive, yes, perhaps. But at least we think we can say we have presented a voice in-between two common and dangerous positions: one that represents a business-as-usual case, held by those who consider biofuels to be just another commodity ready to make the powerful even more powerful; and another one that focuses blindly on negatives only while ignoring that bioenergy and biofuels could offer genuine chances for 'sustainble development'. We think our exercise has been 'fertile' and has 'fermented' quite a fruitful debate. We have presented our view to some key decision makers - amongst them the EU - and have published it, so nobody can say that the proposition was never expressed. But now it is time to scale down, in order to power up a more realistic future.

Biopact Team

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Monday, December 17, 2007

FAO calls for steps to boost farm output in poor countries to counter soaring food prices; points to Malawi's success

The UN's FAO is urging governments and the international community to implement immediate measures in support of poor countries hit hard by dramatic food price increases. It calls for steps to improve poor farmers' access to inputs like seeds, fertilizer and other inputs to increase local crop production. The FAO refers to the the success in Malawi's farm sector, which succeeded in turning itself around from being a food importer to producing a huge excess of food as a result of simple interventions, proving that the current situation can be altered.

Biopact thinks the crisis offers an exceptional opportunity to point to the roots of the many problems experienced by developing countries:
  • tariffs and subsidies for biofuels in the US and the EU, which take food off the market for the production of inefficient biofuels like corn ethanol or rapeseed biodiesel;
  • the contrary example of Brazil's ethanol sector, showing that highly efficient biofuels can be produced without increasing food prices (the international price of sugar has declined despite record sugarcane ethanol output);
  • the catastrophic effect of political crises in developing countries, leading to the destruction of the agricultural sector and food insecurity; over the long term, creating political stability is the absolute priority in the fight against hunger
  • bad governance and corruption by developing country governments and local economic elites, who neglect their own farm sectors and favor imports from a small number of multinationals (some have called bad governance the single biggest immediate cause of hunger - earlier post)
  • the emblematic success of Malawi's super harvest, showing that simple interventions in the farm sector can turn a hungry country into a major food exporter in a single year's time; Malawi kicked out both the World Bank's experts (who were against state support for the farm sector) and NGOs who advocated against the use of fertilizers; instead, Malawi launched a national fertilizer subsidy campaign, with a massive output of food as a consequence; the example shows agriculture in Africa can become self-sufficient and produce a vast excess of food, if only very simple interventions are implemented
But these factors point to what the situation should be, not to what it actually is today. Currently 37 countries worldwide are facing food crises due to conflict and disasters, the FAO says. In addition, food security is being adversely affected by unprecedented price hikes for basic food, driven by historically low food stocks, droughts and floods linked to climate change, high oil prices and growing demand for biofuels. High international cereal prices have already sparked food riots in several countries.

In its November issue of Food Outlook, FAO estimated that the total cost of imported foodstuffs for Low Income Food Deficit Countries (LIFDCs) in 2007 would be some 25 percent higher than the previous year, surpassing US$ 107 million.
Urgent and new steps are needed to prevent the negative impacts of rising food prices from further escalating and to quickly boost crop production in the most affected countries. Without support for poor farmers and their families in the hardest-hit countries, they will not be able to cope. Assisting poor vulnerable households in rural areas in the short term and enabling them to produce more food would be an efficient tool to protect them against hunger and undernourishment. - FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf
Note that Diouf does not blame biofuels as such, on the contrary. Recently he said:
Much of the current debate on bioenergy [...] obscures the sector's huge potential to reduce hunger and poverty.

If we get it right, bioenergy provides us with a historic chance to fast-forward growth in many of the world's poorest countries, to bring about an agricultural renaissance and to supply modern energy to a third of the world's population. - FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf
The real problem is with the current geographical distribution of bioenergy production: European and American farmers produce biofuels from food in a highly inefficient way, from crops that do not yield much energy. They can only do so because they are protected by import tariffs and by massive subsidies. For this reason, Diouf and many others have called for the abandonment of these trade and market distorting factors. Biofuels should be produced by those who can make them in an efficient manner from high yielding energy crops, without impacting food prices. That is: countries in the South, like Brazil (sugar prices have declined, despite record sugarcane ethanol production). In short, we need a major rethink of the biofuels sector - the case for a 'Biopact' has never been stronger.

Short-term support
The FAO is calling for urgent action to provide small farmers in LIFDCs that depend heavily on food imports, with improved access to inputs like seeds, fertilizer and other inputs to increase, in particular, local crop production.

Within countries, improved access to these inputs could be provided by issuing poor farmers with vouchers to buy seeds, fertilizer and other inputs for major staple crops, which should increase local food production. Such steps could help to alleviate the persistent threat of severe undernourishment of millions of people, FAO said.

FAO will support a catalytic model programme in close cooperation with the private sector. At the same time, FAO aims to assist countries in mobilising resources required to strengthen their productive capability, market access and other measures required for long-term household food security.

Malawi’s success

Some countries like Malawi have proven that it is possible to boost local food production through the provision of vouchers for farm inputs, the FAO says. The Malawi programme has over the last two years produced spectacular results whereby maize production in 2006/07 was one million metric tonnes higher than national maize requirements, Diouf says:
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The value of the extra production was double that of the investment provided. Many small-scale farmers have benefited and have increased production for their own consumption. The Malawi success could be replicated by other countries facing a very difficult food production environment.

Short-term intervention will by no means replace medium and long-term investments for enhancing the production capacity in the target countries, FAO said.

"On the contrary, we want the pressure on governments to finance expensive food imports to be eased so they can focus on long-term solutions. Short-term investments have to be accompanied immediately with measures to ensure water control, increase rural infrastructure and improve soil fertility and guarantee long-term sustainability of food production," Diouf said.

FAO will fund a model programme of interventions from resources put at its disposal by member countries and will encourage national governments, international institutions and other donors to replicate and expand successful interventions in line with ongoing international initiatives.

FAO: FAO calls for urgent steps to protect the poor from soaring food prices - December 17, 2007.

Biopact: FAO chief calls for a 'Biopact' between the North and the South - August 15, 2007

Biopact: FAO forecasts continued high cereal prices: bad weather, low stocks, soaring demand, biofuels, high oil prices cited as causes - November 07, 2007

Biopact: Malawi's super harvest proves biofuel critics wrong - or, how to beat hunger and produce more oil than OPEC - December 04, 2007

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USDA: Biofuels lead to all-time record farm income in the United States

The United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS) has released its annual Agricultural Income and Finance Outlook, showing that the biofuels revolution that has swept the US has led to net farm incomes reaching an all-time high. ERS is forecasting net farm income to reach $87.5 billion, up $28.5 billion from 2006 and exceeding the 2004 record.
This large boost is primarily the result of the increased demand for biofuels and agricultural exports, which has increased farm prices for corn, soybeans, milk, and other farm commodities. - USDA, ERS
In general, 2007 is proving to be a very good year for most U.S. producers of agricultural commodities, both crops and livestock. The boost in 2007 U.S. farm income is primarily the result of high commodity prices. These are caused by the confluence of a set of factors:
  • record economic growth and higher incomes in developing countries with large population leading to global wheat consumption exceeding production in recent years
  • inadequate rainfall in competitor countries that produce similar commodities combined
  • rising use of some major crops in biofuel production has increased the demand for these commodities and contributes to upward pressure on feed grain prices; corn is the primarily beneficiary of the increased production of biofuels; soybeans are used in the production of biodiesel.
  • the depreciation of the US dollar by 25 percent or more against major foreign currencies since 2002, further increasing demand for U.S. exports and boosting farm-level prices
As a result, the combination of reduced supplies and is translating into rising demand for farm commodities, regardless of where they are produced.

The value of crop production is expected to increase by $30.5 billion in 2007, the largest annual increase since 1984. The value of livestock production is expected to increase almost $20 billion.

Direct government payments in 2007 are expected to decline by $3.7 billion from 2006. Farm production expenses are forecast to rise to a record-level $254.2 billion in 2007.

Fuel price increases in 2007 are expected to be lower than the previous 4 years of consecutive double-digit annual percentage increases.

Average net cash income for U.S. farm businesses is projected to be $66,100 in 2007. This represents a 21-percent increase from 2006 and would be 23 percent higher than its most recent 5-year average:
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Farm sector equity is expected to continue rising in 2007 as the anticipated increase in farm asset value exceeds the rise in the value of farm debt. U.S. farm sector net worth is expected to exceed $2.0 trillion in 2007, up from $1.8 trillion in 2006.

The average household income (from farm and off-farm sources) of principal U.S. farm operators is projected to be up 7.7 percent in 2007, to $83,622. About 13 percent of the average farm operator household income is expected to come from farm sources in 2007. Income from farm sources increased by more than 30 percent in 2006-07, in contrast to a more moderate 5-percent increase in off-farm income.

For every year since 1996, average income of farm households has exceeded average U.S. household income. In fact, just the off-farm income component of average farm operator household income has exceeded the average U.S. household income from all sources since 1998. For the 15 major agricultural States where data are available, the average income of farm operator households in 2006 exceeded the average income of all households in those States.

In addition, farm households have significantly more net worth than the average U.S. household. Trends in averages mask a great deal of diversity in the financial position of U.S. farm operator households. The size of the farm operation, the commodities being produced, and the importance of off-farm sources of income all influence the level of farm household income and net worth, and how much it is growing or declining.

USDA Economic Research Service: Agricultural Income and Finance Outlook [*.pdf] - December 2007.

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Researchers find bio-based bulk chemicals could save up to 1 billion tonnes of CO2

A new analysis by Dutch researchers from Utrecht University has concluded that use of existing biotechnology in the production of so-called bulk chemicals could reduce consumption of non-renewable energy (nuclear, oil, gas, coal) and carbon emissions by a full 100 percent and more when biomass is used as a raw material. Most importantly, in the future green chemicals made in biorefineries could contribute in a very significant way to combating climate change, by saving up to 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions worldwide. To give an idea, this is equivalent to taking all European cars and trucks off the road. What is more, the scientists found that in some cases it would be more efficient to use land to grow feedstocks for green chemicals instead of liquid biofuels. The study appeared as an open access article in Environmental Science & Technology.

Bulk chemicals like ethylene, butanol or acrylic acid are the basic raw materials used in the production of everything from plastics and fertilizers to electronic components and medicines. Currently derived from crude oil and natural gas, bulk chemical production creates billions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. Still, the application of industrial biotechnology for the production of bulk chemicals has received much less attention than alternative fuel or biomass-derived energy production.

B. G. Hermann and colleagues analyzed current and future technology routes leading to 15 bulk chemicals using industrial biotechnology, calculating their carbon emissions and fossil energy use. The life cycle inventory shows that with biotechnology advances in the future, worldwide CO2 savings in the range of 500-1000 million tons per year are possible. Even today, bio-based bulk chemicals "offer clear savings in non-renewable energy use and green house gas emissions with current technology compared to conventional petrochemical production", they write.

Sweetness from cradle-to-grave
The scientists present a prospective environmental assessment dealing with future processing routes, using proxies for the overall environmental impact of the bio-based products: non-renewable energy use (NREU), greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and land use.

NREU represents a straightforward and practical approach because many environmental impacts are related to energy use. NREU encompasses fossil and nuclear energy and was expressed as higher heating value (HHV), also called the gross calorific value. In line with LCA methodology, the NREU values reported here represent the cumulative energy demand for the system cradle-to-grave.

Greenhouse gas emissions are of growing importance because of the increasing attention paid to the greenhouse effect in the policy arena, by companies, and by the public. GHG emissions were calculated in CO2 equivalents and consist of GHG emissions from the system in the form of CO2 or CH4, as well as nitrous oxide (N2O) from fertilizer use in biomass production. CO2 emissions from renewable carbon extracted from the atmosphere during plant growth were excluded.

Land use refers to agricultural land use only and will be of increasing importance in the future because of the growth of land requirements for bio-based energy, liquid biofuels, bio-based chemicals, and food and feed production. We neglected the land requirements for industrial plants, for transportation infrastructure, and for waste management because they are small compared with agricultural land use and are comparable for bio-based and petrochemical products.

Three different carbohydrate raw material sources for the products were analysed, both as they are produced currently, and how they are expected to be produced in the future: sucrose from sugar cane, glucose from corn starch, and fermentable sugars from lignocellulosic biomass (wood, grasses, etc...). They found that for most products, the energy and emissions savings are highest when the feedstock is sugar from cane (both today and in the future), even higher than sugar from lignocellulosic biomass. (In this sense, there is once again a case to be made for a 'Biopact' on green chemicals - see our previous overview of the state of research into biopolymers and bioplastics in the Global South, and previous articles on sugarcane bioproducts here, here, and here).

GHG savings
The researchers found products with the highest relative savings are ethylene, ethanol and butanol, whereas acetic acid and PTT have lowest savings (graph 1, click to enlarge). Differences between best cases and arithmetic means were 7-20% in GHG savings:
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Almost all products promise GHG savings for current technology. For PHA and adipic acid, this depends on the source of fermentable sugar. Acetic acid offers no savings using current technology because of low broth concentration and low productivity in fermentation, as well as high utility use in downstream processing because of the difficulty of separating acetic acid from water (azeotropic mixture).

GHG savings for PTT are low because this polymer is made from PDO and purified terephthalic acid, with the latter being produced from petrochemical feedstocks.

GHG savings for sugar cane as the source of fermentable sugar are clearly higher than for cornstarch because of the coproduction of significant amounts of electricity which can be exported.

To maximize greenhouse gas savings for green chemicals sugar cane is favored over lignocellulosics, which in turn is preferable to corn starch as source of fermentable sugar. In temperate climates such as Europe and North America, where sugar cane is not available from domestic production, lignocellulosics should be the preferred future feedstock.

Interestingly, in some of the lignocellulosics and sugar cane cases, the savings are larger than 100% because the energy credits from co-combustion of waste biomass or from side-streams of agricultural production were larger than the GHG emissions for the industrial biotechnology process chain. In a sense, these green products would not merely be 'carbon neutral', but yield 'negative emissions'.

On average, GHG savings for future industrial biotechnology pathways are 25-35% higher than for current technologies. This shows that technological progress can further enhance the environmental advantage of green chemicals over their petrochemical equivalents.

Low GHG emissions of a process may be caused by (1) high product yield from fermentation or (2) low product yield from fermentation combined with large energy credits from subsequent combustion of coproduced biomass.

Land use
In the second case, the inefficient fermentation processes require considerably more land for biomass production than efficient fermentation does. If land availability becomes limited, GHG savings should be maximized for a given amount of land, or alternatively, land use should be minimized for a certain amount of GHG to be saved. Graph 2 (click to enlarge) therefore simultaneously analyzes GHG savings in all green chemical production-routes relative to the petrochemical route and land use per ton of chemical.

It shows that there is a relationship between the type of chemical and the amount of land use for its production from sugar cane. For the production of one ton carboxylic acids 0.1-0.2 ha land are required, whereas the alcohols are in the range of 0.25-0.35 ha/t. For PTT, land use and GHG savings are low because only a part of this polymer is produced from bio-based feedstocks. Putting GHG savings and low land-use first, succinic acid, caprolactam, PLA, and butanol are the most attractive.

Producing fuel ethanol from sugar cane results in savings of 10-16 t CO2,eq/ha. But several green chemicals show CO2 savings above 16 t CO2,eq/ha and are therefore preferable from the point of view of CO2 mitigation.

Future technologies
An analysis of future technologies shows that land-use efficiency in terms of CO2 savings per hectare is much better for corn stover than for sugar cane (graph 3, click to enlarge). Conversion of corn stover to chemicals using future technology almost always results in CO2 savings above 25 t/ha.

Biomass for electricity use saves approximately 12 t CO2,eq/ha for whole crop wheat and using lignocellulosics for fuel ethanol production saves 2-7 t CO2,eq/ha (however, note that the researchers did not take into account the coupling of bio-electricity production coupled to carbon capture and storage, which would save much more CO2 by burying it under ground).

Putting CO2 savings first, this implies that most chemicals are preferred over bioenergy if sugar cane is used as feedstock, and almost all chemicals are preferred if using corn stover.

Total potential
A quantification of the total GHG savings potentials for green chemicals, assuming full substitution of the petrochemical equivalents and based on world production capacities in the years 1999/2000 are shown in table 1 (click to enlarge). The total saving potential for the future according to (510 million tons CO2,eq for corn starch) disregards growth of the chemical industry.

The future saving potential is even higher if lignocellulosics (820 million tons CO2,eq) or sugar cane (1030 million tons CO2,eq) are used as feedstocks. For comparison, current technology production of the petrochemical equivalents lead to emissions of 880 million tons CO2,eq for the same installed capacity and system boundaries. This shows that the potential GHG savings for current technology and corn starch as feedstock already reach 45%.

In summary, even at present, bio-based bulk chemicals from industrial biotechnology offer clear savings in non-renewable energy use and GHG emissions with current technology compared to conventional petrochemical production. Substantial further savings are possible for the future by improved fermentation and downstream processing. Of all feedstocks, sugar cane is to be favored over lignocellulosics, which in turn is preferable to corn starch as source of fermentable sugar to maximize savings. The products with the highest savings are acrylic acid, butanol (from ABE process), ethanol, ethylene, PDO, and PHA.

The researchers conclude that:
From a policy perspective, environmental advantages make the production of bio-based bulk chemicals using industrial biotechnology desirable on a large-scale, because savings of more than 100% in non-renewable energy use and greenhouse gas emissions are already possible at the current level of biotechnology. [...] As a consequence, using industrial biotechnology to produce bio-based chemicals can contribute significantly to the reduction of climate change and the depletion of fossil energy. It is therefore a key strategy for sustainable development of the chemical industry. - B. G. Hermann, K. Blok, and M. K. Patel
This builds a strong case for the production of bio-based bulk chemicals using industrial biotechnology considering the economic and environmental advantages of 1,3-propanediol, polytrimethylene terephthalate, succinic acid, and ethanol for current technologies and of all products except acetic acid for future technology.


B. G. Hermann,* K. Blok, and M. K. Patel, "Producing Bio-Based Bulk Chemicals Using Industrial Biotechnology Saves Energy and Combats Climate Change", Environ. Sci. Technol., 41 (22), 7915 -7921, 2007. 10.1021/es062559q S0013-936X(06)02559-4

Eurekalert: Existing biotechnology could save energy and cut CO2 by 100 percent - December 17, 2007.

Biopact: Notes on biopolymers in the Global South - March 11, 2007

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Total and Indonesia sign a MOU on CO2 capture and storage: towards carbon negative bioenergy?

Total announces the signature of a Memorandum of Understanding between Total E&P Indonesia and the Indonesian Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources on access to data on carbon capture and storage (CCS), on the sidelines of the UN Climate Change Conference. Under the agreement, Indonesia’s Agency of Research and Development for Energy and Mineral Resources will be allowed to access to important data from Total’s pilot project which is being implemented near Lacq in the South West of France (earlier post).

The information is important because CCS techniques can be coupled to biofuels and bioenergy production, to yield 'negative emissions' energy. However, Biopact recently warned that if forest-rich developing countries, like Indonesia, apply CCS to bioenergy, the scheme could limit the feasibility of initiatives aimed at 'reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries' (REDD), because such 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) schemes would sequester far more CO2 than a standing forest.

In this particular case, Indonesia could decide to produce large amounts of biohydrogen, biogas, synthetic natural gas from biomass, or bio-electricity from locally grown energy crops, sequester part or all of the CO2 in geological formations such as depleted oil and gas fields, sell the energy and bank in on the carbon credits. In some production pathways, BECS would be significantly less costly than CCS applied to fossil fuels, because gas capture would be far easier (notably in the case of microbial biohydrogen and biomethane obtained from anaerobic fermentation). To give an idea of the amount of 'negative emissions' that can be generated by BECS systems: when biomass (eucalyptus, acacia) is burned in an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) plant, and the CO2 captured and stored, it can generate electricity with minus 1000 grams of CO2/kWh. All other renewables have a positive balance: +30 to +100 gCO2/kWh for wind, biomass without CCS, and solar, and up to +850 gCO2/kWh for a coal-fired power plant (earlier post and references there).

Renewables, bioenergy without CCS and nuclear power are called 'carbon neutral' because they add negligible amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere. But only biomass based systems coupled to CCS can generate 'negative emissions' and allow us to take CO2 out of the atmosphere (schematic, click to enlarge). Scientists have calculated that if BECS systems were to replace coal on a large ('geoengineering') scale, atmospheric CO2 levels could be brought back to pre-industrial levels by mid-century. In short, bioenergy with CCS is the most radical tool in the fight against climate change.

The threat of BECS to REDD remains conceptual, because the technology is in an experimental stage and capital intensive. However, Indonesia has a large existing natural gas and oil infrastructure, and, in a scenario of high energy and carbon prices, it could decide in the future to utilize this infrastructure to experiment with such BECS systems based on biomass grown on forest land. Total is now giving Indonesia access to its knowledge on CCS technologies, so the threat comes one step closer.

Total's project in the French Pyrénées, one of the first in the world to include the whole chain from combustion to CO2 geological storage, is primarily intended to prove the technical feasibility of an integrated carbon capture and storage scheme. It should enable the company to contribute to the fight against global warming, and provide an efficient solution to help limiting the footprint of Total’s activities in Exploration and Production, Refining and Chemicals.

The project in Lacq, which leverages a technique considered among the most promising in the fight against climate change, calls for up to 150,000 metric tons of CO2 to be injected into a depleted natural gas field in Rousse (Pyrénées) over a period of two years as from end-2008. The first link in the chain is a steam production unit at the Lacq gas processing plant. Oxygen will be used for combustion rather than air to obtain a more concentrated CO2 stream that will be easier to capture:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Once purified, the CO2 will be compressed and conveyed via pipeline to the depleted Rousse field, 30 kilometres from Lacq, where it will be injected through an existing well into a rock formation 4,500 metres under ground (top schematic, click to enlarge).

Under the new MOU Indonesia will be able to get access to the experimental data emerging from the trials in France, and develop its own technical and economical understanding of such a CO2 storage scheme, especially concerning the geological aspects. In turn, this may assist the Indonesian Government to establish an appropriate regulatory framework for similar projects that may be proposed in Indonesia.

Present in Indonesia since 1968, Total is the country’s leading gas producer. Production has grown steadily since 1999, and the Group operates nearly 2.6 billion cubic feet per day of gas production from the Mahakam block. Output should be maintained at this level at least through the early years of the next decade particularly thanks to Sisi-Nubi’s production. The Mahakam block is also one of the country’s top-tier oil and condensate producer, with output of nearly 90,000 barrels per day.

Total’s operated production in Indonesia supplies the domestic market and approximately 80% of the feed gas for the Bontang liquefaction plant, one of the largest worldwide with a capacity of more than 22 Mt/y, for exports to Japan, Korea and Taiwan, providing to these countries a source of energy more environment friendly than oil or coal.

Total: Total and Indonesia Sign a Memorandum of Understanding on CO2 Capture and Storage - December 17, 2007.

Mongabay: Carbon-negative bioenergy to cut global warming could drive deforestation:
An interview on BECS with Biopact's Laurens Rademakers
- November 6, 2007.

Biopact: Total launches the first integrated CO2 capture and geological sequestration project in a depleted natural gas field - February 12, 2007

On carbon-negative bioenergy, see:
And the introductions at the Abrupt Climate Change Strategy Group.

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Biomethane presented as most efficient biofuel at NAAC Conference

At the recent National Association of Agricultural Contractors (NAAC) Contractor 2007 Conference, in the UK, biofuels took center stage. Farmers were impressed by a presentation by Tim Evans, whose company – Renewable Zukunft - presented results from a 'Mini Test': a comparative trial of biofuels used in the Mini, to see how far each type of biofuel generated from 1 hectare of energy crops takes the car. Biomethane stood out as the clear winner.

Evans believes that the inevitable decline in fossil fuel availability and the concerns over energy security (90% of UK gasoline is imported) will see many types of renewable energy start to look a lot more viable. However he warned that farmers need to consider which areas of production they want to get involved with carefully.

UK farmers have a great opportunity to make themselves independent suppliers of energy. But they should avoid to fall back into the trap of becoming mere commodity producers, supplying a biofuel feedstock at whatever price the buyer offers. To do this Evans argues that farms need to keep control over the whole energy chain, right through from growing the raw material to pumping electricity into the National Grid.

He put forward a simple model as a measure of renewable fuel efficiency – the Mini Test, to show how far the little car will travel on a hectare’s worth of fuel (graph, click to enlarge).

Biodiesel fares worst taking a Mini just over 20,000km (5030 miles/acre). Bioethanol manages just over 30,000km/ha (7540 miles/acre). Then there is a marked jump to synthetic biodiesel, a next-generation biofuel produced from gasified biomass and converted to liquid fuel via the Fisher-Tropsch Process: it carries the Mini over 70,000km (13,960 miles/acre).

But biomethane, which is upgraded biogas made from anaerobically fermented crops, slurry or organic waste, tops the chart at nearly 97,000km/ha (24,390 miles/acre) almost five times as much as biodiesel. Compared to second-generation biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol or biomass-to-liquids, biogas is a mature technology.

The comparison is interesting and confirms results from some earlier well-to-wheel studies (e.g. the Renewable Energy Centre recently released its assessment of responses to the King Review of Low Carbon Cars’ call for evidence and supports the Biomethane for Transport organisation which found that biogas is the cleanest and most efficient of all transport fuels). But merely pointing at the 'land use efficiency' of a fuel is not enough. The exercise needs to take into account many other questions, such as the lifecycle emissions, fuel production costs, scaling options, the need for adapted fuel distribution infrastructures and vehicle modifications:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

When these are taken into account, a different picture emerges, as was recently demonstrated in a comprehensive comprehensive EU WTW study on 70 different fuels and propulsion technologies, and in a smaller comparison of 7 biofuels made by Volvo (earlier post).

Notwithstanding these questions, Evans promotes the concept of on-farm biogas production for other reasons. He claims that by putting a 400 ha (1000acre) arable unit down to crops to feed a farm-scale biogas plant in 2006, farmers could have generated nearly £10,000 additional net profit by selling electricity.

And that figure could look a whole lot more rosy if government support is increased to raise renewable electricity values from £65/mW to over £100/mW, as is expected by 2009.

For an investment of at least £2million, a 1mW plant consuming 1000 acres worth of grass, maize and wholecrop silage, topped up with slurry and manure can generate a 20% return on capital, Evans claims.

Added to this is the nutritional benefit of the processed slurry as a fertiliser at the end of the production cycle.

Biogas is a rapidly growing sector in mainland Europe, with several countries (Sweden, Germany, Austria) utilizing the fuel for transport. When upgraded to natural gas quality, the fuel can be fed into the natural gas grid.

Some have found there to be a large potential for biogas in Europe, with the most optimistic estimates claiming the gas can replace all natural gas imports from Russia by 2020.

Farmers Weekly: Biogas - the future for UK farms? - December15, 2007.

Biopact: Volvo releases comprehensive analysis of seven biofuels for use in carbon-neutral trucks - August 29, 2007

Biopact: Germany considers opening natural gas network to biogas - major boost to sector - August 11, 2007

Biopact: Study: Biogas can replace all EU imports of Russian gas by 2020 - February 10, 2007

Biopact: Study: EU biogas production grew 13.6% in 2006, holds large potential - July 24, 2007

Biopact: A quick look at natural gas and biogas hybrids - September 16, 2007

Biopact: Report: carbon-negative biomethane cleanest and most efficient biofuel for cars - August 29, 2007

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Zimbabwe embarks on large national biofuel program to cut catastrophic oil dependence

Zimbabwe's Minster of Science and Technology Development, Dr Olivia Muchena, announced the government has embarked on an ambitious programme that will see all the country's 10 provinces having biofuel plants by 2010. The program is expected to benefit farmers 'greatly' and cut Zimbabwe's catastrophic dependence on imported oil. The announcement was made at an Extra Ordinary meeting of the ZANU-PF.

Apart from producing biofuel to power the country's economy at low cost, the plants would also produce a range of by-products to substitute some commodities such as lubricants, fertilizer and soap among others that are being imported from other countries.

Dependence on extremely costly imported oil is draining the Zimbabwe's treasury. The country spends around 10% of its small GDP on importing fuel, and it feels shocks throughout its economy with each single dollar rise in the oil price. Zimbabwe is 100% dependent on oil imports.

What is more, physical fuel shortages (partly the result of economic sanctions) are having a dramatic effect not only on businesses, the transport sector and the urban poor's mobility, but especially on the country's many farmers. They cannot bring inputs to their farms, fail to harvest products, let alone transport them to market. The consequences of fuel shortages are an even greater reduction of food production and a further inflation of food prices.

A first large biodiesel plant, inaugurated earlier this month, is aimed at turning this catastrophic situation around. When fully operational, the 100 million liter/year plant, fed by cotton seed, soya beans, jatropha and sunflower seed, will replace 13% of the country's fuel imports. At the opening ceremony, president Robert Mugabe said on a combative tone:
As a nation we have once again demonstrated that the ill-fated sanctions against the innocent people of Zimbabwe can never subdue our resilience and inner propulsion to succeed and remain on our feet as a nation. Soon, our economy will be paying us back the dividends of the seedlings of progression we are planting across different productive sectors. - Robert Mugabe
Dr Muchena says she has now instructed all provinces through their governors to encourage farmers to increase the number of jatropha plantations further, ahead of the programme.
By 2010, we want to make sure that all the provinces have plants that produce biofuel. Dr Gideon Gono (RBZ Governor) informed me when we toured the construction site of a plant in Mutoko. The Governor of Matabeleland South, (Cde) Angeline Masuku, has already started work in her province. We want to prosper, let us grow these plants, which also produce fertilizer. - Dr Olivia Muchena, Minster of Science and Technology Development
Dr Muchena was briefing delegates during the ZANU-PF Extra Ordinary meeting in Harare on what the government was doing to harness local expertise to produce fuel for the country which is grappling with economic sanctions. The jatropha plant - locally referred to as 'black gold' - is grown in countries such as India, where trials with the biofuel in diesel locomotives are underway.

The plant grows well with limited inputs in dry areas such as Matabeleland South and North and Masvingo. However, it can be grown in other parts of the country as well. Dr Muchena said that in Mashonaland East, if all farmers were to produce jatropha communally around their farms as protective hedges (jatropha is toxic and keeps grazing animals off fields), at two hectares per each A1 farmer and 10 hectares per A2 farmer, the province had the potential to produce 860 million litres of fuel, more than the country's total fuel imports (4.7 million barrels per year). In theory, Mashonaland East's farmers could make Zimbabwe fully oil independent:
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According to Dr Gono, who also addressed the congress yesterday, the majority of farmers who produce strategic crops were going to be rewarded 'greatly' next year, while others would be paid in foreign currency.

Dr Muchena said it was unfortunate that huge quantities of jatropha seed given to farmers during the Goromonzi conference were destroyed.

She, however, said her ministry was going to send teams of experts to all districts in the country to educate farmers on how to grow jatropha. During the Umzingwani Conference in Matabeleland South in 2005, jatropha was declared tree of the year. Since then, it has been planted across the country, but in not in a coordinated way.

"The Ministry of Environment and Tourism, through the Forestry Company of Zimbabwe, has come up with a jatropha programme. So no one should say we have no idea about the plant. In January, we are actually going to step up production of the jatropha", she added.

The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe earlier this year announced it has so far disbursed 2.9 billion Zimbabwean dollars (€8.6/US$11.6 million) for the national biodiesel project out of a total of $3 billion availed by the country's government last year.

Roughly 66% of the country's population is employed in agriculture, mainly as subsistence farmers. Their livelihoods stand to benefit from the biodiesel program.

The Herald (Harrare, via AllAfrica): Govt Embarks On Biofuel Programme - December 15, 2007.

Biopact: Zimbabwe opens first biodiesel plant to ease catastrophic fuel shortages in farm sector - November 16, 2007

Biopact: Zimbabwe's jatropha project receives US$11.6 million - May 18, 2007

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Petrobras to push for B20 instead of B2

Via EthanolBrasil. Brazil's state-owned oil company Petrobras wants to stimulate the use of a bigger mixture of sustainably produced biodiesel than is currently mandated. In 2008 it will start a campaign to convince owners of large captive fleets to switch to a 20% biodiesel blend (B20) instead of the B2 required by law.

According to Jose Eduardo Dutra, president of BR Distribuidora (Petrobras' fuel distribution subsidiary) simulations and trials with B20 have shown that the logistics to get the fuel to captive fleets can be made efficient, even though many obstacles remain. Earlier, the company signed an agreement with Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD) - a mining giant and the world's largest iron producer - to supply its locomotives and trucks with B20. To achieve this, BR Distribuidora will open 80 biofuel supply points across the country covering the mining, melting and logistical operations of CVRD (earlier post).

According to Dutra, Aracruz Cellulose, the world's leading supplier of bleached eucalyptus pulp, is negotiating a similar B20 supply deal. In this case, the logistics are more complex because of the scattered locations of the company's activities: it has two pulp making plants, one at Barra do Riacho in Espírito Santo state and the other at Guaíba in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Forestry operations are located in these states as well as in Bahia and Minas Gerais. But at the same time, biodiesel production plants have been established in these states, making a decentralised supply possible, though untried.

Petrobras further signed a contract with VIP, an urban bus company in São Paulo, to deliver B20.

With these contracts and its national B2 supply obligation, Petrobras is looking at a total supply of 336 million liters of biodiesel in 2008. According to Dutra contracts show a willingness amongst large fleets to switch to a high proportion of biodiesel, and he expects the number to go up because of a concerted campaign.

In June and August, Petrobras signalled difficulties in delivering the product and admitted the delays were caused by its inability to pool together enough biodiesel manufacturers willing to sell at prices offered by Petrobras, and needed to start supplying large quantities of the fuel across the country's territory. But these obstacles have now been 'practically surpassed'.

The logistics of biodiesel supplies are 'totally different' from those of Petrobras' petroleum products distribution, and they have to be matched in order to mix fossil diesel with the biofuel. The company's oil refineries are all located on the coast, while biodiesel plants are located inland, close to the feedstock source:
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Because of this situation, Petrobras faced a chicken-and-egg situation: as long as there weren't enough large fleets switching to B20, biodiesel capacity and demand was not growing sufficiently enough to warrant investments in supply points and complex distribution chains. And as long as these weren't created, biodiesel manufacturers were hesitatant to increase production or to sell to Petrobras at low prices.

The delivery obstacles are now out of the way, but biodiesel producers are already selling their output at a better price than the contracts Petrobras negotiated with them. New biodiesel auctions offered them higher prices, on the anticipation that from January 2008 onwards, the national B2 mandate comes into force.

However, Durta stressed that all contractual obligations will be met because otherwise manufacturers face severe fines from the National Petroleum Agency.

In order to pull the biodiesel producers back into Petrobras' arms, the company will now launch its B20 campaign for captive fleets, hoping it will take scale advantages that will enable it to negotiate for good prices after the B2 mandate comes into effect.

Biodiesel is produced in Brazil under a new Pro-Biodiesel program, launched during president Lula's first term in office. In contrast to the much older Pro-Alcool program, the new policy from the start included measures to improve the environmental and social sustainability of the biofuel. Incentives are available to manufacturers who source their feedstock from small farmers, members of cooperatives, who are trained and assisted by experts from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Biodiesel produced under this scheme receives a 'Social Fuel Stamp'. The program is meeting some success and is estimated to be benefiting some 60,000 rural families.

: castor bean farmers in the arid, poor Northeast of Brazil, supplying biodiesel manufacturers with feedstock under the Social Fuel program. Credit: ANBA.

EthanolBrasil: Petrobras quer incentivar mistura maior do biocombustível - December 10, 2007.

Biopact: World's largest iron producer CVRD to use biodiesel in its trains - May 18, 2007

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

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German Greens want biomass instead of coal; Brown and Merkel urged to resist new fossil fuel plants

Germany and the United Kingdom are seen as leaders in the fight against climate change, with the one known for its heavy investments in renewables and the other for keeping the topic on the international agenda. Back from Bali, where delegates from over 180 countries found a compromise to work towards a post-Kyoto framework to cut greenhouse gas emissions, reality sets in: in both countries, plans are underway to build new coal-fired power plants. But resistance is growing rapidly, with a stark warning from renowned climate scientist Dr James Hansen urging both Chancellor Merkel and Britain's Brown to scrap the plans. Meanwhile in Germany, the Greens say biomass offers a realistic alternative to browncoal-fired power plants.

The UK is considering, for the first time since 1974, a new coal plant in Kent, while British Gas owner Centrica has revealed plans for a power station on Teesside, claiming it would be the UK's greenest fossil fuel station, using both clean-coal and carbon-capture technology at the same time. The plant would provide power to 1 million homes. Centrica said coal is needed to provide a 100% reliable power supply, because planned wind power only has about 30 to 35% reliability.

In Germany there are plans for new browncoal-fired power stations in Hamburg and in Egelner Mulde and Lützen (both in Saxony-Anhalt) by the lignite giant Mitteldeutschen Braunkohlengesellschaft (MIBRAG). The Greens are reacting angrily and have presented a comprenehsive alternative plan for the region in which energy efficiency and a switch to biomass are key. They call for a limit on the number of new wind turbines, because they rely on coal for baseloads and are facing growing resistance from local people. Instead, they want existing wind facilities to switch to 'repower' (new, more powerful, second generation turbines). Coupled with biomass which provides the base, the renewables can match coal.

Historic responsibility
Renowned climate scientist Dr James Hansen says both countries must resist the coal-fired power stations, basing his arguments on future as well as historic reasons. The leading Nasa researcher is writing to the leaders to explain why he believes their decisions to be crucial.
It appears that it is not recognised that we're going to have to phase out coal use except where we capture the carbon dioxide; or we're going to produce a different planet. It's going to include loss of all the Arctic sea ice, it's going to include large sea-level rise and large regional climate effects. - Dr James Hansen
Hansen held his plea at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall Meeting, the largest gathering of the year for Earth scientists.

The US space agency researcher - who was one of the first to raise the issue of global warming back in the 1980s - believes the decisions taken by Britain and Germany could prove to be the 'tipping point' that persuaded other nations to follow cleaner technologies. They have the power to get the ball rolling.

Asked why the decisions of these two countries were so important when China is already said to be building the equivalent of two new coal-fired power-stations a week, he argued that the European countries had a historic responsibility to lead the way.

In support of this, in the letter he is drafting to Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel, he cites figures for 'per capita cumulative emissions' (graph, click to enlarge). These are the total emissions of carbon dioxide from the late 18th Century onwards. On this basis, even though other nations put out more CO2 today, the UK can be viewed as the world's 'biggest emitter' with Germany following. This is explained by the fact that Britain led the industrial revolution, and Germany completed it:
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Dr Hansen applauds both European countries' CO2 commitments and targets, and says their leadership on the issue of coal could seed the transition that is needed to solve the global warming problem.

But concerns over energy security have led to demands in both countries for coal power to be expanded; and although there is much talk about the greening of coal through the capture and burial of CO2 emissions, the technology is seen unproven.

As director of the Nasa Goddard Institute of Space Studies, James Hansen has been a vocal critic of the US government's stance on climate change, and once complained that he was being prevented from making public statements on the issue by political appointees within Nasa.

He came to the AGU meeting to discuss the current state of climate science with other researchers.

He said the present concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere (380 parts per million by volume, ppmv) had already committed the Earth to large climate impacts, such as the loss of summer sea-ice in the Arctic and sea level rise greater than one metre.

'Not irreversible'
But Dr Hansen stressed that the point of no return had not been reached - that irreversible change had not taken place. He said that to get the Arctic ice to recover would require a reduction in CO2 concentrations down to about 300 or 350 ppmv.

He believed this was possible, and called for greater energy efficiency and corrective pricing of carbon to allow cleaner technologies to compete and take over from fossil fuels.

Green instead of browncoal
It is these cleaner technologies which Die Grünen of Sachsen-Anhalt, the state where most new German coal plants will be built, are promoting aggressively. Presenting their latest Energy Policy Paper at the party congress in Naumburg yesterday, they demand a state-wide reduction of per capita carbon emissions from 11 tons now to 7 tons in 2020. A sense of urgency can be read in the document.

Country and municipalities must set the example and lower their energy consumption by 30 per cent over that time period. In their paper the Greens suggest among other things sending means for promotion of economy development only such enterprises which are to 20 per cent with the energy consumption under the current state of the art or its past consumption. For public real estate properties they demand a 'consistent use of energy-saving and efficiency measures'.

But the main topic of the paper is the threat of new lignite fired power plants to be build by MIBRAG, a giant industrial conglomerate that wants to utilize the region's vast browncoal reserves - the cheapest and most abundant primary energy source available.

The Greens calculate that the new plants are a losing proposition because they include carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies which can just as well be applied to biomass, while the coal plants remain inefficient and provide a low number of jobs.

Their alternative to a planned 660 MW lignite fired power plant is based on the use of woody biomass, found abundantly in the state. Combined with repower wind, biomass can be used readily in large plants that provide a reliable baseload at competitive prices provided carbon emission prices trend slightly upwards. Moreover funds made available for CCS, should immediately be coupled to biomass, instead of coal plants.

An added advantage of renewables over coal is the large number of jobs the sector generates. The chairman of the Green Bundestag fraction, Fritz Kuhn, told the congress that renewables in Germany had developed into a 'job machine'. In Sachsen-Anhalt alone, already 230,000 jobs had been created in the sector.

This success is due in large part to the Greens, who earlier, when in power, got the nuclear phase out plans through and wrote the legislation in favor of the renewables that will close the energy supply gap to occur when the country shuts down its nuclear power plants.

But Kuhn accused to the new Federal Government (Christian Democrats & Social Democrats) of acting halfheartedly when it comes to climate policy. The parties in power, he says, are being reactionary in that they think a reduction of CO2 can go together with new so-called 'clean' coal-fired power plants. To the Greens, CCS, when applied to coal, is an industrial 'package of deception', untried and unproven.

Biopact would add that the main criticism against CCS - that potential leakage of CO2 could be catastrophic - is overcome when the technology is coupled to biomass. If ever CO2 were to leak from a geosequestration site that holds biogenic CO2 instead of fossil derived CO2, the net effect on the atmospheric concentration would be zero.

The great advantage of CCS coupled to biomass is that it results in negative emissions of up to -1000 grams of CO2 per kWh (compared to +800g/kWh for ordinary coal plants, +100g/kWh for coal coulped to CCS, and +30 to +100 for wind and solar).

Scientists have calculated that if carbon-negative bioenergy were to replace coal on a global scale, the system of negative emissions can reverse climate change and bring atmospheric CO2 levels back to pre-industrial levels by 2060.

Linie Eins: Biomasse statt Braunkohle - December 15, 2007.

Bundnis90/Die Grünen - Sachsen-Anhalt: Landesparteitag am 15. Dezember 2007 - December 15, 2007.

BBC: Brown urged to resist coal rush - December 15, 2007.

BBC: Centrica mulls clean coal option - November 14, 2007.

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