Biofuels have become a victim of own success, it appears: for the first time in a decade global production has dropped. Production in 2011 dropped a touch from 1.822m barrels a day in 2010 to 1.819m in 2011, according to IEA statistics (p30) highlighted by the Financial Times.
The key reason has been the rising cost of the feedstock for most biofuels, corn, sugar and vegetable oil. And the main reason for the rising food prices is, many argue, the huge quantity consumed by biofuels. It’s a big business. The global biofuels business would, if a nation, rank 16th in the world for oil production, just above the UK and Libya and a bit below Norway and Nigeria, all major oil producers. In the US, 40% of the corn crop now gets diverted into fuel tanks, giving the US 50% of global biofuel production.
On top of the peaking of production, the US has just phased out some fat subsidies and tariffs protecting the domestic biofuel industry from international competition. So is the biofuels boom over?
In a word, no. The key driving factor is the price of ordinary oil. In the medium and long term, crude prices seem very likely to remain high and vulnerable to shocks, such as the current Iranian situation. “Once oil is over $70 a barrel, conventional and new generation biofuels become cost competitive, certainly with tar sands and shale, and with oil from much of the Middle East and Brazil’s new offshore fields,” said Jeremy Woods, at Imperial College, when I spoke to him in March. Today, Brent crude is at $113. The IEA predicts a 20% rise in biofuel production to 2.2m b/d by 2015, although that is a slower rise than in the past.
This brings us to the environmental crux. “The less biofuel you have the more gasoline you need,” Amrita Sen, oil analyst at Barclays Capital in London, told the FT.
Genetic engineering has failed to increase the yield of any food crop but has vastly increased the use of chemicals and the growth of “superweeds”, according to a report by 20 Indian, south-east Asian, African and Latin American food and conservation groups representing millions of people.
The so-called miracle crops, which were first sold in the US about 20 years ago and which are now grown in 29 countries on about 1.5bn hectares (3.7bn acres) of land, have been billed as potential solutions to food crises, climate change and soil erosion, but the assessment finds that they have not lived up to their promises.
The report claims that hunger has reached “epic proportions” since the technology was developed. Besides this, only two GM “traits” have been developed on any significant scale, despite investments of tens of billions of dollars, and benefits such as drought resistance and salt tolerance have yet to materialise on any scale.
Most worrisome, say the authors of the Global Citizens’ Report on the State of GMOs, is the greatly increased use of synthetic chemicals, used to control pests despite biotech companies’ justification that GM-engineered crops would reduce insecticide use.
In China, where insect-resistant Bt cotton is widely planted, populations of pests that previously posed only minor problems have increased 12-fold since 1997. A 2008 study in the International Journal of Biotechnology found that any benefits of planting Bt cotton have been eroded by the increasing use of pesticides needed to combat them.
Additionally, soya growers in Argentina and Brazil have been found to use twice as much herbicide on their GM as they do on conventional crops, and a survey by Navdanya International, in India, showed that pesticide use increased 13-fold since Bt cotton was introduced.
The development of new renewable energy technologies and other expanding sources of energy such as shale gas will be limited by the availability of water in some regions of the world, according to research by a US thinktank.
The study shows the reliance on large amounts of water to create biofuels and run solar thermal energy and hydraulic fracturing – a technique for extracting gas from unconventional geological formations underground – means droughts could hamper their deployment.
“Water consumption is going up dramatically. We are introducing all kinds of technology to reduce the carbon impact of energy, without doing anything to reduce its impact on water,” Michele Wucker, co-author of the report, told a seminar at the New America Foundation, a thinktank in Washington.
The study, estimating the water consumption of conventional and renewable energy, found even so-called clean energy solutions use vast amounts of water.
Hydroelectricity far outstrips other forms of energy in its use of water, requiring 4,500 gallons to produce a single megawatt hour of electricity – or about the amount needed to run a flat-screen TV for a year. Geothermal energy uses 1,400 gallons per MW/h.
Corn-based ethanol uses a lot of water to irrigate crops, as do nuclear plants which rely on water for cooling systems. Even some renewable energy sources – such as solar farms – are water hogs because they rely on water for cooling.
Researchers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Hawaii will arrive on Maui this summer to work with Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. to study crops, growing conditions and other issues in developing biofuels on the island.
The 130-year-old plantation is working with federal and state partners to help determine not only its own future, but also the future of growing biofuel crops in Hawaii to power both the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and private vehicles across the state. The end result could be the development of a biofuel refinery for HC&S, said company General Manager Rick Volner Jr.
The goal is to transition HC&S into a leading “energy farm,” and develop the resources to sell commercial jet and diesel fuels to the government and private consumers.
Success could guarantee that the company would continue to employ around 800 people, and perhaps even more, company officials said.
“There are no firm deadlines for this project, but the sooner we can decide, the easier it will be for the board of Alexander & Baldwin (HC&S’s parent company) to fund some of these products, and obviously we will need to make some capital investments,” Volner said last week. “But we’re more interested in making the right decision than when we make it.”
Cellana Inc. said it has begun producing oil from algae grown at its Kona facility and is on track to begin commercial production by 2014.
The Big Island company is harvesting up to one ton of algae a month in ponds at its 6-acre facility at Keahole Point. The company estimates it will be able to grow up to 60 tons of algae capable of producing 3,800 gallons of oil per acre per year.
The oil can be refined into a variety of products, including biodiesel for automobiles and power generation plants. Other uses include animal feed, cosmetics, nutritional oils and industrial chemicals.
Oil-rich algae is considered an attractive crop for biofuel production because of its relatively high yield compared with other crops. Algae can produce up to 11 times more oil per acre than the oil palm nut, the next-highest yielding feedstock, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Algae yields are as much as 145 times higher than soybeans, the department said.
“Over $100 million has been invested to date in our Kona demonstration facility, our algae strains and the process we use to grow, harvest and separate our algae biomass, which puts Cellana on a very short list of leading companies in the emerging algae-based biofuels and bioproducts industry,” said Martin Sabarsky, Cellana’s chief executive office.
Hawaiian Electric Co. engineers knew they were venturing into the unknown when company executives tasked them with finding out whether one of the utility’s 40-year-old petroleum-fired steam generating units could run on crude palm oil.
For years the tropical vegetable oil has been used primarily as an ingredient in a variety of consumer goods like snack foods, soaps and cosmetics. It’s what makes the center of an Oreo cookie creamy and a Cheez-It cracker crispy.
As a fuel source, palm oil didn’t receive any serious consideration until a few years ago when Malaysia began refining it into a biofuel, which the country’s oil companies blend with petroleum-based diesel for use in automobiles.
But generating electricity using crude palm oil? “As far as we knew, no one had ever fired a steam turbine using 100 percent crude vegetable oil,” said Ron Cox, HECO’s vice president for generation and fuels.
HECO launched the project last year at the Kahe Power Plant as part of an experiment to see how various alternative fuels will work in its group of oil-fired boilers. HECO has pledged to have alternative energy make up 40 percent of its electricity production by 2030.
`AINA KOA PONO asked the state Legislature yesterday to support a 15 percent tax credit for building a refinery here in Pahala. Chris Eldridge, who also owns American Mattress stores around the state, is an `Aina Koa Pono partner. His testimony for yesterday’s hearing describes former sugar lands, now largely used by the cattle industry between Pahala and Na`alehu, as “fallow,” and says that using land for a biofuels farm and factory would help fend off a rise in fuel prices statewide. “Building agriculturally based biofuel refineries in Hawai`i has the potential to reinvigorate Hawai`i’s struggling agriculture industry while also helping to meet the renewable energy goals of Hawai`i’s Clean Energy Initiative,” said Eldridge.
THE NUMBER OF JOBS projected for the proposed biofuels refinery and farm here in Ka`u was increased in the testimony that asks for the 15 percent tax credit. Eldridge said that in addition to 300 construction jobs over two years to build the refinery in Pahala, `Aina Koa Pono now projects 150 to 200 jobs created for the 20 to 30 years that the biofuel refinery would be in operation.
HE ALSO SUGGESTED that the tax break bill be amended to provide tax credits within 60 days after the refinery becomes operational. “We cannot emphasize enough the need for these incentives to attract private capital to invest in these projects for Hawai`i.
Mahalo for coverage of the palm oil importation (The Maui News, Nov. 11) that seems to remain an issue despite all the talk about development of local, sustainable biofuel crops. Some corrections to the article are in order.
The inaccuracies are not The Maui News’ fault, assuming Hawaiian Electric Co.’s Pete Rosegg was quoted correctly. Pete stated that Pacific Biodiesel “withdrew their supply to (Maui Electric Co.),” which is absolutely not true. It’s unfortunate that the corporate communications director did not check his facts as he would have found out that Pacific Biodiesel continues to supply the contracted amount of fuel to MECO and even extended our contract from the last time it ended.
He also said he was waiting for Pacific Biodiesel to “respond to questions about their proposal.” We have answered all their questions and have been waiting for weeks for them to reply to us with a meeting date to discuss our concerns about their fuel spec, which is not an existing ASTM fuel specification.
Saying something is true and being quoted in the newspaper does not make it so, and stating you want to purchase biodiesel when you have requested fuel with different specifications implies the opposite.
Maui environmental groups are organizing a letter-writing campaign to persuade Hawaiian Electric Co. and the state government to head off plans to import palm oil from Malaysia to be used in a test at Maui Electric Co.’s Maalaea power plant.
The international campaign was sparked by a German group, Rainforest-Rescue.org. Maui Tomorrow Foundation, Sierra Club Maui and the statewide group Life of the Land are protesting here in the islands.
They oppose a Public Utilities Commission decision to allow HECO to use palm oil at Campbell Industrial Park and to allow Maui Electric to test palm oil at Maalaea.
A spokesman for HECO said Tuesday: “We share a concern for the environment and human rights, which is why in 2007 Hawaiian Electric worked with the Natural Resources Defense Council to create a sustainable biofuels policy that we include in all contracts.”
HECO has signed what it calls a “very short” (two years) contract to supply its Campbell plant with fuel made from recovered animal waste on the Mainland. To get its new Campbell plant permitted, HECO had to promise to use renewable fuel.
For the Maalaea test, it contracted with Sime Darby to supply a million gallons of palm oil.