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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 08, 2007

Nigeria's Imo State launches large palm oil programme to shake off oil curse

Writing in This Day (Lagos), Eugene Agha describes how Nigeria's Imo State is rediscovering palm oil. The petroleum boom in the country has not benefited the people at large, which is why more and more regional governments are looking at agriculture as a way to shrug off the crude oil curse and to reinvest in land and people. Imo State has begun implementing the Imo State Oil Palm Development Programme (ISODEP) which targets to establish four million high yielding tenera palm trees by the year 2011. Distribution of the fast growing, early maturing trees amongst farmers has already begun. In Nigeria, petroleum is big business controlled by a select group of foreign companies, corrupt officials and local elites. The question is: will the new palm oil era be any different? Agha thinks it will.

Agriculture is the traditional occupation of the Nigerian people, he writes. Prior to the discovery and consequent exploration of mineral oil in the country, the economy of the nation stood on the tripod of palm oil, cocoa and groundnut production. These cash crops were produced not just for subsistence but also for export. While the south east region produced palm oil, the south west was into cocoa production and the north was well known for its groundnut pyramids. Each of the regions was doing well in its area of strength and the country was already on its way to economic independence.


Once the largest producer in the world, Nigeria's palm oil sector has declined and stagnated for decades. Large, old plantations are now ready for replanting.
The palm oil from the eastern region was described as being of the highest quality and the people took pride in the work of their hands. The people were so good at it that the Malaysians like the three wise oriental kings followed the scent of the palm oil to Imo state to learn the fine art of palm oil production. However, with the crude mineral oil boom, laziness and indolence took the place of hard work and dignity of labour. Agriculture suffered a setback as it was relegated to the back burner. In fact, agriculture became the occupation of the never-do-wells, the old and uneducated poor in the society.

The young people preferred to look for white collar jobs instead of engaging in farm work. The government on its part was more concerned with the wealth coming in from crude mineral oil to bother about providing incentives to encourage agriculture. Being ignorant of the great potentials of palm oil, the people threw away their chance of earning an enviable place in the great economies of the world. Currently, Malaysia which came here to learn about palm oil production is the world's number one producer and exporter of crude palm oil, closely followed by Indonesia. Having discovered the unparalleled productivity and huge benefits of investing in palm oil production, reports indicate that currently almost half of Malaysia's cultivated land consists of oil palm.

In 2004, according to reports, Indonesia cultivated oil palm plantations which covered 5.3 hectares of land. These plantations generated 11.4 million metric tons of palm oil with an export value of US$ 4.43 billion and brought in $42.4 million to the Indonesian treasury. Of course since then, the value of the product has continued to climb, making it almost competitive to petroleum.

Now the basic questions are; why has palm oil become the world's number one fruit crop? Why the sudden surge in the demand for palm oil? How did something Nigerians, nay Igbo threw aside become so valued in the world market? Well, apart from being a major ingredient for food, palm oil has other myriad uses. It is used in cosmetics production and more importantly one of the raw materials in biodiesel production. According to experts, biodiesels are biodegradable and, when burned, have fewer emissions than petroleum-based fuels. Thus, biodiesels are being looked upon as possible alternative energy source:
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Because of this development, environmentalists have been supportive of biofuels and other world bodies have voted for the idea of reducing dependence on Middle East oil since many biodiesel crops can be grown in friendly territories. With this in mind, policymakers from Asia and Europe have shown interest and have made a major push to promote and adopt biofuels. These developments have all contributed to increased investment in palm oil production.

To cash in on this, Indonesia has reportedly announced that it intends to double its oil palm crude production by 2025. Under a 2005 investment proposal, prepared by the State Plantation Corporation PT Perkenuan Nusantara (PTPN), Indonesia would develop about 1.8 million hectares of land for palm plantation. China would be involved in the plan, reportedly investing $7.5 billion in energy and infrastructure projects, including providing capital for palm oil plantations. The project is expected to employ nearly 400,000 people and generate an annual inflow of $45 million in tax revenue to the state.

Despite these, oil palm is not native to Asia. It is native to Igboland but what have we gained from it? In one word, nothing. Not because the palm tree has refused to yield its precious oil to us but because we have neglected a veritable source of revenue in our pursuit of the easy money. Our over dependence on mineral oil has not done even half of what palm oil has done for Malaysia and Indonesia. The country has continued to tether on the brink of collapse as the Niger Deltans battle the rest of the country for the control of oil exploration rights. Today, if they sneeze the whole country catches cold.

Development programme
Knowing the dangers inherent in depending on the crude mineral oil, and having become aware of the great potentials and investment opportunities of palm oil, the knowledgeable in the land are poised to reverse the trends in agriculture. The government of Chief Ikedi Ohakim of Imo state is one of those who have decided to take a plunge in what comes natural to our land - investment in palm oil production. In the draft presentation of the Imo State Oil Palm Development Programme (ISODEP), the government declared that it is set to claim for the state the number one position in oil palm production in the country.

The vision of ISODEP is to create an alternative economic revenue base and lay a solid foundation for agric-business in Imo state as part of the millennium development goals critical objectives. The programme also seeks to reawaken the consciousness of Imo people to the nativity of palm tree and use the palm tree as a start-up tool for the clean and green initiative of the state government.

Under the programme, the state government seeks to raise and distribute four million tenera oil palm for planting through small holder's management unit in every community in the state within a four-year period. The government is also set to produce palm oil cluster centres and establish semi-automated oil mills in each nucleus in the 27 local government areas in the state. Ultimately however, Ohakim's government sees in the programme an avenue to significantly reduce poverty, enhance rural community development and create employment opportunities for the citizens. The government is also hopeful that this foundation project if handled well would attract foreign investment into the state's agriculture sector.

Announcement of the ISODEP by Longer S. Anyanwu, Imo State Ministry of Agriculture

You know that when we were small children, we were taught at school that palm tree is a native of Imo land through the visionary leadership of Dr M..I. Okpara but today after 48 years of existence of most of these trees, the yielding ability and the potentiality of these trees have now reduced to 75%. Malaysia we were told came here to collect palm fruit, today they are number one. So my policy thrust here is to ensure that at the end of 2011, this ministry would have carefully implemented a policy called ISODEP (Imo State Oil Palm Development Programme) which targets to achieve four million palm trees by the year 2011.

Commencing from 2008, I’m collaborating with the Malaysians and NIFOR [Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research] to get a high-breed specie of palm fruits called Tenera which is the fastest yielding, most productive palm tree in the world today of which the species from Malaysia has been proven to start yielding at the age of one year, six months. And Nigeria has produced one at NIFOR, that starts yielding in two and half years. So we are going to have the combination of the two so that by the year 2011, we can hit our chest and look back and said that we are proud to be the leader in this area.

And today, my governor told me that some experts in China and Malaysia who contacted us said that even the fallen trees that are no longer economically viable should not be thrown away, because we can recycle them to produce plywood. This is the blueprint that was presented to the governor, and it made his day.

This is the vision, the mission, the goals, I have mapped out and I have given myself target, week by week. Every day I come to this office, I ask myself what I have done on my ISODEP. We’re collaborating with the UNDP, NDDC, and other oil companies to realise this big project of ensuring the reclamation of four million palms tress. Do you know the beauty of it? I’m going to use the communities and the local government.

And by the time we charge every local governments every community to plant a minimum of fifty thousand palm seedlings, there is going to be a competition. And then this ministry is going to build semi-automated oil mills in those areas that will be managed by private entrepreneurs through special skills, low scheme arrangement. And I will tell you that by the time we finish the implementation of this programme, Imo State will be another self sustaining state in this country.

I want to also tell you that we are encouraging the youths to embrace agriculture and farming because the attitude people have toward agriculture is wrong, that it’s a job for jobless or for the aged. I’m now using young people at school. At the end of every academic session, the graduating students from secondary school, that are SSS 3 students born of Imo state, will emerge a stake holder by a token of a presentation of a palm tree by the government.

The principals of their respective schools will give them the palm tress to give to their parents and that automatically qualifies the student to be a stake holder in the state. The whole idea is that in three years the tree would have matured and began to germinate forth seeds, thereafter the student may wish to ask the government for another token. If this exercise is taken seriously by that child in future he may end up paying part of his/her school fees from the proceeds of the tree. And it’s the only way we can refocus the youth towards developing agriculture in lmo state.

Despite these laudable objectives however, the programme would not be a piece of cake to implement, especially knowing the disdain the young people in the state have for farming. Also, ignorance concerning the marketability of palm oil will have to be erased from the minds of the citizens before any major breakthrough could be made for without the full participation of the people the project will not have the effect government is projecting. Also, how prepared is government to establish the oil mills to ease the burden and hard work associated with palm oil production seeing that it was a main reason for the quick abandonment of the business at the first sign of an alternative way of making a living?

Commenting on the development, the state's commissioner for agriculture and natural resources, Chief Longers Anyanwu said government is willing to do all it takes to ensure the success of the programme. He said plans for the establishment of the mills had already reached advanced stage.

He disclosed that the state government plans to encourage youth participation by using secondary school students to distribute the palm seedlings. And to express its desire to see that the programme succeeds, the commissioner said all the executive members of Ohakim's government have been mandated to plant about 1000 palm seedlings as their contribution and as a sign of government's commitment to the revitalisation of oil palm production in the state.

The commissioner said it was also in government's plan to replace all the old and wild palm trees in the state with the improved species of tenera to ensure high production of palm oil for export purposes. In this regard, the association of oil palm producers in the state have declared their readiness to partner with government in its march to inject life into the business of palm oil production. Speaking on the renewed interest of government in palm oil production,Bernard Emecheta said government's plan is a welcome development and expressed confidence that they are capable of seeing it through.

He said palm oil production declined because of continued government neglect and the inability of the local producers to get any form of incentive from the government. He expressed regret over the fate of the state-owned Adapalm; an oil palm plantation company which he said has been in steady decline through poor management and government neglect. 'If a big company like Adapalm which used to record huge revenue for the state government could be allowed to waste away like that what do private palm oil producers have in government being interested in our affairs?' He remarked that with this renewed interest by government in palm oil production, the state has a good chance of at least increasing its internally generated revenue as well as curb the raging unemployment among the youth.

Already the state is collaborating with the Nigerian Agip company to realise this revolution. At a meeting held recently at the company's headquarters in Port Harcourt, the oil giants asked the state ministry of agriculture and natural resources to design a plan of action for that purpose. The company has in principle approved the erection of an administrative block and nursery sheds to support government in its bid to revitalise the oil palm sector. In this connection, Chief Anyanwu has already swung into action by providing a plot of land for the immediate take off of the projects. Discussions are also underway with Shell Petroleum Development Company for purposes of assisting government achieve its dream in this same direction.

Hopefully the 'new face of Imo' as the Ohakim government delights to be called will not go the way of previous governments in the state who only pay lip service to developmental issues. Palm oil production as other countries have discovered is big business, big enough to save this country from the heart ache of incessant unrest in the Niger Delta. All it requires really is leadership that is capable of trusting in its ability to bring about positive change. It's all about reorientation of the mind of the local populace that palm oil business is as good as mineral oil bunkering but without the hazards associated with the later.

References:
Vanguard: 4 million trees coming to restore Nigeria’s oil palm glory — ANYANWU [*.pdf] - October 7, 2007.

This Day (Lagos) (via AllAfrica): Palm Oil Production As Linchpin to Imo Agric Revolution - December 3, 2007.

The Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research.


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Synthetic biology company OPX Biotech secures $3.6 million in funding for next generation biofuels technology

OPX Biotechnologies, Inc., a new company dedicated to enabling economically viable biofuels and biorefined chemicals through synthetic biology research announces that it has secured $3.6 million in venture funding led by Mohr Davidow Ventures (MDV), a leading Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm.

OPX has developed a first-of-its-kind genomics technology platform known as SCALEs (SCalar Analysis of Library Enrichments) that enables massively parallel full genome search, identification of specific causative genes, and rapid genetic modification and testing. The platform allows OPX to identify the role of each gene and how to modify it to achieve the characteristics needed for specific fuel and chemical products 1000 to 5000 times faster than conventional methods. The result is to quickly engineer new microbes to provide major improvements in tolerance, productivity, and specificity for fuel and chemicals production using biological processes. This might vastly decrease the production costs and capital requirements for renewal fuels and chemicals. SCALEs is based on pioneering genomics work by Professor Ryan Gill and Dr. Michael Lynch at the University of Colorado.
OPX has the potential to address one of the great challenges of our time - meeting the tremendous demand for renewable fuels and chemicals that are cost competitive and superior to petroleum-based products with far lower carbon emissions. Their proprietary, first of its kind massively parallel, full genome search and gene modification technology platform is a major breakthrough in synthetic biology that could vastly reduce the time it takes to design the microbes needed for economically viable biofuels and biorefined chemicals. - Erik Straser, MDV general partner
Synthetic biology is a rapidly emerging, disruptive science field with great promise for the production of abundant biofuels and renewable, innovative bioproducts (previous post). It is based on collecting and sequencing large amounts of genetic material from the environment (from microorganisms in oceans, soils, etc), analyzing and matching the most interesting sequences to recombine and reorganize them so that they are programmed to carry out a specific bioconversion process; the synthetically engineered 'building blocks' are then inserted into (micro)organisms or used as such as artificial 'biological machines', which perform the desired task (schematic, click to enlarge).

Besides Mohr Davidow Ventures, a major Silicon Valley venture firm and one of the top investors in the clean technology field, X/Seed Capital, a leading seed stage venture firm, invested in OPX earlier and participated again in this second round:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

OPX received seed financing from X/Seed in June, 2007.

The company further announced that it appointed Rob Chess Chairman and CEO. Chess serves on the Board of Directors of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO). He received his B.S. degree in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology and an M.B.A. from Harvard. Chess has held leading positions in Nektar Therapeutics, a company that develops improved pharmaceutical products using its innovative drug delivery platforms, and was co-founder and President of Penederm, Inc., a publicly-traded dermatological pharmaceutical company that was sold to Mylan Laboratories. He has held management positions at Intel Corporation and Metaphor Computer Systems (now part of IBM), and was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff.

The OPX Board of Directors includes MDV's Erik Straser, X/Seed's Michael Borrus, Professor Ryan Gill, a co-founder of the company and the Patten Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering at University of Colorado, and Rob Chess as Chairman and CEO.

Mohr Davidow Ventures is a leading Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm that for 25 years has identified, mentored and developed entrepreneurs and young companies redefining business, technology and medicine. MDV has $2 billion dollars under management.

X/Seed Capital is an early-stage venture firm that provides seed capital for breakthrough innovators. X/Seed was founded in 2006 and is based in Silicon Valley.

Schematic: from DNA collection to reprogrammed microorganism. Credit: Synthetic genomics.

References:
Michael D Lynch, Tanya Warnecke & Ryan T Gill. “SCALEs: multiscale analysis of library enrichment”, Nature Methods - 4, 87 - 93 (2007), doi:10.1038/nmeth946

Ryan T. Gill, Tanya Warnecke, Michael D. Lynch, Amarjeet Singh, "Using Genomics to Direct Strain Selections", AIChE 2007 Annual Meeting, Biomolecular Engineering.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Scientists warn forest carbon payment schemes could increase poverty

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

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

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

Seymour said the CIFOR analysis, which draws on a range of studies of the economic, social and political conditions affecting the world's most vulnerable forests, seeks to ensure that any initiatives to stem deforestation that might emerge in future climate change agreements are firmly grounded in reality:
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Most importantly, CIFOR advises decision makers to learn from the past and look beyond the confines of the forestry sector to the array of market failures and governance failures that spark a chain of events culminating in deforestation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Biofuels: Africa's new oil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catching up
Several African countries have biofuel research projects underway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is no bonus nor a malus for cars the emissions of which are close to the current average - namely between 130 and 160gCO2/km. This 'neutral zone' represents roughly 45% of all new cars sold in France:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The superbonus of €300 will be paid when the purchase of a new car eligible for a bonus is accompanied by the scrapping of a car older than 15 years. This super bonus comes on top of the already existing eco-boni for the scrapping of old cars offered by auto manufacturers. This system will encourage the withdrawal of old cars from the roads and contribute significantly to reducing air pollution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Scientists discover methane-eating bacterium that could help fight climate change

A new species of bacteria discovered living in one of the most extreme environments on Earth could yield a tool in the fight against global warming. In a paper published today in Nature, University of Calgary biology professor Peter Dunfield and colleagues describe the methane-eating microorganism they found in the geothermal field known as Hell's Gate, near the city of Rotorua in New Zealand.

It is the hardiest 'methanotrophic' bacterium yet discovered, which makes it a likely candidate for use in reducing methane gas emissions from landfills, mines, industrial wastes, geothermal power plants, and peatlands. The discovery once again suggests that investigating life in extreme environments - the search for useful 'extremophiles' - can contribute to solving some of the world's biggest problems. The bugs are finding applications in a wide range of fields, from the production of innovative pharmaceuticals to the efficient conversion of biomass into abundant biofuels (previous post).

The exotic bacterium discovered in Hell's Gate is a really tough methane-consuming organism that lives in a much more acidic environment than any of the scientists have ever seen before. It belongs to a rather mysterious family of bacteria called Verrucomicrobia that are found everywhere but are very difficult to grow in the laboratory.

Methanotrophic bacteria consume methane as their only source of energy and convert it to carbon dioxide during their digestive process. Methane (commonly known as natural gas) is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and is largely produced by decaying organic matter. Scientists have long known that vast amounts of methane are produced in acidic environments, not only geothermal sites but also marshes and peat bogs. Much of it is consumed by methanotrophic bacteria, which serve an important role in regulating the methane content of the world's atmosphere.

Scientists are interested in understanding what conditions cause these bacteria to be more or less active in the environment. Unfortunately, few species have been closely studied. We now know that there are many more out there.

Professor Dunfield has tentatively named the new bacterium Methylokorus infernorum to reflect the 'hellish' location of its discovery where it lives in boiling waters filled with chemicals that are toxic to most life forms:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The Maori caretakers of the site, the Tikitere trust, have supported scientific study of the area. The study was conducted while Dunfield was working for GNS Science, a geological research institute owned by the New Zealand government. He recently joined the University of Calgary's Department of Biological Sciences as a professor of environmental microbiology.

The bacterium's genome has been completely sequenced by researchers at the University of Hawaii and Nankai University in China, which could help develop biotechnological applications for this organism.

Dunfield said he plans to pursue his work in Canada by hunting for new life forms in extreme environments such as northern peatlands, the oilsands of northern Alberta and the hot springs of Western Canada.
Hot springs are exotic and extreme habitats, where you find a lot of bizarre organisms. Bacteria are a fascinating group to work with because 95 per cent of them have never been studied in a lab and we have very little idea about what this huge amount of biodiversity is capable of. - Peter Dunfield, Professor of Biology, University of Calgary
Dunfield's Nature article was published online on November 14, 2007 and in the December 6 edition of the journal.

References:
Peter F. Dunfield, et al., "Methane oxidation by an extremely acidophilic bacterium of the phylum Verrucomicrobia", Nature 450, 879-882 (6 December 2007), doi:10.1038/nature06411

Biopact: Investigating life in extreme environments may yield applications in the bioeconomy - July 05, 2007



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Industrial giants to reopen 15 closed sugar mills in Bihar; ethanol boom triggers rural revival

The sugar cane industry in India's Bihar state employs a large number of small farmers. Over the past decade, however, the sector has undergone a serious decline with falling world sugar prices, resulting in a social drama. The stagnation of the sugar cane industry saw more than a dozen mills being closed. But now, with record oil prices and the competitiveness of sugar cane derived ethanol, the sector is in for a major revival.

The Bihar State Sugar Corporation, under auspices of the state government, offers 15 closed mills under a long term lease of 60 years, extendable to 30 years. Some of India’s leading oil and industrial companies - Reliance Industries, Tata Chemicals, Fieldfresh of Bharati Enterprises and India Oil - have all expressed their interest in reopening them to produce ethanol.

Other companies that have purchased RFQ forms to make bids are Bharat Petroleum, Hindustan Petroleum, Renuka Sugars, Upper Ganges Sugar, Dhampur Sugar and India Glycols. Officials in the government-owned IOC, the country's largest refiner, also confirmed that it intends to make ethanol and will enter the bidding.

Closed for more than a decade, the mills together have a financial liability of 7 billion rupees (€121.3/US$177.4) under various heads and the funds raised by leasing them will be used to clear the liabilities.

The floor price of these mills, mostly based in northern Bihar, has been fixed at between 80 million (€1.38/US$2 million) and 700 million rupees (€12.1/US$17.7 million). The state is offering a capital subsidy of 10 percent of the investment, subject to a 100 million rupee ceiling.

Earlier this year, India's central government had made 5 per cent blending of ethanol in petrol mandatory and it would increase it to 10 percent by October 2008. This is an ambitious target, but it goes a long way in relieving sugar producers from the oversupply problems they have been facing.

In India, ethanol is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar cane processing. The efficiency and cost-effectiveness of sugar cane ethanol is largely due to the high sugar yield of the plant and because these sugars can be readily fermented. Ethanol made from starches must first be broken down into simple sugars, whereas the utilization of lignocellulosic biomass requires even more complex thermochemical or biochemical processing steps.

Bihar currently has 252,000 hectares dedicated sugarcane cultivation and produces around 14.4 million tonnes of sugarcane every year. Compared to other states, Bihar is a relatively small player, with a 3% market share (map, click to enlarge). But the land area devoted to sugarcane accounts for only 4.5 per cent of the state’s cultivable area of more than 5.5 million hectares. This means there is vast scope to increase the sugarcane acreage:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Earlier this year, the Bihar state government amended the Bihar Sugarcane Regulation of Supply and Purchase Act of 1981, allowing sugarcane juice to be directly used to produce ethanol or rectified spirit. The new law also allows the use of bagasse, an abundant sugarcane byproduct, for co-generation of power. Integrated sugar and ethanol plants that utilize bagasse, can produce biofuels with a very strong energy balance.

Out of the 15 closed sugar mills on offer, eight have been reserved for sugarcane based industries like sugar mills, distilleries for ethanol and alcohol production while seven are allowed to be converted into non-sugarcane facilities.

According to state’s Sugarcane development minister, Nitish Mishra, a pre-bid meeting is to be held on December 8 in New Delhi. All bids need to be submitted by the December 20. The leasers will be shortlisted on December 29.

Sugarcane based ethanol has had no impact on world sugar prices so far. This is due to the fact that both Brazil and India made record harvests this year. Next year's harvest is set to break the record again. India has the world's second largest sugar industry, producing some 14 million tonnes of refined sugar per year from cane grown on 3.6 million hectares of land.

Mired by oversupplies, the sugar sector in India this year urged the government to urgently adopt mandatory ethanol targets, in order to push up the price of the commodity. The government responded with the ambitious 10% target for 2008, which will require the production 825,000 tonnes of ethanol (roughly 1 billion liters / 227 million gallons).

References:
Bihar Times: Corporate giants interested in sugar mills of Bihar - December 6, 2007.

Business Standard: Reliance, Tata, Bharti eye Bihar sugar mills - December 6, 2007.

CommodityOnline: Oil giants eyeing Bihar sugar mills for ethanol - December 6, 2007.



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IMF chief economist: biofuels could help cut farm subsidies, protectionism main cause of high food prices

The trend toward increasing production of biofuels provides an opportunity to dismantle agricultural subsidies and tariffs in wealthy countries, according to the International Monetary Fund’s top economist. Non-governmental organisations and developing country governments have been calling for farm subsidy and trade reform for years, to give producers in the South a chance to develop domestic markets. Biofuels offer an opportunity to bring about this much needed transformation.

Writing in the December issue of the IMF’s Finance & Development magazine, Chief Economist Simon Johnson looks at how the adoption of biofuels in the EU and the US is driving up world food prices and how the trend can be curbed. Over the past 12 months, the world has experienced a substantial inflationary shock in the form of higher food prices, partly fueled by increasing demand for food crops such as corn, used for biofuels. This shock doesn’t necessarily translate into higher sustained inflation, Johnson writes; monetary policy in most countries appears to be responding appropriately. But it will have adverse effects relatively poor urban residents in low-income countries who depend on imported food.

However, there are two potential major silver linings: direct benefits for farmers in low-income countries and potential policy space for removing agricultural subsidies in rich countries. The vast majority of people qualified as 'poor' are farmers in developing countries. They stand to gain directly from the emerging biofuels industry.

In the IMF staff’s assessment, a significant part of the latest jump in food prices can be traced directly to biofuels policy in wealthy countries, Johnson writes.
A key part of this approach to biofuels is agricultural protectionism. A number of countries, including Brazil, can produce ethanol much cheaper, with a greater saving of nonrenewable energy and lower emissions, for example, by using sugar. But this sugar-based ethanol is subject to a prohibitive tariff in the United States (and there are similar barriers in Europe). - Simon Johnson, IMF Chief Economist
In addition, production subsidies in rich countries, which are intended to encourage innovation in this sector, seem to have led to excessive entry into the US ethanol distillery business.

The greatest potential gains of using crops for biofuels are for farmers everywhere, including the rural sector of poorer countries, Johnson writes:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

There is another potential opportunity in this rapidly developing difficult situation, Johnson writes.
Farm subsidies of various kinds in rich countries have long plagued the international trading system and currently make it difficult to move forward with further trade liberalization. Rich countries are reluctant to improve access to their most protected markets.
With high food prices, subsidies are less compelling and—depending on how they are structured—may not even pay out when prices are above a certain level, Johnson writes.
Industrial countries need to seize this moment and eliminate subsidies in such a way that it is hard to reimpose them later.
Johnson cites the example of the European Union's 'impressive step forward' in terms of export subsidies for milk. With milk at record-high prices this year, these subsidies have been suspended. Given the nature of decision making over agricultural policy, reinstating such subsidies might be difficult.

More recently, the EU also decided to abandon a subsidy for energy crops.

Hat tip to Jeff!

References:
Simon Johnson, "The (Food) Price of Success", Finance & Development, December 2007, Volume 44, Number 4.

Research Recap: "Biofuels Could Help Cut Farm Subsidies" - December 5, 2007.

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South Africa approves biofuels plan: 2% by 2013, maize excluded

After months of negotiations and intense lobbying by different sectors, South Africa has approved its long awaited biofuels plan. The country will aim to have biofuels account for 2 percent of its total fuel production by 2013 but will exclude the staple maize as a source. Compared to most other sub-Saharan African countries, South Africa an extremely small per capita potential for the production of biofuels and thus has to be far more careful in setting targets.

The biofuels strategy was developed in response to concerns over fuel supply security and volatile international crude oil prices. South Africa meets about 36 percent of domestic liquid fuels demand by the production of synthetic fuels made from coal - a technique that releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. The remaining 64 percent is refined locally from imported crude oil.

The new strategy envisages a pilot phase for biofuel production starting next year, with the 2013 target revised downward from an initial draft proposal of 4.5 percent.

According to Minerals and Energy Minister Buyelwa Sonjica, the revision expresses consideration of agricultural concerns, adding that maize would not be used for the development of biofuel in the initial stages of the plan, due to food security concerns. Maize is a staple food source for the majority of the poor in the country.

The decision to exclude maize comes a day after local farmers’ representative body Grain SA said that using the grain to produce biofuels would create new markets for farmers and utilise South Africa’s unused land:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The government's biofuels plan only takes into account first generation biofuels made from easily extractibe oil and sugars. Soya beans, canola and sunflower would be used for biodiesel production, and sugar cane and sugar beet for ethanol.

As an incentive, the fuel levy exemption on biodiesel will increase from 40 to 50 percent, while bioethanol will enjoy a 100 percent exemption.

The plan does not include any details about possible biofuel imports. South Africa's neighboring countries all have a very large potential for biofuels.

References:
AFP:
South Africa aims for 2.0 percent biofuels production by 2013
- December 6, 2007.

The Times: SA approves biofuels plan - December 6, 2007.


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US National Renewable Energy Lab aims to cut GHG emissions by 75% with solar and biomass


The U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has pledged to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent from 2005 to 2009 - an ambitious goal, but one that does not come as a surprise given that the NREL is America's leading research lab focused on renewables. The new target is part of NREL's participation in the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Climate Leaders program and was announced at the Climate Leaders meeting in Boulder, Colorado yesterday.

To achieve its new goal, NREL will install two major on-site renewable energy projects:
  • solar cells on a five acre site will provide approximately 7 percent of the Laboratory’s electric needs
  • a biomass combustion plant fueled by forest thinnings and other waste wood will offset the need for about 75 percent of the natural gas used to heat the Laboratory's research buildings
In addition, NREL is planning to make its buildings more energy efficient through a site-wide energy savings performance contract. The Laboratory also will purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) to offset all of its indirect emissions from electricity use and from Laboratory operations such as employee commuting and business travel.

NREL already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent per square foot from 2000 to 2005 as one of the seven original Climate Leaders participants that set goals and met them.
I am fully convinced that our mission is both enabled and enhanced by our leadership in sustainability. The employees of NREL are committed to incorporating sustainable principles in our work, and we encourage application of these same principles by our stakeholders. Through our actions we can establish a new benchmark for what is possible. - Dan Arvizu, NREL Director
NREL’s participation in Climate Leaders is a key part of the environmental stewardship activities of its Sustainable NREL program, which is responsible for leading the planning, development and implementation of the Laboratory’s comprehensive suite of sustainability activities. As a national laboratory, NREL actively shares its experiences with other national laboratories, federal and state agencies and other interested stakeholders:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
NREL places tremendous importance on the need to maintain a sustainable environment in our own workplace. We believe that our Laboratory should use minimal resources while receiving the maximum value from those resources we do use by balancing environmental, economic, and human impacts. - Bob Westby, manager of NREL’s Federal Energy Management Program and Sustainable NREL lead
Climate Leaders is an EPA industry-government partnership that works with companies to develop comprehensive climate change strategies. Partner companies commit to reducing their impact on the global environment by completing a corporate-wide inventory of their greenhouse gas emissions based on a quality management system, setting aggressive reduction goals, and annually reporting their progress to EPA. Through program participation, companies create a credible record of their accomplishments and receive EPA recognition as corporate environmental leaders.

The lab
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is America's primary laboratory for renewable energy and energy efficiency research and development (R&D).

NREL's mission and strategy are focused on advancing the U.S. Department of Energy's and our nation's energy goals. The laboratory's scientists and researchers support critical market objectives to accelerate research from scientific innovations to market-viable alternative energy solutions. At the core of this strategic direction are NREL's research and technology development areas. These areas span from understanding renewable resources for energy, to the conversion of these resources to renewable electricity and fuels, and ultimately to the use of renewable electricity and fuels in homes, commercial buildings, and vehicles. The laboratory thereby directly contributes to our nation's goal for finding new renewable ways to power our homes, businesses, and cars.

R&D Expertise

NREL's focused R&D capabilities are positioned to advance national energy goals by developing innovations to change the way we power our homes and businesses, and fuel our cars. Our R&D capabilities allow us to develop and advance renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies more effectively through the full R&D life-cycle—from basic scientific research through applied research and engineering; to testing, scale-up, and demonstration. NREL's R&D areas of expertise are Renewable electricity, Renewable fuelIntegrated energy system engineering and testing, Strategic energy analysis.

Technology Transfer
A critical part of the Lab's mission is the transfer of NREL-developed technologies to renewable energy markets. NREL's Technology Transfer Office supports laboratory scientists and engineers in the successful and practical application of their expertise and the technologies they develop. NREL's world-class R&D staff and facilities are recognized and valued by industry, as demonstrated through hundreds of collaborative research projects and licensed technologies with public and private partners. NREL's innovative technologies have also been recognized with 39 R&D 100 awards — the most per staff member of any DOE laboratory. The engineering and science behind these technology transfer successes and awards demonstrates NREL's commitment to developing and applying innovative renewable energy solutions for the nation's secure and sustainable energy future.

Bioenergy research
To develop technology for the cost-effective conversion of biomass to fuels, power and chemicals, NREL biomass researchers have developed strong capabilities in all facets of biomass conversion technology to support the production of fuels, power, and chemicals from biomass.

The Biomass Program supports NREL R&D that focuses on biomass characterization, thermochemical and biochemical biomass conversion technologies, biobased products development, and biomass process engineering and analysis. NREL also works to develop cost-effective, environmentally friendly biomass conversion technologies to reduce our nation's dependence on foreign oil, improve our air quality, and support rural economies.

The Biomass Program also works with the National Bioenergy Center, which was established to coordinate the nation's biomass research activities. NREL supports the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) Biomass Program.

Image
: inside one of the bioenergy research facilities at the NREL: Credit: NREL.

References:
NREL: Energy Lab Sets Aggressive Greenhouse Gas Reduction Goal - December 4, 2007.


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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

New study finds biodiversity conservation secures ecosystem services for people

Healthy ecosystems that provide people with essential natural goods and services often overlap with regions rich in biological diversity, underscoring that conserving one also protects the other, according to a new paper published by researchers from Conservation International (CI), the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, and the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

Titled "Global Conservation of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services", the paper confirms the value of making biological diversity a priority for conservation efforts. It shows that more than 70 percent of the world’s highest priority areas for biodiversity conservation also contain significant value in ecosystem services such as fresh water, food, carbon storage, storm buffers and other natural resources that sustain human life and support social and economic development.
This paper clearly shows that in many places in the world, strategies targeted at conserving threatened biodiversity also help protect ecosystems, thereby improving human well-being and alleviating poverty. - Thomas M. Brooks, CI senior director for conservation synthesis, author
The researchers found that the value of ecosystem services in the 7 percent of the planet of greatest biodiversity conservation priority was more than double the global average. Overall, the annual value of the world’s ecosystem services is estimated at $33 trillion, or greater than the gross national product of all nations combined.

These highly valuable ecosystem services can be grouped into five broad categories, all present in biodiversity hotspots that require conservation:
  1. Provisioning services such as foods (including seafood and game) and spices, precursors to pharmaceutical and industrial products, energy from biomass fuels and hydropower
  2. Regulating services such as carbon sequestration and climate regulation, waste decomposition and detoxification, nutrient dispersal and cycling
  3. Supporting services like the purification of water and air, crop pollination and seed dispersal, pest and disease control
  4. Cultural services such as cultural, intellectual and spiritual inspiration, recreational experiences (including ecotourism), or scientific discovery
  5. Preserving services such as genetic and species diversity for future use, accounting for uncertainty or the protection of options
Sadly, no formal market mechanism exists with which to bank in on these ecosystems services, which is why many of the biodiversity hotspots found in service-rich regions are threatened by common activities that allow communities to make a more direct and secure income from the market-as-we-know-it, such as farming, cattle ranching or extracting timber - activities that often negatively impact both ecosystems services and biodiversity. Likewise, large agro-industrial interests (logging, palm oil) can not be stopped from engaging in damaging practises as long as habitat destruction is merely seen as an 'externality'.

However, one of these ecosystem services, namely the fact that intact forests store carbon dioxide, might soon be turned into a genuine economic opportunity. As climate scientists and government delegates are meeting in Bali to discuss a new framework for ways to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, they are looking into schemes to compensate communities and nations for reducing deforestation or for avoiding it alltogether. Such schemes are still mired with difficulties, but if these can be overcome, incomes from carbon credits for forest conservation could offer a very good deal for forest-rich nations such as Congo and Brazil.

In short, making ecosystem services bankable in a more formal way can help in protecting biodiversity hotspots. The new study by the environmental economists and conservationists, published in the November 2007 issue of BioScience magazine, further suggest that the opposite is true as well: conservation strategies that protect biological diversity simultaneously protect ecosystem services. By coupling both and by focusing on overlaps, they suggest the efficiency of dollars and efforts spent on conservation can be increased. The paper identifies tropical forests as places of particularly high overlap of priorities because of their biological diversity and ecosystem services essential to the welfare of many of the world’s 1 billion people living in extreme poverty:
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Significantly, there are many opportunities for conserving both species and ecosystem services together, especially in the Amazon Basin, the Congo Basin, Madagascar, Borneo and New Guinea. Protecting these intact forests is critical to reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries while also supporting the livelihoods of traditional and indigenous peoples.

With climate change recognized as the greatest environmental threat facing the planet, the study provides a timely reminder that investments to maintain healthy ecosystems and their restorative powers is cost effective for biodiversity, the livelihoods of local people and economic development, and as a way to protect the CO2 stored in these areas from release.
Protecting intact tropical forests is critical for reducing emissions from deforestation in developing countries. We need to conserve these forests for the benefit of local populations and the world as a whole. - Will R. Turner, CI ecologist, author
Restoring destroyed forests also is necessary to help damaged habitat recover, ensure the persistence of species, and restore critical ecosystem services, particularly in regions with large human populations such as Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and much of Southeast Asia.

Conservation International
(CI) applies innovations in science, economics, policy and community participation to protect the Earth’s richest regions of plant and animal diversity and demonstrate that human societies can live harmoniously with nature. Founded in 1987, CI works in more than 40 countries on four continents to help people find economic alternatives without harming their natural environments.

Picture: swamp forest in the Congo Basin: both biodiversity hotspot and ecosystem providing valuable ecosystem services to indigenous communities. Credit: National Geographic.

References:
Will R. Turner, et. al., "Global Conservation of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services", BioScience, Volume 57, Issue 10 (November 2007), pp. 868–873.

Mongabay: Carbon credits for forest conservation concept faces challenges - November 27, 2007.


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World's cleanest energy one step closer: EESTech acquires CCS technology that can be applied to biomass

In an interesting development, EESTech, Inc. today announced the acquisition of a leading carbon capture and storage technology from Canadian company, HTC Purenergy. The technology can be applied to EESTech's biomass capable Hybrid Coal Gas Turbine (HCGT) technology, which means carbon-negative bioenergy - the most radical climate friendly form of energy - has come one step closer. The acquisition is structured around a share swap, with EESTech acquiring 100% of the shares in CO2 Technologies Pty Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of HTC Purenergy, giving EESTech the exclusive rights to commercialise the CCS technology in China, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore.

Renewable energy technologies like wind or solar power, as well as nuclear, deliver 'carbon neutral' electricity, that is, energy that doesn't add new greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Power generated from fossil fuels on the contrary is strongly 'carbon positive' as it emits copious amounts of climate destructive CO2. To make fossil energy cleaner, researchers are looking into capturing the CO2 from power plants before it enters the atmosphere, and then to store the gas in depleted oil & gas fields, or in other geological formations such as saline aquifers.

But carbon capture and storage (CCS) has its critics. They fear the gas might leak, even though geologists are confident that there are enough suitable sites that can lock up the gas for centuries. Another point of criticism is that the investments in CCS are taking away money from the renewables industry.

Both these arguments can be side-stepped by the most radical of clean energy technologies, namely the production of renewable carbon-negative bioenergy. This form of energy, also called 'bio-energy with carbon storage' (BECS) effectively results in negative emissions. This means that each time you utilize electricity from BECS, you actually take historic emissions out of the atmosphere. Solar and wind merely prevent new emissions from occuring, but carbon negative bioenergy goes much further, by effectively taking previous emissions out of the carbon cycle (schematic, click to enlarge).

This makes BECS very radical, and the cleanest of all energy technologies. No other energy technology can deliver negative emissions. A coal plant without CCS generates around 800 grams of CO2 per kWh of electricity produced; CO2 emissions from a coal plant with CCS can be reduced to significantly to under 100 g/kWh; solar and wind offer low carbon emissions over their lifecycle, ranging from 30 to 100 g CO2eq/kWh; but electricity from a negative emissions bioenergy system generates -1000 g CO2/kWh, that is minus a thousand grammes.

So the argument that CCS investments divert money away from renewables is incorrect, because biomass is a renewable resource. In fact, the sooner CCS technologies become less costly and the faster research can be focused on developing dedicated capture technologies for biogenic gases, the sooner we can tackle climate change with BECS. Scientists have found that if applied on a planetary scale, BECS systems can take us back to pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels by mid-century and thus solve the climate crisis in a safe and relatively short time.

The CCS technology acquired today by EESTech goes a far way in developing this futuristic vision of a world powered by negative emissions. It was developed in conjunction with the leading University Of Regina's Greenhouse Gas Technology Centre and the International Test Centre for Carbon Capture, in Saskatchewan, Canada, a major research consortium for CCS technologies.

The process works in three steps: capturing the CO2 from flue gases via designer solvents (which can be designed to work on flue gases from the combustion of biomass), compressing the gas, and transporting it to the geosequestration site (see animation).

Capturing CO2
  • The exhaust gas from the power plant is the source of CO2.The exhaust gas is cooled before it reaches the capture process itself in order to optimise the process. The flue-gas cooler is the largest consumer of cooling water in the process, typically using 50% of the cooling water.
  • The flue-gas will meet some physical resistance within the capture plant on its way to the atmosphere, and this will result in a certain pressure drop in the exhaust gas. In order to ensure that the power plant’s gas turbine does not suffer a loss of power because of the capture facility, a blower is located in the flue-gas duct, either before the cooling unit or between it and the actual capture plant.
  • From the blower, the gases are brought to the bottom of an absorption tower, which is filled with a packing material that offers a large surface that the absorption solvent follows on its way down through the tower. The solvent is an amine or a mixture of amines dissolved in water, which absorb the CO2 in the flue-gas as it flows upwards through the tower. The CO2 removal efficiency for flue-gases from gas-turbine exhaust will typically be 85%.
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  • After the CO2 has been captured by the amine, it has to be released by heating the solvent. The desorption of CO2 takes place in the desorption tower, also known as a stripper. This is done by allowing the amine containing the CO2 to flow down the packing material that fills the tower, while steam and CO2 flow upwards. The steam has two functions:a) it transfers the necessary heat to the amine, and b) it draws the released CO2 out of the tower. The mixture of steam and CO2 that exits the top of the stripper is cooled down, and most of the steam is condensed while the CO2 remains in a gaseous phase.
  • The water is pumped back to the stripper while the CO2 is directed to the dehydration and compression stages and on to transportation.
  • The amine flows from the bottom of the stripper to the reboiler, where the steam used in the desorption process is generated. The heat for the reboiler is steam generated by heat from an external source. This reboiler is the largest consumer of heat in the CO2 separation process.
  • A flow of virtually CO2-free amine solution leaves the boiler and is led back to the absorber, where it once again absorbs CO2.
  • In the absorption tower, the reaction between CO2 and amine produces heat, with the result that a certain amount of amine and water will evaporate during the absorption process and be carried upwards through the tower along with the flue-gases. The gas is saturated with steam and amines . As well as losing a portion of the amines, the water losses will also be large. In order to minimise water losses and emissions of amines, a water-wash process is integrated at the top of the absorption tower.
  • Cold water with a low concentration of amines washes the flue-gases, dissolving the amines while the water balance is maintained by the steam being condensed by the cold water.
  • When the solvent comes into contact with the flue-gases, the amines will also react with other components in the flue-gas, such as O2 and NOx. How much of these are absorbed will vary from one amine to another, and will also depend on the design of the absorption tower. These reactions form heat-stable salts that will not be released from the amine solution by the stripping process. Since the amine mixture is circulated between the absorber and the desorber, the amount of heat-stable salts in the solvent will gradually rise. After a certain period of time, the concentration of these salts will be so high that the CO absorption rate will be reduced. This is handled by the use of a reclaiming unit.
  • A side stream of the circulated solvent is heated so that the water and amines evaporate and are led back to the process. When the water and amines have been boiled off, what remains at the bottom of the reclaimer is a viscous liquid that must be disposed of. The waste will contain some amines and water, but will consist mostly of heat-stable salts.
CO2 compression
  • After the CO2 has been separated from the flue-gas in the capture plant, it must be dried and compressed. This is done in a multistage process of compression, cooling and water separation.
  • Pressure, temperature and water content all need to be adapted to the method of transportation (pipeline or vessel) and pressure requirement at the storage site. A typical compression and dehydration process for pipeline transportation is illustrated schematically (click to enlarge).
  • CO2 from the capture plant arrives at the dehydration and compression stage at about room temperature and at a little above atmospheric pressure. Apart from the CO2, the gas contains some steam and small fractions of impurities (nitrogen, oxygen, and traces of amines and other substances).
CO2 transportation
  • When CO2 is being transported by pipeline, compression requirements are determined by the supply pressure at the delivery site and the pressure drop through the transportation pipeline. The pressure in the pipeline should always be high enough to ensure that the CO2 is in a supercritical state, i.e. above 50 – 70 bars, depending on the temperature. Where a simple storage solution is involved, the offshore supply pressure is 70 – 100 bars while the pressure requirement for EOR may be higher. In order to meet pressure requirements of this order, the pressure of the CO2 may be anything from 150 bars to 300 bars or higher as it leaves the capture plant, depending on the type of transportation and the storage pressure involved.
  • The combination of water and CO2 in a pipeline creates corrosive conditions, requiring the water content to be kept low and monitored continuously in order to avoid corrosion and hydrate formation.
This CCS technology will now be applied to EESTech's patented, biomass capable HCGT technology which was co-developed with an Australian Government Research facility. The HCGT uses waste coal, ventilated air methane or biomass to produce electricity and steam. When the HCGT is integrated with HTC Purenergy's CCS technology the combined system can capture CO2 from power stations and other industrial flue gases, delivering a commercial-ready, cost-effective solution for the capture of CO2. If biomass only is used, the system would effectively deliver negative emissions energy.

The integration of both technologies has been independently validated as cost-effective climate change technologies. When the HCGT and CCS systems are combined they become the world's first stand-alone Hybrid CCS System that is non-disruptive to industry. The combined efficiencies of the HCGT and CCS Systems will set a new industry benchmark by reducing the cost of carbon capture and sequestration by up to 40%:
The combined technologies are globally relevant technologies in the world of today. They can be fitted as a stand-alone carbon capture service to a vast proportion of existing and planned [...] power stations. This acquisition will position EESTech, Inc. as a leader in this fast-growing marketplace and as a provider of clean coal and carbon capture technologies that are economically and environmentally sustainable. - Murray Bailey, EESTech CEO
EESTech's integrated hybrid system will cut emissions of both carbon dioxide and fugitive methane, which is 21 times more harmful as a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Using captured CO2 for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) is another option that will benefit oil field operators by extending the life of depleted oil reserves, and by yielding an increase of up to 6.5 barrels of oil for every new ton of CO2 injected into suitable oil formations.

EESTech, Inc. is well positioned to capitalize on both the energy-intensive resource boom, and the unfolding industries that will need to meet energy demands in a carbon-constrained global economy.

The announcement follows EESTech, Inc.'s September news that it had signed model power purchase and fuel supply terms with Beijing XingliYuan Science & Technology Company to provide Hybrid Coal Gas Turbines applicable to coal mine companies in China.
The ability of the HCGT to use waste as a fuel to generate both the energy and steam required for carbon capture and sequestration offer tremendous cost savings. We look forward to working with EESTech, Inc. and the opportunity to supply cost-effective CO2 capture for the emerging EOR / Sequestration markets in the Asia Pacific region. - Lionel Kambeitz, CEO of HTC Purenergy
EESTech, Inc. was incorporated in the US and is a US Corporation permitted to trade stock on the US Bulletin Board.

Images: all CCS schematics courtesy of HTC Pure Energy; comparison of carbon emissions of different forms of energy, Biopact.

References:
HTC Pure Energy: publications on its CCS technologies.

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Research suggests certain ethanol blends provide better fuel economy than gasoline, despite biofuel's lower energy content

Surprising research findings released today show that mid-range ethanol blends - fuel mixtures with more ethanol than E10 but less than E85 - can in some cases provide better fuel economy than regular unleaded gasoline, even in standard, non-flex-fuel vehicles and despite the biofuel's lower energy content. The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research (MnCAR) conducted the tests, results of which are published in the report titled Optimal Ethanol Blend-Level Investigation [*.pdf].

Previous assumptions held that ethanol's lower energy content - around 30% lower than gasoline - directly correlates with lower fuel economy for drivers. Those assumptions were found to be incorrect. Instead, the new research suggests that there is an 'optimal blend level' of ethanol and gasoline - most likely E20 or E30 - at which cars will get better mileage than predicted based strictly on the fuel's per-gallon Btu content. The new study, cosponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE), also found that mid-range ethanol blends reduce harmful tailpipe emissions.
This is a compelling argument for more research on the promise of higher ethanol blends in gasoline. There is strong evidence that the optimal ethanol-gasoline blend for standard, non-flex-fuel vehicles is greater than E10 and instead may be E20 or E30. We encourage the federal government to move swiftly to research the use of higher ethanol blends and make necessary approvals so that American motorists can have the cost-effective ethanol choices they deserve at the pump. - Brian Jennings, executive vice president of the American Coalition for Ethanol
The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research (MnCAR) conducted the research using four 2007 model vehicles: a Toyota Camry, a Ford Fusion, and two Chevrolet Impalas, one flex-fuel and one non-flex-fuel. Researchers used the Environmental Protection Agency's Highway Fuel Economy Test (HWFET) to examine a range of ethanol-gasoline blends from straight Tier 2 gasoline up to 85 percent ethanol. All of the vehicles got better mileage with ethanol blends than the ethanol's energy content would predict, and three out of four traveled farther on a mid-level ethanol blend than on unleaded gasoline (graph, click to enlarge):
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In addition to the favorable fuel economy findings, the research provides strong evidence that standard, non-flex-fuel vehicles can operate on ethanol blends beyond 10 percent. The three non-flex-fuel vehicles tested operated on levels as high as E65 before any engine fault codes were displayed.

Emissions results for the ethanol blends were also favorable for nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and non-methane organic gases, showing an especially significant reduction in CO2 emissions for each vehicle's "optimal" ethanol blend.

References:
University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC), Minnesota Center for Automotive Research (MnCAR), Optimal Ethanol Blend-Level Investigation [*.pdf], December 2007.

American Coalition for Ethanol: Groundbreaking study finds that certain ethanol blends can provide better fuel economy than gasoline - December 5, 2007.

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Dynamotive to build fully commercial fast-pyrolysis biofuel plant in Missouri

Canada's Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation, and its subsidiary, Dynamotive USA, Inc., today announced plans to invest US$24 million to build the first fully commercial industrial fast-pyrolysis biofuel plant in the U.S. The next-generation biofuel facility will be located on a site in Willow Springs, approximately 180 miles southwest of St. Louis. The site secured was chosen for its ready access to rail transport, proximity to biomass and the potential to host up to four additional facilities.

The modular, second-generation biomass-to-biofuel plant is designed to use Dynamotive’s proprietary fast-pyrolysis process to convert 200 tons per day of wood by-products and residues from nearby sawmills into 34,000 gallons per day of bio-oil (also known as pyrolysis oil or 'bio-crude'). Commercial terms have been agreed and signed with local feedstock providers to supply the plant.

Bio-oil is an industrial fuel that can be produced from virtually any type of lignocellulosic biomass, including forestry and agricultural waste. By rapidly heating the biomass feedstock to medium temperatures (450 - 600 °C) in an oxygen free environment, pyrolysis oil is obtained (schematic, click to enlarge). When combusted it produces substantially less smog-precursor nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions than conventional oil as well as little or no sulfur oxide gases (SOx), which are a prime cause of acid rain. Dynamotive's BioOil and BioOil Plus (earlier post) are price-competitive replacements for heating oils #2 and #6 that are widely used in industrial boilers and furnaces. They have been awarded the EcoLogo in Canada, meaning that they are certified, as meeting the stringent environmental criteria for industrial fuels as measured by Environment Canada’s Environmental Choice Program.

Bio-oil can be further upgraded into vehicle fuels and green chemicals. A byproduct of the process is biochar, which can be sequestered into agricultural soils and help boost the greenhouse gas emission reduction potential of the biofuels. Via the technique it is even possible to produce carbon-negative biofuels - energy which, unlike 'carbon-neutral' renewables like solar or wind, takes historic CO2 emissions out of the atmosphere. Dynamotive has been testing and evaluating biochar (also known as 'terra preta' or 'agrichar').

Dynamotive recently successfully demonstrated its large commercial plant in Guelph, Ontario, with over seventy-five global biofuel experts attending. Amongst them were scientists from the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40, to which we refer often as they are leading research into global bioenergy trade and logistics (previous post).

Development and construction of the first American plant will be implemented by Dynamotive’s U.S. management, supported by Dynamotive’s engineering team and its partners. Opportunities exist for a significant expansion of Dynamotive’s operations, with more than 1.1 million dry long tons of biomass per year in Missouri alone. As a result, other, similar projects in the state are currently under review. The bio-oil produced at the Willow Springs complex is expected to be sold to commercial and industrial users in the region through a major local distributor of renewable fuels.

An initial burn of bio-oil from Dynamotive’s commercial plant at Guelph, Ontario, is being scheduled at a major industrial facility with this distributor. The initial burn would be preparatory to its adoption of bio-oil as a primary fuel, and the opening of the Midwest market for the product:
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It is expected that up to 5,000 tons of bio-oil will be made available to Midwest consumers over the next year from Dynamotive’s and Evolution Biofuels’ plant while the Willow Springs facility is under construction. The fuel provided is expected to be priced competitively to #2 heating oil, a light industrial fuel.

William C. Holmberg, Chairman of the Washington-based Biomass Coordinating Council and a pioneer of the renewable fuels industry, hailed the plant announcement as "an important step towards releasing America from the bonds of foreign oil, and achieving a sustainable energy future." Holmberg pointed out that "the commercialization of BioOil adds another element to our arsenal of renewable fuels that can help address a previously neglected segment of our oil use: industrial boiler fuels. As such it complements, rather than competes with, fuel ethanol and biodiesel."
This first U.S. project will demonstrate the viability of our technology in the U.S. market and the enormous potential of BioOil to help America make the transition to clean, renewable fuels that do not depend on food crops for their production. We are pleased to announce this project and would like to take this opportunity to thank all stakeholders involved for their magnificent support this year. Missouri has provided a unique platform to showcase our technology and its capabilities. We are committed to this project and look forward to developing further plants in the near future. - Andrew Kingston, Dynamotive’s President and Chief Executive Officer
Dynamotive Energy Systems Corporation is an energy solutions provider headquartered in Vancouver, Canada, with offices in the USA, UK and Argentina. Its carbon and greenhouse-gas-neutral fast pyrolysis technology uses to turn dry, waste cellulosic biomass into BioOil for power and heat generation. Bio-oil can be further converted into vehicle fuels and chemicals.

Earlier this year, Dynamotive Latinoamerica S.A., a subsidiary, announced plans to build 6 pyrolysis plants in the forest-rich regions of the Northeastern Argentinian province of Corrientes (more here). So far detailed plans to invest approximately $105 million to develop of these two self-contained biofuel-to-electricity complexes in this northeastern province were presented. Each complex will be comprised of a 15.7 megawatt electricity generating station powered by the majority of the fuel output of two 200-ton-per-day modular plants producing bio-oil from wood waste and residues from nearby forests and other biomass residue. Excess bio-oil produced at these facilities will be sold into commercial and industrial fuel markets (earlier post).

Image
: Dynamotive's first large-scale commercial fast-pyrolyis plant in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Credit: Dynamotive.

References:
Biopact: Dynamotive demonstrates fast-pyrolysis plant in the presence of biofuel experts - September 18, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive to invest $105 million to develop second-generation biofuel and electricity complexes for rural Argentina - October 02, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive and Mitsubishi Corporation sign cooperation agreement - August 02, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive plans to build 6 bio-oil plants in Argentina - April 30, 2007

Biopact: Dynamotive begins construction of modular fast-pyrolysis plant in Ontario - December 19, 2006

Biopact: Biomass-to-liquids: bring the factory to the forest, not the forest to the factory - September 18, 2006

Biopact: Carbon negative biofuels: Dynamotive to test biochar to boost crop yields, water quality, and sequester carbon - May 30, 2007



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Thenergo acquires German bioenergy group ENRO; conversion of existing fossil fuel to biomass plants

Thenergo, a Belgian renewable energy company today announces it has acquired a controlling stake in ENRO AG, a German biomass-to-energy company listed on the Open Market at the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. In a private placement, ENRO investors received one new Thenergo share for every 2.25 ENRO shares. In addition, Thenergo bought in the market approximately 14% of ENRO shares at an average price of €3.7 per share. At €3.7, ENRO is valued at around €14 million.

ENRO has an operating portfolio of 13.7MWe (electrical) and 73 MWth (thermal).This is produced from two biomass CHP plants fueled by fresh cut and waste wood, generating a total of 13.7MW electrical power and 23MW thermal power. In addition, ENRO is co-owner and co-operator of the companies distributing the heat to industrial and residential clients. In these companies an additional (natural gas based) heat capacity of 50 MW is available. The power produced is sold through 20-year power purchase contracts.

Thenergo anticipates ENRO’s current management retaining full operational control developing and operating on-site CHP biomass plants for industrial customers and local communities. The company is pursuing a growth strategy through integration and conversion of existing fossil fuel plants to biomass, construction of new renewable energy power plants and project acquisitions:
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ENRO’s engineers bring know-how about energy production based on Rankine Cycles (incineration + steam cycle for electricity production) to the Thenergo engineering team. Together with Thenergo’s comprehensive experience in Otto Cycle based energy production (biogas & biofuel engines) the integrated engineering team will cover all aspects of decentralized energy production from biomass. The extra skills and know-how will allow Thenergo to exploit a wider range of energy production opportunities across Europe.
The combination of Thenergo and ENRO has a compelling strategic and operational logic. Thenergo secures a critical foothold in Germany, one of the most fertile business regions in Europe . Shared expertise brings both companies new revenue streams and deeper engineering know-how, and while our financial capacity will drive ENRO’s pipeline growth in Germany, ENRO will facilitate Thenergo’s development in Germany and Central and Eastern Europe. This is a real opportunity to create a leading player in Europe’s fast developing biomass to energy market. It is a value-creating partnership for business partners, employees and shareholders of both companies. - Kurt Alen, CEO, Thenergo
Founded in 2002 and based in Antwerp, Belgium, Thenergo is a fast growing, fully integrated and independent developer and operator of sustainable energy projects using biomass, biogas and natural gas. Thenergo brings solutions and added value to clients' CHP energy needs, from financing and concept design to energy sales and trading on Europe's power markets. In addition, Thenergo's recent acquisition of Leysen Group adds long term procurement security to its business model and brings new opportunities to Thenergo's project pipeline. Since 14 June 2007, Thenergo has been listed on Alternext, Paris.

The acquisition will allow Thenergo to accelerate the growth and structure of its existing business model while increasing its turnover and earnings. In 2008, ENRO will contribute €4 million to EBITDA from an estimated €20 million in turnover. ENRO’s fixed assets at end 2006 were valued at €35 million.

Thenergo has been involved in a number of acquisitions and participations recently. Last week it acquired controlling interests in Polargen, a leading Benelux combined heat and power (CHP) developer for the greenhouse industry, increasing its net capacity in greenhouse CHP operations, in addition to its existing biogas site, to 32MW, up from 8.2MW three months earlier.

The company also announced two new projects earlier this summer: the development of a 3MW CHP biogas project in Flanders generating annually 24,000MWh of clean power, enough to supply around-the-clock electricity for up to 6,000 households (earlier post), and the establishment of a 5MW electricity and biocoal plant in northern Holland together with Eclair-E, a Dutch CHP sustainable energy supplier. The facility will generate annually up to 42,800MWh of power and 75,000 tons of biocoal pellets (more here).

Image: ENRO's biomass CHP plant in Ludwigfelde. Credit: ENRO.

References:
Biopact: Thenergo acquires Polargen: CHP capacity in greenhouse sector to quadruple to 32MW - December 02, 2007

Biopact: Thenergo to develop new 3MW CHP biogas project in Flanders - August 08, 2007

Biopact: Belgian-Dutch partnership to develop 5MW biocoal project - August 10, 2007


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US DOE to invest $7.7 million for four biomass-to-liquids projects; more than $1 billion for biofuels this year

U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Samuel W. Bodman announced the selection of four biofuels projects in which the DOE plans to invest up to $7.7 million. These projects will demonstrate the thermochemical conversion process of turning grasses, stover, the non-edible portion of crops and other materials into biofuel. Combined with this new investment in biomass-to-liquids (BtL) technologies, just this calendar year alone, DOE has announced over $1 billion in funding for biofuels research and development (multi-year funding) projects.

The research is primarily aimed at improving techniques to efficiently eliminate contaminants generated during the thermochemical production of biofuels. Ultimately, the R&D projects will help further President Bush’s goal of making cellulosic ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline by 2012 and, along with increased automobile fuel efficiency, reduce America’s gasoline consumptions by 20 percent in ten years.

Combined with the industry cost share, more than $15.7 million is slated for investment in these four projects. Negotiations between the selected companies and DOE will begin immediately to determine final project plans and precise funding levels. Funding will begin in Fiscal Year 2008 and will run through FY 2010, subject to Congressional appropriations.

The biomass-to-liquids process consists of gasifying biomass to generate a carbon monoxide and hydrogen rich syngas, which is then liquefied via Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. The resulting fuels are ultra-clean 'synthetic' biofuels.

The following four projects were competitively selected for negotiation of awards:
  1. Emery Energy Company of Salt Lake City, Utah: Emery Energy Company has partnered with Ceramatec, Inc. and the Western Research Institute to demonstrate a new, low-cost, novel way to mitigate tars and oils in biomass synthesis gas while also managing other impurities. This project will also verify the technical viability of using the resulting clean synthesis gas in a downstream liquid fuel catalysis process. EEC intends to use a ‘high impact’ biomass such as corn stover as the high impact biomass for their project. DOE will provide up to $1.7 million for the $2.9 million project.
  2. Iowa State University of Ames, Iowa: Iowa State, in partnership with ConocoPhillips Company, will test an integrated biomass to liquids system that uses gas cooling through oil scrubbing rather than water scrubbing in order to minimize waste water treatment. Switchgrass will be the biomass feedstock fed into the gasifier. The gas-oil scrubbing liquid will then be sent to a coker in existing petroleum refining operations to be used as a feedstock. ConocoPhillips’ proprietary sulfur removal technology will also be incorporated into the gas cleanup. Non-proprietary methods will be used to remove ammonia, chloride and other alkali materials. DOE will provide up to $2 million for the $5.2 million project.
  3. Research Triangle Institute of Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Research Triangle Institute, in partnership with North Carolina State University and the University of Utah, will generate syngas derived from woody biomass. A dual fluidized bed reactor will allow continuous regeneration of a catalyst that can simultaneously reform, crack, and remove tar, NH3 and H2S down to ppm levels. During Phase 2, RTI will design and build a slurry bubble column reactor system to convert the clean syngas into a liquid transportation fuel. DOE will provide up to $2 million for the $3.1 million project.
  4. Southern Research Institute of Birmingham, Alabama: In collaboration with Pall Corporation, Thermochem Recovery International, and Rentech, Southern Research Institute will use a 1 megawatt thermal biomass gasifier to generate syngas. The proposed ceramic filter technology and proven gas cleanup sorbent and catalyst system is expected to exceed the required contaminant removal levels specified by Rentech. The unique cleanup technology will be coupled with a conventional scrubber and polishing filter downstream. DOE will provide up to $2 million for the $4.5 million project.
Cellulosic ethanol is a clean, renewable fuel made from a wide variety of non-food plant materials (or feedstocks), including agricultural wastes such as corn stover and cereal straws, industrial plant waste like saw dust and paper pulp, and energy crops grown specifically for fuel production like switchgrass:
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By using a variety of regional feedstocks for refining cellulosic ethanol, the fuel can be produced in nearly every region of the country. Though it requires a more complex refining process, cellulosic ethanol requires less fossil fuels for production and results in lower greenhouse emissions than traditional corn-based ethanol. E-85, an ethanol-fuel blend that is 85-percent ethanol, is already available in more than 1,200 fueling stations nationwide and can power millions of flexible fuel vehicles already on the road.
We are committed to expanding the sustainable production and use of biofuels and these projects will help develop cleaner methods for turning a wide variety of feedstocks into fuel. Successful completion of these projects stands to redefine the way we produce America’s fuels and follows the President’s call to end our dependence to oil. - Samuel Bodman, US Secretary of Energy
As part of DOE’s effort to meet the goal of reducing U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent in ten years, other biofuels research and development projects announced this year include: $385 million for commercial-scale biorefineries (6 projects being pursued); $200 million for pilot-scale (10%) biorefineries to test novel refining processes; over $400 million for three bioenergy centers - funding originally include $375 million, but an early surge of funds allowed for an additional $30+ million; and $23 million for “ethanologen” to develop more efficient microbes for ethanol refining.

References:
US DOE: Department of Energy to Invest up to $7.7 Million for Four Biofuels Projects
DOE Announces over $1 Billion in Biofuels R&D Projects this Year
- December 4, 2007.



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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

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


An army of development 'experts', food aid agencies, NGOs, 'green' journalists and malthusians have tried to wage a war against bioenergy, saying it will impact the food security of the poor, because the planet doesn't have enough land or resources and because markets fail. They often point to countries that are suffering famines to make their case, saying they can never produce both food and fuels.

Now the mother of all examples that completely smashes this static, irrational, malthusian vision comes from Malawi, long seen as a miserable begging bowl in permanent crisis. Anyone who dares to suggest that Malawi, of all places, can grow enough biofuels and food to both feed its entire population while powering its entire economy with green fuels, will be labelled a 'criminal' or a 'psycho'. Well, this year's super harvest in Malawi proves that the psycho is in fact the rational one in the crowd.

This year, Malawi is selling corn to the UN's World Food Program and is exporting hundreds of thousands of tons of corn to its hungry neighbors. Had it decided to turn it into biofuels, it would have replaced all its imported and expensive fossil fuels all at once and become entirely oil independent (Malawi consumes around 5,500 barrels of oil per day).

From begging bowl to major food and virtual fuel exporter... How is this possible? What happened? How come the starving stomachs used so profusely by anti-bioenergy advocates are suddenly so full of food, so full in fact that the country's farmers are swimming in food?

Well, all of this is due to an extremely simple intervention: a moratorium on listening to doomers, World Bank experts, NGOs and other self-declared experts who have a history of advocating disastrous plans. The government of Malawi did the contrary, and finally implemented what rational people with a knowledge of African agriculture have been urging it to do for ages: making available cheap fertilizers. That's it. Nothing more.

We haven't even begun to talk about other very basic interventions, such as providing better seeds, improving infrastructures (road, rail, waterways), making available cheaper fuels (biofuels instead of petrofuels), disseminating basic agronomic insight, improving market access, creating a fair global trade regime, and so on. No, just a single one of these basics makes the difference between starvation and becoming a major regional food exporter.

The effects of this simple intervention have been truly amazing. In Malawi itself, writes Celia Dugger in Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts, the prevalence of acute child hunger has fallen sharply. In October, the United Nations Children’s Fund sent three tons of powdered milk, stockpiled here to treat severely malnourished children, to Uganda instead. “We will not be able to use it!” Juan Ortiz-Iruri, Unicef’s deputy representative in Malawi, said jubilantly:
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Farmers explain Malawi’s extraordinary turnaround — one with broad implications for hunger-fighting methods across Africa — with one word: fertilizer.

Over the past 20 years, the World Bank and some rich nations Malawi depends on for aid have periodically pressed this small, landlocked country to adhere to free market policies and cut back or eliminate fertilizer subsidies, even as the United States and Europe extensively subsidized their own farmers. But after the 2005 harvest, the worst in a decade, Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s newly elected president, decided to follow what the West practiced, not what it preached.

Stung by the humiliation of pleading for charity, he led the way to reinstating and deepening fertilizer subsidies despite a skeptical reception from the United States and Britain. Malawi’s soil, like that across sub-Saharan Africa, is gravely depleted, and many, if not most, of its farmers are too poor to afford fertilizer at market prices.

“As long as I’m president, I don’t want to be going to other capitals begging for food,” Mr. Mutharika declared. Patrick Kabambe, the senior civil servant in the Agriculture Ministry, said the president told his advisers, “Our people are poor because they lack the resources to use the soil and the water we have.”

The country’s successful use of subsidies is contributing to a broader reappraisal of the crucial role of agriculture in alleviating poverty in Africa and the pivotal importance of public investments in the basics of a farm economy: fertilizer, improved seed, farmer education, credit and agricultural research.

Malawi, an overwhelmingly rural nation about the size of Pennsylvania, is an extreme example of what happens when those things are missing. As its population has grown and inherited landholdings have shrunk, impoverished farmers have planted every inch of ground. Desperate to feed their families, they could not afford to let their land lie fallow or to fertilize it. Over time, their depleted plots yielded less food and the farmers fell deeper into poverty.

Malawi’s leaders have long favored fertilizer subsidies, but they reluctantly acceded to donor prescriptions, often shaped by foreign-aid fashions in Washington, that featured a faith in private markets and an antipathy to government intervention.

In the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the World Bank pushed Malawi to eliminate fertilizer subsidies entirely. Its theory both times was that Malawi’s farmers should shift to growing cash crops for export and use the foreign exchange earnings to import food, according to Jane Harrigan, an economist at the University of London.

In a withering evaluation of the World Bank’s record on African agriculture, the bank’s own internal watchdog concluded in October not only that the removal of subsidies had led to exorbitant fertilizer prices in African countries, but that the bank itself had often failed to recognize that improving Africa’s declining soil quality was essential to lifting food production.

“The donors took away the role of the government and the disasters mounted,” said Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist who lobbied Britain and the World Bank on behalf of Malawi’s fertilizer program and who has championed the idea that wealthy countries should invest in fertilizer and seed for Africa’s farmers.

Here in Malawi, deep fertilizer subsidies and lesser ones for seed, abetted by good rains, helped farmers produce record-breaking corn harvests in 2006 and 2007, according to government crop estimates. Corn production leapt to 2.7 million metric tons in 2006 and 3.4 million in 2007 from 1.2 million in 2005, the government reported.

“The rest of the world is fed because of the use of good seed and inorganic fertilizer, full stop,” said Stephen Carr, who has lived in Malawi since 1989, when he retired as the World Bank’s principal agriculturalist in sub-Saharan Africa. “This technology has not been used in most of Africa. The only way you can help farmers gain access to it is to give it away free or subsidize it heavily.”

“The government has taken the bull by the horns and done what farmers wanted,” he said. Some economists have questioned whether Malawi’s 2007 bumper harvest should be credited to good rains or subsidies, but an independent evaluation, financed by the United States and Britain, found that the subsidy program accounted for a large share of this year’s increase in corn production.

The harvest also helped the poor by lowering food prices and increasing wages for farm workers. Researchers at Imperial College London and Michigan State University concluded in their preliminary report that a well-run subsidy program in a sensibly managed economy “has the potential to drive growth forward out of the poverty trap in which many Malawians and the Malawian economy are currently caught.”

Farmers interviewed recently in Malawi’s southern and central regions said fertilizer had greatly improved their ability to fill their bellies with nsima, the thick, cornmeal porridge that is Malawi’s staff of life.

In the hamlet of Mthungu, Enelesi Chakhaza, an elderly widow whose husband died of hunger five years ago, boasted that she got two ox-cart-loads of corn this year from her small plot instead of half a cart.

Last year, roughly half the country’s farming families received coupons that entitled them to buy two 110-pound bags of fertilizer, enough to nourish an acre of land, for around $15 — about a third the market price. The government also gave them coupons for enough seed to plant less than half an acre.

What this means for bioenergy
Malawi's progress is just an example of what Biopact has been saying all along: basic, minimal interventions in agriculture have the capacity to unlock an enormous food and fuel potential. Malawi's example can, and should be replicated in the majority of African countries, who have plenty of land and excellent agro-climatic conditions, which should make them huge food and biofuel exporters, instead of remaining miserable food and oil dependent begging bowls.

There is no lack of agricultural or natural resources limiting food and biofuel production for the world's populations and energy markets. Everyone who says this, refuses to look at the science.

Many analyses about the world's sustainable bioenergy potential show that the planet can sustain a very large amount of green fuels. Researchers from the International Energy Agency's Bioenergy Task 40 have estimated it to be around 1400 Exajoules of biofuels and bioenergy by 2050. That is 7 (seven) times more energy than all the oil currently consumed by the entire world.

This potential is explicitly sustainable, meaning all the food, fiber, fodder and forest products needs of growing populations are met, and without deforestation.

The largest potential can be found in Africa, where hundreds of millions of hectares of land are not used, and where agricultural productivity can be vastly improved with relatively simple means (as in the Malawian example).

Now the question is: how to unlock this potential further still? The answers are fairly straightforward: we need investments in basic, modern infrastructures (road, rail, waterways, ports - all of which are absent in Africa); we need investments in critical but ultra-basic agricultural inputs, like fertilizers (see the call made during last year's Africa Fertilizer Summit, or another example of the amazing effects of micro-dosages), herbicides, better seeds, mechanised harvesting, and basic agronomical science (all of this is absent in Africa, but can readily be transferred from high tech agricultural nations); we need basic investments in land, in market access and marketing, in export capacity and in a removal of market barriers. We need a fair global trade regime.

If these transformations are made, and they can be made if we decide to do so, the world can overcome Peak Oil easily, and produce many times more oil than OPEC, sustainably, and in a renewable way - that is, year after year, without depleting the resource.

It is time the so-called 'experts', World Bankers, NGOs and malthusians start to listen to science and reason. Then it will become clear to them that there is no inherent conflict between food and fuel. On the contrary, both food and fuel production can boost each other, especially in poor, oil dependent countries.

Picture: Women in the Dezda district of Malawi pounding corn to make nsima, the thick cornmeal porridge that is the national staple. Malawi's government ignored experts and supplied fertilizer subsidies to farmers, contributing to record-breaking corn harvests.Credit: New York Times.


References:

New York Times: Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the Experts - December 2, 2007.

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

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

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

Biopact: Fertilizers boost crop production amongst smallholders in Zimbabwe - April 13, 2007

Biopact: Experts meet to boost African farm yields - June 11, 2006

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The bioeconomy at work: Globetrotter 'bio-car' wins Young Designer of the Year Award


Ever imagined driving in an ultra lightweight, bioplastic car running efficiently on green electricity and taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by doing so? If designer Harsha Ravi has his way, this will be the future of sustainable automobiles. Winning the conveted Young Designer of the Year award, Harsha Ravi has envisioned a release from dependence on fossil fuels with an emphasis on eco-friendly vehicle technologies and cutting back the weight and bulk of today’s gas-guzzlers. Ravi’s concept uses a carbon-neutral, strong bioplastic body with 12 percent petroleum-based/88 percent corn-based plastic that reduces manufacturing energy 30 percent.

And there’s much more - a zinc-air fuel cell, nano-paper battery, airless tires, nanopaints to absorb solar energy while parked to charge its batteries, and natural fiber woven seat material. This car is lightweight, functional, frugal - the ultimate 'tread lightly' automotive feast for the environment-savvy consumer. If its batteries are charged with bio-electricity - the most efficient and cost-effective form of renewable energy - Ravi's concept becomes a fully carbon-neutral 'bio-car'. What's more, if it were to be powered by carbon negative electricity from biomass, the carbon dioxide of which is captured and sequestered, it could even take emissions out of the atmosphere!


Interestingly, the entire vehicle is 'designed-for-disassembly', a design philosophy based on the increasingly important 'cradle to cradle' concept, which makes designers think of how their products can be broken down and its individual parts reused in similar or totally different products. The bioplastic components conform to the idea as well, because when they are biodegraded in soils, they become nutrients for plants from which new bioplastics can be made - a perfectly closed loop that differs significantly from mere 'recycling'.


Harsha Ravi designed his first car at the age of 13. His childhood penchant for sketching people and landscapes finally earned him accolades when he was awarded the title of the Australian Young Designer of the Year, 2007, in October, for designing a futuristic car for 2017. The award has been instituted by the magazine Wheels in conjunction with the Australian Design Awards. It recognizes and rewards Australia’s outstanding young automotive designers:
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Ravi, a Chennai-born NRI studying in Australia, is a part-time student at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. He is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Industrial/Product design at the university. His environment-friendly car, Globetrotter, was selected out of 17 entries at this year’s competition. The eight-judge panel included experts like GM Holden design director Antony Stolfo, Australian International Design Awards executive director Brandon Glen, Nielsen Design Associates managing director Sandy McNeil and Newcastle University industrial design head Graham Paver.

This year’s competition marked the 50th anniversary of the Fiat 500 and the designs were required to be 2+1, 500cc and 500 kg. The judging criteria included innovation, intelligence of design, visual impact and form, functionality, visual impact and form, functionality, originality, quality and design for manufacture and maintenance, ergonomics and semantics, safety and environmental considerations:

The award entitles him to a three-month internship of $50,000 at GMs North American design studio in 2008, where he would work with a team of international students on an advanced design project. He would also get a $15,000 trip to a major international motor show in 2008, funded by aXcess of Australia. The other designs that were highly commended at the competition were H500 by Tanveerul Islam and Roll up by Edwin Yi Yuan.

Biocomposites and bioenergy are becoming increasingly attractive to future mobility concepts. Earlier this year researchers at the University of Warwick presented their first environmentally-friendly racing car with tyres made from potatoes and brake pads from cashew nut shells - it runs on biofuels (previous post). Likewise, Canadian universities have teamed up to develop a car that is over 90% biodegradable, light weight and hyper efficient (more here); they will rival an American partnership with very similar goals (previous post).

And if ever we were to make the transition towards hydrogen fuelled vehicles, it is likely that the gas will be produced from biomass, which offers the most efficient and cleanest production pathway. According to a recent comprehensive well-to-wheel analysis of different propulsion concepts, hydrogen made from wood beats all other production methods when it comes to efficiency and cleanliness, including hydrogen from electrolysis of water power by wind energy, nuclear or fossil fuels (see here).

The most optimal use of biomass for transport, however, remains its conversion into electricity in efficient combined heat and power (CHP) or combined heat, power and cooling plants (CCHP), for use in battery electric cars - like Ravi's 'bio-car'.

References:
The Economic Times: NRI Globetrotter design wows global community - November 25, 2007.

Wheels: The Top Tree - Young Designer of the Year Award - November 1, 2007.

Inhabitat: GLOBETROTTER ECO CAR Wins Young Designer of the Year Award - December 4, 2007.

Biopact: Grow it yourself: the biodegradable, plant-based car is here - March 27, 2007

Biopact: Canadian universities receive C$6 million to build plant-based 'BioCars' - March 13, 2007

Biopact: U.S. universities teaming up to build 90% biodegradable car - March 01, 2007

Biopact: Hydrogen out, compressed biogas in - October 01, 2006


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China's biomass power plants boost poor farmers' incomes by 10%

One often hears about the potential of bioenergy to boost the incomes of poor rural households. From China now come the first numbers, proving the case. China's National Bio Energy Co., Ltd (NBE), a subsidiary of the State Grid Corporation of China, has so far established eight biomass plants in five leading grain-producing provinces to cut carbon dioxide emissions in electricity generation amid growing global concerns over greenhouse gas and climate change. According to local government figures, the plants, which burn agricultural waste, have brought substantial increases in incomes to the poor farmers who supply the biofuel.

The bioenergy plants, with a total installed capacity of 200 MW, are expected to burn 1.6 million tons of waste biomass annually. They will generate 1.4 billion kilowatthours hours of electricity, said Cui Mengshan, the manager in charge of planning and business development at National Bio Energy.

Compared with coal-fired power plants, the biomass projects are expected to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 800,000 tons annually.

Boost to incomes
China has been turning biomass into clean energy since last December when the State Grid Corporation launched the first biomass plant in the eastern Shandong Province.

This project, which burns 200,000 tons of stalks annually, has enabled local farmers to make a profit out of what was traditionally considered to be waste. Figures provided by the local government said the Shandong biomass project has brought a total annual income increase of 40 million yuan ($5.33 million) for nearly 50,000 local families. This is around $106 per family, a major increase in a region where the average rural household's annual per capita income (for 2005) was 2300 yuan ($310).

Taking an average of 3.5 members per rural household, and a total family income of $1100 per year, the biomass project thus boosts family incomes by roughly 10%. (See: National Bureau of Statistics of China: Numbers Per Capita Cash Income of Rural Households by Region; data for 2006 here, but not publicly accessible).

In short, this single project indicates that rural households can benefit from participating in the bioenergy sector. Similar projects have been launched over the past year by the NBE in four other grain-producing provinces, including Hebei, Jiangsu, Henan and Heilongjiang.

China's installed capacity of bioenergy electricity is forecast to reach 5.5 GW by 2010, according to the country's 11th Five-Year Plan 2006 to 2010. Under the country's recently announced $265 billion Renewable Energy Strategy, which is aimed at long term investments, the target for biomass power has been set at 30GW by 2020, making it the second-largest renewable after hydropower (table, click to enlarge, and see previous post):
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Thus, by 2010 China's carbon dioxide emissions will be reduced by 22 million tons from the bioenergy projects.

China generates about 660 million tons of stalks from its annual grain production, about 200 million tons of which can be used as a biofuel for clean energy. Traditionally, the stalks are burned in the open air, releasing vast amounts of greenhouse gases and letting off pollutants that cloud the skies, hampering air traffic and reducing the visibility on highways.

The NBE has not less than 30 biomass projects under construction. We earlier presented a short overview of these biomass plants and the feedstocks they utilize, here. The NBE's largest competitor is Dragon Power, a Beijing-based company which plans to raise as much as 15 billion yuan (€1.45/US$2bn) from an initial public offering in Hong Kong to build not less than 100 biomass power plants across the People's Republic (previous post). Another important bioenergy producer is China Enersave, which retrofits existing coal plants and turns them into facilities that generate power from biomass (more here).

Coal-dependent China is set to surpass the United States as the world's largest emitter of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, bringing it under scrutiny as countries gather in Bali to begin negotiating a pact to fight global warming to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.

References:
Xinhua: China turns to clean biomass solution for emission cuts - December 4, 2007.

Biopact: China unveils $265 billion renewable energy plan, aims for 15% renewables by 2020 - September 06, 2007

Biopact: Expert: China's biomass power plants to be profitable in three years - October 30, 2007

Biopact: A closer look at China's biomass power plants - April 19, 2007



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IFPRI report: more free trade needed to tackle rising food prices; small farmers could benefit

Income growth, climate change, high energy prices, globalization, and urbanization are all converging to transform food production, markets, and consumption, according to a new report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). As a result, global food demand and prices are likely to rise, threatening the livelihoods and nutrition of poor people in developing countries. The report, The World Food Situation: New Driving Forces and Required Actions [*.pdf], was released today at the annual general meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The IFPRI makes recommendations which it thinks can help overcome the effect of rising food prices to some extent. They include the removal of trade barriers, investments in critical rural infrastructures and more efforts in agricultural science.
Food prices have been steadily decreasing since the Green Revolution, but the days of falling food prices may be over. Surging demand for feed, food, and fuel have recently led to drastic price increases, which are not likely to fall in the foreseeable future, due to low stocks and slow-growing supplies of agricultural outputs. Climate change will also have a negative impact on food production, compounding the challenge of meeting global food demand, and potentially exacerbating hunger and malnutrition among the world's poorest people. - Joachim von Braun, lead author of the report and director general of IFPRI
Economic growth has helped to reduce hunger, particularly when it is equitable, says von Braun. But unfortunately, growth does not always reach the poorest people.

Consumer Demand
Many regions of the developing world, especially China and India, have seen high economic growth in recent years. Together with an expanding urban population, income growth is altering spending and consumer preferences. Global food demand is shifting from grains and other staple crops to processed food and high-value agricultural products, such as vegetables, fruits, meat, and dairy.

Importantly, the IFPRI says, the rising food prices offer opportunities for small farmers, even though it will not be easy for them to tap into the market:
Although many smallholder farmers would like to take advantage of new income-generating opportunities presented by high-value products, there are serious barriers to entering this market, including the capacity to address safety and quality standards and produce large quantities for food processors and retailers.
First generation biofuels
In response to rising oil costs, the production of first generation biofuels as an alternative source of energy is also contributing to dramatic changes in the world food situation. According to the report, increased production of biofuels made from food crops will adversely affect poor people in developing countries by increasing both the price and price volatility of food. Subsidies for such biofuels, which are common, exacerbate the negative impact on poor households, as they implicitly act as a tax on basic food.

Using computer modeling, IFPRI has projected the possible price effects of first generation biofuels for two potential scenarios up to the year 2020 (table, click to enlarge):
  • Under scenario one, which is based on the actual biofuel investment plans of many countries and the assumption that high-potential countries will expand their production of bioenergy, maize prices would increase by 26 percent and oilseed prices would rise by 18 percent.
  • Under scenario two, which assumes that the production of biofuels would expand greatly, to twice the level of scenario one, maize prices would increase by 72 percent and oilseeds by 44 percent.
In both scenarios, rises in crop prices would lead to decreases in food availability and calorie consumption in all regions of the world, with Sub-Saharan Africa suffering the most. As biofuels become increasingly profitable, more land, water, and capital will be diverted to their production, and the world will face more trade-offs between food and fuel.

Agricultural Trade
In addition to biofuels, IFPRI also modeled the impact of supply and demand changes on prices and projects that up to 2015, cereal prices could further increase by 10 to 20 percent, benefiting certain countries and population groups while ill-affecting others. China and almost all African countries, which are net importers of cereals, would suffer from the resulting high prices, but India, a net exporter would benefit. Overall, the majority of poor people, who live in households that are net buyers of food, will be worse off and increased food prices will make it even more difficult for them to eat healthy, well-balanced diets.
A more open global trade in agriculture, however, would generally benefit developing countries. IFPRI research shows that opening up and facilitating market access between industrialized and developing countries would bring significant economic gains, although poverty would not be significantly reduced except in certain contexts.
Climate Change
World agricultural output is projected to decrease significantly due to global warming, and the impact on developing countries will be much more severe than on industrialized nations. Africa is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its high proportion of low-input, rainfed agriculture, compared with Asia or Latin America. Exposure to rainfall variability also extends to livestock, which mostly depend on range and grasslands that are affected by environmental shocks, such as climate change. To address these risks, investments to improve agricultural productivity need to increase and innovative insurance mechanisms should be explored to compensate rural communities and smallholder farmers when rains fail.

Policy Recommendations
Given the various risks and challenges posed by the rapidly changing world food situation, current market trends and government policies could exacerbate hunger and poverty, especially for the world's poorest people. Policymakers thus must take explicit measures to mitigate the negatives effects on poor households. While tackling long-term challenges is vital, the report recommends that policymakers also take immediate action:
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  1. Developed countries should facilitate flexible responses to drastic changes in food prices by eliminating trade barriers and programs that set aside agriculture resources. A world facing increased food scarcity needs to trade more, not less.
  2. Developing countries should increase investment in rural infrastructure and market institutions to improve access to critical agricultural inputs, including fertilizers, seeds, and credit, which are key to enhancing productivity.
  3. To counteract rising food prices, national and international research systems, including the CGIAR, should be positioned to invest more heavily in agricultural science and technology to increase agricultural production on a global level.
  4. Policymakers should enact social protection measures that focus on early childhood nutrition to mitigate risks associated with reduced food access, particularly for the poorest households.
  5. Because poor people in developing countries are especially vulnerable to the risks associated with climate change, particularly as it relates to food security, policymakers should take agriculture and food issues into account when developing national and international climate change agendas.
As the world food situation is being rapidly defined by new driving forces, including income growth, climate change, and increased production of biofuels, the global community must give renewed attention to the role of agriculture, nutrition, and health in development policy. Above all, policies must target the world's most poor and hungry people, to ensure that they do not get left behind in the wake of overall economic growth and global progress. - von Braun
The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), established in 1971, is a strategic partnership of countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations supporting the work of 15 international agricultural research Centers. In collaboration with national agricultural research systems, civil society and the private sector, the CGIAR fosters sustainable agricultural growth through high-quality science aimed at benefiting the poor through stronger food security, better human nutrition and health, higher incomes and improved management of natural resources.

References:

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) seeks sustainable solutions for ending hunger and poverty. IFPRI is one of 15 centers supported by the CGIAR.

IFPRI: Joachim von Braun, The World Food Situation: New Driving Forces and Required Actions [*.pdf] - December, 2007.

IFPRI: Fact sheet [*.pdf]- December 4, 2007.

IFPRI: Rising food prices threaten world's poor people - December 4, 2007.

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Canadian government provides $1.5 billion worth of biofuels incentives

The Canadian government has announced program details and eligibility requirements for $1.5 billion in biofuel production incentives available through the 'ecoENERGY for Biofuels' initiative.

The incentives are meant to achieve the goal of getting a five percent renewable content in all gasoline sold in Canada by 2010. Diesel fuel and heating oil will require an average of two percent renewable content by 2012. To meet those requirements, it is estimated that Canada will need three billion litres of renewable fuel a year. Canadian production is currently about 800 million litres per year.
This government strongly supports the development of biofuels, which will lead to new markets for our farmers, help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create new jobs for our cities and towns. The biofuels production incentive is a perfect example of our government's practical, balanced approach to tackling climate change. - Gerry Ritz, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food
Under the ecoENERGY for Biofuels initiative, which the Prime Minister announced in July 2007, the Government of Canada will invest up to $1.5 billion over nine years in incentives to encourage greater private sector investment in biofuel production. Producers of ethanol and other renewable alternatives to gasoline will be eligible for incentives of up to 10 cents per litre of production; biodiesel producers can receive incentives of up to 20 cents per litre, for the first three years.

The ecoENERGY for Biofuels initiative is one part of Canada's comprehensive biofuels strategy. In addition to regulating renewable content in gasoline and diesel fuel, the strategy also includes a $500-million investment in advancing Canada's leadership in next-generation biofuel technologies. Biofuel production is receiving a further boost through the $200-million ecoAgriculture Biofuels Capital incentive that provides farmers with the opportunity to invest directly in the industry:
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As well, the $20-million Biofuels Opportunities for Producers initiative will assist farmers and rural communities in seizing new market opportunities in the agricultural sector.
We owe it to future generations to take action on climate change. The ecoENERGY for Biofuels initiative shows our commitment to taking real action towards a healthier environment and a stronger economy for all Canadians. - Gary Lunn, Minister of Natural Resources
The biofuel production incentive program runs from April 1, 2008, to March 31, 2017, and is administered by Natural Resources Canada.

The following parameters for the program are under consideration but subject to finalization and approval:
  • Available to eligible facilities constructed before March 31, 2011, subject to program volume limits.
  • Incentives for up to seven years per eligible facility.
  • Program volume limits of 2 billion litres of renewable alternatives to gasoline and 500 million litres of renewable alternatives to diesel, potentially increasing over time, subject to funding availability.
  • Incentive rates of up to $0.10 per litre for renewable alternatives to gasoline and up to $0.20 per litre for renewable alternatives to diesel for the first three years of the program, declining over the following 6 years in the following manner:

  • Incentive rates also based on average industry profitability, determined on an annual or semi-annual basis.
  • A cap of 30 per cent of program volume limits per eligible recipient.
  • A minimum production volume per eligible facility.
  • Certain thresholds for, and reporting of, plant environmental performance such as greenhouse gas emissions, and the quality of fuels produced.
References:
Canadian Government, ecoAction: ecoENERGY for Biofuels, program overview.

Canadian Government, Natural Resources: ecoENERGY for Biofuels.

Canadian Government, Natural Resources: Government of Canada Calls on Industry to Participate in New Biofuels Initiative - December 3, 2007.


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Monday, December 03, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: researchers develop 'nanohybrid' bioplastic that biodegrades much faster

Scientists in New York are reporting the development of a new biodegradable 'nanohybrid' plastic that can be engineered to decompose much faster than existing renewable plastics used in everything from soft drink bottles to medical implants. The study appears as an open access article in the journal Biomacromolecules, a publication of the American Chemical Society.

The plastic is a modified form of polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB), a promising biodegradable thermoplastic produced by the fermentation of renewable biomass by bacteria (previous post) that has been widely hailed as a 'green' alternative to petroleum-based plastic for use in packaging, agricultural and biomedical applications. Although commercially available since the 1980s, PHB has seen only limited use because of its brittleness and unpredictable biodegradation rates.

In the new study, Pralay Maiti, Carl Batt, and Emmanuel Giannelis from Cornell University's Department of Materials Science and Engineering compared the strength and biodegradation rates of raw PHB to a modified form of PHB that contains nanoparticles of clay or 'nanoclays'. One advantage of clay nanocomposites is their improved barrier properties while retaining the flexibility and optical clarity of the pure biopolymer. The use of such particles has been reported in biodegradable aliphatic polyester nanocomposites, but this is the first time they were introduced into PHB/layered silicate nanocomposites:
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The main objective of the researchers was to study the effect of nanoclays on biodegradation. Although the biodegradation of neat PHB enzymatically and in seawater was already studied, this is the first report of biodegradability of PHB nanocomposites.

Biodegradation tests were carried out at room temperature (20 C) and at 60 C. The scientists found that the modified PHB was both stronger and decomposed faster than regular PHB. The nanohybrid PHB decomposed almost completely after seven weeks, while its traditional counterpart showed almost no decomposition (image, click to enlarge). They also showed that degradation could be fine-tuned by adjusting the amount of nanoparticles added.

The study is the first report of the biodegradation of PHB nanocomposites and could lead to wider use of PHB plastics, the scientists say.

Nanotechnology and the field of nano-enhanced bioplastics is having concrete results. Recently a specialty chemicals company announced that it succeeded in embedding dispersible nanoparticles into polylactic acid (PLA) based bioplastics which makes them considerably stronger and less hazy (previous post). This is a much needed improvement, overcoming one of the key weaknesses of PLA bioplastics.

Picture
: Polarizing optical images of the virgin bioplastic (PHB) and the 'nanohybrid' (PHBCN2) before and after 8 weeks of biodegradation. The samples were crystallized at 125 °C prior to composting.

References:
Pralay Maiti, Carl A. Batt, Emmanuel P. Giannelis, "New Biodegradable Polyhydroxybutyrate/Layered Silicate Nanocomposites", Biomacromolecules, 8 (11), 3393 -3400, 2007. 10.1021/bm700500t S1525-7797(70)00500-7

Biopact: Nanoparticle additive makes PLA based bioplastics stronger - July 23, 2007

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


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Bioprospectors identify new biohydrogen and ethanol producing bacteria in Iceland's hot springs

A bioprospecting expedition to Iceland's famed hot springs has yielded new strains of bacteria with potential of producing biohydrogen (H2) and ethanol (EtOH) fuels from biomass and waste materials containing carbohydrates. The report about the discovery of the new thermophilic microbes appeared online as an open access article in Energy & Fuels, a bi-monthly journal. This is yet another illustration of how investigating life in extreme environments may yield applications in the emerging bioeconomy.

In the study, Perttu E. P. Koskinen and colleagues point out that ethanol and hydrogen are two leading eco-friendly candidates for supplementing world supplies of oil, coal, and other conventional fuels. Research suggests that there would be advantages in producing those fuels by fermentation with bacteria capable of withstanding higher temperatures than microbes now in use.

Knowing that thermophilic, or heat-loving, bacteria inhabit Iceland's hot springs, the scientists bioprospected scalding-hot geothermal springs in different parts of the country for new ethanol and hydrogen-producing bacteria. After screening samples, including those from springs that approached the boiling point of water, the scientists enriched promising microorganisms that can produce the compounds from glucose or cellulose at high temperatures. The enrichments included those with unusually high yields of hydrogen or ethanol from carbohydrates.

Hydrogen- and EtOH-producing enrichment cultures were obtained from various hot spring samples over a temperature range of 50–78 °C. The temperature dependencies for the most promising enrichments were determined with a temperature-gradient incubator. One of the enrichments (33HL) produced 2.10 mol of H2/mol of glucose at 59 °C. Another enrichment (9HG), dominated by bacteria closely affiliated with Thermoanaerobacter thermohydrosulfuricus, produced 0.68 mol of H2/mol of glucose, and 1.21 mol of EtOH/mol of glucose at 78 °C:
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Hydrogen and EtOH production by 9HG was characterized further in a continuous-flow bioreactor at 74 °C. The highest H2 and EtOH yields of 9HG were obtained at pH 6.8 ± 0.3. Lactate production decreased the H2 and EtOH yields in the continuous-flow bioreactor, and the yields were lower than those obtained in the batch fermentations.

In conclusion, the thorough batch screening of Icelandic hot spring samples indicated promising enrichments for H2 or H2 plus EtOH production from carbohydrate materials.

References:
Perttu E. P. Koskinen, Chyi-How Lay, Steinar R. Beck, Katariina E. S. Tolvanen, Anna H. Kaksonen, Jóhann Örlygsson, Chiu-Yue Lin, and Jaakko A. Puhakka, "Bioprospecting Thermophilic Microorganisms from Icelandic Hot Springs for Hydrogen and Ethanol Production", Energy & Fuels, ASAP Article, October 18, 2007, DOI: 10.1021/ef700275w

Eurekalert: Bioprospectors identify hot new biofuel-producing bacteria - December 3, 2007.

Biopact: Investigating life in extreme environments may yield applications in the bioeconomy - July 05, 2007

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Report finds revenues from deforestation are small compared to potential carbon credits - but does not take into account carbon negative bioenergy

Deforestation in tropical countries is often driven by the economic reality that forests are worth more dead than alive. But a new study by an international consortium of researchers has found that the emerging market for carbon credits has the potential to radically alter that equation. By putting a price on carbon sequestered in forests, they would be worth more intact than the profits from the products generated from deforestation.

However, the study did not take into account the emergence of carbon negative bioenergy production, which complicates the calculation even further. But then, the concept of negative emissions energy remains abstract, while deforestation is extremely concrete and must be tackled now. The 'virtual threat' of carbon negative bioenergy to any scheme aimed at compensating avoided deforestation, should remain virtual. It should not be seen as a barrier to policy makers who want to incorporate such avoided deforestation schemes within the new, post-Kyoto framework on strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The new study, which was released this week at UNFCC Conference of Parties (COP-13) in Bali, compared the financial gains generated by deforestation over the last 10 to 20 years in areas of Southeast Asia, Central Africa and the Amazon Basin - most of it driven by a desire for farm land or timber - to the amount carbon that was released by the destruction. That comparison has become critically important because many industries in developed countries are set to spend billions of dollars to meet new requirements for curbing greenhouse gases by purchasing carbon credits tied to reductions elsewhere.

Reason and the need to reward avoided deforestation
The researchers - who conducted the study under the Partnership for Tropical Forest Margins (ASB) - found that in most areas studied, the various ventures that prompted deforestation are always the result of a rational calculation. But when the prospect of a carbon price attached to the forests is taken into account, these ventures rarely generated more than $5 for every ton of carbon they released and frequently returned far less than US $1. Meanwhile, European buyers are currently paying 23 euros (about US $35) for an offset tied to a one-ton reduction in carbon.
Deforestation is almost always driven by a rational response to what the market values and for some time now, it has just made more financial sense to many people in forested areas to cut down the trees. What we discovered is that returns for deforestation are generally so paltry that if farmers and other land users were rewarded for the carbon stored in their trees and forests, it is highly likely that a large amount of deforestation and carbon emissions would be prevented. - Brent Swallow, leader of the study and Global Coordinator of the Partnership for Tropical Forest Margins
Developing new incentives for reducing carbon emissions stemming from deforestation is high on the agenda in Bali. Deforestation is rampant in places like Indonesia, the Amazon and the Congo. Currently, confusion over how to value and monitor the large amounts of carbon stored in tropical forests has prevented the inclusion of forests in the carbon offset market that is mainly dominated by reductions achieved in the industrial sector, even though deforestation is responsible for some 20 percent of the world's carbon emissions.
We understand that allowing people in forested regions of developing countries to participate in carbon markets presents major challenges, but it�s naive to think that conservation is going to occur absent a market incentive. Everyone has a stake in finding a way to make it work because it's hard to see how any global effort to combat climate change will succeed if it ignores a major source of the problem. - Meine van Noordwijk, Southeast Asia Regional Coordinator of the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF)
Van Noordwijk and his colleagues arrived at their conclusions on the economics of deforestation after examining the trade-offs between carbon and financial returns in three areas in Indonesia, and one area each in Peru and Cameroon, all of which have undergone extensive deforestation:
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They found that in most instances at the sites in Indonesia, deforestation returned less than $5 per ton of carbon released and in some areas, less than $1. For example, in forested areas rich in peat, which is particularly efficient at trapping carbon, the figure was about $0.10 to $0.20 per ton.

Meanwhile, an analysis of deforestation in the Amazonian forests of the Ucayali Province of Peru produced similar results. Most of the deforestation, which was mainly driven by a desire for crop land, generated less than US $5 per ton of carbon released. The Cameroon study sites produced a better return. Deforestation returns about US $11 per ton of carbon emissions, which is mainly due to an increase in secondary forest and the fact that in Cameroon, cocoa production - which elsewhere has decimated tropical forests - has tended to occur within forests, and resulted in more in forest degradation than outright deforestation.

The report notes that offering economic rewards for carbon storage could be effective not only at encouraging conservation but also at encouraging activities in deforested areas that can recoup at least some of the lost carbon. For example, research shows that agroforestry, which encourages a broader use of trees on farms, can offer a win-win situation of improving smallholder incomes and absorbing carbon.

Dennis Garrity, Director General of the Nairobi, Kenya-based World Agroforestry Centre said that, not only does agroforestry have the potential to store carbon, it also addresses the need for alternative livelihoods amongst populations who currently benefit from deforestation.

Researchers caution that despite the clear benefits to be derived from assigning carbon credits to conserving forests, implementing a forest-based carbon market will be complicated.

The challenge will be to ensure that payments for maintaining forests actually reach local people, and do not end up in the wrong pockets. For the system to be effective, we will need new mechanisms for allocating payments that are efficient as well as fair. - Frances Seymour, Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) based in Indonesia

Carbon Negative Bioenergy
Biopact has however added an entirely new perspective to the discussion of the value of forests when they are seen as carbon sinks. The new report shows that keeping forests intact brings in more potential revenue from carbon credits than revenues obtained from products generated on the basis of deforestation.

But this equation changes dramatically when the same logic were to be applied to the potential for the production of carbon negative bioenergy and fuels. Carbon negative bioenergy takes far more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, than intact forests ever can.

To understand this, one has to look at the concept in its most radical form: suppose one deforests an area to grow energy crops on them. These crops are then utilized to generate electricity, in biomass power plants. But when the carbon dioxide released during this process is consequently captured and stored (CCS) in geological formations (such as depleted oil and gas fields, or saline aquifers), you generate "negative emissions". In such a system, you actually take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

How much? Researchers have found that in a Biomass Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (BIGCC) plant, one can generate minus 1030 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour of electricity thus produced with the CO2 sequestered underground. Electricity from coal generates around 800 grams per kWh - the difference thus being around 1830 grams.

One hectare of high carbon storing eucalyptus trees yielding 15 dry tons per hectare per year over a rotation period of 3 to 5 years, with an energy content of 17 GJ per ton, utilized in a BIGCC coupled to a CCS system with an overall efficiency (from plantation to sequestration) of 33%, would offset around 45 tons of CO2 compared to electricity generated from coal.

Per year, the carbon negative energy system would sequester around 24 tons of CO2 per hectare (or 6.5 ton of C). A mature rainforest only sequesters about 0.5 tons C per hectare per year (1.8 ton of CO2 equivalent).

If the original forest that were to be cleared, were to be used as a biomass feed for the production of carbon negative electricity, the advantage of such a system would be immediately present from year zero. If the forest is burned without the energy being used for the production of electricity, as is currently done in deforestation operations, it would be releasing all of its carbon into the atmosphere (250 tons of C per hectare or around 916 tons of CO2 per hectare). It would then take around 20 years of operating the carbon negative energy system to break even.

When sugarcane is used and fermented into biogas, more carbon dioxide can be captured in a far less costly way compared to utilizing woody biomass in a BIGCC (because capturing CO2 from biogas is much more straightforward than via the gasification and gas shifting process).

Many other future concepts are thinkable, with the most radical being the production of carbon negative hydrogen from biomass, which would be a transportable fuel that yields high amounts of negative emissions each time it is used.

So what does all of this mean? It implies that there are land use strategies - such as the production of energy crops for the production of negative emissions energy - that could compete with any scheme to avoid deforestation, purely on economic terms.

Biopact was interviewed about the threats posed by this alternative land use strategy for 'compensated reduction' or 'avoided deforestation' schemes. In the interview, we advocated the inclusion of other compensation schemes for communities willing to protect their forests: the biodiversity and ecosystem services of forests need to be expressed in monetary terms too, and must be made bankable. Otherwise, merely putting a price on the carbon sequestered in forests might not suffice.

However, it must be said that the production of negative emissions energy is, for the time being, only a concept. The 'virtual' value of this form of energy should be part of the discussion of the value of forests and of how to calculate it in a context of an emerging global carbon market, but it should not be a barrier to the implementation of avoided deforestation schemes.

Biopact is currently helping write a paper about the topic, to appear in a major energy journal next year.

In conclusion, nobody in his right mind can advocate deforestation for the production of food, forest products or energy when the prospect of a 'compensated reduction' scheme based on a carbon price is so close at hand - and certainly not now that the research discussed above so clearly indicates that avoided deforestation would be more profitable. Policy makers and delegates in Bali must succeed in approving a framework that compensates communities and nations willing to avoid deforestation. The "threat" of carbon negative energy to such schemes remains purely abstract, while deforestation is extremely concrete and needs to be tackled now. The fact that the countless ecosystems services and biodiversity provided by tropical rainforests are not 'bankable' yet - which would be a requirement if compensated reduction schemes want to be able to compete with carbon negative bioenergy -, should not be seen as a barrier to implementing such schemes.

About the study
The study was conducted by the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA), four of the15 centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), and their national partners.

The Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), established in 1971, is a strategic partnership of countries, international and regional organizations and private foundations supporting the work of 15 international agricultural research Centers. In collaboration with national agricultural research systems, civil society and the private sector, the CGIAR fosters sustainable agricultural growth through high-quality science aimed at benefiting the poor through stronger food security, better human nutrition and health, higher incomes and improved management of natural resources.

The World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) is the international leader in the science and practice of integrating 'working trees' on small farms in rural landscapes. The Centre works in more than 20 countries across Africa, Asia and South America.

Headquartered in Indonesia, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) is a leading international forestry research organization established in response to global concerns about the social, environmental, and economic consequences of forest loss and degradation.

References:
Eurekalert: Report finds deforestation offers very little money compared to potential financial benefits - December 3, 2007.

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


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Tallgrass Prairie Center to study polyculture prairie hay for bio-electricity: combining conservation and restoration with bioenergy

The University of Northern Iowa's Tallgrass Prairie Center is conducting a five-year project to research how prairie hay can be used to generate electricity, partnering with Cedar Falls Utilities, Soil Tilth Lab at Iowa State University and the Black Hawk County Conservation Board. In July, the Iowa Legislature awarded the Tallgrass Prairie Center $330,000 to conduct research on the feasibility of utilizing prairie hay for electrical generation. The study will look at ways to integrate conservation and restoration of grasslands with bioenergy production.

Michele Suhrer and Cassy Bohnet who are working on the project, say they will plant four different mixtures of prairie species on 100 acres of land rented from the Black Hawk County Conservation Board. The research will determine which mixtures produce the most energy efficient and sustainable prairie hay. Suhrer says the prairie hay can be grown on marginal land, possibly saving Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) land from being turned back into row crop production.

Dave Williams, project manager at the Center, says that by planting a diverse mix of tall perennial prairie grasses around row crops, soil erosion, runoff of pesticides and fertilizers can be reduced. Wildlife habitats can be restored or improved along with delivering other environmental benefits.

Last year, the bioenergy community was given a boost by the results of a study in Science on polycultures of multiple grass, wildflower and prairie species. The researchers, led by David Tilman, found that such plantations of mixed native energy crops can be carbon-negative, restore biodiversity, can grow on degraded land, and provide substantially more biomass for biofuels than the most promising monocultures. A bioeconomy based on mixed prairie grasses can restore the beauty of a lost landscape and helps soak up the vast amounts of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.

Known as the 'Tilman study' on 'low-input high-diversity grassland bioenergy systems', the findings showed that the polycultures yielded not less than 238 per cent more useable biomass than a single crop of switchgrass (long seen as the leading energy crop in the U.S.). Biofuels derived from the colorful fields resulted in 51 per cent more energy per acre compared to corn, the most widely used biofuel crop. Inputs of energy, fertilizer and herbicides were much lower as well. And because the perennial species store atmospheric carbon deep in their roots, they become part of a carbon-negative energy system (previous post).

The Tallgrass Prairie Center's bioenergy project will draw on the results of this study to see whether they can be replicated:
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The various mixtures of perennial prairie species to be test planted by the Tallgrass Prairie Center will take about three years to mature, after which they are ready for harvesting. Then two years will be devoted to research optimal harvesting techniques, and to interpret agronomic data.

According to Suhrer and Bohnet, most farmers already have the basic haying equipment to harvest the biomass, so that will be the least problematic area of study. Comparing and analysing productivity of different grass mixtures and their combustion characteristics will require more intensive work.

Cedar Falls Utilities will test burn the prairie hay to analyse its suitability as a biomass feedstock for the production of green electricity.

The Tallgrass Prairie Center is a strong advocate of progressive, ecological approaches utilizing native vegetation to provide environmental, economic and aesthetic benefits for the public good. The center is in the vanguard of roadside vegetation management, native Source Identified seed development, and prairie advocacy.

The center primarily serves the Upper Midwest Tallgrass Prairie Region, but is a model for similar efforts nationally and internationally.

The TPC aims to develop research, techniques, education and Source Identified seed for restoration and preservation of prairie vegetation in rights-of-way and other lands. The center was stablished at the University of Northern Iowa in 1999 as the Native Roadside Vegetation Center.

The center has some major programs running: the Prairie Institute, the Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management Program and the Iowa Ecotype Project.

References:
University of Northern Iowa: Researching the use of prairie hay to generate electricity - November 28, 2007.

Biopact: Tallgrass Prairie Center to implement Tilman's mixed grass findings - September 02, 2007

Biopact: Carbon negative biofuels: from monocultures to polycultures - December 08, 2006

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Bionor to invest $200 million in jatropha plantations in the Philippines

According to the Philippine Department of Agriculture, Spanish biodiesel firm Bionor Transformacion S.A. is to invest US$200 million to develop at least 100,000 hectares (247,105 acres) of land into jatropha plantations. The company disclosed its plans to invest in the Philippines through a memorandum of agreement signed recently between AME Bionergy Corp. and the country's Agricultural Development and Commercial Corporation (PADCC).

Madrid-based AME Bioenergy Corp. is appointed as the key integrator for Bionor in the country, and will conduct feasibility studies on the jatropha project, identify suitable jatropha plantation sites, organise and train farm labor, and install plantation infrastructure.

Agriculture Secretary Arthur C. Yap told local media the PADCC will cooperate to facilitate the project. PADCC will assist AME to mobilise the Department of Agriculture's (DA) agencies and bureaus, as well as financial institutions, to help realise Bionor's investment plans.

The project is part of Bionor's strategy to develop plantations on biodiesel feedstocks that do not compete with the food sector or contribute to deforestation. Bionor is currently operating two biodiesel plants in Spain and Italy with a combined output of 125,000 tonnes (137,750 tons). It is constructing five more plants in Spain and Brazil, which will add 900,000 tonnes (990,000 tons) of capacity in 2008.
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The Philippines has been listed by Ernst & Young as one of the most attractive developing countries for investments in first generation biofuels (see Q1 report and Q2 report). Its geographical location at the center of the rapidly growing South East and East Asian region, its biofuels legislation and incentives, and its relative abundance of natural resources are key factors determining this attractiveness.

The Philippines' biofuels sector got a fresh impetus earlier this year after President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo passed the much-awaited Biofuels Act. The new act mandates minimum 1% biodiesel blending into all diesel from May this year and minimum 2% biodiesel blending from mid-2009. It calls for minimum 5% ethanol blending in gasoline from mid-2009, rising to 10% from around mid-2011. The Act also set up mechanisms to encourage investments in the local biofuels industry.

References:

EnergyCurrent: Bionor mulls Filipino jatropha investment - December 3, 2007.

Visayan Daily Star: Spanish firm to invest $200M for RP biofuels - December 3, 2007.

Inquirer: Madrid-based firm investing $200M in biofuel sector - December 3, 2007.

Biopact: Biofuels and renewables 'Country Attractiveness Indices' for Q1 2007 - May 24, 2007

Biopact: US tops Biofuels Country Attractiveness Indices for Q2 2007 - September 18, 2007

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Ceres funds SDSU research to improve switchgrass for biofuels

Energy crop company Ceres, Inc. announced today that it is sponsoring research at South Dakota State University in Brookings to develop improved switchgrass for the northern Great Plains. Switchgrass is a native species of North America's tallgrass prairie and is widely considered an ideal raw material for a new generation of biofuels made from non-food crops.

The cooperative, multi-year program will focus on developing higher-yielding cultivars adapted to production in northern latitudes, often called upland types. South Dakota State University (SDSU) plant breeder Arvid Boe, Ph.D, will lead field and greenhouse research, which will involve cross breeding and selections supported by Ceres technology that makes the process more efficient and predictable. University researchers will also study genetic diversity in this perennial grass species, among other objectives.

A diverse species, switchgrass is a major part of the prairie that once dominated the landscape of North America. Depending on the seed variety and climatic conditions, switchgrass can grow nine feet tall with deep roots that reduce erosion and increase soil carbon levels, among other benefits.

South Dakota has been a key supporter of cellulosic biofuels, and switchgrass, in particular. Improving yield and plant composition will have a significant impact on the economics for farmers and biorefineries as the industry expands.

A veteran breeder of perennial grasses, Dr. Boe believes switchgrass can be competitive with conventional crops, especially on the semi-arid land of South Dakota and Nebraska. Switchgrass is tolerant of a wide range of environmental conditions, and compared with many other perennial grasses and conventional crop plants, it produces relatively large amounts of biomass under both good and poor growing conditions. To maximize performance, he noted that cultivars intended for biofuel production on the northern Great Plains must be highly productive and able to persist in cold climates. For sustainable production of biomass feedstock in the northern Great Plains, cultivars developed from strains of switchgrass indigenous to the northern and central Great Plains will likely have a long-term yield advantage over non-adapted strains from outside of those regions:
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Dr. Boe has decades of experience in switchgrass and is regarded in the industry as a leading expert in upland types. This joint product development program allows us to expand our existing switchgrass breeding efforts for what we believe will be an important biofuel production region. - Peter Mascia, Ceres vice president of product development
SDSU Vice President for Research Kevin Kephart said South Dakota State University has been making strategic decisions regarding biofuels and cellulosic feedstocks for over 20 years. As a consequence the university has one of the most advanced programs for switchgrass breeding, genetics and agronomy. Creation of an efficient feedstock production system must begin with the best possible genetics and an effective seed delivery system. Work with Ceres is seen as a critical step in the right direction for this exciting new industry.

Gary Lemme, dean of SDSU's College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences, said Ceres' decision to partner with SDSU helps keep South Dakota at the forefront of the biofuels industry. The partnership with Ceres positions South Dakota State University grass plant breeders in a leading role of developing improved cultivars of locally adapted native and introduced grasses for the cellulosic fuel industry. Ceres' position as a energy crop company both stimulates SDSU research through additional funds and establishes commercialization channels for the distribution of the seed to South Dakota producers.

In October, Ceres announced a multi-year collaboration to develop high-biomass sorghums with Texas A&M University. The company’s research and development efforts also cover miscanthus, energycane and woody crops. Early products will include high-yielding switchgrass cultivars scheduled for release in 2009 and sorghum hybrids scheduled the following year (earlier post).

Shortly before starting its sorghum research, Ceres raised $75 million through a private offering of convertible preferred stock (previous post).

Ceres, Inc. is a leading developer of high-yielding energy crops that can be planted as feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol production. Founded as a plant genomics company, Ceres holds one of the world’s largest proprietary collections of fully sequenced plant genes. The privately held company also licenses its technology and traits to other organizations.

Picture: Ceres CEO Richard Hamilton (right) and Dr. Richard Flavell, chief scientific officer, evaluate improved switchgrass plants in a Ceres greenhouse. Credit: Ceres.

References:
Ceres: Ceres Funds Switchgrass Development in South Dakota - December 3, 2007.

Biopact: Ceres and TAES team up to develop high-biomass sorghum for next-generation biofuels - October 01, 2007

Biopact: Ceres raises $75 million to develop dedicated energy crops - September 27, 2007


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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Landless Chinese farmers migrate to Africa in search of agricultural opportunities

Jacques Cassiman, a famous European geneticist with a heart for Africa, was once asked what the future has in store for Europe's youth, who live in a continent whose population is ageing rapidly. His answer: in a 'reverse migration' of sorts, the creative and courageous ones will move to Africa, where they will find countless exciting opportunities no longer available in the old, grey continent. And when they migrate, they will be surprised to find many Chinese collegues in their newfound African homeland.

It seems like the Afro-optimist's vision is partly becoming a reality. China's presence in Africa is growing rapidly. As is well known, the People's Republic is involved in massive infrastructure projects, in the construction sector, in the oil and minerals industry. But what few people know is that more and more poor Chinese farmers are migrating to the continent too, in search for agricultural opportunities (see story below).

In fact, the Chinese government is actively encouraging them to do so. Landless and small farmers, as well as rural Chinese forced off their land and unable to find urban jobs in the emerging megacities are called on by the country's Export-Import Bank to move to Africa to become farm owners and practise their agricultural skills.

Rural exodus
China's rapid urbanisation is transforming millions of farmers into urban dwellers - a process described by some as the largest rural exodus in the history of mankind - but finding them jobs is becoming increasingly difficult.

The plans for the city of Chongqing speak for themselves: under a National Development and Reform Commission plan for rapid urbanisation, the place is being turned into a gigantic megalopolis that will house several tens of millions of people. The central government embarked on an economic policy that is aimed at developing western China - the 'China Western Development strategy' - and Chongqing is planned to become the 'Gateway' that will open up this part of the country. Chongqing is located at the head of the reservoir behind the Three Gorges Dam and will see ocean going ships arrive at its quays soon. Beijing wants the city to become the 'Chicago of the East', and is pumping billions into its infrastructures.

The project is estimated to result in the transformation of some 12 million farmers into urbanites by 2020. A large proportion of these relocated people will not find jobs easily and would be better of utilizing their skills to help both African farmers and themselves - so the government thinks.

Li Ruogu, head of the Chinese Export-Import Bank, explains the overseas migration plan, the logic of which is simple but powerful.
Chongqing is well experienced in agricultural mass production, while in Africa there is plenty of land but food production is unsatisfactory. There is huge room for co-operation on both sides. We have already supported several agricultural projects in Africa, all of which are generating very sound profits. Chongqing's labour exports have just started, but they will take off once we convince the farmers to become landlords abroad. [...] the bank will give full support to the farmers in terms of capital investment, project development and product-selling channels.
Chongqing's deputy mayor Zhou Mubing says the local authorities and business sector too will encourage farmers to go overseas.

Boosting crop yields
Regional governments have been sending farmers to Africa for years, with more than 13,000 rural people from Baoding in Hebei province alone leaving for the troubled continent in the past decade, establishing 'Baoding villages' there. These farmers are working in Kenya, Uganda, Ghana and Senegal, growing crops efficiently with African partners and then turning them into food products.

The enormous availability of land and the potential to boost Africa's crop yields dramatically are key incentives for China's migrant farmers. African farmers themselves remain highly unproductive and their Chinese collegues may well be bringing the necessary catalyst to change this situation. They have the skills and increasingly the channels with which to import the basic inputs needed to make Africa's farming sector productive.

According to Liu Jianjun of the China-Africa Business Council, which helps Chinese firms find business opportunities in Africa, the mainland's farmers are effectively using their expertise to help Africans mechanise farms, select better seeds and inputs, manage production more efficiently, and market products better. The result is precisely what African countries need: an increase in crop yields and improved marketing of food:
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If the Chinese continue to help local ruralites acquire basic farming skills and cooperate with communities in marketing the products, this could prove to be a win-win situation for both. The process might be more effective than the countless asssistance programs offered by the West and international organisations, aimed at improving African agriculture.

Liu Jianjun, who has helped relocate more than 10,000 Chinese farmers, thinks the productive synergy between both continents will result in tens of thousands more farmers arriving in Africa over the coming years.
At first, people were not willing to go to Africa because it's too hot, there are diseases and there are wars. But after the Chinese government called for people to go, they were more positive.
There are no official figures on the total number of Chinese farmers in Africa yet, but the mainland's labour exports this year had grown by 33 per cent compared with last year, the Ministry of Commerce found. A gross estimate says that more than 750,000 Chinese are now making a living in Africa (in all sectors, including agriculture).

Personal motivation
This latest wave of Chinese migrants is, however, not the first to have travelled to Africa. In the 1960s, China's communist leader Mao Zedong forged close links with the continent in a bid to garner political support. But the Chinese who have moved to Africa in the last 10 years are going for economic, not political reasons as they did under Mao.

According to Chris Alden, of the South African Institute of International Affairs, who has written a book titled China in Africa, the Chinese are already changing the economic landscape there as they seek to enrich not just their companies and their country, but also themselves. And their influence is set to grow.

Alden says with so many poor farmers in China unable to make a living off the land, Africa presents a host of inviting opportunities. "There's not the sense that the streets are paved with gold but, for people who cannot find work, Africa is a realistic opportunity."
Story of a nurse-turned Chinese farmer in Zambia
An hour from Zambia's capital Lusaka towards the end of a 30-km highway and an 18-km rugged untarred road, Johnken Farm stands out like an oasis amongst the wilderness of Africa. This farm, as wild as any other surrounding unclaimed land 12 years ago, has now become a flagship and a token of the Chinese- Zambian cooperation in agriculture.

Eggs produced in Johnken Farm are sent to Lusaka and other cities every day, snatching 10 percent of the whole market of Zambia. Together with its 1,000 head of cattle and over 2,000 pigs, the 3,500-hectare farm is the biggest one among a dozen of Chinese-owned farms in Zambia.

Behind the success of Johnken is the middle-aged Chinese woman, Li Li, 43, who came to Zambia to support her husband, Wang Chi, former managing director of the farm, but ended to shoulder the task by herself after Wang passed away one and a half years ago.

The early days with the farm was a struggle of the couple against harsh wilderness, bad infrastructure and inexperience. Wang used to be a university lecturer in Beijing before he arrived in Zambia with his African dream. His wife, Li, gave up her nurse career in a famous hospital in the Chinese capital of Beijing and followed Wang here.

They had to begin their work with cutting down bushes and grass along with 100-plus local employees to turn the primitive area into cultivable farmland. Electricity was then connected to the farm and boreholes were drilled for irrigation.

They came to the farm in 1994 with 200 chickens. As there was no henhouse at that time, they had to share their house with the chickens. Li recalled that at the beginning neither she nor Wang knew the proper water temperature for unhairing until they finally looked it up shortly before they put their processed chicken on market.

With its good reputation and considerable profit return, Johnken Farm was awarded by the Zambian National Commercial Bank ( ZANACO) a loan of about 1 million U.S. dollars. With the loan, Johnken Farm began to expand its business by planting wheat after it installed a computer-controlled center- pivot sprinkling irrigation system, which is widely used in large- scale commercial farms but the first one in a Chinese-owned farm in Zambia.

"You have to become big and strong with modern advanced technologies and have a bearing on the market. Otherwise you will risk being edged out of the market," Li said. With that in mind, she suggests that small- and medium-sized Chinese farms in Zambia merge to challenge the competition from other large-scale farms.

Meanwhile, Li said the Chinese government should encourage state-owned conglomerates to come to Zambia to turn the vast agricultural potential into reality.

When it comes to bioenergy and biofuels, it is well known that Africa has the largest longterm potential of all regions. By 2050, the continent is projected to be capable of sustaining a production of around 300 Exajoules of exportable bioenergy, in an explicitly sustainable manner, that is after all food, fiber, fodder and forest products for rapidly growing local populations are met and without any deforestation. To turn this theoretical potential into a reality, more efficient farming practises are a basic requirement. It could well prove to be the case that the influx of skilled Chinese farmers, and their growing investments in rural infrastructures, signals a first step in that direction.

As for Cassiman's vision of a Euro-African 'reverse migration': the Chinese are coming. But when will the Europeans?

Photo: a Chinese agronomist cooperating with an African collegue. Credit: SciDev.

References:
South China Morning Post: Landless farmers urged to migrate to Africa - September 19, 2007.

BBC: China in Africa: Developing ties - November 29, 2007.

People's Daily Online: Africa Feature: Story of nurse-turned Chinese farmer in Zambia - October 23, 2006.

Chris Alden, China in Africa, Zed Books, Series Title: African Arguments Series, 2007.

Two blogs by Biopact members on China's growing influence in Africa, but no longer maintained: China in Africa and Peaceful Rising.

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Thenergo acquires Polargen: CHP capacity in greenhouse sector to quadruple to 32MW


Belgium based Thenergo, a renewable energy company involved in the biogas, biomass and cogeneration sector announced it has reached an agreement to acquire the minority interests in Polargen, a leading Benelux combined heat and power (CHP) developer for the greenhouse industry.

The utilisation of organic waste in industrial horticulture is a growing sector. Over the past few years, businesses who grow food and flowers in greenhouses have seen their costs for heating and power skyrocket, because the sector is highly energy intensive (energy is the single biggest operational cost). When biomass from the operations is used in CHP, heat and electricity costs can be reduced while at the same time delivering a cheap stream of carbon dioxide, used to stimulate plant growth. In some operations, greenhouses even become net exporters of green electricity, feeding it into the grid and receiving credits for their climate friendly bioenergy.

The recycling of CO2 derived from the very plants grown in the greenhouses, whose waste biomass is simultaneously utilized for energy, is an optimal use of the gas. CO2 is fed to the crops in a closed environment, thus considerably stimulating growth, while no emissions from the production of bioenergy enter the atmosphere.

Both Belgium and the Netherlands are European leaders in the greenhouse industry. Thenergo's expertise in producing heat, power and separated CO2 from biogas and biomass is now coupled to Polargen's established presence in the sector, a combination that is set to capture a considerable market share.

At end December 2007, total gross installed capacity for greenhouse CHP activities will have more than doubled to 49.6MW, up from 23.8MW in June, prior to Thenergo's IPO. Most projects are co-owned with industry partners. Thenergo has, in recent months, been renegotiating its stakes in these projects. By year end, Thenergo's net capacity in greenhouse CHP operations, in addition to its existing biogas site, will have risen to 32MW, up from 8.2MW three months earlier:
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Under the acquisition, Polargen's managing partners will receive Thenergo shares for their combined 49 percent stake in Polargen, which will result in Thenergo having sole ownership of the business. The transaction was completed on November 30, 2007. Thenergo CEO Kurt Alen said: "Since Thenergo's acquisition of a 51% stake in Polargen one year ago, Polargen has proved to be a highly strategic and fast growth asset. We will now be bringing inhouse Polargen's strong technical skills and energy trading and sales expertise. At the same time we will be strengthening our management team with two new director appointments."

Established in 2003 and based in Lint, Belgium, Polargen designs, constructs and operates CHP plants primarily for the greenhouse industry in the Benelux region. The integration of the Polargen and Leysen activities into Thenergo's business model will provide all companies and their industry partners with the necessary synergies to fully integrate the different stages of the waste-to-energy business - from fuel acquisition through power generation to the trading of green power and CHP certificates.

Founded in 2002 and based in Antwerp, Belgium, Thenergo is a fast growing, fully integrated and independent developer and operator of sustainable energy projects using biomass, biogas and natural gas. Thenergo brings solutions and added value to clients' CHP energy needs, from financing and concept design to energy sales and trading on Europe's power markets. In addition, Thenergo's recent acquisition of Leysen Group adds long term procurement security to its business model and brings new opportunities to Thenergo's project pipeline. Since 14 June 2007, Thenergo has been listed on Alternext, Paris.

Thenergo recently announced two new projects: the development of a 3MW CHP biogas project in Flanders generating annually 24,000MWh of clean power, enough to supply around-the-clock electricity for up to 6,000 households (earlier post).

In an interesting development, it also announced that it is building a 5MW electricity and biocoal plant in northern Holland Eclair-E, a Dutch CHP sustainable energy supplier. The facility will generate annually up to 42,800MWh of power and 75,000 tons of biocoal pellets. Biocoal pellets are made from thermally processed biomass either from dedicated energy crops or from wood debris, forest residue and chippings. In pellet form it is a multipurpose clean burning fuel, easy to store and handle. This green 'designer coal' can be obtained by carbonizing biomass, with new techniques under development. Compared to wood, coal and biomass pellets, biocoal contains a far lower amount of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), no water, and is fully carbon neutral (previous post and more on biocoal here).

References:
Thenergo: Thenergo Takes Full Ownership of Polargen - November 30, 2007.

Biopact: Thenergo to develop new 3MW CHP biogas project in Flanders - August 08, 2007

Biopact: Belgian-Dutch partnership to develop 5MW biocoal project - August 10, 2007



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