The Big Biofuels Debate

24 June 2008 (Last Updated June 24th, 2008 18:30)

Once seen as an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, biofuels are now causing global concern. Dr Gareth Evans examines their potential impact on food and water resources worldwide and whether they can ever be a viable fuel choice.

The Big Biofuels Debate

Until recently, there were few voices of dissent raised against the widespread assumption that if the world was ever to break its dependence on fossil fuels, biofuels were going to be one of the most significant means to let it. Today, however, they stand heavily indicted in the worsening global food crisis and with doubts over their true carbon-saving effectiveness and concerns about their impact on water resources, their fall from grace has been swift.

So, with the potential threat of reduced funding now looming over the whole sector and the inevitable effect on research and development that would entail, what happened – and what does the future hold?

THE RISE OF BIOFUELS

Although the word often tends to conjure up an image of fairly recent entrants into the liquid transport fuel sector – typically synonymous with ethanol or biodiesel – as a group, biofuels come both in greater variety and enjoy a significantly longer history. In one sense, the rise of biofuels began the first time early man lobbed wood on a fire – though since then the list and uses have grown considerably, with the likes of biogas and pyrolysis liquids joining the familiar biodiesel, ethanol and dry combustibles, such as wood and straw.

"Growing uncertainty over the Middle East and mounting concern over climate change has once again propelled biofuels firmly back up the political and economic agenda."

However, with the ready abundance of relatively cheap and more energy-dense fossil fuels – particularly oil – the role of biofuels remained small, at least until the 1970s oil crisis sparked an intense, but ultimately short-lived, surge of interest. More recently, growing uncertainty over the Middle East and mounting concern over climate change has once again propelled biofuels firmly back up the political and economic agenda.

As a result, the global production of ethanol doubled between 2000 and 2005, while biodiesel production quadrupled over the same period. In 2006, the world manufacture of all biofuels grew by nearly 30%, according to the Worldwatch Institute, with biodiesel – at an increase of 80%– continuing its apparent path to ascendancy. However, even as this meteoric rise was being realised, in a growing number of quarters, concerns were beginning to be felt.

FOOD OR FUEL?

In June 2007, Grain – a charity supporting the poor farmers of emergent nations – were amongst the first to give voice to their worries, suggesting that the drive towards biofuels could have more social and environmental consequences than had first been anticipated. With competition for good growing land often a significant factor in shaping agricultural practices in the developing world, their concerns were to be mirrored elsewhere.

"In 2006, the world manufacture of all biofuels grew by nearly 30%."

The UN found increasing evidence of food prices being driven up in poor countries as oil-rich crops were used for fuel production, while the Worldwatch Institute warned of the toll that current biofuel production methods take on land and water resources. This potential water issue was to be further highlighted by experts at the World Water Week conference in Stockholm.

A year on and the whole food or fuel debate has taken on much wider dimensions, with the US being severely criticised at June's UN Food Crisis Summit in Rome for its policy of promoting biofuels. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's Director-General, Jacques Diouf, pointed out that in 2006, around $12bn in subsidies "have had the effect of diverting 100 million tonnes of cereals from human consumption."

Attempts to put a hard figure on the effect biofuel production has had on world food prices have largely proved inconclusive – the US agriculture secretary, Ed Schafer, claiming only 2 or 3%, while the International Monetary Fund suggest ten times this. However, what is clear is that with farmers across the world diverting food crops to fuel production, global markets have been seriously distorted, with commodity traders from Chicago to Hong Kong forced to contend with what have been described as "hair-trigger" deals.

It is a situation repeated on the ground; global production has increased, but world wheat stocks have plummeted to a 30-year low, the value of oil-rich crops has sky-rocketed and milk prices have ballooned in the wake of spiralling grain costs. Against this, according to figures from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a moratorium on using grain and oilseed in biofuel production could see a 20% drop in food prices by 2010.

"The UN found increasing evidence of food prices being driven up in poor countries as oil-rich crops were used for fuel production."

As Leo Lewis put it, writing in The Times, "when it comes to the food crisis, it is not difficult to cast biofuels as the villain of the piece" – and inevitably, any potential knee-jerk reaction could threaten both the funding and the future of the sector.

It is hardly unprecedented – already in March two soybean grower's associations suspended funding amounting to $1.5m from the University of Minnesota over research which suggested that biofuels could speed up global
warming.

SEARCHING FOR SOLUTIONS

With so much at stake, unsurprisingly the search is on for a solution. Never-the-less, finding viable alternatives which meet the carbon criteria to mitigate climate change and are commercially competitive, yet still avoid taking the food – quite literally – out of the mouths of some of the planet's poorest, is scarcely destined to be easy.

For the power industry, making direct use of crop wastes offers one route to ethical biofuels. Straw is one established possibility, while in February 2008, Maria van der Hoeven, the Dutch Minister of Economic Affairs unloaded the first consignment of coffee husks destined to produce green energy at Essent's Amer power plant in Geertruidenberg – establishing a world first in the process.

Biomass power stations are nothing new, but instead of crop waste or coppiced willow, the next generation may burn the likes of switchgrass, which will grow on the sort of marginal land that is useless for food production.

"A moratorium on using grain and oilseed in biofuel production could see a 20% drop in food prices by 2010."

Co-utilising such biofuels especially in coal-fired plants is effective and economically attractive, since it demands little modifications to existing infrastructure. Options include use as blended coal/biomass in a cyclone coal unit, direct injection into a pulverised coal unit or external gasification before being fed into an existing boiler.

There is also a new wave of so-called second-generation – or "advanced" – biofuels under development which use the residual non-food biomass of current crops, such as stems, skins, leaves or husks as feedstock.

Producing a useful fuel from this material is not without its technical challenges, but a number of possible future fuels are under development, with combinations of Biomass-to-Liquid (BtL) and Fischer-Tropsch (gas-to-liquid) processes significantly featured.

Alternatively, cultivating algae has much merit as a means to yield biofuel without compromising food production. With some kinds able to outperform current biofuel crop yield by over 15 times and with relatively simple needs coupled with a growth rate which permits multiple annual harvests, their appeal is clear.

Accordingly there are a number of companies investigating the possibility of algal biofuel, but though the idea has much to recommend it in principle, in practice there are significant economic and technical hurdles to overcome. It is an avenue which has received interest before – in the 1970s and again in the 1990s – but to date it has remained something of a Cinderella source, constrained by circumstances of economics and practicality, though with recent advances in bioscience, this time it may be different.

"Making direct use of crop wastes offers one route to ethical biofuels."

As Joachim von Braun, the director general of IFPRI, recently commented: "There are biofuels and biofuels – there are good and bad ones." And some really good ones are waiting in the wings. However, the direction that biofuels take in the future must surely depend on how the whole food versus fuel debate eventually plays out – in public opinion as much as within the industry itself.

If the tide does substantially turn against biofuels, there are alternatives – notably renewable, nuclear and fuel cell technology – to promise us fresh hope. Should the threat of reduced biofuel funding materialise, then these will be the likely beneficiaries; it is, after all, an economic ill wind that does nobody any good.

One thing seems clear, biofuels or no, our thirst for power shows little signs of abating anytime soon and while the shape of the energy landscape may change, we will certainly find something to fuel it.