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Lloyds List: Challenge and opportunity on sustainable energy

EXTRACT: Ewald Breuness of Shell emphasised the concern that fuel demands would compete with those for food, and a market for biomass might cause food shortages or the use of non-sustainable crops could cause environmental damage.

He said genuine sustainability was important and an international system of tracking and tracing origins of such biomass products was clearly needed. Shell would rather see waste streams employed, such as the use of Iogen from straw, while longer-term waste-based ‘bio-crude’ could be produced.

THE ARTICLE

Plenty of questions remain as the future of bioenergy is considered at the Mare Forum in Rotterdam, writes Michael Grey, Lloyds List
Published: Sep 21, 2006

BIOFUELS have a long history. Up to the first decade of the 20th century Thames barges filled with Essex and East Anglian hay would be seen in the River Thames thousands of tonnes of fodder for the thousands of horses in the capital, backloads being manure which the farmers could spread on their fields.

Whether it should be termed biofuel or biomass, this agricultural product was sustainable, renewable and energy efficient. It was also local in that it required relatively few transport miles and its effect on the environment, being under sail when on the move, was negligible. Could this be an allegory for our times?

Sustainability is the new mantra which permeates any discussion involving energy or industrial process. There is a nervousness surrounding the provision of hydrocarbons, both from the environmental standpoint and increasingly as regards security of supply. What will it profit us if there is sufficient oil in the world but we end up being held to ransom by those who control it?

It is a potent argument, as compelling as those surrounding the threats of global warming, and the received wisdom that we are accelerating the destruction of our own environment.

Biofuels clearly do not offer us a solution to all of these problems but they answer several of the difficult questions about their component parts.

They are green in terms of the possible reductions in harmful emissions they promise, while they offer this genuine attraction of sustainability.

They offer new possibilities to agriculturalists with the alternative revenue streams for their crops, hitherto grown only for food.

They give developing countries genuine opportunities to get into the production of added value products, with a relatively low entry price into plants for the production of ethanol or biodiesel or at the very least pelletised biomass, which can be shipped out or fed into power stations.

The potential and promise of biofuels were considered at length at last week’s Mare Forum conference on Bio Energy Transportation in Rotterdam. Potential is perhaps the operative word because, while offering an attractive alternative to fossil fuels and are growing at a considerable pace, they represent no more than about 1% of present fuel use.

In his introductory remarks the chairman of the Royal Association of Netherlands Shipowners, Aart Korteland, suggested that despite this modest relative level biofuels would become an ever more important cargo for shipping, not least because of the targets which had been set by governments and which would require a greater use of these cleaner energy sources.

And, while these cargoes are at present low value, they may well evolve into quality cargo, able to attract higher rates.

It was the ‘potential’ of bioenergy which was stressed by Braemar Seascope’s Colin Cridland, who pointed out that, while the present production of biofuels was modest and needed financial support of some kind to be viable, this could well change.

The European Union target which prescribes 5.75% of Europe’s energy to come from sustainable sources by 2010 as our contribution to Kyoto may or may not be feasible, but clearly targets focus minds.

Statistics on these products may be confusing, with a number of problems of definition. Most bioproducts such as soya, rapeseed, palm oils and sugar cane have a dual purpose and can be used either for food or fodder or as fuel.

Many others, such as wood waste, woodchips or pelletised wood can be employed as raw materials for pulp and paper and wood products or can be burned as biomass or used for ethanol or biodiesel.

Even locally, shipments of biomass moved over European borders frequently encounter problems with customs, the rules being imprecise about whether a cargo of foodstuffs, fuel or waste was being considered.

Could there be a conflict between the demands for biofuel and the needs of the world for food, with competition for available land to grow these possibly competing crops?

Martin Junginger, of the Copernicus Institute for Sustainable Development, suggested there was a compelling need to invest in biomass, especially in the developing world, to increase yeilds, produce food and bring unproductive land into use.

He suggested that there was a huge potential for the expansion of agriculture for biomass, not least because it might be reasonably forecast that one third of our energy requirements by 2050 might be grown, rather than mined or pumped.

Mr Junginger pointed to the possibilities of ‘second generation’ biofuels, using more of the available energy locked into crops and producing greater efficiencies in the production process. As an example he offered a project designed to assist Mozambique, producing fast growing eucalyptus which would be the raw material for a local, large-scale biodiesel plant, offering assistance to both agriculture and industry.

The ability for biofuels to employ the existing infrastructure in their use but with a significant reduction in harmful emissions was an important feature, suggested Professor Kees Daey Ouwens of Eindhoven’s Technical University. The proven Fischer-Tropsch process was highly effective in producing ethanol and bio-diesel from a range of sustainable materials.

New possibilities, notably for the developing world, came from the Jatropha plant, a seed-bearing shrub which lived as a hedgerow on marginal soils in equatorial regions. Land, previously unproductive, had the potential to produce five tonnes of oil-bearing seeds per hectare, with huge amounts of land available to grow the crop.

Biomass, Professor Ouwens emphasised, offered the opportunity to produce both fuel and food and a secondary use for agricultural products, which as they stood were uneconomic for producers.

Brazil, of course, has more experience of biofuel production that anywhere else on earth, it having been a policy to seek energy self-sufficiency through agriculture, notably sugar cane derived ethanol and bagasse for the production of significant quantities of electricity.

The chairman of Brazil’s National Centre for Biomass, Jose Roberto Moreira, pointed out that in his country 42% of total sustainable energy was derived from sugar cane and bioelectricity was competing with coal for power generation.

It was the flexibility of use, said Mr Moreira, which was one of the chief attractions, with the planted acreage divided between cane for the production of sugar, and that for ethanol.

In global terms, ethanol production was rising steeply, having doubled in the past five years. The US was a significant producer, having doubled its ethanol capacity in the short term, and Europe was becoming increasingly signifi- cant, the main demand being for ethanol to blend with conventional fuels.

The sea transport of biofuels or biomass would become increasingly important, as neither the US nor Europe could produce sufficient biofuels to displace oil. They should, said Mr Moreira ‘look south’ to the ample lands in South America and Africa.

Brazilian colleague Danny Aronson of Petrobras detailed the local market for ‘flex fuels’ in which the proportion of ethanol in gasoline mixtures could be varied by the consumer. Petrobras, a heavy user of biofuels, is increasingly relying on pipelines for local transport.

Hans Janssen, of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, related experience with small scale biomass schemes in Russia which proved an integrated approach to sustainable development was possible. In his example, sawmill waste was given some added value with pelletising plants, although its success was heavily dependent on an available transport infrastructure.

Ewald Breuness of Shell emphasised the concern that fuel demands would compete with those for food, and a market for biomass might cause food shortages or the use of non-sustainable crops could cause environmental damage.

He said genuine sustainability was important and an international system of tracking and tracing origins of such biomass products was clearly needed. Shell would rather see waste streams employed, such as the use of Iogen from straw, while longer-term waste-based ‘bio-crude’ could be produced.

The safe and adequate transport, handling and storage of biofuels is an important consideration, and the impacts of new IMO regulations, which come into force next year, on the supply of ships were reviewed by Braemar Seascope’s Colin Cridland. The carriage of vegoils, he pointed out, was becoming more complicated and expensive, and short-term shortage with a large number of ships being ruled unsuitable next January was a distinct possibility.

It was perhaps problematical, suggested Odfjell’s Klaus Waldenburg, whether vegetable oils, which would henceforth need double hulls under IMO rules, would be able to pay their way. Higher costs might also attach to ethanol, as this product was likely to require inerting. More consolidation of cargoes might help to reduce these burdens.

The increasing importance of pelletised cargoes, which were so much more thermally efficient than woodchips, was emphasised by Matthias Ruttmann of shipowner MST, who suggested that the growth of the pellet trade was of great interest to operators.

Biomass itself required a close eye on safety considerations, as many of the cargoes were prone to heating or even spontaneous combustion, said Taco de Vries of European Bulk Services.

Indeed, said Peter Mackay of Hazardous Cargo Bulletin, there were important safety implications for many bio cargoes.

And of compelling interest to anyone concerned with the transport, handling and storage is the debate about where the product should be produced. Should it be in the developing world? Should it be close to the place where crops are grown or raw materials produced? Is a logistical hub the ideal location but in what country?

Ports, or at the very least an access to navigable water, clearly offer the ideal site, but is there a ‘social’ case for locating such plants in the developing world, providing added value where there is little at present?

Food or fuel, plant location and indeed the pace of expansion for this important potential source of energy remain live issues.

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