Imagine if New Zealand’s pine plantations pumped out millions of dollars worth of fuel for our cars and gave birth to a whole new sector of our economy. It’s not only possible, it’s already starting to happen, driven on by increased awareness of climate change and the spiralling cost of the earth’s dwindling oil supplies.
The idea of biofuels is not new. An early prototype of the diesel engine was designed to run on vegetable oil and several of Henry Ford’s early cars ran on bio-ethanol rather than petrol. And it’s got some powerful backers: US President Obama is a big fan. But switching straight to biofuels is by no means a no-brainer. The biofuels rush of the early 2000s motored straight into controversy by making crops like corn and maize more valuable as fuel than food. This helped to drive up global food prices and increased the number of starving people who could not afford to eat. It also accelerated deforestation in areas like the Amazon, as people cleared new areas to grow bio-fuel cash crops.
When oil prices fell dramatically during the world economic crisis in 2008 it wiped out most of the competitive advantage biofuels had gained. Investors and customers pulled out, and biofuel companies collapsed.
It was time for a rethink. Rising oil prices would inevitably return, so the long-term business case for biofuels remained strong. The search was now on for sources of ‘advanced’ bio-fuels: those that would not conflict with the world’s need for food or accelerate the destruction of our environment.
Which is where our forests come in. Up to one fifth of each tree felled inNew Zealand’s vast plantations – the branches, bark and off-cuts – is currently wasted. It’s typically pushed into a heap and burned. But all of it could theoretically be turned into fuel in a relatively simple process using technology that is already available.
Unfortunately, the whole biofuel industry remains locked in a three-way Mexican stand-off between the vehicle driving public, the car makers and the fuel companies. Car makers are reluctant to build too many cars set up for bio-fuels until they are convinced there is demand for them. But people won’t necessarily choose those cars until they are confident they can get the fuel by the roadside wherever they are. And the major fuel companies won’t stock bio-fuels in their stations until they know there are enough biofuel vehicles out there.
In recent years the New Zealand government has made several efforts to break the deadlock. The Biofuel Bill was due to force oil companies to sell at least 0.5% biofuels by October 2008, rising to 2.5% by 2012. But this was repealed by the new National government over fears it would trigger massive biofuel imports from overseas with dubious environmental and economic results.
The Biodiesel Grant Scheme has offered a grant of up to 42.5 cents per litre to biodiesel producers shifting more than 10,000 litres of the stuff a month since July 1, 2009. According to The Bioenergy Association of New Zealand this has helped stimulate uptake of biofuels, to the point where total national biodiesel sales exceeded 1.5 million litres last year. But this still only represents 0.1% of total diesel sales across the country. They are now lobbying to get a guarantee from government that the scheme will continue beyond its current cut-off in 2012, fearing the fledgling industry may fall flat again if this doesn’t happen. In the meantime, this niche market is being supplied by pioneering companies. Solid Energy’s BioGold biodiesel is sourced from a combination of used cooking oil and Canterbury-grown canola. Gull NZ’s Force 10 bioethanol is made inNew Zealandfrom whey, a by-product from the dairy industry, or from sugar cane, sustainably grown in Brazil. And its biodiesel, Gull Diesel Max, is made from used cooking oil. But supplies of spent cooking oils are limited to an estimated 5,000 tonnes a year, and while Fonterra’s Anchor Ethanol company produces about 20 million litres a year, it’s a high grade chemical not currently used for fuel. There are currently two million tonnes of waste wood being produced in our forests, and the estimates are that this will rise to five million tonnes by 2025. If this is the case, it would have the potential to create 100 million litres of fuel a year.
Making this happen could transform the Kiwi countryside. With the increased income, marginal land could be converted for forestry, supplying a nationwide biofuels network like the one Fonterra has for milk, with biofuelled trucks collecting wood waste and finished biofuels for central distribution.
A recent project led by Crown research group Scion claims that NZ could be fully self-sustaining in transport fuels using bioenergy. Other future scenarios predict that at least 30% of our transport fuel could come from biofuels by 2040. But to do that we still have to break the deadlock and build the infrastructure. We had better get serious about it soon, and perhaps we had better look to the trees.
Theoretically, bio-fuels can be any kind of fuel that is derived from stuff that is living or lived recently, as opposed to conventional fuels, which are mined or drilled from fossilised deposits. Ordinary firewood is technically a bio-fuel, but these days the word has come to mean replacement liquid fuels that can be used for heating, electricity generation, and in vehicles.
HEY! THIS STUFF REALLY WORKS
- The Koenigsegg CCXR supercar is actually faster and more powerful when running on 85% bio-fuel than ordinary petrol, generating more than 1,000 horsepower and reaching speeds of up to 400 kilometres per hour.
- Back in 2008 Air New Zealand successfully tested running one of four engines on a Boeing 747-400 with a bio-fuel based on the subtropical jatropha plant.
- You know things are getting serious when the US navy gets involved. It has bought well over half a million litres of biofuels so far, testing them for use on war planes and ships as a ‘drop in’ alternative to conventional fuels where these are difficult to come by.
By Andy Kenworthy