From ZYen
Jump to: navigation, search

This page was initiated by Ana Dora

In a Green World can we keep cars on the road and factories producing in Detroit? We want to believe that biofuels can replace the fossil fuels, but with what cost and what are the environmental implications?

Technology has demonstrated that nowadays vehicles can run without oil, but on electricity, hydrogen or biofuels. When asked where does the electricity come from, Boris Johnson famously replayed “the plug”. But how green is your plug? This is a separate debate.

To decrease car’s carbon emission we need to either increase the fuel efficiency or replace the fuel with something environmental friendly. Bio-ethanol and bio-diesel are carbon neutral products that can gradually be phased in to replace fossil fuels. The great combination of sustainable ideas in case of ethanol is that it can make vehicles greener cutting their exhaust emissions while reducing dependence on oil and coming from a plant that is green to produce – or is it?

Making technical changes, ethanol can easily replace fossil fuel. Going back to the beginning of mass production of cars when Henry Ford produced the Model T, the car that “put America on wheels” we find out that it was built to run on alcohol, “the fuel of the future” as Henry called it. Now many American cars run on a 10% mix of ethanol and petrol and this could be increased and used more widely.

But how green is ethanol? Its emission credentials are excellent and you’d say: “it is an alcohol made from crops and this makes it a bio product. It makes the car run cleanly and because it’s made of grains, it shouldn’t cost more than the bread. What more can we wish for?!” But, and there is always a but, things are not quite that simple.

Ethanol is a grain alcohol, colourless not “green” and before any conclusion, we will have to analyse the natural, social and the environmental aspect of this and see what is hidden in 1 litre of bio ethanol.

Water: US specialists said that one litre of corn-derived ethanol should require 263 to 784 litres of water to both grow the crop and convert it into fuel. Now, after becoming the world’s leader for ethanol production, they have concluded that the amount of water varies hugely depending on irrigation needs, ranging from 5 to 2,138 litres of water per litre of ethanol. [1]

Land: Thirty four years ago Brazil was a pioneer in the ethanol production, today it is the world's second largest ethanol producer with 20 billion litres. And it is still maintaining its role of one of the most important exporters for agricultural products. Of the 55 million ha of land area devoted to primary food crops, only 1.7 million ha or 3% was used for ethanol production.

Increasing ethanol production by 50 times would mean creating biomass plantations with area equal to 1/6th of the world’s current cropland. This would mean substitution of ethanol crops for food or new cropland. The former will raise the cost of food, the latter happens even now with the Rainforest. Specialists say that these are not necessarily the prices that we need to pay; the alternative is to have more productive land - biotechnology applications could raise productivity 5 to 10 times over natural growth rates in plants or trees. [2]

Price: In 2007 EU has produce ethanol in large quantities with a mineral-oil based chemical process for USD0.57 per litre. The USA produces ethanol for circa USD0.32 per litre, mainly from corn starch. Brazil produces ethanol for circa USD0.27 per litre, from sugarcane. [3] But the danger is that the increasing demand on crops for ethanol production will proportionally increase the price of corn.

Environment: Ethanol is environmental friendly, but all the machinery used to cultivate, harvest, distribute are not, but like in the case of any other productions process we have carbon emissions. Bio fuels burn greener then fuel, resulting in fewer greenhouses emission. Ethanol biodegrades without harm to the environment [4]

Technical: Without an engine conversion, vehicles can run with 10% ethanol and 90% fuel, but only a fraction of the 600 million automobile on the road today can run with ethanol blended fuel higher then 10%. So we will need more help from the engineers to covert our cars, but, whatever sustainable fuel is used the conversion will take time... So maybe we can develop more land efficient ethanol production so that we not need that much land clearance by the time the engine conversions have happened...

Costs: The Sugarcane Technology Centre, the research institute for the government launched National Alcohol Program in Brazil, 1975, reached investments of about USD20 million per year at the pick of the program. The result is that 85% of the cars sold today in Brazil are flex-fuel cars and the fuel used in 45% of Brazilian running vehicles is ethanol. Behind the success of the program stay Brazil's favorable climate conditions, tradition for culturing sugarcane and massive government investments in infrastructure and support all the way through the program. [5]

Efficiency: Very important is the net energy balance or the energy used to produce ethanol compared with the energy that is produced by it. In the case of ethanol it is currently 1.24-1.38 depending on efficiency and how the beneficial bi-products are used. [6]

Ethanol is at the moment like a good car sitting in a country where they have just started to build roads. It needs the infrastructure to be able to run at its full capacity and roads building needs time. Biofuels depend on the efficiency of the new technologies for production, conversion and comsumption and these will depend on commercial decisions on clearing the land and regulating prices.

Over 280 reports - on topics ranging from Responsible Investing and ESG to Energy, Resources and Climate Change - can be found on the London Accord website thanks to around 50 contributors

The following (BioFuels-Related) reports are a selection from the website:

For more London Accord reports on BioFuels, please click here.

Personal tools