June 18, 2006

AFRICA: BioPact Promotes European/African Energy Collaboration

The new global reality is that we are interdependent on energy supply and demand in ways that have never been so evident. Population increases, mass consumption, the dependence of developing nations on supplies of cheap energy, and environmental consequences - all have grown dramatically since the end of WWII. Add to this communication technology advancement, culture clash, hyperbolic media reporting, and political and religious conflict and it is self-evident that the world needs to collaborate to relieve the pressure.

I recently learned about BioPact - a new blog operated by Laurens Rademakers in Belgium for a collective of European and African citizens working on biofuels and bioenergy. As he writes in one of his posts:

Here at the BioPact we want to expand the discussion about biofuels and take it a step further by looking at the socio-economic and 'geopolitical' effects that the increasing production of ethanol, biodiesel, biogas and biomass will have in the long run. As we have written before, bioenergy offers an opportunity to lift millions of the world's poorest out of poverty. More and more people are beginning to follow our simple proposition of a global, green energy exchange relationship, counting in factors such as social justice, greater access to energy for the poor and a shift from a petro-militarist world towards one where bioenergy dominates.

Below is a collection of links that interested me and might interest readers of this blog:

The Global Benefits of Biofuels - a quick overview
Sneak Preview of the "Biofuels Atlas" - a great planning tool
China to Boost Biomass Energy Through Financial Incentives
EU nations want flexibility on biofuels and bioenergy
The broader view: biorefineries and biomaterials
BP to invest $500 million over 10 years in biofuels research

Couldn't have said it better myself.

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donald said...

Quick question about their lead article when I checked it. They were claiming switchgrass is a poor cellulosic ethanol feedstock, and that palm oil is a better one (just using the agricultural waste stream). Their linked evidence for this was a summary from a Cornell study against ehtanol as a fuel generally.

This seems an odd thing to link to as evidence, since their point is that ethanol and biofuels in general are bad substitutes, so you'd kind of expect that to go for palm wastes just as much as anything else.

Is there a real consensus on the viability of switchgrass, etc., as sources for fuel? I'm also curious about this argument because the Cornell summary seems to presume industrial, input-intensive farming. I find this peculiar because switchgrass seems incredibly well-suited to organic methods, or at least very low intensity farming, because it is essentially prairie grass perfectly suited to a prairie ecology.

I'm also curious that this site would focus so quickly on palm oil instead of prairie grass. Despite the existing palm oil industry in developing countries, there is much greater possibility for ethanol development around prairie grasses wherever there is, well, prairie. This would include sub-saharan africa (which could become a major exporter to Europe), central Asia, Patagonia, etc, as well as the American plains regions. In fact given the low-intensity of the cultivation necessary, it seems remarkably suited to cultural patterns in regions based on pastoral occuptions- it could create a fuel production system that would completely complement pastoral lifestyles with minimal disruption.

C. Scott Miller said...

From what I have read, one of the main concerns about ethanol costs has to do with regionalization - how local feedstock is to production and delivery. Unlike petroleum, feedstock does not move through pipelines so that is a cost disadvantage. And unlike gasoline, ethanol does not travel through pipes very well (moisture contamination) so delivery requires trucking.

I don't think the rap on switchgrass is on its adequacy as a feedstock, but rather the remoteness of the production facilities. I don't think that makes it less desireable than corn or sugar cane - and, as you say, the cultivation costs of switchgrass is much less than crops.

I think that it is useful for African planners to investigate other feedstock and biofuels and how different regions can adapt different strategies for maximizing yields and Energy ROI based on indigenous crops. In comparison to Western farmers, getting the Africans to alter their planting and harvesting practices may be very difficult.

Fortunately, there are many sources of readily available biomass throughout the fertile continent. I enjoy reading BioPact's insights into how new solutions are being explored unique to the African continent. Their experiments may have lasting impact on R&D and D elsewhere.