Biofuels: could agave, hemp and saltbush be the fuels of the future?

iofuels have long been touted as a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels, doing for the world’s planes, ships and automobiles what windfarms and solar panels are doing for its electricity grids. With the transport sector accounting for almost one fifth of Australia’s total carbon emissions, green biofuels could be an important ingredient of the zero emissions future envisioned by the Paris climate agreement.

On paper, biofuels seem the ideal replacement for fossil fuels, which drive global warming by spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that would otherwise be locked away in geological deposits. With biofuels, the plants and algae used to produce the raw material inhale carbon as they grow, offsetting the carbon released when they are burned.

But the past decade has seen the biofuel industry face tough economic conditions and niggling questions over its green credentials. The fledgling industry is now turning to a raft of innovative crop and processing technologies to overcome its challenges.

One of the biggest criticisms of the early generation of bioethanol crops, such as corn and sugarcane, was their propensity to mess with food markets and alter land use. Direct impacts – felling forests to make way for a biofuel crop, say – are usually obvious, says Prof Bill Laurance, director of the Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science at James Cook University. But indirect impacts can be no less devastating for the environment and are far harder to predict. “The devil is really in the details,” he says.

As an example, when farmers in the US opted out of soy in favour of corn for bioethanol, soy prices soared, suddenly making it an attractive crop for Brazilian farmers, which in turn drove demand for freshly deforested cropland. One analysis of these knock-on effects estimated that instead of cutting emissions, corn-based bioethanol would double emissions over a 30-year period.

This is without even considering loss to biodiversity, pollution from pesticide and fertiliser use, changes to water catchments and decreased food security for marginalised populations. The latest IPCC assessment report, released in 2014, acknowledged some of these risks and trade-offs.

Prof Rachel Burton, leader of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Plant Cell Walls at University of Adelaide, thinks that there is a smarter way forward for biofuels and it starts with selecting the right crop. Instead of growing food crops such as corn and sugarcane on prime agricultural land, Burton and others are looking to more hardy plants that grow on land too dry or saline for conventional crops. Australia could turn to crops like agave (of tequila fame), hemp, or the native saltbush and wild-growing sorghum for biofuels of the future, she says.

The once popular idea of generating biofuels from microscopic algae grown in ponds or tanks – which avoids land use altogether – has largely been abandoned due to the high production costs compared to fossil fuels. But economic considerations are also a factor for crop-based biofuels. Plant oils can be extracted and turned into biodiesel for vehicles and machinery, and aviation fuel that has already been used in commercial airline flights.

However, food oils from palm and soy hover at roughly twice the price of crude oil. “It really is fundamentally an economic problem rather than a technological problem,” says Dr Allan Green, innovation leader for biobased products at CSIRO Agriculture and Food. His solution is to make plants oilier. With more oil being produced on a given parcel of land, harvesting and production costs will inevitably fall. He and his colleagues have patented a way of tinkering with the genetic levers that control oil production in plants, so that a plant produces oil in its leaves, not just its fruit or seeds.

The technology, which has so far only been tested in tobacco, shows that oil production can be boosted to a third or more of the leaf’s weight, more than occurs naturally in any plant. If used in a crop that already produces oil in its seeds or fruit, the hope is that oil output could be doubled, though that theory is yet to be put to the test.

Changes to processing technologies are also influencing the direction that the biofuel industry is taking. Traditional approaches use plant sugars for fermentation to bioethanol, or oils that can be chemically transesterified for biodiesel production. A great deal of attention has gone into finding the perfect crops for these applications: plants dense in sugar-laden cellulose, minus lignins that make extraction more difficult; or crops that pump out high oil volumes. But the industry is also turning to methods that are less finicky about what plants are used.

Hydrothermal liquefaction uses heat and pressure to rip apart the long-chain molecules in whole plants into bio-crude oil, essentially compressing eons of geological time into a matter of hours. This can then be refined as you would petroleum-based crude oil, producing a catalogue of different fuels as well as plastics and other products.

“I think it has a huge future,” Burton says.

Similarly, torrefaction, a process adapted from coffee roasting, can turn essentially any plant matter into easily transportable bio-coal pellets. While both of these processes are energy intensive, combining them with renewables – say, solar panels or wind turbines – or co-locating them with power stations to harvest excess heat, could make the operations more environmentally sustainable, Burton says.

The advantage of a “crop agnostic” approach is that producers won’t be limited to crops designed to be biofuel-only crops but can instead choose species that deliver added benefits or income streams. Agave could be used to produce a high-value tipple, for instance, or hemp farmers could harvest seed for food or fibre for lightweight soundproofing like that used in BMW cars. Meanwhile, work by Kirsten Heimann, associate professor at the College of Science and Engineering at James Cook University, has shown that microalgae can simultaneously be used to produce biofuels and scrub mining tailings of contaminants.

“It’s much more sophisticated thinking,” Burton says, and could change the calculus for biofuels. “Biofuels maybe don’t need to be as cheap as we think they do, because you can make money out of the other things.”

The biofuel industry could well shape up to be a very diverse one, with no one crop or process surging ahead to claim the market, according to Green. “The amount of fuel we need to move away from petroleum is massive, so there’s plenty of space for all technologies,” he says.


UK Breaks Solar Record; Generates 24 Percent of Power from Solar

On Friday, May 26, on what was expected to be one of the hottest days of the year, solar panels in the UK generated a record amount of power, enough to meet almost 25 percent of demand. This is according to data compiled by National Grid Plc and Sheffield University.

At noon London-time, 8.75 GW of power was being generated by the solar PV, breaking a previous record of 8.49 GW, overtaking nuclear power in the country.

The CEO of the UK Solar Trade Association (STA), Paul Barwell, said in a statement that the organization was “delighted that at around midday today 8.75 GW was generated by solar, supplying nearly 25 percent of the UK’s total demand.” He added: “This is the first time that solar has generated more than nuclear, second only to gas.”

According to the STA there are 12.1 GW of solar capacity installed throughout the UK.

“This is a colossal achievement in just 5 years, and sends a very positive message to the UK that solar has a strong place in the decarbonisation of the UK energy sector.”

A Tiny Island Off Singapore May Hold Keys to Energy’s Future

On a small island off the southern coast of Singapore, a French energy company is experimenting with what it hopes will be the future of renewable power storage.

Engie SA is helping build a small, self-contained power grid on Semakau Island to demonstrate the usefulness of hydrogen gas in converting intermittent power from solar panels and wind turbines into stored fuel that can generate electricity days or even months later, when the need is higher.

Plummeting costs for solar and wind are helping renewable energy steal an ever-greater slice of the power generation pie from fossil fuels such as oil and coal. That makes it more and more vital to figure out how to spread out the brief but intense bursts of energy harnessed from the sun and wind to the more diffused needs of consumers. While battery storage has received most of the attention so far, hydrogen has “massive long-term potential,” said Didier Holleaux, executive vice president at Engie.

“Batteries are fine for intraday, or a few hours,” Holleaux said in an interview in Singapore. “But if you produce energy in summer and need it in winter, or need it to last during a few cloudy days, then hydrogen would be the obvious solution.”

To be a solution, though, hydrogen storage costs would have to come down dramatically. A hydrogen-based energy storage system costs about 10 times more than a diesel back-up generator with similar power output, according to a Toshiba Corp. presentation at the World Smart Energy Week in Tokyo in March.

Hydrogen storage is basically a three-step process: electricity powers a chemical process know as electrolysis that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored until it’s needed, and is then pumped through fuel cells to generate electricity.

The biggest hurdle to commercial viability is the electrolysis process, Holleaux said. Manufacturers are trying to make the water-splitting equipment cheaper and more efficient, but are probably 10 to 15 years away, Holleaux said.

Microgrid Target

“Electricity costs are a major component of the total expense for hydrogen production,” said I-Chun Hsiao, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “Access to cheap electricity and improvements in electrolyzer efficiencies are essential to improving the economic attractiveness of hydrogen, regardless of scale.”

The Semakau Island project, which Engie is taking part in along with Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and France’s Schneider Electric SE, aims to build demonstration microgrids that integrate wind, solar, tidal and diesel power along with storage to provide electricity to small island communities not connected to traditional power plants. The microgrid is expected to be operating by October, with hydrogen storage capabilities added next year, Holleaux said.

Engie sees big opportunities for such microgrids in Southeast Asia, especially in the Indonesian archipelago, where nearly 1,000 islands have populations that don’t have access to traditional power plants.

“It’s a region that’s open to innovation,” Holleaux said. “Many countries are ready to leapfrog directly from no power at all to a completely decentralized type of power, rather than going through the traditional centralized, interconnected network.”

PepsiCo, Walmart and setting a standard for sustainable fleets

A new BSR initiative brings together major fuel buyers to scope out the market for alternative fuels and heavy-duty electric vehicles

Mike O’Connell has a big job. As PepsiCo’s senior supply chain director for fleets and sustainability, he is tasked with overseeing the food and beverage giant’s fleet of 50,000 tractors, trailers, route trucks and other vehicles.

“We have a mix of about every truck type,” O’Connell observed. “We’re one of the larger private fleets in the United States.”

Amid an increase in fuel and electrification options for vehicles of all sizes, the company has moved to a blend of diesel, natural gas and even a handful of all-electric vehicles. But O’Connell and his peers overseeing other large corporate fleets have one problem: Until now, no one has really mapped out how the growing number of options stack up economically or in terms of environmental impact.

Enter the new Sustainable Fuel Buyers’ Principlesdrafted by companies such as PepsiCo, Walmart, UPS, Amazon and the nonprofit membership group Business for Social Responsibility, or BSR. The effort, an outgrowth of BSR’s ongoing “Future of Fuels” initiative, aims to bring fleet owners together to help grow the market for low-carbon or electric industrial vehicles.

“The story is definitely one of evolution,” said Nate Springer, who manages BSR’s Future of Fuels group. “There’s just a ton of information gaps and uncertainty and, frankly, disagreements on, ‘What is a sustainable fuel?’”

Springer hopes that 10 to 15 companies will be on board with the Sustainable Fuel Buyers’ Principles by year end. In the meantime, the group, which is free to join, will look to encourage fuel pilots, spur dialog about potential standards in the space and create case studies about successful implementations.

Modeled in part off the Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principleshammered out by the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund to catalyse corporate clean energy deals, the idea is to inform automakers and other equipment manufacturers that the demand for traditional diesel alternatives exists.

“The buyers’ principles are signaling to the market that we really want to dig deeper,” O’Connell said. “There’s not one answer to the entire question of sustainable fuel or sustainable fleets. It would be great if I could just go buy one technology.”

Beyond efficiency

All told, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that medium- and heavy-duty trucks account for about 23 per cent of annual US transportation emissions. That’s still well below the 61 per cent that comes from cars and other light-duty vehicles, but it is an area of impact that companies and regulators have been looking to decrease for years.

Elizabeth Fretheim, director of logistics sustainability at Walmart, said much of her focus in recent years has been on doubling the efficiency of the mega-retailer’s fleet of 6,400 tractors and 60,000 trailers — almost all of which are heavy duty class 8 trucks. Lightweighting vehicles, improving aerodynamics, experimenting with tyres and training drivers on downspeeding techniques are just a few tactics that Walmart has used to increase the number of cases shipped per gallon of fuel consumed.

Still, she said the company’s fuel portfolio remains “almost exclusively diesel,” a ratio that likely will have to change as Walmart embarks on a recently announced bid to cut one billion metric tons of greenhouse gas from its supply chain by 2030.

“We’ve been thinking of alt fuels for years, but we haven’t found a solution,” Fretheim said. “To fill the gap, we’re going to have to find alternatives.”

A dizzying array of biodiesel, natural gas and biomass options are commercially available today, although many come with their own environmental, performance and cost trade offs. Longer term, more radical alternatives such as electrification and hydrogen fuel cells are also on the horizon.

Springer said that BSR approaches the topic from a “fuel-neutral viewpoint,” but that the goal is to better understand the range of commercially viable power sources for vehicles. One way BSR hopes to answer that question is by producing more holistic data on the topic.

“Nobody has ever done a full demand study,” Springer said. “Ideally, this will help to give a sense of size and scope of the market.”

O’Connell, for his part, also cautions against an idealised view of all-electric trucks anytime soon.

“I don’t necessarily see a world where there’s no fuel,” he said.

The trouble with super-sized EVs

Given that a natural gas vs. diesel debate doesn’t thrill many environmental advocates, one longer-term issue to watch is how electrification translates to bigger vehicles.

As it stands, O’Connell and others said that there is still a disconnect between the range and availability of small vehicles operating on alt fuels or electric power trains and their bigger brethren.

PepsiCo, for instance, owns more than 100 medium-duty electric trucks used for short-range deliveries of 60 miles or less. The manufacturer of those trucks, Smith, is one of several niche providers that has faded.

“Unfortunately, due to the business environment, they didn’t sustain,” O’Connell said. “The problem is the industry is just not there yet. I’m very optimistic about what’s coming.”

A range of companies are eyeing the electric freight space, from upstarts such as Uber to major automakers including Volvo. Fretheim said she hopes one takeaway from the new fuel buyers’ principles is “a consistent message” that more advanced electrification options and other technologies would have buyers if they were commercialised.

Manufacturing issues aside, O’Connell said that arranging for the fuel or electric charging capacity to keep fleet facilities on the road is another problem. PepsiCo has helped finance natural gas stations near some of its distribution facilities, but electrification brings with it another set of infrastructure questions.

“There is a large amount of partnership with the utilities that’s needed if you scale up anymore to where you need more power,” O’Connell said.

With both fleets and the equipment needed to power them, Fretheim sees only one coherent path forward.

“We need to move forward as an industry because of the cost of the equipment and the cost of the infrastructure,” she said. “Unless we move forward as an industry, I don’t think we’ll succeed.”

UK lobbies Europe to dilute flagship energy efficiency law

The UK is lobbying Europe to water down a key energy-saving target despite the fact it will not take effect until after Brexit, according to leaked documents that sparked warnings that energy bills could rise and jobs put at risk.

On the day Theresa May triggered article 50, government officials asked the European commission to weaken or drop elements of its flagship energy efficiency law.

Green campaigners warned that the efforts to undermine the energy efficiency directive were a sign the Conservatives would dilute or abolish European energy and climate policies after the UK leaves the EU.

In the past, the UK has publicly welcomed the targets, which end in 2020, as an important driver for reducing consumer bills and reliance on energy imports.

The European Commission wants a binding target of improving energy efficiency 30 per cent by 2030, compared with business-as-usual.

But documents obtained by Greenpeace, dated 29 March, show the UK urging the commission to lower the goal to 27 per cent and make it non-binding on the EU’s 28 members. A more recent version, dated 22 May and seen by the Guardian, shows the UK has maintained its stance.

Hannah Martin, the head of energy at Greenpeace UK, said: “The government is trying to lock the rest of the EU into weaker energy policies, just as we are leaving. The message ministers seem to be sending is that Brexit could trigger a race to the bottom and be used as cover for getting rid of key environmental safeguards.”

The UK is also pushing to drop an obligation on suppliers – including the big six of British Gas, EDF, E.ON, Npower, SSE and ScottishPower – to cut the amount of energy they sell during the next decade.

Under the commission’s plan, energy companies would have to achieve energy savings of 1.5 per cent a year until 2030, using energy efficiency measures. The UK called for the target to be abolished or, failing that, it should no longer be legally binding.

The directive was important for giving companies the long-term certainty to plan their investments, one business group said.

“Seeking to reduce the level of ambition in the directive is entirely counter-productive both environmentally and economically, and completely undermines the UK’s aspirations to maintain a leadership position on climate change,” said John Alker, policy director at the UK Green Building Council.

Roland Joebstl, of the European Environmental Bureau, a network of environmental groups, said the UK’s lobbying could “crash” the European energy efficiency industry and jeopardise jobs.

David Symons, environmental director at consultancy WSP, said: “It’s surprising that the government is lobbying against a measure that is expected to deliver €70bn of additional gross domestic product and 400,000 jobs across Europe by 2030.”

One expert warned the move could push up household energy bills. Joanne Wade, the chief executive of the UK-based Association for the Conservation of Energy, said: “At an EU level, we need a binding target for energy efficiency, to make sure that there is not an over-emphasis on supply-side options which could result in higher energy bills for consumers.”

However, the industry body that represents the big six and other energy suppliers welcomed the stance taken by the UK. “Market-based measures, rather than binding obligations, should be used to drive energy efficiency investment,” said Lawrence Slade, the chief executive of Energy UK.

The EU has said it committed to putting “energy efficiency first” as part of its action on climate change. Miguel Arias Cañete, the EU’s climate chief, has said he was “particularly proud” of the 2030 target.

The Conservative party’s manifesto pledged to improve the energy efficiency of Britain’s draughty housing stock It said it would establish an energy-saving scheme for big industrial companies, because “an energy-efficient business is a more competitive business”.

A government spokesman said: “Any future decisions on energy efficiency policy would be a matter for the next government.”

Wood pellet fuel deemed ‘carbon neutral’ in U.S. spending bill

A week after President Donald Trump vowed to impose new tariffs on Canadian lumber imports to help the U.S. timber industry, lawmakers passed a spending bill that could push U.S. government agencies to promote burning wood pellets to fuel power plants.

The budget bill that the U.S. House of Representatives passed on Wednesday, which makes way for nearly $1.2 trillion in federal spending, directs the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture to “establish clear policies that reflect the carbon neutrality of biomass.”

Biomass, or wood pellet fuel, is considered a renewable energy source because it is composed of trees, which can be replaced after they are cut down. It is used to heat homes and fuel power plants.

Scientists say burning wood pellets actually produces more harmful greenhouse emissions than coal or natural gas.

“Recent advances in science and accounting for pollution from different types of woody biomass have clarified that burning trees to produce electricity actually increases carbon emissions compared with fossil fuels for many decades and contributes to other air pollution problems,” a group of 60 U.S. scientists wrote in a 2014 letter to the UK’s secretary of state for energy and climate change.

The European Union already treats biomass as carbon-friendly and subsidizes its production.

A biomass industry group offered praise for the measure on Wednesday.

“We are thrilled to see such strong bipartisan support for biomass, which Congress is officially recognizing as the carbon neutral, renewable energy source that it is,” said Dave Tenny, president and chief executive of the National Alliance of Forest Owners, in a statement emailed to Reuters on Wednesday.

Environmental groups criticized the decision. Danna Smith, executive director of the Dogwood Alliance, an environmental group focused on forests and logging in the southern United States, said the provision “will add to a significant climate problem we already have in the U.S.”

The legislation, which will keep the government funded through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, now goes to the Senate, which is expected to pass it before a midnight Friday deadline.