EurActiv - Letters to the Editor


Regarding ‘NGOs take Commission to court over biofuels reports‘:

It is important to note that biofuels are not all produced from the same source and they do not all have the same environmental impacts.

Whilst we can understand the issues being scrutinised in this legal foray, there is a serious issue here which I had forecast – like many others from within our industry and outside had done a long time before the results became a cause célèbre. Indeed it was and always has been an issue in the making by the European Union and other countries since the mad dash for biofuels was instigated.

Such a mad dash could only have been put into effect if it had been countenanced by the use (and in some instances the misuse) of uncontrolled subsidies given to farmers of those crops (typically food, or grown on land that was originally used for food crops) that were able to be readily converted to make the biofuels. In fact many of the source crops used to manufacture the biofuels are primary food crops, which in some parts of the world are also staple foods. They include sugar cane and many of the grain crops and soya beans.

When considering land requirements here, the issue is much more complex. For although some can be made available from so-called ‘marginal land’ or may have, at one stage, been classified as ‘set-aside’ (to use European jargon) and some may have been ‘reclaimed’ – and in this we should refer to that which in the mind of the appellants to the case before the courts here includes forests that have been cut down to grow crops like rape, soya bean, cassava and oil palm! the majority has come from farmland. And whilst some would say this combination has had little if any effect on adding to food price inflation, I beg to differ.

As a group of nations we have of course added to this in the most simple way – we have helped with massive subsidies!

The use of subsidies to farmers and then to the producers of biofuels was always going to create conflict between the duality of uses of these food crops, or over land use and the diversion of land that was, until recently, primarily used for growing foods or had been forested (sometimes even primordial at that) and cut down to grow the biofuels (soya, palm oil and even grain crops!) It does not take much for those with a little bit of common sense to see the obvious connections.

Let’s give credit where credit is due: the public is very knowledgeable and astute on this and is much more aware of these issues than most of the so-called ‘learned’ in society think. They are right!

After investigating the issue at length it is evident that there are companies which have been striving over the past few years to get the same message across: the only realistic way forward in the production of biofuels for transport is to use biomass from non-food crops. I would like to offer some opinions here.

It has always been the position of many companies working towards this goal that there is no need to make biofuels from either:

(i) the direct use of crops which should be grown for food;
(ii) the use of land which should be used primarily to grow food crops or that has been diverted away from growing food crops;
(iii) the transfer of land from environmentally sensitive areas;
(iv) from various other equally ‘comparable’ sources and means.

This so-called need for direct production of biofuels from such areas is a misnomer. The need is not there.

There are numerous sources of generic biomass available which can be used for the same purpose. Much of this is discarded from society in its various wastes. It includes waste biomass from farming and agriculture; horticulture and nurseries; parks and gardens; industry and commerce; the pharmaceutical industry; food and drinks production, including sell-by foods and also that from municipal solid waste and and waste-water (sewage) sludge. In addition it also includes the harvesting of phytoplankton in farmed macro-algae using shallow saline and brackish water lagoons, as well as the micro-algae developments.

With all efforts now centred on manufacturing biofuels from biomass (Ligno-Cellulose), the quest by many in recent years has been to think anew rather than in the traditional sense. Whilst it is all very well attempting to exploit the exotic routes to breaking down Ligno-Cellulose to their base chemicals and reforming these into biofuels (the ‘Gas to Liquid’ analogy) or to use sophisticated enzymes and Genetically-Modified Organisms either to reduce the base material to the biofuels directly or through the sugar platforms for later production of biofuels, most of these routes are experimental, very expensive and unlikely to prove anywhere near commercial without massive subsidies. So why bother!

One of the simplest and oldest methods to get biofuels (such as ethanol) established over 180 years ago and later used in the First and Second World Wars was dilute acid hydrolysis. It was developed as a crude batch system with very low efficiencies of conversion (30% as a general rule and occasionally up to 40% was a possibility!) and its use was limited to single-source biomass stocks. As a result it remained almost untouched except for minor adjustments until very recently.

Now, following the work of James A. Titmas, who founded GeneSyst International Incorporated in the late 20th Century to develop the internationally patented Gravity Pressure Vessel (TM), all has changed. By using this, combined with standard off-the-shelf process engineering equipment more familiar to that from the water industry, the process is now continuous and the efficiency of making ethanol from Ligno-Cellulose has increased dramatically. The process can achieve 80% conversion to ethanol – potentially even more.

Thus the limitations of a process once thought of as being of little use has resurfaced in a major way, and the cost of producing ethanol fuel from any source and any mixture of biomass is now not that far off from becoming competitive with that made from food crops and sugar cane.

As I understand it, the process and the procedure is being rolled out in the next few weeks in several major plants all ready to start construction under the GeneSyst umbrella including: South Milford (for mytum) and Selby, Yorkshire in the UK to make 90+ million litres of ethanol from 300,000 tonnes of biomass from MSW; Hardenberg (Netherlands) to make 50+ million litres of ethanol from 200,00 tonnes of biomass from straw and MSW; Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) and Kentucky, both to make ethanol from biomass obtained from MSW.

Various other projects across the world are shortly to be announced.

If we then add to these the news reported of the developments in Finland with ST1 (recalling the news just last week about making biofuel ethanol from waste), then we can see that the time is ripe to move away from food crops.

As we approach the aims of producing biofuels more economically from non-food sources, we now see a route forward which will allay the concerns raised in this legal test. I suggest that now is the time for the EU (and other nations) to rethink the subsidy issue again. The time has come to remove the subsidy given to both the farmers who grow food-based crops (or the land used to grow them) and the biofuel producers who use these same sources of material to make the biofuels and transfer them to those that are dedicated to making these same fuels wholly from non-food sources of biomass and waste biomass.

It is simple and neat and clear cut. Yes, there would need to be some heavy external monitoring, but so what? Whilst there are already many companies in the bio-energy area who through the self-certification arena abuse and milk the system for their own benefit – and many of those are familiar names in the industry working in the area of incineration of waste and in wood burning power plants – all claiming double subsidies for selling electricity made from their process stream whilst importing cheaper electricity to run their plants. We cannot let this happen again and here there is a chance to do something about it.

So having raised the issue here under the guise of this article, let’s move forwards in the EU and recognise that not everyone in the biofuels industry is out to despoil the environment by their actions.

Carol Horner

Private citizen

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