Apathy For Biofuel

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

The man who walked into the computer room of the International Institute for Journalism, IIJ, Berlin, was not a soldier. But he walked in with the audacity of a major-general. Lorenz Kirchner represents Prokon Capital, a German energy firm involved in research and investments in the search for alternative sources of energy. Prokon made a foray in the renewable energy drive in 1992, and started off building two windmills. Owing to support from the German government, and the relative success it enjoyed in the past few years, Prokon has made another foray in the production of renewable energy. In the video he played to participants in an international conference in July, a persona identified in the video as Prokon director said that ‘mankind is at a crossroad as far as the question of the search for alternative source of energy is concerned’. The proposal he set before the participants at the July seminar included the use of oil from a plant, Jatropha to solve the diesel needs of the world.

But Lorenzo did not show up at first. What looked like a foot soldier did – Reinhard Henning, a biologist with Gesellescaft Fur Technische Zusammenarbeit, GTZ, said he had spent more than eight years researching on Jatropha in the bushes of Tanzania and Mali. According to Henning, the Jatropha plant grew only in Africa and certain parts of Latin America. ‘The seed contains 30-35 percent of edible oil that can serve as replacement for 20 percent of the diesel fuel consumed worldwide’. Henning also said that even though oil from Jatropha is a substitute for diesel, it must pass through a conversion process.

Some participants were not satisfied with this and they said so. Paul Malimbo, a journalist on energy from Tanzania said that research shows that Jatropha grew in Europe and the Americas as well. ‘I am a loss why they chose to establish a Jatropha production plant in Tanzania even when they know that the plant is toxic’, Malimbo said.

There are indications that this kind of initial apathy for the race to find replacements for crude oil is just heating up. When Sapphire, a UK-based firm announced recently that it had found another formula for diesel initial enthusiasm for that project waned when environmentalists took the company up. Tobias Munchmeyer, a representative of Greenpeace said that producing algae in a large body of water compounds the problem. ‘At a time that the world is grappling with acute water shortage, using large water-bodies to produce artificial algae for biodiesel is irresponsible’, he said. Worldwide, agriculture accounts for 70 percent of the world’s global water withdrawal, with domestic water supply, industry and manufacturing competing for water as well.

In the wake of escalating oil prices, fears that oil wells may soon dry up, and concerns about global warming from reliance on burning fossil fuels such as diesel and gasoline, a host of companies are claiming to have found an alternative to crude oil. For instance, CHOREN, short for Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen and Renewable, a German company said it produces a biodiesel called Sundiesel from a process called Carbo-V which the company claims ‘presents new opportunities for agriculture and forestry and new jobs in rural areas’. Another, Konnern Biogas, a privately owned company feeds 100 tons of maize mixed with animal dung on a daily basis into a biogas plant. Tobias Tolberg, plant manager said that according to Germany’s renewable energy law, gas production from maize has scientific basis because of the extent of research done in that field. ‘Our company is just one of the many involved in generating affordable energy according to the government plans for combined heat and power, CHP’.

Ludwig Pulschen, agricultural engineer and crop nutrition lecturer at the University of Kiel, Germany said that using any agricultural produce for biogas has good and bad sides. According to Pulschen, ‘biofuel mitigates climate change and reduces dependence on oil in the transport sector. It will also new large markets and open up rural economies’, he said. But there are problems. He said that production of biogas depends on the type of produce used, the processes involved and changes in land use. ‘The estimation is that biofuel may cover only 5-6 percent of global transport energy consumption in 2020 from just 1 percent today. But even at that, grain required to fill the tank of a sports utility vehicle with ethanol could feed one person for one year’, he said.

With increased awareness in biofuel production, new players in the business like Indonesia and Malaysia have started a fierce competition with traditional biofuel producers, the United States and Brazil. For instance, both Indonesia and Malaysia get their sugarcane from Mozambique and other Central African countries to meet the increasing demand for ethanol, which palm oil is unable to guarantee. The US provides substantial support in terms of subsidies, tax exemptions, and direct subsidy payments to biofuel producers. These measures translate to the tune of about $5-7billion every year to companies producing substantial amounts of ethanol.

Experts agree that biofuel production worldwide pushed up the price of major staples by as much as 60 percent in 2007. According to Pulschen, prospects for biofuel production using certain crops like Jatropha, maize and rape seed increases the tension for fuel and fool. ‘Biofuel contribution to energy security with existing technology is marginal. Biofuel contribution to greenhouse emission is also minimal because emissions from growing stocks including emissions from fertilizer production and changes in land use need to be factored into the overall evaluation’, Pulschen said.

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