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Archive for the ‘Biofuels’ Category

Green Light For London Desalination

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Boris Johnson paddling a coracleLondon’s new Mayor, Boris Johnson, has dropped a legal challenge to Thames Water’s proposed £200 million desalination plant in Beckton, East London. The High Court challenge was initiated by his predecessor, Ken Livingstone, on the grounds that the project was inefficient and bad for the environment.

Mr Livingstone said cleaner, cheaper and less wasteful alternatives should be found to avoid the “energy-guzzling and carbon-intensive” way the plant was run. According to Times Online, Boris Johnson withdrew the case after Thames Water “promised to introduce a series of environmentally-friendly measures”.

The plant will use reverse osmosis to remove salt from river water. Osmosis occurs between two solutions of different concentrations or strengths. A very fine membrane separating the solutions allows liquid (but not the dissolved solids) to pass from the weak solution to the strong solution.

Over time, the concentration of the two liquids will balance out but pressurising the stronger solution can stop the flow. If the pressure on the stronger solution is increased further the osmotic process is reversed and the liquid passes from the stronger solution making it more concentrated. This reverse osmosis process can be used to remove water from a saline solution (i.e. brackish water) thus providing a desalination technology.

The first reverse osmosis water treatment plant was built in California and started working in 1965. The nice thing about this technology is that it’s highly scalable, suitable for large projects like Beckton, producing enough water for 400,000 homes, right down to small-scale devices like Red Button Design’s ROSS (‘Innovate or Die‘)

According to Thames Water’s FAQ page, the process will be timed to extract water during the three hours leading up to low tide, minimising the salt content to less than one-third that of seawater. This means that the plant will use approximately half the energy required to treat pure sea water, and around 15% of that used by the most energy-intensive thermal desalination plants.

The plant “will use around 6.3MW a year over a 25-year lifespan”. Hmmm, not sure what that means, someone doesn’t know the difference between a megawatt and a megawatt-hour it seems. More work needed, must try harder. Thames Water have “given a legally binding commitment that 100% of the plant’s energy needs will be met from renewable energy”. Options being considered are wind power, and used cooking fat and oil. Initially, however, the plant will be powered by biodiesel, which raises the old questions, where will the biodiesel come from, and what environmental damage will be caused in producing it? I bet it’ll have some palm oil in it.

Interesting how the word ‘sustainable’ doesn’t show up in Thames Water’s information on the plant, it’s all about ‘renewable’ energy, which is more difficult for the green lobby to take exception to. They’re learning.


Written by Pete Smith

May 13, 2008 at 10:12 am


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Tonight at 6 p.m. outside Downing Street, there’s a demonstration against the mandatory addition of biofuel to all fuel sold in the UK. From today, April 15th (“April Biofools Day”), the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) demands that all forecourts will be required by law to sell only fuel which is blended with 2.5% biofuel. Action groups such as Biofuelwatch denounce this as a Very Bad Thing, leading to food shortages and monoculture cultivation of crops specifically for fuel. The conventional wisdom is that biofuels can and will only be created from food crops, grown on agricultural land, or on destroyed rainforest, which is even worse. Green guru George Monbiot, in an article in today’s Guardian, has this to say:

“From this morning all sellers of transport fuel in the United Kingdom will be obliged to mix it with ethanol or biodiesel made from crops.”

Which is not true. The RTFO does not specify how the biofuel to be added should be made, only that it should be obtained from a renewable source. Now, in the short term it may well be that the Obligation will be met by using biofuel or bioethanol from crops. There are market distortion problems caused by heavily-subsidised corn-derived fuel from the US, for example. Oil companies are reporting that they will not be able to supply bioethanol in any quantity before next year at the earliest. However, in the medium to long-term, crop-based biofuels are likely to be displaced by other technologies processing other sources, such as algae, food waste, wood and other non-crop cellulosic biomass. (“Sobering Up from Ethanol Inebriation”, Energy & Capital)

There’s widespread ignorance on these issues. The ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’ is oblivious to the distinction between biofuel, biomass, biodiesel and bioethanol, and uses the terms interchangeably if he talks about these things at all. That’s fine, if he can rely on experts in the field to get it right. But when a writer of George Monbiot’s stature gets it wrong, what hope do we have? Whether it’s a genuine mistake or deliberate journalistic sleight of hand, it’s disappointing to say the least.

Written by Pete Smith

April 15, 2008 at 3:57 pm

U.S. Biofuel Dumping

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D1 Oils share price graph

Shares in AIM-listed biofuels outfit D1 Oils plc (LSE: DOO.Lnews) are showing more sharp falls this morning after a 36% drop on Friday. The company said the influx of heavily subsidised US biodiesel is putting the entire EU green fuel industry at risk. The US government is promoting the production and use of biodiesel for transport under the so-called B99 scheme, in which producers could claim a subsidy of up to $1 per gallon if they blend 99 pct biodiesel with 1 pct mineral diesel.

Massive exports of unfairly subsidised biodiesel are now threatening the EU green fuels industry by seriously eroding the available margin on refining vegetable oils and putting at risk jobs in both Europe and in developing countries that are able to produce sustainable biodiesel from crops such as jatropha curcas. Around 1 million tonnes of B99 biodiesel are believed to have been ‘dumped’ by the US into the EU this year. About 10% of that consisted of biodiesel produced from palm plantations planted on rainforest in Southeast Asia, blended in the US and then sold on to the EU.

‘If these practices are not stopped, there will be no biodiesel refining industry in Europe,’ said Karl Watkin, founder and non-executive director of D1 Oils.

Update: Karl Watkin, founder and former chairman, has resigned from his role as non-executive director of D1. In a statement, Watkin said he is quitting out of frustration over the investment community’s inability to differentiate D1’s strategy from that of the suppliers of palm, soya and rapeseed ‘whose biodiesel products have been well documented as being environmentally unsustainable.

”I am particularly disheartened by the plethora of so-called experts on climate change who fail to distinguish between jatropha and other non-sustainable biodiesel feedstocks.

‘This lack of differentiation, combined with the London Stock Exchange’s failure to address both the liquidity problems of AIM and the impact of shorting of illiquid stocks, have conspired to erode the value of D1″.

D1 Oils has teamed up with UK oil giant BP PLC for a $160 million biodiesel project that uses jatropha, an inedible oilseed bearing tree, as a feedstock. The joint venture, called D1-BP Fuel Crops Ltd, intends to plant 1 million hectares of jatropha in its first four years. Production is expected to start next year. D1 has started a consultation process with employees on the future of its Middlesbrough and Bromborough sites, as part of a review of its downstream refining and trading operations.

‘Imports of heavily subsidised biodiesel have eroded margins to the point where we have no choice but to consider how to reduce operating costs. We are taking this action to manage the business proactively in a difficult market,’ chief executive Elliott Mannis said.

The distortion effect of subsidies is magnified by EU targets specifying that 2.5% of all fuel sold from pumps must be obtained from renewable sources. One tonne of B99 from the US costs about $1200, while buying soya to produce your own costs $1400, with another $150 for processing costs. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see where the biofuel to satisfy our renewables obligations will come from.

D1 is a company that’s ticking all the right boxes in terms of sustainability, producing biodiesel from a non-food plant that they are planting in marginal and non-agricultural land in developing countries round the world. They are being put under severe pressure by market distortions caused by US subsidies for biodiesel, wherever it comes from: American corn, rainforest palm oil, who cares? It does make you wonder, though, what the US government thinks about their subsidised oil being exported, rather than going to meet domestic biofuel targets. Or is the US economy in such a desperate state that they’ll export anything for foreign currency?

Perhaps the UK should consider ‘tuning’ its tax rebates on biofuels to exclude these imports. I feel another trade war coming on.

Written by Pete Smith

March 10, 2008 at 11:10 am

Green GM

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A year ago, General Motors launched the Chevy Volt, a battery-powered concept car that has generated a huge amount of interest with the car-buying public. Amidst growing speculation that GM are having problems with the Volt’s battery technology, to the extent that they are steering potential customers towards their hybrid models, the car giant unveiled two more ‘alternative’ fuel vehicles at this year’s North American International Auto Show. No batteries here: the Hummer HX (pictured above) and the Saab 9-4X both run on ethanol.

Alongside the new concept cars, GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner announced a partnership with Coskata Inc, an Illinois startup company with breakthrough technology which affordably and efficiently makes ethanol from practically any renewable source, including garbage, old tires and plant waste. Using patented microorganisms and bioreactor designs, the Coskata process can produce ethanol for less than $1 a gallon, about half of today’s cost of producing gasoline. For every unit of energy used, 7.7 units of ethanol energy are produced, compared to conventional corn-derived ethanol which provides 1.3 times the energy input. Less than one gallon of water is used for each gallon of ethanol, a third that of other processes.

The GM-Coskata partnership coincides with last month’s Energy Independence and Security Act, which calls for a huge increase in the use of biofuels, from 7.5 billion gallons in 2012 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. Amid growing concerns over the effect on food prices caused by diverting food crops to bio-fuels, the search is on for viable alternative bioenergy crops. A joint study involving the US Department of Agriculture and Midwest farmers has identified the potential of switchgrass, a native North American perennial grass (Panicum virgatum) which can deliver more than five times more energy than it takes to grow it. Sounds good; a native plant, must be good for biodiversity and the environment generally as well as for energy. Sadly not; the impressive efficiency figures demand that the switchgrass is planted in dense monocultures, fed with artificial fertilisers and optimised with genetic ‘tweaking’. It will also require a lot of land. Even though switchgrass and its cousins grow happily on marginal land, an estimated 3.1 million to 21.3 million hectares of existing US agricultural land is projected to be converted to perennial grasses for bioenergy, the majority coming from the reallocation of existing cropland, with land currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program and pastures coming second and third.

It’s clear that American technologists are working hard to justify President Bush’s long-term mantra that technology can solve all our problems. The major worry is that there are so many new technologies and initiatives competing for investment, not all of which will succeed and with no guarantee that they won’t cause more problems than they solve. Against a background of imminent recession in the US economy, will all this effort actually pay off in time?

GM-Coskata announcement

Coskata “Next Generation Ethanol”

“Net energy of cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass”

Pssst! Wanna Buy Some Green Energy?

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Private Walker

The Observer reports that Britain is running out of renewable energy, as a surge in demand from businesses has outstripped the supply of electricity generated from ‘green’ sources. Firms’ interest in reducing their carbon footprint has far exceeded new capacity coming on-stream. This leaves companies which have pledged to become ‘carbon neutral’ with a sizeable headache. EDF is ‘prioritising’ existing customers, Npower says the amount it can supply depends on how much customers can pay, and Good Energy, a renewable-only electricity supplier, is turning away very big orders.

What some might consider a surprising popularity of renewables in the business fraternity is being led by large companies, who are obliged to pay the climate change levy on electricity from fossil fuels. The situation isn’t helped by the snail’s pace of the UK planning system, with wind energy projects which could supply one in six British homes mired in bureaucracy.

So much for the power of the market.

‘Business runs out of green energy supply’

Village Green

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Archers mucking out

The environmental propaganda machine continues to rumble forward on ‘The Archers’, BBC Radio 4’s venerable soap opera and green information channel. Tuesday’s episode featured an earnest discussion of anaerobic digesters on farms, turning animal muck into methane and generating electricity for sale back to the grid. According to jet-setting career agriculturist Debbie Aldridge, calling home from Eastern Europe where she runs her father’s offshore organic farming operation apparently single-handedly, the Germans are streets ahead of the UK with this technology. She wants a piece of the action at Home Farm.

It’s taken a while for art to imitate life. Last year the BBC reported how an agricultural college was using methane from the muck produced by its dairy herd to power its working farm all year round (‘College harnesses cow pat power‘ ), saying “the technology is used at more than 1,000 farms in Germany but only at a handful in the UK”.

Why are we so far behind here? The natural conservatism (small ‘c’) of UK farmers? Problems financing the project? General uncertainties in the farming industry? The idea seems to tick all the right boxes: cheap electricity, lower emissions, reduced water pollution. For me, the only fly in the ointment is the need for artifical fertilisers to replace the muck that used to be spread on the fields.

The reason they’re ahead in Germany is, you guessed it, money. In 2004, Renewable Energy World reported:

In Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands, the incentive system for anaerobic digestion consists of both a subsidy for the green electricity generated, and of either investment subsidies or fiscal incentives. Of all the countries reviewed, Germany has the best investment climate for anaerobic digestion at this level, the main reason being its high feed-in tariff for the electricity generated – 10.1 Eurocents/kWh. Moreover, this rate is guaranteed for a period of 20 years.

Sounds tempting. I bet Brian Aldridge would jump at that deal, if it were available in the UK.


Biofuels Issue Brief

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The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has published an ‘Issue Brief’ on biofuels. The document, the first output from WBSCD’s new workstream on clean energy technology, provides an overview of biofuel production and use with a special focus on the transport sector. It describes first and second generation biofuels and explores their potential as a possible substitute for fossil fuels.

The Issue Brief tries to unpack key issues and analyse the many variables involved in biofuels policy so as to open debate by business on the main challenges for this energy source. Although intended primarily for a business audience, the brief provides a general understanding that could serve to inform the general public as well.

Read the press release online

Download the Issue Brief (PDF 751 kb)

Written by Pete Smith

November 17, 2007 at 9:53 am