Can we have a biofuel future?

There are three main issues that opponents to biofuels have:

They are made from food crops or grown on land that would otherwise be used for food crops
Using food crops and land that is better suited for growing food crops will decrease the amount of food available and increase the cost of food. This is already being seen in many countries around the world, including the United States where biofuels are subsidised.

They are made by destroying biodiversity and native forests
Biofuels are only sustainable and carbon neutral if the biomass they are made from is regrown. In various parts of the world, notably Brazil and Indonesia, native forests are clear-felled to use for biofuels and also to make land for growing biofuel feedstocks like sugarcane in Brazil and palm oil in Indonesia. The resultant loss of biodiversity is largely irreversable

Biofuels use energy to make them which could also mean that they are not carbon neutral
Many reports show that biofuels are an extremely high-cost means for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. It is much cheaper to grow forests to reduce atmospheric carbon. A mature biofuels industry would presumably create it own energy for production, which would be carbon neutral. It is true that the net energy from production would be much less than fossil fuels but that is true of most alternatives.

The New Zealand case for a biofuel future

There are currently a wide range of biofuels used in New Zealand which are generally made from the residues and waste from other activities. Ethanol is made from the by-products of dairy food manufacture. Gas is collected in various landfills around the country. Biodiesel is made in a number of small scale operations using waste vegetable oil. Biodigesters are used to created methane from putrescible waste such as dairy cow effluent. In Wellington methane gas is collected from the cities’ main landfill. Wood and wood residues are used for heating in many homes and for cogeneration in a number of manufacturing plants.

These biofuels are all produced in small quantities but it is possible that New Zealand could produce much more. A report by SCION (see: Bionergy Options for New Zealand: Situation Analysis) released in 2007 stated that most of New Zealand’s heat and liquid fuel demand could be met by creating a purpose-grown forest estate of approximately 3.2 million hectares which they say is achievable based on the amount of marginal and lower quality grazing land available.

A New Zealand biofuels industry based on purpose grown, sustainable forests has many benefits for the environment, the economy and society as a whole:

Environmental benefits

Biofuels are renewable and are effectively carbon-neutral and could therefore significantly reduce our carbon footprint. If new purpose-grown forests are established, carbon credits will be created. Forests provide environmental services such as climate regulation (including drought control), flood control, soil conservation, water cycling, nutrient storage/recycling and wildlife habitat. Other biofuel technologies, such as biodigesters and algal ponds, have the important function of treating water and waste and also providing valuable fertiliser.

Economic benefits

A biofuels industry will create new jobs, decrease the cost of imports and increase the security of supply. Prices will not be affected by foreign exchange fluctuations or by uncontrollable international events and crises.

Social benefits

By creating new jobs a biofuels industry will spur local communities. The recreation amenity value of forests will benefit locals as well as tourists.

The cost of biofuels

At present biofuels are generally more expensive than fossil fuels. However as the price of fossil fuel increases, due to peaking supply coupled with increasing demand, biofuels will be competitive. An emission trading scheme or carbon tax will also further level the playing field. As the manufacture and use of biofuels becomes more widespread, technologies will improve and there will be economies of scale. If you combine the enormous benefits of new purpose-grown forests outlined above with the future economic benefits an investment in biofuels now will pay enormous dividends.

The problem is that by their very nature forests take a long time to grow. If started now a massive planting programme could make New Zealand fully self sufficient and sustainable in liquid and heating fuels in 40 years time.