The US had plans to make biodiesel out of soybeans at least since 1998, when
a glowing assessment of its energy balance was provided in a report sponsored
by the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy. It claimed that,
“Biodiesel yields 3.2 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil
energy consumed in its life cycle” and reduces net emissions of CO2
by 78.45 percent compared to petroleum diesel. These estimates were overly optimistic,
and out of line with other analyses (“Biofuels
for oil addicts”, this series). But this report may have had undue influence
over the subsequent development of biodiesel around the world.
Biodiesel is Europe’s dominant renewable fuel. It is widely welcomed by environmental
groups as a renewable energy that burns more cleanly than diesel. A comprehensive
study by the US Environment Protection Agency showed that biodiesel burns with
much less hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide and particulate matter in the exhaust,
although there was an increase in nitrogen oxides.
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As part of a range of measures to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions, the EU is encouraging the use of biofuels. The current (2003) EU
Biofuels Directive requires 2 percent of the energy for transport to come
from renewable sources, including both biodiesel and bioethanol, rising to
5.75 percent by the end of 2010, and 20 percent by 2020.
Transport fuels account for around a quarter of EU’s greenhouse gas emissions
and demand for diesel and petrol is fast rising. In 2004, 270 m tonnes of fossil
fuels were consumed compared with 180 m tonnes in 1985, and by 2020, fuel consumption
will reach 325 m tonnes.
Tax exemptions and
national targets introduced across Europe are driving the biodiesel market.
Germany has the highest consumption of biodiesel at 1.1 m tonnes in 2004.
UK’s reduction of duty on biodiesel by 20 pence a litre in July 2002 has encouraged
investment, though UK consumed only 0.3 m tonnes of biodiesel in 2004.
A new EU draft paper released
8 February 2006 outlines a series of measures to promote biofuels
in the EU and developing countries. The current voluntary target to have biofuels
make up 5.75 percent share of transport fuels by 2010 looks likely to be missed.
The EU draft paper admitted that some aspects of biofuels are unsustainable,
such as allowing farmers to grow sugar beet for bioethanol on set-aside land,
or to convert wine into bioethanol. Set-aside land is also being used to grow
oilseed rape for biodiesel.
Europe has dominated
the biodiesel industry to-date with 90 percent of global production. The EU
produced 2.4 m tonnes of biofuels in 2004, amounting to 0.8 percent of EU
petrol and diesel consumption. Bioethanol made up 0.5 m tonnes and biodiesel
1.9 m tonnes. Rapeseed oil is the main biodiesel feedstock, constituting just
over 20 percent of EU25 total oilseed production. A special
aid for energy crops was introduced by the 2003 CAP reform that pays a premium
of 45 euros per ha with a maximum guaranteed area of 1.5 million hectares
as the budgetary ceiling.
appears straightforward starting from oil. It is based on a chemical process
of trans-esterification in which
fat or vegetable oil is reacted with a simple alcohol such as methanol in
the presence of sodium hydroxide as catalyst. The methanol splits the fatty
acids from the oil to form methyl esters (biodiesel) and glycerine. The glycerine
is separated from the fuel and removed as a marketable by-product (for
making soap, for example), while the biodiesel is washed with water and dried.
Biodiesel can also be produced from waste cooking oils.
Life cycle analysis ignores external costs
A study carried out in Australia showed that while biodiesel produced from
waste cooking oils reduces carbon emissions by 90 percent, biodiesel made from
rapeseed oil would save only 50 percent of carbon dioxide emissions compared
with using diesel. The UK’s biodiesel industry group commissioned a study that
found producing biodiesel from oilseed rape “strongly energy positive”, with
an output/input energy ratio of 1.78 where straw was left in the field; where
straw was burned as fuel and oilseed rape meal used as a fertilizer, the ratio
was even better at 3.71. But these favourable estimates were arrived at by a
combination of dubious measures, such as inflating the yield of oilseed to 4.08
t/ha when UK’s 2004 average national yield was only 2.9 t/ha, assigning illegitimate
energy credits to coproducts, leaving out legitimate energy embodied in buildings
required for processing and in farming implements and machinery, and ignoring
many external environmental costs (“Biofuels
for oil addicts”, this series).
Research conducted at the
Flemish Institute for Technological Research, sponsored by the Belgian Office
for Scientific, Technical, and Cultural Affairs and the European Commission,
told a very different story, as revealed in a paper presented at an international
conference sponsored by the US EPA in 2000. It stated: “..biodiesel fuel causes more health and environmental
problems because it created more particulate pollution, released more pollutants
that promote ozone formation, generated more waste and caused more eutrophication.”
Hence, “The benefits biodiesel fuel offers in terms of reducing greenhouse
gas emissions do not justify its use in light of the other environmental damage
These conclusions created some consternation in the biodiesel community. But
as Jon Van Gerpen of Iowa State University explained, that is because most life
cycle assessments ignored external costs, on which little has been published.
He confirmed that while biodiesel reduces the impact on the environment by 55
percent in saving fossil fuel use, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 40
percent, it has greater impacts than diesel in seven other categories of environmental
impacts not normally included in the life cycle assessment (see Box).
Biodiesel has greater environmental impacts than diesel
· Increases inorganic raw materials, the mineral feedstock for making
fertilisers, by 100 percent
· Increases non-radioactive wastes, primarily gypsum, a by-product of
phosphate fertilizer, by 98 percent
· Inreases radioactive wastes due to electricity supplied by nuclear
power plants by 90 percent
· Increases eutrophication from fertiliser run-offs by 75 percent
· Increases photochemical oxidants due to volatile organic compounds
released during the production of biodiesel, especially hexane in solvent-based
oil extraction, by nearly 70 percent
· Increases water use (in the esterification process for creating biodiesel)
by 30 percent
· Increases acidication from nitrogen and sulphur oxides and ammonia
released during the growth of rapeseed crop, also from nitrogen oxides
emissions from burning biodisel, by 15 percent.
While not contesting
the scientific validity of the analysis provided in the report for biodiesel
production from oilseed rape in Belgium, van Gerpen concluded it could not
be extrapolated to biodiesel production from soybean in the US, where, he
claimed, those environmental impacts would be minimal, though others would
disagree with him.
is indeed a relatively expensive crop to grow, requiring frequent rotation
and extensive use of expensive fossil-fuel fertilisers, with major environmental
concerns. It is estimated that the cost of producing
biodiesel is twice that of conventional diesel. And just to meet the 5.75 percent target, more than 9 percent
of the EU’s agricultural area will be needed.
The cost of biodiesel is reduced substantially if energy
crops were produced overseas. The UK-based company D1 Oils is developing huge
plantations of jatropha trees (Jatropha
Curcas), a non-edible oil crop, all over the third world (“The
new biofuel republics”, this series).But this approach will
do nothing to improve energy supply security for Europe.
Not only that, it would wreak havoc on food production in third world countries,
already reeling from the globalised food trade.
British Petroleum has announced it will fund a $9.4 m project by The Energy
and Resources Institute in Andhra Pradesh to produce biodiesel from jatropha.
The project, expected to take 10 years, would involve cultivating jatropha on
about 8 000 ha currently designated as “wasteland”, and install all the equipment
necessary for crushing the seed, extracting oil and processing to produce 9
million litres of biodiesel per annum.
Part of the project will include a full environmental and social impact assessment
of elements of the supply chain and life cycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions.
is drought resistant and can grow on marginal land, it offers the possibility
of an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable contribution
to energy security challenges in India,” said Phil New, senior
vice president of BP’s fuels management group.
“Recent developments have
made green fuels economically attractive in view of the resource potential
of this option and the environmental benefits associated with it, along with
employment generation and empowerment of the rural population,” TERI Director
General, Dr RK Pachauri, said.
The big question is what constitutes “marginal” and “wasteland”, and who really
benefits from the biodiesel produced, let alone the environmental costs that
have not been factored in (“The new
biofuels republics”, this series).