poo power

A year ago, they were the coming salvation; now they’re a crime against humanity 

So what’s really going on with biofuels? (It would be so much easier to get you to read this if I substituted ‘Amy Winehouse’ wherever the ‘b’ word happens. Why not try it for yourself? You’ll have read the whole thing before you know it!)

First, definitions. Two kinds of biofuel: biodiesel and bioethanol. Biodiesel is oil, and so tends to be made from fat: chip fat, or, if you’re a mid-Western turkey farmer, turkey offcuts A tonne of turkeys in: a barrel of good ol’ diesel out. They’re ramping up for Thanksgiving even now. You can use an  enzyme to help the process along, but essentially it’s a speeded up version of how the earth makes oil.

Palm oil is also widely used, which has been loudly protested, mostly because it has turned out to be the greatest cause of rainforest loss in Malaysia and Indonesia, destroying, amongst other achievements, the last habitats of the orangutans etc. Cutting down rainforest to solve fuel shortages doesn’t seem terribly bright.

Nor is that the only nasty side effect of high demand. In Colombia, demand for palm oil is so high that it’s taking on some of the less attractive qualities of the cocaine market. Production has doubled in four years, but often in the hands of ‘secretive businesses in league with paramilitaries’ 

Biodiesel is also less than ideal in cars; filters need to be changed more often, it corrodes rubber pipes, and freezes at a higher temperature than conventional diesel, so needs to be mixed with something else in winter so your engine doesn’t get bunged up (technical term).

And all diesel now turns out to give you brain damage the particulates in diesel can be absorbed through the nose directly into the central nervous system. Nice!

Bioethanol is alcohol, produced like all alcohol by fermentation. The best known is sugar cane bioethanol, which can be made very easily from maize, sugar cane and other things normally consumed by humans. Which, you may recall, caused a bit of a problem last year, as Mexicans whose staple food is maize tortillas, suddenly found they couldn’t afford to eat, because there was more money to be made feeding their maize to American SUVs – producing the famous statistic  that the corn needed to fill an SUV’s tank once could feed a human for a year.

What has not been so often repeated is that the big food processors are also in the ethanol business, so they win both ways. Archer Daniels Midland has dominant interests in the corn and wheat market, is the largest ethanol processor in the Americas, and has a financial stake in a Mexican company that refines wheat.

In other words, the company benefits when the price of corn increases and desperate consumers turn to wheat instead. And they win again when by processing the corn into ethanol instead of flour. Whatever keeps the share price up…

Bioethanol can also, however, be made from things people don’t eat, and don’t use land that could be used for anything else: these are ‘second generation’ biofuels, which also use less energy to produce.

One way to do this is to ferment the stuff anaerobically (ie, in a big sealed container – it’s all in The Archers if you need to catch up) which produces methane, a gas that can be liquefied for fuel. Marks and Spencers’ old prawn sandwiches now power their fridges:

‘An old prawn sandwich is now an asset, not a liability’, says lovable Sir Stuart Rose 

In fact, all kinds of hitherto despised old rubbish can be turned to good use. Boeing has made jet fuel from the algae that grows naturally on sewage ponds  and the Ukrainians  have been turning human faeces into fuel for years. (There’s a joke in there somewhere, but I’m scared of the assassin’s bullet, so I’ll move swiftly on.)

The Swedes, ever practical, also turn the million cans of illicit booze they confiscate every year into fuel for trains and buses.

There’s an idea we could copy. Only we’d have to make it illicit first, of course.

So not all biofuels are bad; only when they compete with other rather vital things, like feeding people. But the real opportunities for biofuels are in the Third World where there’s no electricity grid, and lots of land that’s no good for any other purpose, and lots of space to process the fuel locally Jatropha for instance, grows quickly where few other things do, needs little water, and produces a lot of fuel.

Instead of transporting conventional fuel in expensive pipelines, or building an electricity grid specially, it would make a lot of sense to have local production and consumption of fuel like this, in small, simple, community owned plants.

Rather irritating, then that, while $350 billion a year is currently spent subsiding ‘dirty’ energy, the World Bank spent just $150m last year on renewable energy projects – about .04%, or less than half of one percent of the other.

Glad to see our money’s in enlightened hands.