Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fallow on biofuels

Something I missed: Thursday's Herald had a column by economics editor Brian Fallow on biofuels. He opens by talking about George W. Bush's State of the Union proposal to relieve America's oil addiction with biofuels, and asks why we're not doing the same thing here. Well, we are. Late last year, the government announced that it would work towards a legal requirement for replacing 3% of petrol with bioethanol, and 5% of diesel with biodiesel. It's a small step, but its a start, and will help provide certainty to build a market, allowing higher targets in the future. Currently they're funding research into the extent of our biofuel resource and how much we can get for what price, but we certainly have enough from waste products alone to meet the initial target, and relatively cheaply at that. After that, it is just a matter of setting an achievable target and letting the market figure out the details.


I believe there is a bit of a debate in the US about whether there is a net energy loss from producing ethanol. Obviously there needs to be more research done in this area before we start putting too much ethanol into our fuel. One thing to keep in mind is that ethanol doesn't go as far as petrol, so you'll be using more ethanol to go the same distance.

You might be interested to know that some US states are seriously getting into providing E85 - a mixture of 85% ethanol and 15% petrol. Apparently this mixture can be used in most current car models with modifications that cost about $100 USD or so.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/11/2006 10:46:00 AM

James: given US farming methods, I'm not surprised. And OTOH, the papers I've seen on the issue strap the chicken a little, including things like a proportion of the total annual energy usage of workers as an input; on that method, practically everything comes out as a net loss. And OTTH, its mixed up with the politics: in the US, ethanol has generally been produced by subsidising midwest farmers (but not others) to make it from specific crops, rather than setting a target and letting the market sort out what feedstock is cheapest and where it should come from.

The chief difference in NZ is that we will initially be making our ethanol from waste, and that we're not going to be trucking it for a thousand miles to process.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/11/2006 11:34:00 AM

"Most current car models..."

That would be modern EFI systems that have the sensors and software to detect the different fuel and react appropriately. I don't know what proportion of NZs car fleet could do that, but I doubt it would even be half of them.

On the other hand (the gripping hand, even), if you know in advance that a car will only run on a high-ethanol fuel, you can put the engine together with a higher compression ratio to take advantage of the higher octane and possibly get back some or all of the fuel-efficiency losses.

Of course diesel engines will run on biodiesel with little or no modification.

Posted by Chris : 2/13/2006 05:53:00 PM

Chris: Bugger all. One of the reasons government policy seems so slow in this area is our reliance on second-hand Japanese imports which can only cope with low levels of ethanol. But once something is announced, it should push the market in the right direction to allow more to be used in future.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/13/2006 06:57:00 PM