EU scientists’ biofuels warnings were ignored

  

EXCLUSIVE / The European Commission ignored an internal recommendation from its own scientists for mandatory carbon accounts and crop-specific measurements in a proposal to address the Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) from biofuels production.

The EU typically bases its policies around advice from the Joint Research Centre (JRC), but a warning from the scientists that the bloc’s biofuels policy was also making a “significant contribution” to the deforestation of peatlands in Malaysia and Indonesia was ignored.

The EU also neglected expert counsel that any reduced greenhouse gas emissions from fuel crops depended upon increased food scarcity.

Sources say that the chief of staff for Research Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn presented an opinion contrary to his directorate's science team at a cabinet college meeting discussing an ILUC proposal on 11 October 2012. The draft was then watered down, and has since been kicked into the legislative long grass.

EurActiv obtained the JRC's recommendation and other documents in an 'Access to Information' application. The recommendations note was sent to an undisclosed directorate on 10 October 2012, at the height of a furious lobby battle which pitted biofuels companies against environmentalists.

At issue was a proposal for mandatory carbon accounting of all fuel crops, assignations of emissions to crops, and a 5% cap on the contribution that first generation biofuels could make to an EU target for providing 10% of fuel from renewable sources by 2020.

Industry emails to the Commission at this time accused Brussels of “purposely causing the death of the whole EU biodiesel sector” and questioned whether the ILUC phenomenon even existed. 

But “it is important that the principle of full GHG accounting is introduced in the proposed amendment by including ILUC,” the JRC's recommendations say. They also call for “inclusion of the ILUC factors as written, resolving to update them quickly when new data becomes available, before the industry makes investment plans.”

Other documents released in the trawl show that the JRC expected this update to increase emissions estimates for food crops such as sugars, cereals and vegetable oils, because a key International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report informing the proposal, had undervalued them.

A separate JRC briefing warns that “a significant contribution to global ILUC emissions due to EU biofuels policies comes from the conversion of peatlands, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia. This causes oilseed crops to have a worse environmental performance than cereals/sugar crops used for ethanol.”

Cabinet ructions

Yet on the evening of the day that the JRC sent its recommendations (10 October), members of Quinn’s cabinet called for “a possible delay in implementation” of the EU’s proposal and expressed concerns about the gloomiest industry forecasts, according to minutes of a cabinet meeting previously obtained by EurActiv.

Earlier that day, members of Quinn’s cabinet had met with representatives of the Irish-based Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd (EERL). Its chief executive, Eric Sievers, presented the Commission with a paper calling for ILUC judgements that supported ethanol and penalised biodiesel.

Although ethanol performs better in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, a number of documents from the JRC and its Alternative Fuels department (ALFA) underline that the IFPRI report implicitly traded-off greenhouse gas emissions against decreased access to food, arguing that using crops for fuel increased food prices elsewhere. 

“Reduced food quality/variety is taken to reduce ILUC,” one JRC briefing says. “In other words, this means that ILUC reduction from people eating less and worse is taken as a benefit for biofuels.”

Another ALFA briefing calls for this effect to be removed from the ILUC model, even though it would mean “very substantially raising the ILUC factor for ethanol cereals”.

The cabinet had been buttressed with a 17-page internal steering brief for the meet with EERL which reflected the JRC’s positioning. But by the end of the day, the scientists' positions on ILUC appear to have been over-ruled in cabinet.

ILUC

ILUC is the process which takes place when land for food crops is sequestered in one place, to replace land taken to grow crops for fuel elsewhere.

The biofuels industry disputes the scale, nature and agency of the problem, arguing that it is impossible to prove, and that crop displacements can be ameliorated by improved yields.   

In another briefing note, the ALFA analysts concede that “uncertainty is intrinsic in all models so will never be completely avoided.”

“But the science has improved significantly, and further investigation of modelling work and sensitivity analysis has allowed uncertainties to be largely reduced,” they continue. “Even with uncertainties, the best estimate of ILUC is not zero.”

Scientists and industry are largely agreed that second generation biofuels offer the best means of addressing ILUC. In the absence of incentives though, EU states' National Renewable Energy Action Plans predict that these will only make up 1% of total EU transport fuels by 2020.  

The Commission’s ILUC proposal would have quadrupled incentives for producing these more advanced biofuels made from algae, wastes and residue, which are thought crucial for the future of aviation fuel. 

But the proposal is currently on life support after energy ministers failed to reach agreement on it. Mention of the subject has been removed from the agenda of the Energy Council on 4 March and no further date for discussion has yet been set.

External links: 

EurActiv France La Lituanie propose un nouveau compromis sur les biocarburants

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Comments

Mike Parr's picture

There is a very interesting side story to this saga. The recent UK floods have been made worse by farming practises. Example: a massive increase in the amount of maize grown by UK farms for the production of ethanol. Monbiot did an interesting article on the subject:

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/17/farmers-uk-flood-ma...

Key points: increase in maize from 1,400 hectares (1970) to 160,000 (now) - mostkly used for feed for livestock & ethanol. In 2006 Labour gov issued instructions (for maize) that ground cover crops should be sown under the maize and the land should be ploughed, then resown with winter cover plants within 10 days of harvesting. Current government issued a specific exemption for maize cultivation from all soil conservation measures i.e. it allowed farmers to stop planting cover (all that red tape & "green crap")

The above is another example of politicos not listening to scientists or engineers (who they pay to give unbiased advice) but instead to lobbyists.

evad666's picture

Interesting no mention of the need for fuel additives to clear fuel lines when vehicles use 5% bio ethanol

Gerry's picture

In the US scientists are silenced and sidelined by fundamentalist religious groups. In the EU the same is done by ideological green groups, and the results are just as bad. It was known right from the start that bio fuels were going to affect food production, it was only ever meant to be a stop gap measure until better fuel replacement alternatives were developed. How quickly things get out of hand, and how unwilling people are to correct the resultant mistakes.

Mike Parr's picture

Gerry, in the EU opposition to biofuels has usually come from ........green groups.

Our problem in Europe is a double one: exports of lunatic religions from the USA (relatively a minor problem and free mental health care is available) and the export from the same country of market fundamentalism - which in many respects can also be considered a form of religion. Sadly the "cure" for market fundamentalism is more difficult.

Karel Yurian's picture

The comments by evad666 is false.

Blending of Oxygenates in gasoline has been practiced for several years and the use of ETBE and MTBE has been used systematically to replace lead. The problems which are alleged with using ethanol blends are only those that that the oil lobbyists continue to profligate. Most manufacturers of cars and the "ices" of current time can use any blend mixture of gasoline with ethanol even up to the theoretical boundary of 99.7% ethanol and 0.3% denaturants. A lubricant has always been added to engines, and strangely enough it is called oil.

When the original "ices" were invented there was no oil, and they quite happily managed to run these on ethanol at ratios over 85% using a lubricant derived from coal (often turpentine.)

If there is an issue for vehicles then the only one that has to be considered, as it is relevant to us all, is the costs. Here in SE Europe we cannot afford to run around paying for gasoline at €1-50 or more per litre, but we have to as the cartel decides this in Rotterdam.

The manufacture costs of bio-ethanol and its ultimate selling price when made from non-food materials. We can make and have produced for sale ethanol used as a fuel with a price which consumers can buy - complete with taxes paid - at €urocents 75 per litre now. With maturity in four years that can be reduced a little more.

The manufacture costs of bio-butanol (for direct blending with gasoline and Diels drived from oil) made from the same sources of materials can also be made for sale at €urocents 90 per litre.

Now I put it to you that these costs are sensible and it has been said by others, that should these proposed manufacturing installations produce such fuels now in the EU and be sold then the queues for them would last from here until christmas.

These are not hypothetical proposals but arereal. The companies building these are already working on them in Malta the Uk (Scotland Norther Ireland and England)as well as for Italy and SE Europe and beyond in to the MENA areas nearby.

These plants which will all come on line during the next three years will be followed out by a massive roll out of projects which in 15 years will produce over 100 billion litres of such biofuels for use in the EU and save the EU states huge import costs in oil. And this is just what we need in Bulgaria where we have wastes coming out of our Society in millions of tonnes per annum.

David Muscat's picture

Karel has pointed out the reality here.

In Malta where I have friends this manufacturing of biofuels will save us as a country importing as much as 60% of all of our fuels we have to buy as refined fuels for our road transport.

The company developing these projects which I am alerted to will be extended to the whole of the EU with immediate proposals already awaiting in Italy and Bulgaria (the SE European area) are now being developed further in to North Africa and the Middle East will be concentrating on making biofuels made from sources biomass thrown away by us all (we call this waste) and that a plant to produce these biofuels is very economic to build and run.

They have a series of such plants in their business which will produce about 100 million litres of ethanol a year from 300,000 tonnes of separated biomass from waste, the Biodegradable fraction of Municipal Solid Waste which the EU has targeted all nations to prevent going to land fill for around €102 to 107 million to build and from this the sale value of fuels for sale are generated. They also have butanol plants coming through again using the same procedures where they will be making 30 million litres of butanol and 20 million litres of ethanol from the same source of materials for the same construction costs.

We prefer to use butanol as it can be mixed directly and at the point of sale at gasoline/petrol stations without going through the oil companies, and that means a boost for us all.

WE must go for this in the EU as we will save €Billions in fuel costs, as well as reducing the impact of deforestation which is raised here.

Paul 's picture

Well, all nice to hear Karel and David, but at least share with us what price and what volume of wheat/corn you are assuming to produce 1 liter of ethanol. Then i'll compare it with current production costs.

Many thanks in advance!

David Muscat's picture

Dear Paul:

These biofuels are not made from wheat or corn or sugar at all. They are made from waste.

Hans Langeveld's picture

Why not use real data in this interesting debate? I have been studying biofuels and biomass used for them extensively. Let's see what we found:

- between 2000 and 2010, expansion of biomass for biofuels in the EU has been 31 million tonnes
- around 10 million tonnes was recovered as animal feed, leaving a net increase in biofuels biomass use of 20 million tonnes

This is the result straightforward calculations based on public biofuel statistics combined with FAO (Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations).

We need, however, to accommodate other changes in land use as well.
Yields have improved; farmers have reduced fallow and increased so-called double cropping (growing and harvesting two crops on a plot during one year). These are all basic agricultural practices. Together, they generated a huge amount of additional biomass:

- in 2000-2010, farmers managed to increase output per ha of arable land with 112 million tonnes
- farmers, therefore, more than compensated the 20 million tonnes needed for biofuels production.
Making more biomass from available land allowed farmers to generate five times more biomass than biofuels have consumed.

This was, however, not enough to compensate for a loss of agricultural land of 11.5 million ha.

In other words: yes, biofuel expansion has consumed more biomass; no, this did not go at the extent of food consumption. But our habit to convert good agricultural land into roads, houses, industrial areas and - indeed! - nature and recreation areas did go at the extent of food production.

For those interested in data rather than assumptions or associations, please check FAO (www.faostat.fao.org). They do, however, not provide data on biofuel expansion.

Victoria's picture

The further point is pretty basic.

Making Biofuels from food crops as you say is not profitable because of the huge subsidies needed.

Making Biofuels from Waste materials works because you do not need necessarily require a gate fee (treatment fee) to add to the imput costs incurred in manufacture.

So here are your analogies....

a Using Wheat
wheat costs €200 per tonne.
wheat is 20% moisture.
bioethanol yield per tonne of wheat -- 320 litres
the theoretical maximum known is less than 400 litres per dry tonne.
cost of raw materials to make....€00-625 per litre.
Current sales price of bioethanol is €00-60 per litre

income stream per tonne wheat as bioethanol...-€10.4

b. Using Waste
waste costs are assumed as a gate fee at €30 per tonne.
waste is 40% moisture.
bioethanol yield per tonne of waste -- 210 litres
the theoretical maximum known is around 350 litres for general mixed waste.
cost of raw materials to make...€00-00 per litre
Current sales price of bioethanol is €00-60 per litre

income stream per tonne waste as bioethanol...€126-00

You can go through other scenarios but the issue then is the availability of the raw materials. Wheat needs subsidising to manufacture bioethanol, waste does not.

Paul 's picture

Its a bit hard to believe that the big enzyme producers have it all wrong by focussing on cellulosic biomass for which they still need to pay (stover, bagasse, etc) instead of the (probably very heterogenous) waste your talking about.

Please convince me otherwise!

Victoria's picture

Well, Paul, it seems that you are now travelling a course of being one who is tied in to believing the hype of Enzymes.
Enzymes are expensive and they generally have to be tailor-made to suit the materials at source upon which they work. Whereas fungi and yeasts exist and have done so for millennia. The point about the discussions is that here in Italy as also across the World the developments of yeast culture has gone onwards unabaited and now we can ferment both C6 and C5 celluloses readily and concurrently as well as sequentially. The issues which you have come across is breaking down the formative materials away from the matrix of the lignin-cellulose-hemicellulose so that these can be freed. We do not need to have steam explosion - although I do like it and it works - we can in fact break down the constituents by traditional methods in water very much like that in sewage treatment. Hydrolysis and Refraction of the resultant materials is not a lost art but a current expostion of the previous are and it is now continuous. Of course the two regines, C6 to saccharides and C5 to saccharides are not equally reformed to their monomers as saccharides but they do produce enough to form the necessary mixture to reach 350 to 400 litres per dry tonne of ligno-cellulose that is a mixture of various forms that are found in sources of waste collected within municipal sources and from agriculture and food production (tuffs) and from commercial/industrial areas. That is a fact and the Learned Universities and their counter-part researchers have been carrying this out for decades. This is not rocket science. Using standard and traditional yeasts is fairly simple stuff.
Importantly once you get at the C6 and C5 monosaccharides you can take them further and make acetic acid and produce a third as much again as bioethanol for a marginal increase in costs. Carry out the same analysis yourself!
Of equal importance is that the lignin so extracted can also be converted in to a Bio-Diesel, or electricity.
You do not have to solely rely on bioetanol but you can also make biobutanol and also generate a by-product called bioetanol. Of course that used to be done by the Weizman process but now we have all fungi available for that as well. This is definitely real.

Victoria's picture

Well, Paul, it seems that you are now travelling a course of being one who is tied in to believing the hype of Enzymes.
Enzymes are expensive and they generally have to be tailor-made to suit the materials at source upon which they work. Whereas fungi and yeasts exist and have done so for millennia. The point about the discussions is that here in Italy as also across the World the developments of yeast culture has gone onwards unabaited and now we can ferment both C6 and C5 celluloses readily and concurrently as well as sequentially. The issues which you have come across is breaking down the formative materials away from the matrix of the lignin-cellulose-hemicellulose so that these can be freed. We do not need to have steam explosion - although I do like it and it works - we can in fact break down the constituents by traditional methods in water very much like that in sewage treatment. Hydrolysis and Refraction of the resultant materials is not a lost art but a current expostion of the previous are and it is now continuous. Of course the two regines, C6 to saccharides and C5 to saccharides are not equally reformed to their monomers as saccharides but they do produce enough to form the necessary mixture to reach 350 to 400 litres per dry tonne of ligno-cellulose that is a mixture of various forms that are found in sources of waste collected within municipal sources and from agriculture and food production (tuffs) and from commercial/industrial areas. That is a fact and the Learned Universities and their counter-part researchers have been carrying this out for decades. This is not rocket science. Using standard and traditional yeasts is fairly simple stuff.
Importantly once you get at the C6 and C5 monosaccharides you can take them further and make acetic acid and produce a third as much again as bioethanol for a marginal increase in costs. Carry out the same analysis yourself!
Of equal importance is that the lignin so extracted can also be converted in to a Bio-Diesel, or electricity.
You do not have to solely rely on bioetanol but you can also make biobutanol and also generate a by-product called bioetanol. Of course that used to be done by the Weizman process but now we have all fungi available for that as well. This is definitely real.

Paul 's picture

Victoria, sorry i should have been more clear; my point was not about enzymes versus yeasts, but about the fact that the focus seems still on straw and stover instead of muncipal waste

http://www.biofuelsdigest.com/bdigest/2013/12/05/royal-dsm-and-dong-ener...

so, feedstock that has a price. With all the MSW incinerators in (NW) europe, the lack of large scale source seperation schemes for MSW, I think we still need to think of agri-residues.

Victoria's picture

Hello, Paul: yes indeed so and the notion that you may have to buy a raw material is indeed valid.

It is important that one should put in to perspective why incineration is anathema. Going back to municipal solid wastes, you will know it contains all and every item of rubbish under the sun that means it has to be separated, and there are many mechanisms to do that, and that is why a recovered biomass originating from msw is notionally given a trading price of €30 per tonne to treat (water included/free water included/moisture included but not chemically-bonded water.) Thus we know for example that raw waste streams are received for treatment at €80 per tonne and higher, the fees that such a programme as this is nominally posted in say Lituania, has a bearing on the input stream. At a €zero Gate Fee the revenue as bioetanol stands.

The costs to manufacture bioetanol are as valid at €urocents 16 to 18 per litre in the NW of Europe as they would be in the same location in Lituania.

A business case in utilising the recovered source of biomass from MSW is still valid, but importantly as it contains free water at 40% and interstitial water (chemically-bonded water in the molecules we call "cellulose" - C6H10O5, the other we call "hemi-cellulose" C5H8O4 are all bound in to the mixture of Ligno-cellulose. Within this complex molecule we have multiples of Lignin, Multiples of Cellulose and multiples of hemi-cellulose bound together by various forms of hydrogen and plate boundary ionic bonds. Within this matrix chemical we also see free water – it is the stuff that flows up the lignocellulose to be used in photosynthesis to grow more material and it is replenished occasionally with rain from above.

The removal of this water to an autothermic level for burning is crucial in the economics of incineration. It takes energy a lot of it, and it is this adds to operational costs adding to the demise of value of incineration reducing the acceptance of the bankers for financing PPP/PFI- Design Build and Operate plants. We are all to familiar with the notion that a 800,000 tonne per year incineration plant posted under a PPP (design Build and Operate) programme has an initial cost to build at €400,000,000-00 (and at this treatment throughput considerably more) and it relies on a guaranteed throughput. The idea that the waste supplier – a local municipality - should guarantee the tonnage of waste destined to be treated is and always was illegal as it counts as an indirect subsidy.

Incineration economics requires an elevated gate/treatment fee (subsidised gate/treatment fee) and we are increasingly seeing them ask for fees that effectively include the equivalent of land fill taxes added to their input streams. Then you have to add the residual disposal costs of the residual toxic wastes that are around 30% of the input and which incur costs as high as €270 per tonne it begins to stack up against the use. A compensatory subsidised feed-in tariff for generated electricity at a premium cost that is twice to three times the background rate then becomes more than a necessity. Now then the use of energy to dry the waste is then important as it can only come from the energy made, and so revenue stream drops again. Add to this the fact that no one will sign up waste service contracts for collection for more than 5 years then the very founding of the incineration offering is non-existent.

A serious flaw in the use of any waste treatment project which we all understand is that it was thought that waste quantities were reducing year on year. In fact, and it was recently concurred, the idea of such an event occurring has stopped. Waste quantities did reduce with the recession but now they are on the rise again. Importantly though the varieties of waste that are seen to be part of this is the organic fraction, the very substance that contains water. So for incineration facilities the waste matrix is changing to become wetter.

A recent incineration project which has not now got any backing has been levied as a programme for the PPP use and was set out for tender several years ago has had its quantities of waste expected trimmed by 30%. Unfortunately the total mis-management of that project which involves a series of collusive arrangements with consulting engineers (for over-payment of fees awarded without re-tendering) and for the programme to be awarded to the original successful tenderer who subsequently changed its name and sold the project onwards to another contractor (who could not gain financing) and who then sold it back to the original contractor (who it transpired could still not finance the project) has at last been questioned by the industry and Fraud Charges are going to be Laid out against the Consulting Engineers, the Local Council’s Advisors and the Contractors involved for manipulating events to the detriment of the Tax Payers.

So what is the relevance of this incineration project – now cancelled – to the discussion? Well I can advise that an offer was made by the same company which is making its way known here to build this as a bioetanol programme for just €120 million, not the €400 million quoted and that it was shown that it could live with a €zero gate fee and deliver over 140 million litres of bioetanol a year and 6MW of electricity generating a revenue of in excess of €84 million per year in bioetanol within 6 years as well as that from electricity and other by-products and there was no final waste disposal. It is for this reason that interests are being accepted all across the EU and beyond.

But of course returning to you about sources of materials for making the biofuels. In part that which you say is correct. There are still large amounts of crop residues which could be used. A recent statement within this EurActiv suggested that across the EU the residues from Agriculture and Farming could exceed that in traditional municipal solid waste by a factor of 5 to 1. Collecting it would be an interesting task, and the seasonality would also be of interest. However it is there and even if we assumed 40% was re-interred to the ground it is large, and there are forest debris. It is also known that in commercial and industrial areas there is an issue with 30% of this being unusable organic material. This does not mean that we deprecate your statement.

This material could be of great use in biofuels production as it can be treated in the same way. Biomass has no feelings or any preferential solutions to say that it cannot be treated. It is just a mixture of three generic components Lignin, Cellulose and Hemi-Cellulose. Grasses and Straws have similar characteristics and they break down readily to their components and refract and depolymerise very well and are suited to the processes we see in continuous dilute acid hydrolysis procedures. The sources of biomass are irrelevant and the wider the mixture the better. Enzymes though have to be made and tailored to the product they interfere with, and they cost money. Removing that cost is the great issue. Avoiding uses of Enzymes that have been modified to react with crops is an issue which is only just becoming of concern. We are all too aware of the fact that spilt Enzymes and GMO ones are known to run rife when they escape, and there now a growing number of countries where they not allowed! It is important therefore that the solution to treat the material and convert it to biofuels is one that has such flexibility. So also the water content is not that critical either. In fact water is required at the start and then the only need is to occasionally remove the excess and treat prior to eventual reuse as irrigation water.

Another product which I am sure you will be familiar is macro-algae. This can be grown in shallow lagoons such as cooling tower water basins and by using the carbon dioxide and the P S N as nutrients it is now possible to harvest this at 20 to 40 times the equivalent rates of sugar cane and corn (grown in Brazil and the USA) and because there is no lignin what a wonderful material to use. And it does not need large areas o lagoons, and in the water basins I have seen they are only 250 mm deep.