The rural route to a more energy-secure Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Rob Vierhout speaking at the 6th international conference on biofuels "Fuels of the Future 2008" in Germany, 2008 []

Rob Vierhout speaking at the 6th international conference on biofuels "Fuels of the Future 2008" in Germany, 2008 []

Renewable energy sources, including bioethanol, should take centre-stage in Europe’s push to decrease its dependence on Russian oil and gas imports, writes Rob Vierhout.

Rob Vierhout is Secretary General of ePure, the European Renewable Ethanol Industry Association.

In 2014, Europe is remembering the tragic consequences of two World Wars.  The under-rated miracle of the European Community, then Union, not only helped to deliver Western Europe from a state of self-destruction to peace, but also provided the framework for almost 50 years of steady economic growth and the creation of a European social model that is the envy of the world.

However, a mixture of globalisation, technology and sometimes-misguided policies is now combining to threaten this stability. As Europe struggles to recover from its worst economic crisis for nearly 100 years, we face a huge challenge to remain competitive, provide good jobs for our youth, and regain our leadership position.

Energy is at the heart of this struggle. As the first continent to industrialise, Europe has already used up much of its indigenous fossil fuel resources. Even if it has become a world leader in solar and wind technology, Europe currently relies extensively on energy imports. Last year, more than half of all the continent’s energy came from outside its borders. In the transport sector, this is even worse with 94% of its energy coming from oil, of which 84% is imported from politically unstable regions. 

Given the recent turn of events in the Ukraine, with Russia cutting gas supplies to the region for the third time in eight years, Europe cannot afford to be complacent about its reliance on foreign energy, particularly not when Russia counts for 30% of those European crude oil imports.

In this context, renewable energy sources should rightly take centre-stage. We can use the sun, the wind, even the tides to make power, which will not be influenced by global politics. But, what about Europe’s plentiful land?

Using agricultural products, including increasingly agricultural and forest residues as well as municipal waste to make ethanol, represents a huge opportunity for Europe to reduce its reliance on imports in the transport fuel sector.

Still in its early stages, the renewable ethanol industry in Europe is small but has the potential to grow exponentially. In 2013, the EU produced 4.9 billion litres of fuel ethanol, which replaced the need for 16 million barrels of oil, and which in turn delivered a saving of €1.3 billion off our oil import bill.

This is just the beginning. There are at least 1.7 million hectares of unused farmland in Europe.  The FAO stats tell us that the EU 28 is abandoning 0.5m hectares of additional farmland every year.  Only 0.7% of Europe’s agricultural land is currently being used to produce crops for ethanol – less than the total area of unused land in Romania alone. If we put this abandoned farmland to work, and take advantage of increased agricultural yields, the production of European renewable ethanol using European feedstock could easily double production of ethanol in no time.

Besides delivering European fuel from Europe’s fields, an increase in renewable ethanol production would create thousands of highly skilled European jobs and important additional income streams for farmers and rural communities.

Compared to petrol, renewable ethanol also reduces GHG emissions by up to 90%, it is the most cost effective way available at scale to decarbonise transport. In addition, high-protein animal feed, a by-product of renewable ethanol production, is another item on Europe’s list of current imports. Doubling Europe’s ethanol production would reduce reliance on protein feed imports by 3.7m tonnes each year.

Despite all this, renewable ethanol is nowhere near the top of the energy security agenda in Europe. In fact, it is quite shocking that it is not even referenced in the Energy Security Strategy.

Policy-makers may have been led to be believe that all biofuels, from everywhere, need to be treated the same. This is short sighted and wrong. Producing renewable ethanol from agricultural products and residues, on arable land we are not using any longer, creating jobs in rural communities we are ignoring, offers Europe a more secure, greener future. A future we have always fought for.

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