3 countries serve as ‘pioneers’ in ethanol policies — report

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Saturday, September 21, 2013

What do Brazil, Malawi and Sweden have in common? They are all “pioneers” in developing a lasting infrastructure for biofuels, a new study says, and their programs could serve as models for countries looking to boost their own production.

The birth of biofuels policy in all three of the countries is rooted in the 1970s OPEC oil crisis, when record-high petroleum prices encouraged consumers worldwide to cut down on gasoline. But once oil prices stabilized, Brazil, Malawi and Sweden continued their programs for very different reasons, said Francis Johnson, a senior research fellow in energy and climate at the Stockholm Environment Institute.

“Sweden’s development focused on air quality, and Brazil went for agro-industrial development,” he said. As for Malawi, “they have needed to stay on because of energy security.”

Swedish authorities wanted to clean up the soot, sulfur and nitrogen oxides from its diesel-burning public transportation fleet. The first ethanol bus was introduced in 1985. By 2010, there were more than 600 ethanol buses in the country, and the latest generation of the vehicles has an estimated greenhouse gas savings of 90 percent, according to the study.

Since the improvements in air quality took effect in Sweden, the climate and energy aspect of biofuels has received a greater emphasis in the past 10 to 15 years, Johnson said.

In Brazil, a push to develop the rural economy led the South American giant to become one of the top producers of biofuels in the world, along with the United States. Brazil exported 541 million gallons of sugar cane ethanol last year to the United States, according to the Brazilian ethanol trade group UNICA, where it is sold as an advanced biofuel because of its clean, energy-efficient production. Refiners in the U.S. are required to blend close to 1.5 billion gallons of advanced biofuels in the gasoline supply this year to comply with the federal renewable fuel standard.

“By developing this sugar sector as both a sugar and ethanol sector … it became a useful engine of development that connects agriculture and industry,” Johnson said. “It made [the southern state of] Sao Paolo very wealthy.”

Cellulosic fuels: out of reach but getting close

Malawi, where the average per-capita income is about $800 per year, nevertheless has made biofuels a centerpiece in its economy. While several African countries developed ethanol programs in the 1970s, it is the only one that has been continuously blending ethanol since the program began in 1982.

“You can look at some of their neighbors and see how they have not had the same resolve and commitment,” Johnson said.

The country recently opened two sugar cane molasses ethanol plants and could become one of the first nations to successfully grow jatropha on a large scale for biodiesel, Johnson said.

Malawi’s electric blackout in January exposed the landlocked country’s fragile energy web, Johnson said earlier this year (ClimateWire, Jan. 28).

The second generation of biofuels development has yet to arrive for these countries, he said. This will mark a departure from fuels made of corn, wheat, soybeans, sugar and canola and the production of fuels made from agricultural residues, algae, forestry waste and crops that aren’t used for food.

Like in the United States, the development of cellulosic ethanol made from tough plant matter like corncobs or wood has proved difficult and expensive on a large scale. Sweden opened its first pilot cellulosic ethanol plant in 2004. It closed last year, Johnson said.

“Sweden expected to be further along than they were,” he added. Instead of sticking with ethanol, Sweden is investing in another fuel, methanol, which is made by turning plant matter into a gas and then liquefying that gas.

“We can expect Sweden to be a leader in 2-G,” Johnson said, referring to second-generation biofuels in the heavily forested country. “Since wood is cellulosic, there’s plenty of resources here.”

Although Brazil has started to invest in second-generation fuels, it’s almost impossible to compete with sugar cane ethanol on economic terms, Johnson said. Sugar cane ethanol is very efficient, in part because producers use bagasse — the pulp of the cane once the sugar juice is squeezed — to power the ethanol plant.

But the industry leaves a lot of “cane trash” — leaves, stalks and other leftovers — after harvest that could be used someday for second-generation fuels.

Malawi is much too poor a country to develop advanced or cellulosic ethanol, Johnson said. But for developed countries that have committed to take action on climate change, second-generation fuels could reduce greenhouse gases further than efficiency or other advanced technologies alone.

“Second-generation biofuels are going to get big savings in the transportation sector that can’t be achieved by other means,” he said. To further make these fuels economical against biofuels from corn or sugar, however, the financial consequences of climate change will need to be accounted for.

“When you have a low cost of carbon, it’s going to take awhile,” he said.

The study was published in Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions.