25 Oct 2009

Sustainability is the watchword in biofuels

For better or worse Thailand, like many other countries around the world, is committed to the promotion of biofuels to relieve the country's dependence on imported fossil fuels. Energy Minister Wannarat Channukul has reaffirmed the present government's commitment to the 15-year development plan for renewable and alternative fuels which was finalised last year.

He said the goal at the end of the 15-year period is for biofuels to replace 460 billion baht in crude oil imports.
Part of the plan is to promote a greater demand for biofuels through subsidies, offering tax incentives to motorists and even attempts to implement regulations requiring the use of biofuel mixtures.
The government's strategy to make biofuels more available and appealing is unwavering, despite the numerous reports of negative and ecologically counter-productive effects of using agricultural products to produce biofuels.
Biofuels are being blamed for everything from higher food prices to hastening the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
Paiboon Ponsuwanna, chairman of the food industry club of the Federation of Thai Industries, pointed out that many in the food industry are concerned about the possibility of competition in the future between land for growing energy crops and for food.
As biofuels look to be a permanent fixture in Thailand's energy picture, and as more agricultural land is devoted to growing crops for conversion to ethanol, it would be well to take a look at the situation in Brazil, the acknowledged pioneer in the use of biofuels.
In Brazil, by law, all gasoline contains a minimum of 25% alcohol, yet ethanol actually accounts for close to 50% of all vehicle fuel.
Brazilian biorefineries which use sugar cane are able to supply all of the domestic needs with a lot to spare for the export market.
In response to widespread criticism of its biofuels industry, the Brazilian government has prohibited new sugar cane fields in the Amazon region, as well as in a huge wetland area known as the Pantanal.
The government is confident it can meet rising demands without expanding into ecologically sensitive areas, by using degraded agricultural land which is now not in use.
Similarly, in trying to meet the rising demand for biofuels, the Thai government must also strictly enforce existing laws which prohibit encroachment into healthy forests and wetlands.
Another practice the Brazilian government is trying to put an end to is the burning of cane fields to get rid of the leaves, common in Thailand as well as in Brazil. It is estimated that this produces nearly 4,500 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide per hectare.
Not only that, it robs the soil of organic materials for fertilisers.
A major innovation being tried in Brazil which should be incorporated into Thailand's bioenergy production scheme is the rotation of fast-growing food crops, like certain varieties of soybean and peanuts, with the sugar cane (in Thailand cane molasses) used to produce ethanol. This involves direct planting, in which fields are not tilled and the organic waste is allowed to remain as fertiliser.
In some cases food crops are planted alongside the cane and grown concurrently. Through these sorts of practices it is hoped the production of biofuels can be made to be truly ecologically sustainable.
Perhaps the most important steps toward that goal are being taken at experimental operations in which cellulosic material _ the leaves, stems, husks and other non-food portions of plants _ are broken down into their component sugars and then fermented to make ethanol. Proponents believe the process can be made commercially viable and that cars could be running cleanly on a limitless supply of agricultural waste.
Clearly this won't become a reality overnight, and few people believe that even conventional biofuel production can fully substitute for Thailand's oil imports. Nevertheless it is important that the preparations being made to turn the country into a large-scale producer of biofuels take sustainability into consideration at every step of the way.

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