The case for biofuel

Biofuel is one of the most underestimated fuel types in New Zealand. Few parties in Parliament seem to have a major interest in getting biofuel to become a bigger part of our energy use, and the investment in it compared with overseas is relatively lacking. And yet based on the research that has been done, it is obvious that New Zealand could go a very long way with this as an alternative to fossil fuels.

One of the strongest points in biofuel’s potential is the sheer diversity of potential sources. Another one is the potential for environmentally friendly industry to be established out of such an investment, and the creation of jobs which would have social and environmental benefits.

Contrary to common beliefs biofuel does not need to be made from crops such as corn, which in the case of corn is actually very crop and land intensive. It can be made from sources such as cooking fat and waste oil; from waste water and from algae. Dairy farm by product and wood chip

New Zealand discharges as a society large volumes each day of waste cooking oil and fat. The very vast bulk of it remains waste without any processing. It has been experimented with by private individuals in their own businesses, such as a fish and chip shop in Timaru which was able to create a blend.

The Labour led Government of 1999-2008 introduced a Bill of Parliament that required diesel and petrol to have a percentage of biofuel. When the current National-led Government took power it repealed parts of the Bill. A Parliamentary select committee the previous year had recommended not proceeding with it. The reasons given were that there was nothing requiring the restriction on the potentially economically and socially harmful importation of biofuel, which might push the price of key crops such as corn up. There was also a perception that waiting for second generation biofuels that were created from biomass rather than from crops would be more advantageous.

In 2014 Z Energy took a significant step as the only 100% New Zealand owned brand to announce the intention to construct a commercial biofuel plant. As yet no other major competitors have announced steps to try to counter Z’s initiative. Part of this is very likely to be to do with the preference of the current government for fossil fuel development including exploration for natural gas and oil deposits off the New Zealand coast. It is unlikely that Royal Dutch Shell and Mobil, both of whom have invested heavily in resisting the green lobby on climate change. However smaller rivals such as Gull and Challenge may try to develop small scale biofuel operations specific to their needs.

Biofuel could also be a potential source of electricity generation. At the moment, most New Zealand power comes from hydro-electric power stations and a couple of fossil fuel stations, with lesser investments in geothermal and wind power. Despite the 2008 Parliamentary Select Committee hearing, research into second generation biofuels had started by then. Although the current research does not yet appear to have established biofuel sources as a significant source of electricity, because it is focussing on biomass, as opposed to more conventional sources such as crops, the economics and the social impact are considerably less.

In short the case for biofuel is solid. It is not perfect and there is more work to be done, but the signs are promising.

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