As the value of coal waxes and wanes, and the nuclear power industry struggles to get away from the shadow of Fukushima, there are many arguments raging about where to go in terms of searching for future energy sources. With climate change and growing awareness of environmental impacts caused by fossil fuels, nuclear power and awareness that certain renewable sources have severe limitations, biofuel has become a substantial player in the global and local energy market. Whilst all sources have their advantages and their limitations, there is a case for the development of biofuel that needs to be recognized.
In New Zealand biofuel remains a relatively unknown and untried source of energy. It is also one with perhaps the greatest misconceptions about it.
Because there seems to be little media coverage of biofuel development, those misconceptions are hindering its development as an energy source. Among them is the idea that it has to come from ethanol using source material such as corn. Although corn is a source material for ethanol, there are a range of sources that can be tapped into in the waste stream, which include – but are not limited to – animal fat and waste cooking oil; tallow and algae in waste water.
As one of the four major players in the petroleum retail sector, Z formed when Royal Dutch Shell withdrew from the New Zealand market and took over their service stations. Unlike the other large petroleum companies Z has followed a philosophy of being run by New Zealanders for New Zealanders. As part of that approach Z announced it would develop a biofuel facility to develop fuel product for New Zealand vehicles. As none of the other large oil companies in New Zealand have announced their own biofuel programmes, this sets Z apart.
The Automobile Association has also recognized biofuel as being a potentially useful fuel. It is true that a 10% ethanol-petrol blend permits a car to do about 97% of what an equivalent car with a full tank of standard petrol in kilometres per litre. However, the ethanol-petrol blend enables a cleaner and potentially more efficient performance. A locally produced biofuel may also have economic advantages in that it does not have to be imported from overseas may not need to be refined at Marsden Point, which could lead to lower costs at the pump.
But what about biofuel as a source of electricity generation?
This is where the case for biofuel becomes somewhat murky, not so much because it is impotent as an energy source, but because no serious investigation into its feasibility appears to have been undertaken. Nor does Government energy policy seem to make much of its potential – indeed none of the major parties on either side of the House of Representatives appear to have a policy specifically aimed at promoting the research and development of biofuel.
However bioenergy made up 17% of New Zealand’s renewable energy production in 2014 and 7% of overall energy production in that year. Overseas research that was being done in the United Kingdom in 2012 suggested that microbial matter may be able to be used as fuel cell material. The United States Department of Energy has handed out $18 million in funding for various strands of biofuel research to be conducted.
Although New Zealand has the commendable target of becoming 100% renewable reliant, there seems to be a reluctance by either of the major political parties to make a seriously heavy investment in research into this potentially most valuable of energy sources. Nor does it seem terribly interested in the potential environmental – and subsequent economic – gains that can be had from developing waste stream sources. This needs to change.