Enjeux - Biofuels
With the inevitable dry-up of oil reserves, volatile barrel prices and the impact of carbon emissions on global warming, everyone agrees that we need to find alternative sources of energy. Biofuels, developed on a significant scale in the USA and Brazil for 30 years and in Europe since the mid-1980s, are a renewable energy source that can be used immediately. After an initial wave of enthusiasm in France, they have been widely criticised over the last two or three years. Let’s take a closer look at the viability of biofuels and try to understand today’s criticism in an attempt to determine whether the charges are justified.
Biofuels, also known as agrifuels, result, like oil, from the transformation of organic plant matter. But unlike petrol, produced from fossilised matter produced and accumulated over hundreds of millions of years, biofuels are produced from yearly crops, which makes them a renewable source of energy. Biofuels are made by transforming sugar cane, sugar beets, wheat, corn, sunflower and soya bean, all of which are annual crops. In the future, if technological progress allows, the raw material will come from coppices of short-rotation trees and plants like miscanthus, crops that grow over several years. They may also be produced from by-products or waste, including straw, sawdust and green waste.
Two types of biofuel exist: bioethanol and biodiesel. The best known brand of biodiesel in France is diester.
Bioethanol today is produced mainly from sugar cane in Brazil, corn in the USA, and sugar beets, wheat and corn in Europe. But it can also be produced from any source with a high content of sugar or starch, effectively long carbonaceous chains. The sugar contained in the raw material is transformed into alcohol through fermentation. Bioethanol can be mixed with petrol, in blends containing 5% (in E5 fuel), 10% (in E10), 85% (E85) and even up to 100% bioethanol content in E100. Normal vehicle engines can run on blends containing up to 10% ethanol with no modifications necessary. Beyond that percentage, vehicles need to be fitted with flexfuel engines running on conventional petrol or petrol/ethanol mixes. E100 can only be used with special engines.
Biodiesel is made from oil seeds with high oil content, including rapeseed and sunflower in Europe, soya bean in the USA and palm oil in Asia. It is the result of a chemical reaction called esterification between the vegetable oil extracted from the plants and an alcohol (methanol or ethanol), to the tune of one tonne of oil to 100 kg of alcohol. Biodiesel can be blended directly with diesel and used by all diesel-powered cars without engine modifications. The average content in diesel available at service stations in France today is 6%. Local authorities and businesses in the country have been using a 30% biodiesel/70% diesel blend for over ten years.
Greenhouse gas reduction
In Europe, biofuels have been developed mostly for their environmental merits, as they are a possible response for reducing greenhouse gases. Burning them does release carbon gas (CO2), one of the main greenhouse gases, but this gas was absorbed by the plants during growth from CO2 that was already present in the atmosphere.
The reduction in pollutant emissions in the atmosphere is also a major argument used by the biofuel industry. CO2 and water vapour are practically the only emissions produced by biofuels, and, unlike fossil-based fuels, they emit zero or very little nitrogen oxide and sulphur oxide (NOx and SOx).
Apart from its properties as a lubricant, then, using biodiesel in diesels has enabled petroleum companies to stop adding sulphur to their fuels. Also, bioethanol improves petrol combustion by increasing the octane rating.
Spending less on oil
The third argument of biofuel advocates is that biofuel reduces our dependence on oil imports. Each tonne of biofuel produced saves on a tonne of petrol or diesel produced from imported oil. This is the main objective of the two biggest bioethanol producers, Brazil and the USA, who see their energy supply as a strategic issue, especially as the largest share of oil production is in the hands of politically unstable countries.
Petrol accounts for 80% of French energy imports by value (source: Pégase database of the Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Industry). All new energy sources help to diversify supply and reduce our dependence on imported oil. Biofuel manufacture also results in plant-based co-products such as spent grain and oil cakes, which are rich in protein. This is another way of reducing our trade deficit, since France and Europe lack proteins for animal feeds and import considerable quantities every year.
Challenged as petrol alternative
In a context of climate change and sharp rises in oil barrel prices in recent years, biofuels are often presented by their advocates as an alternative to petrol and as the best-adapted sustainable energy source for vehicles. But critics attack biofuels for their mixed environmental performance and excessive cost, for the way they reduce biodiversity and, most of all, because they take up too much agricultural land – land that was previously used to make food.
Deforestation and reduced biodiversity
The production of biofuels from agricultural products has increased the surface of cultivated land in countries such as Brazil and Malaysia. Critics point to deforestation, reduced biodiversity, increased risks of soil erosion and excessive water use, accusing biofuel-producing countries of being guided purely by economic imperatives.
Strong competition with food production
Although the price of foodstuffs has fallen sharply since, in 2007 the growth of the bioethanol industry was presented as one of the factors responsible for the strong rise in the price of agricultural commodities on world markets, which led to food crises and hunger riots. The significant development of bioethanol production in Brazil using sugar cane had no particular effect on the price of sugar. However, the price of tortillas, a basic food in Latin America, rocketed in Mexico because the country’s corn producers preferred to export their crops at a high price to the USA, where they are transformed into bioethanol.
Countries that are dependent on cereal imports – Egypt, for example – fear that such incidents will repeat and that the increase in land area used to cultivate cereals for biofuel production will once again threaten their food supply.
Environmental credentials called into question
While everyone agrees that we need to develop alternative solutions to petrol, the environmental credentials of biofuels are regularly called into question. Some people challenge the objectivity of the studies assessing their energy performance and their contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gases. They also denounce the sector’s overwhelming emphasis on high productivity.
OUTLOOK AND SOLUTIONS
Limited agricultural land in France
According to a 2007 study by ONIGC, now France AgriMer, France’s objective to incorporate 7% bioethanol in petrol by 2010 to reduce our dependence on oil imports will require just 2.5% of the land used by the country to produce cereals and 12% of that used for sugar beets. This represents less than 300,000 hectares, out of a total 9 million hectares used to farm these crops in France.
First-generation biofuels: a necessary step?
Progress is possible, starting with a better control of the factors that limit yields of these crops. Progress in genetics is regularly increasing yields in wheat, corn, rapeseed, sunflower and sugar beets.
Farmers have increasingly efficient coordination and monitoring tools that help them to cultivate crops with no waste in input. Improvements in industrial processes are also continuously boosting the energy yield of biofuels at plant exit. For manufacturers in the sector, first-generation biofuels are an indispensable step towards the development of a second generation of fuels.
The interest in second-generation biofuels would be to use the entire plant, exploiting all of its constituent parts. For an equivalent cultivated area, the productivity of biofuels is set to increase and energy and environmental performances will be improved. To develop this new generation, players are pushing ahead with considerable research programmes, such as the Futurol project coordinated by 11 partners with a budget of 74 million euros.
Les autres dossiers :
- 1 ha of sugar beet produces 87 tonnes of beets, used to produce 8,700 litres of bioethanol and 4.7 tonnes of dehydrated pulp for animal feed.
- 1 ha of wheat supplies 8 t/ha of wheat, enough to produce the equivalent of 3,000 l of bioethanol and 2.8 t of protein-rich spent grain, used as animal feed.
- France is the world’s biggest producer of bioethanol from sugar beet.
- France produced 9 million hl of bioethanol in 2008, or 720,000 t incorporated in 10 million t of petrol.
- 1 ha of rapeseed produces 3.5 to 3.7 tonnes of seeds, the equivalent of 1.5 tonnes or 1.725 l of biodiesel and 2 tonnes of oil cake for livestock animal feed.
- France produces an annual 2.3 million tonnes of biodiesel, which are incorporated into the 33 million tonnes of diesel consumed every year.
- 2.3 million tonnes of biodiesel corresponds to 2.65 billion litres.
BIOFUEL LIFE CYCLE
According to a very recent study on the “field to wheel” biofuel life cycle produced by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) and BIO Intelligence Service:
- Compared with petrol, bioethanol reduces atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases by 58% (for wheat) to 73% (sugar beets).
- The energy yield (energy produced/non-renewable energy consumed) for the production of wheat and sugar beet ethanol is an average 1.7. In other words, bioethanol produces 1.7 times more energy than it takes to produce – compared with 0.8 for petrol.
- Compared with diesel, biodiesel reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 60% (for rapeseed) to 73% (sunflower).
- Incorporating 7% biodiesel in the diesel fuel sold at pumps in France in 2010 reduced atmospheric emissions of greenhouse gases by the equivalent of 6 million tonnes.
- Biodiesel supplies 2.2 times more energy than the fossil fuel used to produce it (versus 0.8 for diesel).
BIOFUEL DEVELOPMENT AND WORLD HUNGER
- According to France Nature Environnement, an environmental protection association, “it takes 250 kg of cereals to fill the tank of a 4x4 enough to feed a man for a whole year”.
- Jean Ziegler, rapporteur on the right to food from 2000 to 2008 at the United Nations, maintains that “the development of biofuels will aggravate world hunger”.
THE SHARE OF BIOFUELS IN THE WORLD'S TWO LARGEST BIOFUEL-PRODUCING COUNTRIES
- in Brazil in 2008, 54% of sugar cane farmland was devoted to bioethanol production (Source: CGB).
- in the USA in 2009, one third of all corn production will be transformed into bioethanol (106 million tonnes out of a total 324 million. Source: USDA).
Pour aller plus loin
WHERE ARE BIOFUELS PRODUCED?
Production in 2009: 74 million tonnes (Mt)
- North America (56%)
- South America (34%)
- Asia (3%)
- Europe (6%)
- Others (2%).
Production in 2009: 18 Mt
- South America (18%)
- Germany (16%)
- France (12%)
- United States (11%)
- Asia (7%)
- Other European countries (29%)
- Other countries (17%).
Source: IFP (French Petroleum Institute)
RENEWABLE ENERGIES DIRECTIVE
- The European Council and Parliament have set an objective for 2020 of at least 20% renewable energies in the EU’s total energy consumption, and at least 10% in the transport industry.
- The EU has also drawn up sustainability criteria for biofuels, with the adoption of a minimum 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (to be increased to at least 50% from 2017).
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BIOFUELS AND JOBS
- The biodiesel industry estimates that six jobs are created or maintained for the production of 1,000 tonnes of biodiesel. On that basis, with two million tonnes of biodiesel produced in 2010, more than 12,000 jobs would be maintained or created in France thanks to this activity.
- The bioethanol industry estimates that 3,500 jobs will be created or protected in 2010 through the production of biofuels out of cereals and sugar beets.
- The European Commission has calculated that the introduction of diesel and petrol fuel with 7% biofuel content will lead to the creation of 105,000 jobs in Europe by 2020.