Boost greener biofuels, but don't put existing plants at risk

October 18, 2012 9:45 PM
Phil Bennion and his dog inspecting his biomass crop

Phil Bennion has grown bio-mass crops on his farm in Staffordshire

Lib Dem MEP Phil Bennion has welcomed a planned boost to greener 'next generation' biofuels in a draft policy document launched this week by the European Commission.

But the West Midlands MEP, who is also a farmer and agronomist, warned that the new EU regime should not be a violent U turn that puts recently built 'first generation' plants at risk of closure.

Dr Bennion said:

"The draft EU Biofuels policy is a Commission proposal, which must be scrutinised by both Council and Parliament and will probably be amended before coming into force. There is good and bad in it and some unintended consequences are likely.

"The proposal recognises the environmental and food security advantages of 'next generation' biofuels which I welcome. However, we should not overestimate the negative effects of using first generation biofuels.

"The current EU regime, unlike the corn ethanol scheme in the USA, does not threaten global food security. In the USA, corn usage for biofuel does not drop in poor harvest years, so food production is affected. The EU scheme is far more market sensitive.

"Scientifically, it is important to recognise that cropping in temperate climates produces too much carbohydrate relative to protein, and that biofuel production can positively alter this balance. Bio-ethanol from feed wheat, for instance, leaves a much higher protein feedstuff as a byproduct, that can replace imported soya.

"We are heading towards more exacting carbon-saving criteria for these products as the hurdle will be raised from 35% to 50% saving in the coming years. This will rule out some of those forms of biofuel most heavily criticised.

"Also, it is madness to put large amounts of invested capital at risk for two reasons:
1) The direct waste of money invested and lost jobs.
2) The adverse effect on confidence that will discourage business from investing in future EU or government green energy projects, if they see that these investments are likely to be wasted by similar rule changes.

"Having said that, it is very important to accelerate the adoption of next generation biofuels so they take an increasing share of the market. The mechanism proposed by the Commission may play a part in this, but the cap of 50% on first generation biofuels I suspect will, on expert scrutiny, prove too stringent. A compromise figure that would avoid closures but slow new investment in first generation plants should be sought.

"The Commission are also contemplating giving next generation biofuels a 'multiplier'. Although superficially attractive, that would effectively reduce the overall renewable energy target. A move that I would wholeheartedly oppose.

"The slow take-up of next generation biofuels is mainly due to the technology making a disappointing rate of progress. The energy balances achieved when turning solid organic materials into easily usable liquid fuels, have only improved slowly over the last five years. The effect is to make next generation biofuels expensive.

"The Commission should stress directing R&D resources to address this, so we can make next generation biofuels more competitive.

"The cap on first generation biofuels should be at a much higher initial percentage of the total; maybe 80%, although this could be reviewed downwards later. We also need to make next generation production more efficient. In this way the market will become more effective in shifting the balance to the greenest biofuels."

Dr Bennion noted that in the past, some EU policy compromises reached over climate change goals have been incremental, so that we might end up with a proposal for a sliding scale to shift from first to second generation biofuels over a period of time. He is concerned that even with a sliding scale of transition, recently built biofuel plants might still have to be closed, unless the overall renewable component in fuel was increased.

He added: "Without an overwhelming environmental imperative, and there isn't one, there is no point agreeing to close a brand new plant in 5 years time instead of tomorrow - it is still a waste. We need a settlement that guarantees existing plants can continue."