ENERGY II: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Renewable energy: what about the ethanol industry?
, September 5, 2009
The ambitious target to generate 20 per cent of Australia's domestic electricity from renewable energy by 2020 raises the question as to why the renewable fuel industry, and particularly ethanol, is not being treated in the same way.
The technology already exists for the extraction of ethanol from sugar cane; but like the renewable electricity industry, it will not take off unless business is given an incentive to invest.
While the Rudd Government talks about a "renewable energy target" of 20 per cent by 2020, it is only being applied to electricity generation, not fuel.
The renewable energy target was proposed by the Government and supported by the Opposition in Federal Parliament.
It is based on an expansion of the Howard Government's Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act of 2000, as subsequently amended. This act of parliament was established to encourage the additional generation of electricity from renewable sources, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to ensure that renewable energy sources are ecologically sustainable.
The Rudd Government expanded the legislation with a view to getting 45,000 GWh (gigawatt-hours) of electricity - approximately 20 per cent of Australia's electricity requirements - from renewable sources by 2020.
To achieve this target will require a massive increase in renewable electricity generation. The Office of the Renewable Energy Regulator reported that in 2008, the target was just 6,800 GWh, and the installed capacity (including solar heaters and the like) was about 9,000 GWh.
Expansion of renewable energy is made more difficult by the fact that most renewable electricity in Australia comes from hydro-electricity, principally from the Snowy Mountains Scheme and Hydro Tasmania.
Because of the policy of the various state governments against hydro construction, as well as drought in parts of south-eastern Australia, the prospects of expansion of hydro-electric generation are minimal.
GE Australia, the Australian subsidiary of the American giant General Electric, said that the new renewable energy target "will require about 10,000 MW of new power generation capacity to satisfy the 20 per cent target".
The company, which operates a variety of energy projects around the world, said it was "an enormous target that will be very difficult to achieve".
To assist it to meet the target, the Commonwealth Government adopted the policy of allowing electricity generated by coal-seam gas - sometimes wrongly described as "waste coal gas" - to be included in the scheme, against the strong opposition of environmentalists and the Greens.
This is potentially significant, as there are current moves to expand coal-seam gas production in central Queensland and export it to Asia.
Already coal-seam gas provides 80 per cent of Queensland's natural gas, and it is certain to expand as a result of a vigorous exploration program currently underway in the state.
Even before the latest federal legislation, the Queensland government has been pushing for an expansion of power generation from gas.
The state's Smart Energy Policy requires that by next year, 15 per cent of all electricity generated in Queensland is to be sourced from gas-fired generators, and this is expected to increase markedly.
The emphasis on electricity generation has diverted attention from the development of renewable fuels, particularly biofuels.
Brazil has shown what can be done in the development of a large and productive industry producing ethanol from sugar cane.
Over 30 years ago, Brazil's central government embarked on the building of a viable ethanol industry to reduce the country's almost total dependence on imported fossil fuel.
The initiative, based on Brazil's very large sugar-cane industry, was a spectacular success. Brazil is now self-sufficient in fuel. It has pioneered the development of ethanol-fuelled vehicles, and built a major export industry for ethanol, an important feedstock in the chemical industry.
In the 30-year period between 1979 and 2008, Brazil reduced the number of petrol-only vehicles by 12.5 million, replacing them with 6.8 million flex-fuel vehicles and 5.7 million vehicles using pure ethanol. Currently, nearly 90 per cent of vehicles sold in Brazil run on flex fuel, and, currently, the most common fuel in Brazil is E25: 25 per cent ethanol and 75 per cent hydrocarbons.
In 2008, Brazil produced nearly 25 billion litres of ethanol, which represented nearly 40 per cent of global ethanol used in motor vehicles. It is the world's largest exporter of ethanol, exporting 20 per cent of production, and the second largest manufacturer, after the United States.Sustainable industry
Brazil has the world's first sustainable biofuels industry, and its sugar-cane ethanol has been described as "the most successful alternative fuel to date." (Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the Davis campus of the University of California.)
Australia's large sugar-cane industry is uniquely placed to benefit from Brazil's experience, provided the government offers some of the same incentives available for renewable electricity generation.