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Energy of the future

Convention shows that Latin America will play a fundamental role in the expansion of the supply of renewable fuels

EDUARDO CESARThe Latin American Convention of the Global Sustainable Bioenergy Project (GSB), held at FAPESP between March 23 and 25, approved a resolution that emphatically affirms the expansion potential of bioenergy production in Latin America, without compromising food production, the environment or biodiversity. According to the resolution, the continent already plays an important role in the supply of biofuels, which opens up the prospect of meeting both regional and global demand. It has land, a favorable climate and a choice of raw materials and technologies that can be expanded across the whole of its territory in a sustainable manner. The resolution mentions the production of ethanol in Brazil and biodiesel in Argentina as examples of success on the continent in replacing fossil energy with renewable energy.

In February, GSB, an international network of scientists from the energy sector, had already held one convention in Europe, at the University of Delft, in the Netherlands, and another at the University of Stellenbosch, in South Africa, between March 17 and 20. New meetings will be held this year in Asia, in Skudai, Malaysia and in Minneapolis, USA. After the five conventions, the GSB Project will comply with two other stages. First, it will try to answer whether it is possible to supply a substantial proportion of the demand for energy from biomass production without jeopardizing food supply, the preservation of natural habitats or the quality of the environment. Then it will try to propose viable and sustainable strategies to transition from the current energy matrix towards a new, more balanced and renewable one.

The resolutions adopted at the European and African conventions suggest that the project prospects are favorable. Although demonstrating a degree of concern about the change in land use, in the document they approved, the Europeans stated that they have the “capacity to supply substantial amounts of their future energy requirements from sustainable bioenergy.” The Africans see a window of opportunity in bioenergy for the economic development of their countries, but they declared that their views on bioenergy need to take into account a myriad of challenges, including poverty, food security, energy security and health. The Latin American resolution is the most assertive of the three so far.

The GSB Project Coordinator, Lee Lynd, from the Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College, in the United States, praised the willingness of Brazilian researchers to seek sustainable ways of producing biofuels; according to Lynd, it is uncommon to see such behavior. “Other countries should face up to the problem as Brazil is doing. The United States, for example, is more defensive about sustainability mechanisms, even though it leads in the production of ethanol,” he said. According to Lynd, the indications so far suggest a positive response to the question posed by the GSB Project. “The project’s objective is to try and demonstrate what is possible, with a focus on what is desirable. Only then will it be possible to mobilize those responsible for designing public policy,” he said.

According to Lynd, the difficulties stem from deep-rooted negative assessment in some circles and certain countries about the potential of the bioenergy matrix, such as, for example, the possibility of food shortages. “There are different expectations regarding the capacity to innovate and change habits. So there are differing conclusions, based on the same pieces of information,” he said. Lynd stated that the issue of food security cannot be ruled out, because even without the biofuels, variable future problems involving the food supply cannot be ignored. Lynd recalled, however, that it is necessary to seek convergence concerning biofuels, since current energy consumption patterns are clearly unsustainable.

EDUARDO CESARSingular perceptions
Each region of the planet now has its own perception as to the future of bioenergy. Whereas Latin America believes in the possibility of expanding the areas planted with sugarcane and replacing part of the gasoline consumed in the world with ethanol, the United States is betting more emphatically on developing technologies for extracting ethanol from cellulose, a technology not yet economically viable, but that might guarantee substantial amounts of fuel without taking up too much space in areas suitable for agriculture. For Europe, where there is relatively little available land, the theme of food security is a particularly sensitive subject, and  authorities in several countries are looking more sympathetically on investments in solar and wind power. On the other hand, Africa, despite its real food security problems, Asia and Oceania tend to see biofuels as a development opportunity.

A round-table that was part of the program of the GSB Latin American Convention provided evidence of such differences. Patricia Osseweijer, a professor at the Technological University of Delft, in the Netherlands, addressed the fears of European public opinion that the production of ethanol and biodiesel will compromise food supply in the world and emphasized the need to push forward with research into sustainable biofuels and publicly communicate the scientific evidence collected in order to overcome resistance. According to the professor, although sustainability is a widely accepted concept, the agendas of governments, industries, universities, NGOs and public opinion regarding the theme are divergent. “We need to urgently clarify the concept of sustainability, which for a significant part of the European population has more to do with recycling waste than with the use of renewable fuels.” This mismatch leads to inaction. “When politicians are afraid, they don’t take decisions,” she said. For Europeans, according to Patricia, a more plausible way out for changing the existing portfolio of energy matrices would be second-generation ethanol, extracted from cellulose. The resolution of the GSB Project’s European Convention emphasizes the need to integrate the bioenergy policy with that of agriculture, to ensure the sustainable and synergistic production of food, cellulose, chemicals and bioenergy.

Emile van Zyl, a professor at the University of Stellenbosch, in South Africa, sent a video of his talk, in which he stressed that bioenergy can bring many benefits to the African continent, such as creating new sources of foreign currency, boosting agriculture, creating jobs, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and reducing political insecurity in the region. However, to achieve these goals, there are a number of challenges to overcome. “Experiments that worked in other countries do not necessarily work in Africa,” he said. According to van Zyl, it is necessary to take local experience and culture into account and bear in mind that the continent is lacking in infrastructure and support services that need to be created to allow for the exploration of bioenergy , in addition, of course, to investments.

Ramlan Abd Aziz, a professor at the University of Technology in Malaysia, presented a balance of the development of bioenergy in Asia and Oceania. He said that most countries already have policies to increase the production of biofuels. Thailand, for example, has nine ethanol and nine biodiesel plants and encourages the consumption of gasoline mixed with ethanol. The same is true of China, where, however, there are conflicts regarding the impact of the advance of ethanol production on food security for its 1.35 billion people. In Myanmar, the highlight is biofuel extracted from jatropha (known in Brazil as pinhão-manso) – the country has 90% of the plantations on the planet. According to Aziz, Southeast Asia has the potential to produce 14 000 barrels a day of renewable fuels, which is more than the 11,000 barrels of oil produced by Saudi Arabia. “We have a tropical climate, availability of water and land, and cheap labor. Therefore, Southeast Asia could become a biofuel power,” he said. To go forward, he emphasized, it would be necessary to reduce tax barriers to the importing of biofuels into Europe and the United States and make advances in the technology that improves productivity.

Nathanael Greene, director of energy policies at the Natural Resources Defense Council of the United States, showed the paths of biofuels in the USA; the advance of ethanol production from corn was a response to the oil crisis of the 1970s, as happened with Brazilian sugarcane alcohol. Greene mentioned the political difficulties of changing habits and altering the North American energy matrix and stressed that the United States needs major impact solutions, capable of substantially reducing its greenhouse gas emissions without depriving it of energy. Therefore, according to what he said, second generation ethanol, extracted from cellulose, sounds like a more attractive alternative than first generation ethanol, which would require a lot of land for planting, despite the uncertainties that still surround this new technology.

EDUARDO CESARFAPESP’s scientific director, Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, presented the Brazilian viewpoint during the debate. He said there are indications that the hypothesis raised by the GSB Project (finding out whether it is possible to use bioenergy in a sustainable manner to supply 25% of the international energy needs within the next 50 years) can be achieved. He showed that with only 10% of the farmland currently available in Latin America and Africa, discounting forests and areas with other crops, ethanol could supply 15% of global requirements. “The 25% goal is not absurd,” he said, emphasizing, however, that there are other outstanding issues, such as the willingness of developed countries to buy ethanol from both continents. According to Brito, Europe and the United States, in order to preserve their energy security, may choose not to rely on biofuels, in the same way in which they today rely on oil from the Middle East.

To show that the substitution of oil by ethanol is plausible, the FAPESP scientific director discussed the experience of São Paulo that, between 1980 and 2008, reduced the share of oil in its energy sources from 59.8% to 33%, while expanding from 17.4% to 38%, over the same period, the share of fuels derived from sugarcane. This transformation, he emphasized, took place in a sustainable manner. The cane took over mainly grazing areas and had no impact on livestock, which offset loss of space with increased productivity. The Atlantic Rainforest area has remained in balance during the period.

Latin American potential
During the convention, the potential of Latin America was discussed in talks by various researchers. Luis Augusto Barbosa Cortez, a professor from Feagri, the Agricultural Engineering College at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and organizer of the convention, explained the genesis and characteristics of the Brazilian model of ethanol production from sugarcane and argued that it is feasible for Brazil to produce 5% of world demand for gasoline by the year 2025, provided that the expansion takes over pastureland and a reorganization of agricultural activities is encouraged so as not to jeopardize food production. He cited the example of the Vale do Rosário Mill in Orlândia in São Paulo State, which for the last twenty years has been developing a pasture and sugarcane integration project. It built confinement pens for fattening cattle to take advantage of the industry’s by-products (bagasse, yeast and molasses). Today, it fattens 20,000 head of cattle and sells balanced feed produced from sugar and alcohol by-products for fattening another 20,000 head of cattle on farms that supply it with sugar cane. “It’s a profitable business. Furthermore, today, about 70% of the mill’s sugarcane suppliers raise livestock,” he said. He stressed, however, that the development of new technologies will be essential for improving the sustainability indicators of Brazilian ethanol.

Rodolfo Quintero, a professor at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico said that when the potential for reducing greenhouse gases and the issue of food shortages are evaluated, ethanol from Brazilian sugarcane has qualities that are superior to ethanol from American corn. “Only corn ethanol threatens agriculture and food security” he said. The United States is the world’s largest exporter of corn, selling the product to more than 90 countries. “These importing countries may suffer the consequences if the production of ethanol from corn tries to meet world demand for ethanol,” he said. Mexico, according to Quintero, imports 10 million tons of corn from the US every year, the equivalent of one third of its corn consumption. “In 2009, the United States produced 10.6 billion gallons of ethanol, which required 18 million acres of corn plantations, or about 21% of the total area devoted to this crop,” he said.

André Meloni Nassar, director general of the Institute for International Trade and Negotiations Studies (Icone), discussed a new econometric model that takes into account the Brazilian reality relative to the modification of land use caused by the increase in demand for ethanol production. The model showed that Brazilian ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 61% and not 26%, as previous calculations had established, thus convincing the United States Agency for Environmental Protection (EPA) to reconsider its assessment of ethanol from sugar cane, thereby classifying the Brazilian product as “an advanced biofuel”. Marcia Azanha Ferraz Dias de Moraes, a professor at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture at the University of São Paulo (ESALQ-USP), presented a study according to which increased mechanization in the growing of sugarcane will lead to a loss of jobs: each machine purchased does away with eight jobs, on average. “Mechanization can mean cutting between 50,000 and 100,000 jobs,” said Marcia. Even so, the 15% increase in ethanol production over the next few years is likely to overcome these losses, by generating 170,000 new jobs in the country.

The debates for preparing the final resolution of the Latin American Convention brought to the surface sensitive issues. The discussion about what should be the primary reason for Latin America to invest in biofuels, whether the economic and social development that this production activity should generate or the capacity to reduce greenhouse effect gases, ended in a draw, as both factors were considered priorities. It was no coincidence that the final resolution failed to mention second-generation technology, which has great potential but has still not shown it is economically viable. “It doesn’t matter if it’s first or second generation; what matters is that the technology is good,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, from FAPESP. Brazil’s success with ethanol extracted from sugarcane shows that first generation technology has the potential to grow, the participants agreed. In a show of confidence in the potential of biofuels included in the text of recommendations there was a reference to the capacity of bioenergy to supply “more than 30%” of the international demand for energy in the next 50 years. The GSB Project talks of a smaller number, 25%, and even this figure is being reassessed, as the Project coordinator, Lee Lynd, stated. This is because the suggestions presented in previous conventions considered that a more modest figure would not reduce the merit of the project in any way.

According to Brito Cruz, the convention held in São Paulo was successful in taking to the international scientific community involved with the GSB Project the view of the Brazilians and Latin Americans on the great opportunities that biofuels can represent. “Brazil has a very special position, both in the group involved with the GSB Project as well as in the world, in the international debate about biofuels, since it’s the only country that has replaced gasoline with biofuels on a large scale. On the other hand, the GSB creates a sounding board for Brazilian ideas in this area,” he stated.