Fuelling a greener economy


A report1 released recently by the Royal Society of New Zealand calls on New Zealanders to take action against rising greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to curb global warming. New Zealand’s emissions are well above average for developed countries, and steadily rising.

“About half of the greenhouse gas emissions come from burning coal, oil and gas for electricity, heat, transport and other everyday activities,” says Dr Paul Bennett, Science Leader for Clean Technologies and co-author of the report. “This is an opportunity for us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and move to a low carbon economy.”

New Zealand’s transport system alone is 99% dependent on fossil fuels with a preference to send the majority of domestic freight by diesel fuelled trucks. Paul would like to see some real investment going into biofuels and bioenergy production, in a political landscape that encourages energy independence and addresses climate change.

“While the cost of some first generation biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, can be competitive with petroleum products, large scale production of advanced woody biofuels using existing processes is currently very costly. We need to drill down and see how the costs of both feedstocks and conversion technologies can be reduced, and how we can extract greater value from the co-products, such as biochemicals and bioplastics.”

Current conversion technologies require oil prices to be $100-$130 a barrel in order to be viable, but the International Energy Association (IEA) estimates that future technology improvements will bring that price down to a more reasonable $50-$70 a barrel by 2030.

Scion has already started looking into the potential for large scale production and use of liquid biofuels using woody biomass and a range of other bio feedstocks. A two-year biofuels roadmap project is underway by a multi-disciplinary team of scientists to align investment with a policy framework and direction in resources, technology, distribution and use. The project has already attracted interest from a cluster of highly influential industry players from government, industry, interest groups and other researchers.

Project coordinator, Dr Ferran de Miguel Mercader, says the first step will be to develop a quantitative model that can test a range of biofuel scenarios, and then define these using variable feedstock, technology and cost inputs.

Ferran says, “The results will be refined in consultation with stakeholders and then an actual roadmap developed that will chart the future direction for biofuels in New Zealand. The map will identify key industrial areas, transport routes and location of various feedstocks to provide clarity around investment into the sector.”

Scion has a number of other projects feeding into this work that will contribute to the larger biofuels picture for the country. New technologies are being developed or adapted for use in New Zealand, along with evaluating a range of feedstocks, including trees.

As Paul says, woody biomass is the most likely feedstock for biofuels, and planting new forests to supply the market will also serve to remove large volumes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and offset our greenhouse gas emissions.

“For woody biomass to become a major feedstock for biofuels, we need a far greater supply than what’s currently available from forestry slash, industry residue and construction debris. We have enough to get us started, but the costs of retrieving slash are limiting. We may have to start planting purpose-specific high density bioenergy forests that would look quite different to the forests we have now, or look at alternative feedstocks.

“But the climate is definitely changing and we do need to start acting immediately. It’s vital that we de-carbonise the energy sector and that we start planting trees now.”

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1 The Royal Society of New Zealand. (2016). Transition to a low-carbon economy – summary report. Wellington, New Zealand.