BioFuels Sustainability Review Puts Forests Ahead of Food Crops

27 August 2008

A scientific review of options for the production of bioenergy in New Zealand, their economic viability and sustainability, provides further weight to the argument that energy from forests is one of New Zealand’s best option for producing its own biofuels.

Crown Research Institute Scion today released its second Bioenergy Options for New Zealand report, as part of the EnergyScape programme.

The Bioenergy Options for New Zealand: Pathways Analysis report builds on the findings of the first report released in March this year and summarises: the potential role of biomass resources to meet regional energy demand; the environmental sustainability of energy pathways identified in the first report, and the economic viability of these pathways.

The report indicates that while forest residues and purpose-grown energy forests are environmentally sustainable and can make New Zealand self-sufficient in transport biofuels, economic viability will depend on national sustainability policies, improving conversion technologies and the price of competing transport fuels.

Scion chief executive, Dr Tom Richardson says the second report provides further evidence of the important role that forestry and biomass can play in helping New Zealand meet the Government’s targets of sustainable, carbon-neutral energy.

“Our first report concluded that purpose-grown energy forests, if planted today, could meet all of New Zealand’s future road transport fuel and industrial heat energy needs, without threatening the country’s important agricultural industries.

“This new report considers a range of bioenergy opportunities and compares them in terms of the scale needed to meet demand, the environmental impacts and benefits of each, and their economic viability.”

The Pathways Analysis compares a range of biomass resources, including straw, canola, kiwifruit, forest residues and purpose-grown forest, and the technologies needed to convert them to bioenergy.

“The environmental assessment, or life cycle analysis, looks at the greenhouse gas emissions and environmental sustainability of a biomass resource through the process of converting them to biofuel, and their utilisation, to determine whether the impact of producing bioenergy outweighs, or may outweigh,  the advantages of making it available,” Dr Richardson explains.

“Life cycle analysis directly tackles some of the hard questions being asked globally about biofuels, like: do they create more problems than they solve, or do they generate sufficient energy return to be sustainable?

“The results show that low-input forestry provides a much more sustainable base from which to produce transport biofuels, than intensive agriculture.

“In addition, energy forests, purpose-grown on marginal lands, do not challenge our agricultural sector or food supply and can also provide valuable environmental benefits such as erosion control, carbon sequestration and biodiversity enhancement.”

Project manager and co-author of the report, Peter Hall, says Scion has also looked more closely at the regions where the purpose-grown energy forests might be established.

“When we map out the potential forested area by region, we can see that the greatest areas of suitable new land are in the Hawkes Bay, Manawatu/Wanganui, Canterbury and Otago regions.  

“In particular, it is the eastern North Island and southern South Island that show the greatest potential for the new energy and liquid transport fuels New Zealand needs to be self-sufficient and carbon neutral.”

Scion will produce a third report in a few months time, proposing a research and development strategy to support the New Zealand Government’s drive toward carbon-neutral energy.

In early 2009 a further report, on the impacts of altered land use on the future environment and macro-economics of large-scale bioenergy from forestry, will be completed.

Both the Bioenergy Options for New Zealand: Situation Analysis and the Bioenergy Options for New Zealand: Pathways Analysis can be downloaded from the publications page of the Scion website

Contributors to the report include: Crown Research Institutes NIWA and Landcare Research; CRL Energy; Fuel Technology Limited; Waste Solutions Biotechnology Group, and the New Zealand Centre for Ecological Economics.

The work is funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology.