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Biofuels 2006: How is the value chain shaping up?

Louis Strydom, EcoWorld
EcoWorld Editor’s Note: Biofuel entrepreneur Louis Strydom reports from the Biofuels Finance & Investment World which was held in late 2006 in London, U.K. He brings some sobering macroscopic updates to our ongoing coverage of the biofuel phenomenon. One message coming from the Terrapinn conference was that the global biofuel industry is utterly dependent on government subsidies. Another was mention of the need for criteria for biofuel certification – criteria that must reach beyond the consumer and the refinery to the actual source of the feedstock.

In terms of impact on food production, sometime in 2007 world biodiesel consumption is expected to outstrip world soybean production, and also in 2007, US corn for ethanol consumption will again outstrip US corn exports. Because of land increasingly being allocated to growing biofuel, the global grain market reserves have fallen from 120 days in 2000 to an estimated reserve of only 40 days by 2008, with corn reserves projected at falling to even lower levels of 20 days reserves. With US corn, there is a significant gap between USDA projections for corn supply vs. the amount of corn required for ethanol production – requiring a further 15 million acres to be planted by 2010 just to negate this initial gap.
(30 Dec 2006)

Alternative fuel cos. ponder animal fat

Christopher Leonard, Business Week
Jerry Bagby is typical of the oil men who are prospecting for a fortune in the Midwestern biofuels boom. He’s convinced there’s oil in these hills — and he’s found a well that no one else is using.

Bagby and a longtime friend have cobbled together $5 million to build a new biodiesel plant on the lonely croplands outside this southeast Missouri town. They’re betting they can hit paydirt by exploiting a generally overlooked natural resource that’s abundant in these parts — chicken fat.

There’s a virtual gusher of the stuff at a nearby Tyson Foods Inc. poultry plant. Currently, the low-quality fat is shipped out of state to be rendered and used as a cheap ingredient in pet food, soap and other products.

Bagby and his partner Harold Williams plan to refine the gooey substance, mix it with soy bean oil and produce about 3 million gallons of biodiesel annually.

Today, only a tiny fraction of U.S. biodiesel is made from chicken fat, but that seems likely to change. The rising cost of soy bean oil — which accounts for roughly 90 percent of all biodiesel fuel stock — is pushing the industry to exploit cheap and plentiful animal fats.
(2 Jan 2007)
I was surprised to hear that chicken fat is cheap. If so it is only insofar as it is considered a waste product. In energetic and ecological rather than monetary terms, chicken fat is far from ‘cheap’. Going further up the food chain for automotive fuels is worse than absurd — it’s grotesque — the equivalent of trying to farm tigers. As such, it won’t be monetarily cheap for long either as the massive energy inputs of factory farming make it less and less viable post oil peak.

What we’re really talking about again is using human quality food as automotive fuel, at a time when global food security is in question.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the kilojoules used in the average US car (132000 kJ/gallon * 370 gallons per year) is enough energy for over 13 humans on fairly rich diet (average 10000 kJ/day).

These figures show a similar conclusion to Lester Brown’s calculation that the grain used to fill up one 25 gallon SUV tank with grain based ethanol could feed one person for an entire year. There’s enough energy in a tank of biodiesel to theoretically support someone on about 9000 kJ/day diet for a year. (By comparision there is less energy in each gallon of ethanol as it is less energy dense. Lester Brown presumably takes into account the energy losses in fermentation and distillation from grain to high concentration ethanol, which would more than balance this).

Note: I’ve used the energy density of gasoline which is slightly higher than biodiesel, but assuming that biodiesel users use more fuel over the same distance this roughly cancels out enough for ballpark estimations.

Corn faces ethanol challenge

Mark Steil, Minnesota Public Radio
Ethanol has become a major component of the nation’s alternative energy drive, and that makes its main ingredient a source of intense debate.

The basic technology of distilling corn into alcohol has been around for centuries. It was a natural choice for the ethanol industry when it started more than 20 years ago. Corn has limitations, though.

David Tilman, a University of Minnesota ecology professor, said there may not be enough corn to feed humans, livestock and fuel refineries.

”The estimates are within 40 or 50 years we’re going to need twice as much food in the world and twice as much energy as we have now,” Tilman said. ”And we don’t have twice as much land to use. We don’t have that much land left in the world now that we can convert to agriculture.”

Tilman studied native prairie plants as a substitute for corn in making ethanol. He found that they can provide plenty of cellulose to make the fuel. Other researchers have reached the same conclusion. The problem is technology. No one is sure if cellulose to ethanol can be done profitably.
(30 Dec 2006)

Iowa Faces Fuel vs. Food Dilemma

High Plains Journal
Iowa is shaping up as a battleground over corn usage as rising ethanol demand threatens to cut into traditional feed usage in the nation’s leading hog and egg-laying state.

The market forces of Iowa agriculture, which have lived in relative harmony across the state, now are on a collision course because of renewable energy.

There are growing concerns that the state, which epitomizes agriculture in this country, will become the battleground for the energy vs. food battle.

Experts in Iowa agriculture are fishing for descriptions, calling the surge in demand for corn because of ethanol a silver bullet, a tsunami, and the “ethanol express.” It has been difficult for researchers to quantify what has happened this year in Iowa and in agriculture in general as corn prices steadily rise in the face of fears there just may not be enough supply for everyone in 2007.

…All that livestock production and connected industries in Iowa have grown around the abundance of cheap corn. Hogs, cattle and poultry in the state eat just under 550 million bushels of corn each year, with hogs consuming more than half that total.

But it’s almost a given now that something may have to change in Iowa agriculture. Soybeans, hogs or eggs will likely have to sacrifice part of their consumption for corn and ethanol.
(20 Dec 2006)
Contributor Devlin Buckley asks: “Who is at the top of the food chain? Human beings or automobiles?”

Soybeans may grow scarce

Bloomberg News via LA Times
Soybean prices may be headed for their biggest jump in three decades as farmers plant more fields with corn.

Growers in the U.S. are preparing to sow the fewest acres of soybeans in 10 years. At the same time, demand is rising, creating conditions that traders say may double this year’s average price of $5.98 a bushel and allow soybeans to replace corn as the best-performing farm commodity.

“The day of sub-$6 soybean prices is over,” said Dan Basse, president of agricultural research firm AgResource Co. in Chicago. “Demand is growing too fast for production to keep pace.”

Soybeans are used in about 60% of processed foods consumed by developed nations.

…The annual return on soybeans over the last two decades has lagged behind corn as U.S. demand surged for ethanol, a gasoline additive distilled from corn.
(28 Dec 2006)

Poor harvests to push bread prices up

RTE Business
The Irish Bread Bakers Association (IBBA) has said it will be passing on increased production costs to retailers early in 2007.

In a statement, the organisation – which represents companies such as Johnston, Mooney & O’Brien and Brennans – said that continuing dramatic increases in the international price of wheat had driven the production costs for bread ‘significantly higher’.

It blamed poor harvests in Australia, the Ukraine, Argentina and North America, which had pushed the price of wheat to ten-year highs as world stockpiles had fallen to their lowest levels in 25 years.

Paul Kelly, director of Food and Drink Industry Ireland, said bread bakers were experiencing increases of up to 25% in the cost of flour, the main ingredient in bread. ‘This is on top of increases of over 30% in the cost of gas, the main energy source in baking bread,’ he added.
(3 Jan 2007)
Contributor Mark O’Sullivan writes: This story was flagged some months ago on EB. It seems that resource depletion has hit something as basic as bread. The price increase reflects the lowering grain reserves and the increases in gas prices.