‘Wartime measures’ needed to ignite biofuel industry in Ireland

“Wartime measures” may ultimately be needed to curb the use of fossil oil on Europe’s roads and drive momentum towards climate-friendly alternatives such as biofuels and electric cars, a leading industrial engineer has stated.

After a number of meetings with ministers, department officials and advisors in recent weeks, James Cogan, industrial engineer with Ethanol Europe (EERL) – an Irish firm that operates Europe’s largest ethanol production facility Pannonia, Hungary – is concerned that the Irish Government is supporting moves that minimise the use of biofuels at EU level.

Biofuels are fuels produced directly or indirectly from organic material – biomass – including plant materials and animal waste.

Currently Ireland produces 17.5% of the biofuels that are used domestically; however, it is all derived from used cooking oil and animal fat. No Irish farmers are producing biofuels at present.

Used cooking oil and animal fat dominate the production market because, under current rules, they are double-counted – in other words you can use one litre in your climate programme and declare two.

According to Cogan this twofer won’t last as it amounts to fake climate progress.

Biofuels conundrum

However, at EU level, 33% of biofuels – and all of the ethanol that goes to improving climate performance in petrol cars – comes from wheat, maize and beet produced by European farmers.

Cogan insists that domestic tillage crop biofuels will dominate the market in the future as they are truly safe and effective as climate solutions – and therein lies a “huge opportunity” for Irish growers.

Biofuels are good for farmers. Currently the sector buys €7 billion worth of tillage crops each year (equivalent to 12% of CAP) and gives back 17 million tonnes of GMO-free protein feed; plus, 220,000 jobs in rural areas and a flourishing bio-economy.

“Ours is the only sector making a real contribution to climate progress in transport in the near term. Yet, Brussels and Dublin seem prepared to throw this away.”

He claims that Ireland and the European Council want to cut climate ambition in transport by reducing biofuels, rather than setting stretch goals for anything that can safely and effectively displace fossil oil.

“It cannot go on like this. The International Energy Agency says our only hope of stopping world temperatures rising more than 2° is to use 10 times more biofuels.

“By 2060, biofuels will still be bigger than electricity in transport they say. Farmers make biofuels and we’re going to need all they can make. Ireland needs to steer itself towards this – not hide,” said Cogan.

Cogan has held meetings with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten in a bid to boost support for the “promising” sector.

He is also expected to meet with Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Shane Ross shortly.

Path of least resistance

Although he acknowledges that the Government has been “nudging up” the blending rate of biofuels in petrol and diesel, he claims the sector is “poorly supported” because of past failings to get the sector off the ground.

Back in 2011, the Irish biofuels industry was effectively shut down when a previous government tax relief scheme – designed to foster the sector – was replaced with a less-than-adequate scheme.

As a result, almost all of the country’s bioethanol, biodiesel, and oil-crushing plants were closed.

“For as long as there is nothing political in it, and none of the ministers are passionately interested, Ireland will follow a path of least resistance,” he said, warning that Ireland faces exponential EU fines for not meeting its renewable energy targets by 2020.

He stressed that the Government should “ambitiously support” biofuels for two reasons in particular: firstly because it is good for the climate; and secondly because of the benefits it can bring farmers.

“Domestic EU biofuels are produced from crops grown by European farmers – mostly grain, beet and oilseed.

“Tillage farming in Ireland has declined 17% in the last five years, which is an extraordinary thing. With proper support Ireland’s tillage farmers could see a reverse in this trend and processing of their crops at home,” he said.

Palm oil ban

Although most biofuels come from tillage crops, the use of palm oil going into diesel is the one big exception.

It is a horrifically rotten apple in the barrel and, while it is a great thing that Ireland doesn’t use palm diesel, it is not aggressively promoting an EU Council ban on it either.

“The European Parliament did act to ban it; but, Ireland and the European Council have not. Without inhibitors on palm oil diesel we will actually see palm oil diesel increasing,” he said.

Cogan highlighted that European use of palm oil diesel is one of the big drivers of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia.

He says Ireland must look to the example set by the Scandinavian countries – Sweden in particular – where 20% of country’s transport energy comes from biofuels.

Reality check on electric vehicles

He also pointed to potential opportunities if, as forecast, the sugar beet industry is revived in Ireland.

European-produced biofuels are safe, effective and very good for farmers; so, lets get on with it and stop fudging it.

“If biofuels are going to be the main solution for climate change mitigation in transport for another three or four decades, then Ireland – just like every other country – can become a biofuel producer and champion. Farmers and land-owners will be at the helm.

“Farmers know that they have enormous capacity; and if they supply a modest amount for European biofuels for climate action it’s not going to detract from food production or put pressure on land use,” he said.

Although he acknowledges that electricity and transport are thankfully coming onto the political agenda in Ireland, and the Government is making very encouraging announcements; he is concerned that there is a huge gap between what people think is happening and what is “actually happening”.

The fleet of vehicles we have with combustion engines is going to keep growing for another 10 or 20 years; so peak oil on the roads, or peak combustion, is still two decades off and the role of biofuels is critical.

“Right now the use of electric vehicles is much more in our imagination than in our reality.”

“With the climate crisis worsening, governments of the world will need to put on the table some wartime or draconian measures and start planning for proper curtailing of our use of fossil oil.

“Because at the moment it seems there is no political organisation in the world that is prepared to do that – including the Irish Government,” he concluded.