Despite the odd dip, fuel prices are on the rise; even filling a small car doesn’t leave much change from $100. Oil has other problems, too: it’s running out – just how much remains is hotly debated, but it clearly won’t last forever – and it’s dirty. Maybe one day we’ll all drive electric cars but, until then, liquid biofuels (made from plants and animals) are one way to keep using convenient liquid fuels while avoiding some of oil’s problems.
Biofuels certainly aren’t new – for most of history wood, fat and food have powered our fires, lights and muscles. Even liquid biofuels are old hat; the famous Model T Ford could run on alcohol that farmers made themselves. Today, biofuels meet about 3% of liquid fuel demand globally. New Zealand produces two liquid biofuels: ethanol (the same alcohol in wine) for petrol engines, and biodiesel for diesel engines. In 2010, our combined production was about eight million litres. Although this sounds like a lot, it’s only about 0.1% of the 6.5 billion litres of liquid fuel that New Zealanders used that year.
The Kiwi motorist can only buy biofuels blended with regular fuel. You can fill up with ethanol-petrol blends at most Gull service stations and some Mobil stations in the greater Wellington region. Although most petrol cars can run on blends containing some ethanol, the maximum allowable amount varies. For drivers of older cars, there are fears that ethanol may degrade fuel systems, although a report prepared for the Ministry of Transport found that for even pre-1986 carburettor-fed vehicles, using E3 (3% ethanol) carries negligible risk. Many modern cars can use the E10 blends, although it’s best to check first.
For diesel vehicles, most manufacturers only recommend B5 (5% biodiesel) blends or lower, although many run fine on B20 (although it cleans out the fuel system, so fuel filters may need changing regularly at first). B5 blends are available at five Gull sites: three in Auckland and one each in Hamilton and Rotorua. If you want to run your car on biodiesel elsewhere, you’re out of luck unless you make your own, as most producers only supply commercial customers.
So, why even bother using biofuels? For the environment.
Depending on how they’re made, biofuels’ greenhouse-gas emissions are 20% to 80% lower than oil’s.
Biofuels are also biodegradable and much less toxic than their fossil-fuel equivalents. That’s good news for the people who handle them and for the natural world, especially if fuel is accidentally spilled into waterways. If you’re not doing it for the environment, do it for the performance, as ethanol boosts petrol’s octane level.
Overseas, ethanol is commonly made from sugarcane (Brazil) or corn (USA). Corn-based ethanol isn’t without controversy; it’s been blamed for food shortages, rocketing prices and food riots in developing countries. While that’s a hotly-debated issue, certainly making the ethanol to fill a car’s 50-litre tank uses enough corn to feed a person for over six months. New Zealand’s only ethanol manufacturer, Fonterra subsidiary Anchor Ethanol, sidesteps this issue by making its ethanol from the lactose in waste whey.
New Zealand also has numerous biodiesel makers ranging in size from enthusiasts who make their own through to Biodiesel New Zealand (a subsidiary of state-owned enterprise Solid Energy), which makes about two million litres a year. Biodiesel can be made from most fats and oils; used fryer oil is a popular choice. But, as there’s only so much used chip oil around, Biodiesel NZ uses canola oil to make up the difference.
It contracts cereal growers to plant the canola as a break crop on otherwise fallow fields which, as well as providing extra income, reputedly improves soil quality.
Another promising source is tallow (fat rendered from animals), which could potentially supply the country with a further 150 million litres of biodiesel a year – and Auckland-based company Ecodiesel has plans to do just this. Unfortunately, as CEO Gary Brockett explains, investors (including Z Energy, which has shown interest in the past) won’t finish their half-built 20-million-litres-a-year plant unless the Government’s current Biodiesel Grants Scheme is extended.
The scheme aims to encourage biodiesel uptake and develop the industry, given that biodiesel is still more expensive than its oil-based equivalents. Under the scheme, the Government pays producers 42.5 cents per litre for biodiesel made in New Zealand – but, unless it’s extended, the scheme ends in July 2012 (when ethanol’s exemption from fuel excise may also be scrapped). Biodiesel NZ General Manager Andrew Simcock says the scheme’s termination would negatively impact on its operations and restrict growth.
As for the future, expect to hear more about ‘advanced’ biofuels, where new technologies convert waste products (wood wastes, crop residues, domestic rubbish and even algae grown in ponds) – as well as especially-grown crops on poor-quality land – into fuel. Unlike much conventional ethanol and biodiesel, advanced biofuels don’t compete with food production, making them a hot research topic. Kiwi company Lanzatech already has a trial plant making ethanol from waste gases at Glenbrook steel mill, south of Auckland, and it has signed deals with Chinese giant Baosteel to potentially make hundreds of millions of litres annually (although that’s in China, not here). Additionally, crown research institute Scion estimates the residues from processing New Zealand’s pine forests could sustainably make hundreds of millions of litres of fuels annually. If that comes to pass, it would make a big dent in reducing New Zealand motorists’ reliance on oil.
Reported by Michael Henry for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue