Thursday, December 20, 2007

(HERALD) Investment in biofuels shows foresight

Investment in biofuels shows foresight

Victoria Ruzvidzo’s article in The Herald of Thursday, November 15, 2007, headlined "Government to launch biodiesel plant today", was great. I congratulate Zimbabwe for being foresighted. However, as a follow-up article, I feel that the historical, economic and scientific context why Zimbabwe and the whole world should switch from using fossil fuels to biofuels should be explained to the readership and to average person who uses fossil fuel.

Victoria Ruzvidzo wrote: "Crude oil prices, currently averaging US$96 per barrel, are expected to breach US$100 before the end of the year, a situation that would translate into a higher fuel bill for Zimbabwe."

In fact, current predictions indicate that fossil fuels are going to be unaffordable by 2010.

Fossil fuel will suddenly become expensive, as happened during the oil shocks of the seventies.

An oil shock occurs when there is a sudden and sharp price increase in oil followed by a sharp drop in supply.

When the world passes that point, the five main oil-producing Middle Eastern nations will control the world market. They will undoubtedly use their control to increase world oil prices, sending the world into a permanent oil shock.

History tells us that by 1930, 17 billion barrels of crude oil had been extracted worldwide.

The annual extraction rate was 17 billion barrels in 1970 and by 1997, 807 billion barrels of crude oil had been extracted from the earth’s crust, leaving about 995 billion barrels which can be tapped at current production costs.

If consumption worldwide remains constant at the current rate of 24 billion barrels per year, the world will come to a standstill in 2040. But then consumption is not static; it is instead increasing at the rate of 2 percent per annum.

Demand for crude will outpace supply way before 2040. At some point between 2010 and 2025, energy from fossil will be too expensive for the average person to afford. Clearly when that happens Zimbabwe and the rest of the world will depend largely on the actions of oil producers.

For this reason, car manufacturers and power utility companies are experimenting with compressed natural gas (CNG) as the future fuel, but then natural gas, like fossil fuel, is non-renewable and will dwindle at the same rate as oil supplies. In fact, in 1970, the annual consumption of natural gas was 30 trillion cubic feet; today it is over 70 trillion cubic feet and is increasing at 3,5 percent per year. An annual increase in consumption of 3,5 percent will deplete natural gas reserves by 2050. These, my fellow countrymen, are the realities of our reliance on a diet of fossil fuels.

On the other hand, the economic realities of a dependence on fossil fuels are that the economies of non-oil producing countries shrink in direct proportion to utilisation. For example, when Zimbabwe uses fossil fuels, it does so by sending money to oil-producing countries in return for fuel.

Some countries go to the extent of sending military troops, jobs, and infrastructure. These countries do so because they are unable to produce fossil fuels. They have little or no fossil fuels, and rather than produce their own renewable fuel, they elect to procure fossil fuel from the Middle Eastern countries at whatever cost. In order to get fuel, tankers are sent to the Persian Gulf. When those tankers arrive, they are guarded and defended by peacekeeping forces which are paid from taxpayers’ money.

An economy that runs on fossil fuel undermines itself by exporting money and resources away to other economies and not receiving the return on investment of that money in goods and services. One would expect the prices of fuel to reflect the increasing costs of fuel production and procurement, but no, the price of oil is kept low via industry and governments’ price controls.

Instead of being paid at the pump, the increased cost of fossil fuels is paid from taxes. The consequences of paying the excess costs of fossil fuel using tax is three-fold.

First and foremost, it keeps the price of fossil fuels deceivingly low.

Second, it allows oil companies to work from a huge base of government subsidies and support rather than having to seek that support from those that use fossil fuels.

Third, and not least in importance, it evenly distributes the excess cost of fossil fuels among taxpayers. This is clearly unfair.

Wars such as the Persian Gulf War deplete resources from the economies of countries involved in them to ensure that there is a healthy supply of energy from overseas. Governments involved in such wars consider the loss of human life and economic expense as necessary tradeoffs. The cost of fossil fuels is similar to using a MasterCard or Visa credit card – the bills come later and in different ways.

The first cost is the social services that a country forgoes because it exports so much of its citizens’ tax money As the debt grows, military campaigns are waged to secure oil. The quality of education, health care and social services suffers as a consequence.

The conclusion from the latest report on the science of climate change from the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in Paris, was that continuing pollution "business-as-usual" practices are likely to increase the global average temperatures by between 1,1°C and 6,4°C above the 1980-1999 levels by 2095, leading to more droughts, heat waves, floods and stronger hurricanes, rapid melting of ice-sheets and rapidly rising sea levels.

While temperature increases of a few degrees might not sound so dramatic, it will have dramatic effects on our climate. That is why it is vital that action is taken now to reduce emissions and keep warming below 2°C to prevent a catastrophic climatic impact. Burning fossil fuels contributes to higher levels of carbon monoxide and other noxious gases in the atmosphere.

To stop the increase of these gases, we must first stop burning fossil fuels. However, in doing so we don’t need to cripple economic growth. We can make a safe and sustainable transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy a reality, a step Zimbabwe has taken now by launching the biodiesel plant.

We can have reliable renewable energy, and use energy more smartly to achieve the cuts in carbon emissions required to prevent hazardous environmental changes. This can be done by gradually phasing out damaging and dangerous fuel sources. Lessons from chemistry and physics tell us that there is a finite amount of each element on earth, but there is an infinite amount of energy.

The sun is the source of that energy. Every hour, enough energy in the form of sunlight hits the earth to fuel all of mankind’s activities.

Most of the energy turns into heat and some of it is absorbed by plants. Plants transform solar energy in the form of hydrocarbons. Whereas fossil fuels come from plants which grew millions of years ago, biofuels come from plants which are constantly grown and replenished. Compared to fossil fuels which took 40 million years to produce, biofuels are "liquid solar fuels" that can be produced in as little as a couple of months.

Renewable fuels are carbon neutral. Plants can capture all the carbon dioxide emitted from burning renewable fuels. Plants separate carbon dioxide into carbon and oxygen, put some of the carbon back into the ground and release some of the oxygen into the atmosphere. When we use renewable fuels, plants naturally balance the carbon dioxide emissions.

Vegetable oil that some plants store in seeds is full of carbon and hydrogen. The hydrocarbons found in these oils are fats. Anyone who exercises to burn fat knows it takes a lot of work to use the energy stored in fat. When you burn fat or vegetable oil, carbon dioxide is released. Humans release it from their lungs; cars release it from their exhaust fumes.

When vegetable oil is burned in an internal combustion engine, the carbon in the oil is turned into carbon dioxide and is released into the atmosphere. The next crop of plants grown for vegetable oil will sequester the exact amount of carbon dioxide.

The plants will release oxygen and combine carbon with hydrogen to make vegetable oil hydrocarbons. Instead of a system where hydrocarbons are extracted from the ground and carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere, the use of renewable fuels creates a closed cycle where hydrocarbons are grown and carbon is moved out of the atmosphere and into plants.

A crop of oil-producing plants will absorb exactly the same amount of carbon dioxide in order to produce a gallon of vegetable oil in the same proportion as the one earlier emitted when it was burned in an engine.

Because plants produce hydrocarbons and absorb carbon dioxide, renewable fuels do not contribute significantly to global warming. As a result, they are referred to as carbon neutral.

In a nutshell, renewable fuels strengthen the economy. At the time of writing this article, the renewable fuels industry is so small that it does not account for much of the nation’s gross domestic product. However, the renewable fuel industry has the potential to create millions of jobs.

For example, in the United States it has the potential of adding over US$50 billion to the economy each year and that would decrease the trade deficit by at least 30 percent.

If not controlled, the monetary reserves of a country will eventually be depleted and it will go into debt and, like we all know, if left unpaid, the national debt can destabilise the economy.

If you do not believe me, check this out: the US had a trade deficit of US$ 5 billion in 1965, US$2 billion was from petroleum imports.

At that time, the national debt was roughly US$320 billion. By 1995, the US trade deficit had ballooned to US$174 billion with petroleum imports accounting for US$53 billion. During that same year, the national debt stood at almost US$5 trillion.

The US Department of Employment estimates that for every US$1 billion reduction in the trade deficit, the US can gain 27 000 jobs. By producing 100 percent of its fuel locally, the US could decrease the annual trade deficit by over US$53 billion and create 1,43 million jobs in the biofuels and supporting services industries. It, therefore, makes economic sense to invest in biofuels.

Using energy smartly can double energy efficiency by 2050. With a few simple steps, every one of us can do our bit.

Revolution and evolution are unforgiving forces. Nobody wants to be on the wrong side of either. But it’s time to choose: all of us are either part of the [r]evolution, or we’re part of the problem. And unless all of us are part of the solution, all of us have a problem.

Shakespeare K. Chigwerewe Ph.D.

Resource Scientist

King of Prussia, PA 19406, USA

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