New surveys reveals continuing support for renewable energy

The Department of Energy and Climate Change published it’s sixth quarterly tracker survey yesterday.

The survey is carried out every three months to monitor the public’s attitudes to the government’s energy policies. Face to face interviews were carried out at 2,124 households in early July. The published results confirm that the public’s support for renewable energy remains widespread.

76% of those polled stated that they supported or strongly supported the continuing use and expanding development of the UK’s vast renewable energy resources.

Whilst this represents a very slight decline from previous survey results it should be pointed out that the poll was conducted at the height of the shale gas industry’s media blitz, particularly within the right wing press.

This media campaign does not appear to have had the desired affect. There was no change in the level of people who oppose or strongly oppose renewable energy. Only 5% of those polled gave this opinion; demonstrating that this view remains the preserve of an extremist minority. It is also worth making the point that despite much lobbying those parts of the UK which have been proposed as areas suitable for shale gas exploration, or fracking, have seen widespread and organised protests against the proposals.

18% of those surveyed commented that they had no opinion on renewable energy development. This equals the highest level recorded since the surveys were first carried out. Again this suggests that the campaign against renewables in some parts of the media is failing to have the desired affect.

The poll also revealed further positive news for the renewable energy industry. 71% of the people polled gave the opinion that they believe renewable energy to be economically beneficial to the UK. This is a 2% increase from the 69% of people who gave this opinion in the previous survey. Furthermore, 56% revealed that they would be happy to have a large scale renewable development in their local area. Again this was an increase from the previous poll in which 55% gave this opinion. The upwards trend of these opinions can perhaps be attributed to the fact that more renewable energy developments have came online in the time between the two surveys. More people have had a chance to see the economic benefits of renewable energy development in terms of community contributions and job creation. As the positive impacts of renewable energy are felt more widely one can expect the upwards trend of such opinions to continue.

The survey broke down support levels for individual forms of renewable energy generation: 81% stated their support for solar energy, 72% for wave and tidal energy, 71% for offshore wind generation, 65% for onshore wind generation and 60% for biomass. It has been suggested that the reason  wave and tidal and offshore wind have polled so highly is due their relatively low visual impact as opposed to their cost effectiveness; a standard in which other technologies such as onshore wind rank far higher.

In contrast to the continuing support for renewable energy nuclear power saw its support amongst the public continue to decline. Only 37% of those involved in the poll gave their support to its use in the UK. The level of support for nuclear has declined of several quarterly surveys and one can perhaps expect this trend to continue given the continued presence of the Fukushima disaster in the news. 25% of those polled opposed the use of nuclear power (contrasted with the 5% who did not support nuclear) and 35% had no opinion. The decline in support for nuclear as well as the uncertainty surrounding the prospects of new nuclear plants being built indicates that renewables will very much remain key to UK government energy policy.

DECC has long maintained that it regards the future of UK energy generation to be the use of a variety of different energy sources; what is often referred as the ‘mixed portfolio’. This stance continues to have a strong level of support from the UK public with 81% of those polled giving their backing to this policy.

The poll has revealed some of the issues which DECC is facing in terms of public awareness. 74% of people polled commented that they had thought ‘a fair amount’ or indeed a lot about home energy efficiency. Despite this and the launch of the Green Deal this year 47% revealed that they had never heard of smart meters. More will need to be done in this area but it should be noted that this figure represents an improvement on the 53% who gave the same answer in the previous quarter. Additionally the widespread roll out of smart meters (all homes and businesses are expected to have smart meters installed by 2020) is not scheduled to begin until 2015.

The fact that there exists a majority consensus on climate change is also good news for the renewable industry with 66% of the public fairly or very concerned about the issue. 38% of those polled attributed climate change mainly or entirely to human causes. 42% felt that it was being caused by a combination of human and natural causes and only 12% giving the opinion that it was being caused mainly or solely due to natural developments. These results indicate that the debate on the widespread use of renewable energy is far better placed in the UK than it is in a country such as the United States where the climate change debate is far more divisive both publicly and politically. A consensus existing on climate change means that the debate can move forward to how best to address it; which renewable energy generation can play an extremely major part in doing.

Support for renewable energy remains widespread in the UK. It is our hope that we at ILI (Renewable Energy) can do our part to increase it.

 

Aviation Biofuels: A Future Necessity

Aviation is an industry which is coming under increasing pressure from the ever rising costs of fossil fuels and the politics of carbon emission reduction and taxation. Given that the aviation industry is currently completely dependent on fossil fuels and that solutions to land based transport problems such as electricity and hydrogen cannot apply there is an increasing interest in the development of new forms of biofuel.

At 2:25pm on the 6th of October more than 230 passengers departed from Birmingham Airport with Lanzarote as their destination. This flight was notable as it was part-powered by biofuel. One of the planes engines was running on a newly developed aviation biofuel – a 50/50 mix of standard Jet A1 fuel and “Hydroprocessed Esters and Fatty Acids” (produced using cooking oil). No modification to the engine was required to allow it to run on the biofuel. This biofuel was supplied to TUI Travel UK and Ireland by the Dutch company SkyNRG. This new biofuel has been approved as sustainable by both the WWF (Worldwide Wildlife Fund) and the Roundtable on Sustainable ‘Biofuels (an international monitoring group for alternative fuels). However the problems lingering on the horizon for aviation have not yet dispersed. This biofuel is significantly more expensive than standard aviation fuel and it is difficult to see how cooking oil could ever be produced in enough quantities to supply worldwide air travel. This is without even broaching the subject of the damage increased biofuel production could inflict on world markets and the price of food.

However TUI Travel insists that biofuels derived from cooking oil are only being used as a demonstration of how biofuels can be used in aviation; with other biofuels produced from sources such as algae expected to hold more long term potential. Never the less it has been announced that daily flights using this biofuel will begin in 2012.

Reactions to this test flight were somewhat mixed. Captain Phil Copnall, who piloted the flight, commented that: “The flight landed on schedule and the reaction from our customers on the flight was overwhelmingly positive.”

Christian Cull, Communications Director of TUI UK & Ireland remarked:

“We realise that we won’t please everyone, and that at present the aviation biofuel supply chain is not perfect.

“We are sincere in our commitment and are proud to be flying with biofuel. Whilst these are early days, we are in this for the long haul because we believe it is the right thing to do.”

The company released the following official statement:

“The aviation industry fully supports the move for all modes of transport to more sustainable energy sources.

“Whilst we are in a transition phase, Thomson Airways [a subsidiary of TUI Travel] believes that sustainable liquid fuel should be prioritised for aviation as there is no near term alternative, such as electric or hydrogen for ground-based vehicles.”

Aviation Minister Theresa Villiers:

“The British government believes that sustainable biofuels have a role to play in efforts to tackle climate change, particularly in sectors where no other viable low carbon energy source has been identified – as is the case with aviation.”

The Biofuels Campaigner at Friends of the Earth UK, Kenneth Richter reacted:

Biofuels won’t make flying any greener – their production is wrecking rainforests, pushing up food prices and causing yet more climate-changing emissions.

“The government must curb future demand for flights by halting airport expansion, promoting video conferencing, and developing faster, better and affordable rail services.”

On Tuesday the 11th of October Sir Richard Branson announced that Virgin Atlantic planes will be using a newly developed “green” aviation fuel. The proposed fuel – which will be produced in partnership with the New Zealand based biofuel company Lanzatech – will be manufactured from waste gases produced during the industrial production of steel. These waste gases will be extracted, fermented and then put through a process of chemical conversion. Currently such gases are burned up during steel production and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Lanzatech indicated that they estimated that their process could be applied to 65% of the worlds steel mills and could possibly also be used in metals processing and and chemicals industries.

The necessary technology is currently being piloted in New Zealand with demo flights expected to be carried out within the next 12 to 18 months. Lanzatech chief executive Jennifer Holmgren announced that she was “confident” that commercial production would be up and running in China by 2014. Virgin Atlantic plans to initially use this form of biofuel on it’s routes from Heathrow to Delhi and Shanghai before eventually rolling it out across the rest of its fleet.

During the announcement of his plans Sir Richard Branson stated:

“We were the first commercial airline to test a biofuel flight and we continue to lead the airline industry as the pioneer of sustainable aviation.

“This partnership to produce a next generation low-carbon aviation fuel is a major step towards radically reducing our carbon footprint, and we are excited about the savings that this technology could help us achieve.

“With oil running out, it is important that new fuel solutions are sustainable and, with the steel industry alone able to deliver over 15 billion gallons of jet fuel annually, the potential is very exciting.

“This new technology is scalable, sustainable and can be commercially introduced at a cost comparable to conventional jet fuel.”

Friends of the Earth’s transport campaigner Richard Dyer released the following statement:

“On the face of it, it does look promising in that they are getting round the issues of biofuels and land use. It is a very long way from commercial use. It has got to be very safe and cheap enough for airlines to be interested in using it.”

The potential biofuels hold for the aviation industry is obvious.

As Sir Richard Branson observed on his blog biofuels could “turn aviation from a dirty industry to one of the cleanest”. However, there are numerous challenges to come. The fuel proposed by Virgin Atlantic appears to hold huge potential but at this point in time it remains just that; potential. Other more developed biofuels are problematic for the worlds food supply as they compete for the same arable land. But if such problems can be overcome then a major reduction in greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved.

Sustainability, Waste and Whisky

Scotch whisky is not only Scotland’s biggest export it is now being used to power some of the country’s homes. Diageo, the global alcohol conglomerate, has announced plans to consturct a biomass power plant at it’s distillery complex in Glenlossie. This follows investments in similar schemes at other Diageo sites in Fife and Roseisle.

This new plant will be fueled by a combination of wood-chip pellets and graff. Graff is spent grain; a waste product from the distilling process. The use of graff to produce more whisky will reduce money spent on power for the distiller as well as making operations at the Glenlossie site sustainable. It is expected that the plant will use 30,000 tons of graff per annum which will be left over from the production of approximately 3.2 million gallons of whisky. Diageo has stated that this will result in a reduction in carbon emissions of 6,000 tons a year which is equivalent to removing 1,600 family cars from the road.

Brian Higgs, Diageo director of malt distilling released the following statement: “With Roseisle distillery we showed what can be achieved in using the natural by-products of our industry to produce green energy.

“Diageo is committed to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and to reducing its reliance on fossil fuels and to reducing our overall impact on the environment. The plan for Glenlossie is another significant step in our journey towards that sustainable future for Scotch whisky production.”

Neill Stuart, the Chief Executive of Scottish Renewables stated that Scotland’s “world famous whisky industry is now increasingly looking to renewable fuel sources to power its operations with Diageo very much leading the way.

“Renewable heat and small-scale renewables have the potential to help all sorts of businesses generate new revenue or reduce costs while cutting carbon emissions.”

Additionally the Combination of Rothes Distillers announced earlier in the year that they will be working in partnership with Helius Energy (a British Biomass company) to build a biofuel power plant in Speyside (one of Scotland’s traditional whisky heartlands ) which will be the first such facility in the country to provide power to both industry and to the public. The planned facility is intended to power 9,000 homes in the local area by burning a combination of draff and wood pellets.

This news has not met with an entirely positive reaction. WWF (Worldwide Wildlife Fund) Scotland have questioned how the wood pellets will be sourced, arguing that unless the pellets were obtained from a local and sustainable source then any carbon reductions achieved from reduced usage of fossil fuels would be cancelled out by emissions produced by importing them. Sam Gardner, the organisations climate policy officer said: “It is using waste products from our whisky industry which is an eminently sensible thing to do, and is producing heat both for whisky production and for the local community. We would want to see assurance, however, that the biomass was sustainably sourced.”

The shift to renewable power comes at a time when the whisky industry is seeing strong growth in exports. For the first half of the year exports reached a value of £1.8 billion, an increase of 22% on the first half of 2010. The US is the industry’s top export market by value, shipments to this market were up 14% to £276.6 million. France was the biggest market by volume, importing 94.8 million 70cl bottles which was an increase of 18%.

However the biggest rises were seen in emerging markets such as Central and Southern America (which saw an increase of 49% to £214.4 million), Taiwan (increased by 45% to £70.3 million) and Singapore (increased by 64% to £148.5 million). The chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, Gavin Hewitt attributed these large increases to “a growing mixture of affluence and aspiration” amongst an emerging middle class as well as “recent breakthroughs in trade relations”.

It is right then that Scotland’s biggest exporting industry should be involved in the country’s renewable revolution.Such a key part of the Scottish economy should and is insulating itself against the increasingly volatile fossil fuel markets.

 

Unsustainable Biofuels

The ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa has raised a number of questions for the international community on issues such as aid dependence, population growth, neo-colonialism and, perhaps most relevant to us, the increasingly unsustainable nature of biofuels. As discussed previously on this blog biofuels have been partly responsible for the ever increasing price of food worldwide. Indeed the World Bank identified biofuels as one of the causes in food price rises in a recent report as more and more arable land, in both the developed and developing world, is turned over to the production of biofuels: “Another factor that adds to the potential upward pressure on the price of maize is the diversion into production of biofuels.”

America is currently the world’s largest single producer of corn. But an increasing amount of this corn is not entering the food markets but being diverted to domestic ethanol production. Indeed current projections estimate American corn ethanol production at 14billion gallons (53 billion litres) for the year. More corn is being grown, US Department of Agriculture figures show that 92 million acres of corn have been planted this year, an increase of 4 million acres from last year, but this increased production is not being felt in the food markets.

Many farmers are now selling the majority of their corn harvests to ethanol production plants. 58% of the corn grown in Iowa (the biggest corn producing state in the US) this year is expected to be used to produce ethanol. Some farmers, such as Arlyn Schipper who owns a 1,619 hectare farm, expect to sell as much as 70% of their crop to these plants.

As a result of this ethanol boom there is less of crops such as soy-beans and wheat being grown as more and more farmers decide to cash in on the high price of corn, adding further pressures to global food markets. Marie Brill, an analyst at ActionAid remarked that”Farmers are tearing up any little bit of land they have and going to corn.”

In the near future even less corn could be entering world food markets from the US. A Swiss company, Syngent, has developed a genetically modified strain of corn, which is already in use in America, that is more easily and efficiently converted to ethanol. However, this comes at the cost of rendering the corn unsuitable for use in food production. A gene has been added to the strain which quickens the breakdown of corn starches to ethanol (normally a process which has to be induced in the factory) but which means that these starches can no longer be used as a thickener in food, or that corn chips can be produced. Brill commented that: “It’s going to put even more pressure on a really tight market. It will be really tempting to farmers to take on this new, more effective ethanol form of corn.” What is more worrying is that some farmers have raised the possibility of cross-contamination  of the new strain with regular strains of corn.

It could be argued, however, that the problems corn ethanol presents for world food markets may be addressed in the future. There is a growing consensus among environmentalists and development charities that biofuels such as corn ethanol are counter-productive to the shift to a more sustainable form of both agriculture and energy generation. Corn is rather impactful on the environment; it requires more pesticides and fertilisers than a crop such as soy beans and uses large amounts of water and energy whilst it is being converted to ethanol. Some groups, due to these facts, have argued that corn ethanol does not offer a meaningful or significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions Bill Frees of the US Centre for Food Safety commented that: “The research is very clear by now. Turning corn into ethanol is not environmentally sound. It’s really an environmental disaster.” Frees also argued that corn ethanol could only replace, at most, 7% of energy supplied in the US by oil by 2020.

Corn ethanol production has been subsidised by the American Government for around 30 years. Indeed it was Jimmy Carter, in his term as President, that originally introduced the policy. Although the production of corn ethanol was slow to take off it has now developed into a boom. One that is possibly coming to an end, an opinion voiced by Jeremy Martin a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists: “I think we are at a turning point. We are full to the gills with corn ethanol.” Some campaign groups have argued that corn ethanol and its subsidies are now holding back better and more sustainable biofuels. This was an opinion voiced by Shelia Karpf, an analyst for the Environmental Working Group: “Corn ethanol continues to eat up the market and even eat up grant money that could be used to spur the development of cellulose and advanced biofuels.”

Subsidies may well be scrapped but more as a result of the US Governments current financial problems than a change of energy policy. Some expect $6 billion worth of corn ethanol subsidies to be scrapped by Congress as part of the sovereign debt negotiations. Such a move could reduce worldwide food prices slightly: “It won’t make a big difference for American farmers but it could make a huge difference for impoverished countries.” – Marie Brill

Corn ethanol has raised a number of questions about biofuels. Corn ethanol is increasingly looking like an unsustainable biofuel due to the impact it has on world food markets and it’s perhaps questionable status as a renewable source of energy. Biofuels are taking arable land away from food production at a time when the world population is expanding rapidly and more arable land and more efficient agricultural practises are needed. It is clear that biofuels can only have a limited role to play in an renewable energy market. Other forms of generation, such as wind and solar, have far less impact on the quality of life, even the viability of life, for many of the worlds population.

The cost of bioenergy: food or fuel

The price of food is soaring. Despite deforestation and improvements in fertilization, irrigation and other farming practices the price of feeding oneself continues to rise. A number of reasons have been offered for this: the rise in the global population, large shifts to a western diet – heavy meat consumption (which is far more intensive to produce due to the need for animal feed etc), extreme weather, misguided government policy, panic buying by importers, speculation on the financial markets, pro-longed under-investment in the agricultural sector. All, undoubtedly play their part. But, so does the shift to renewable energy supplies. Biofuels are in increasing demand, which means more land that could be used to grow food is being devoted to them.

This year it is estimated that 40% of the United State’s corn crop will go into car engines after it is turned to ethanol. Considering that the US is the worlds largest producer and exporter of corn this is huge amount of produce that is being lost to the food markets. The, subsidized, production of biofuel from corn is increasing rapidly. Ten years ago only 7% of the corn crop was being used to make biofuels. The rapid increase in biofuel production and consumption has had a direct impact on the price of the weekly food shop.

This rapid increase is also being seen in the United Kingdom. 18% of biofuels used in the UK are being produced from corn and wheat. Two staple foods, particularly in the developing world. Just over a year ago hardly any of these types of biofuel were being used in the UK and just over a year ago the cost of food was far cheaper.

The International Monetary Fund observed in 2008 that biofuels accounted for 1.5% of the global liquid fuel supply for the year but also nearly half of the increase in food crop consumption. It is is important to understand where the majority of these crops are being produced; the developing world. Increasing amounts of arable land in areas such as Africa are being turned over to biofuels; which are invariably being produced for export to the developed world, frequently by multinational corporations from the developed world. Less food being planted leads to an increase in food imports and an increase in the global market prices for foodstuffs.

Increased prices for food and an increase in the demand for biofuels are occurring at the same time. The European Union has set a target for 10% of transport fuels to be biofuels by 2020 whilst the World Bank has estimated that between June and December 2010 an additional 44 million people fell below the poverty line because of food price rises. The World Bank President Robert Zoellick has called for the world to “put food first”. It is clear that biofuels cannot be relied upon as a large scale fuel source in the future. Increased demand will lead to increased prices for both biofuels and food.

However, this is a problem that is beginning to be acknowledged by the governments of the world. The Global Bioenergy Partnership has been formed by the G8 Countries, 5 emerging economies and 13 International organisations and has agreed guidelines for the production of biofuel that doesn’t affect food prices or contribute to climate change. The formation of such an organisation indicates that currently the biofuel industry is unsustainable.

It is clear that the biofuels currently being produced and consumed are having a negative impact on the price of food. Because of this it would be a mistake to rely on them as a source of energy. Other renewable sources, such as wind or solar do not come with such a heavy price.