Biofuels Perspective

A quarter of a century has passed since Kenya launched into one of the greatest energy adventures in its history: the production and use of  stuff called gasohol.

Technically, it worked.  We grew sugar cane, extracted molasses from it, used that to make a high energy combustible spirit called ethanol, and mixed it with our petrol on a national scale.  All our petrol-engined cars ran on it, for several years. 

Economically and strategically, it did not work.  On the up side, we replaced a small percentage of our oil imports with a home-grown fuel.  The potential savings of scarce foreign exchange were cumulatively considerable.   We gave sugar-growing a market with insatiable demand;  we harnessed a renewable energy source (an agricultural crop that could be replaced every season) at a time when the world was in near panic about the finity of fossil fuel reserves which take millions of years of geological action to “grow”.   We proved to the public that cars can run perfectly well on some hybrid fuels, with little or no modification or side effect.  All to the good.

But…

Much of the concept was predicated on a currently low value of molasses and the relatively high cost of crude oil, but while the production plant was still under construction the world price of molasses soared and the cost of crude oil eased and held steady.

A ten-fold over-run on the budget for building the production plant was a large but temporary set-back, but its  design had another flaw.  The process of turning sugar into molasses and then ethanol is not achieved by an ngoma of wishful thinking – it requires energy.  Lots of energy.  Ask any chang’aa brewer, for that is effectively what ethanol (sugar alcohol)  is.  And unless an ethanol plant is built in the middle of a sugar plantation, and uses sugar cane waste (bagasse) as its own fuel, it consumes as much fuel oil as it produces ethanol.  Our biggest molasses-ethanol plant was actually deemed “energy negative” by some experts.

Further, the raw materials we were using (sugar and molasses) are a long way from useless or valueless in their unconverted form, and they do not grow on marginal or otherwise “spare” land.

So while the exercise had its values, not least in delivering a steep learning curve, before very long we were back to using petrol made of…petrol.  Latterly without lead.   For the past decade or so, bio-fuels have returned to the back seat of our motoring vision and the back yards of crackpots with agglomerations of plumbing that make cooking gas from chicken manure.

Since the latest oil delivery crisis, and the consequent meteoric rise in the price of crude,  combined with much-heightened concern about global warming, biofuels are again moving towards the front of the stage – worldwide. 

This is in part a factor of the certain knowledge that the world’s oil reserves will eventually run low and then run out  (probably in about 100 years time) and the ongoing development of alternatives to power the world;  partly a knee-jerk reaction to the fact that although there’s plenty of crude still in the ground we are not extracting and processing it fast enough to meet global demand if/when a major supplier turns off its taps to have a war or something  (hence the price rise), but the really accelerated interest right now comes under the heading of climate change.  

Crude oil reserves are carbon, locked up safely under the ground.   If you extract them, turn them into fuels and burn them, all that “extra” carbon is added to the atmosphere.

Biofuels, apart from being renewable, don’t do that.  The crops from which they are made absorb carbon from the atmosphere, so what comes out of your exhaust pipe is only putting back what was already there, and it will be absorbed again by the next crop. 

It is that factor which is driving the headlines and exercising environmentalists and regulators and inventors, in a global trend which is not about to diminish and will not be temporary.

Biofuels will play an ever-bigger role in fuelling road transport, from now and for the foreseeable future.  But for a host of technical, strategic and economic reasons biodiesel will be way, way out front of any  “petrohols”,  and Kenya may not be well advised to pioneer the process.  Not because we couldn’t, but because we shouldn’t.

For very many years still to come, the growth in use of biodiesel, anywhere, will not be because it is cheaper or better.  It will be because increasing proportions are made compulsory for environmental reasons in countries whose fuel consumption is many hundreds of times greater than ours. 

The sources of biodiesel will also rise first and best in places where there is already food aplenty and huge tracts of crop-growing land to spare, and where there is little or no population increase.  Kenya is not over-endowed in any of these respects right now, and the current population of 40 million is set to double within the next 20 years, literally doubling the pressure on land for settlement and for crops you can eat.

No western country has faced a challenge of that scale in living memory.

So while we may well follow with interest the latest developments in biofuel technology, production and use, and while we may well find that the refined fuels we import start to have proportions of biofuels in them in the years to come, any suggestion that Kenya should devote some of its best arable land for crops to mass produce motor fuels should be cause for either laughter or alarm bells.

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