ENVIRONMENT: Using biofuels to the max

Jathorpha: One crop that could be used for the production of biofuels.

These days, with the problem of increasing price of oil and climate change, biofuels come to mind. Unfortunately, most Filipinos are not aware of it.

It must be recalled that in January 2007, then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo signed the Biofuels Act 2006 (BFA), which became effective in February 2007. The implementing rules and regulations (IRR) were approved and signed by the Secretary of Energy in May 2007.

BFA aims to “develop and utilize indigenous renewable and sustainably-sourced clean energy sources to reduce dependence on imported oil.” Section 5 of IRR states the mandatory use of biofuels in the country – a minimum of 5-10 percent bioethanol blended into gasoline fuel and 1-2 percent biodiesel blended into diesel fuel.

Defined as solid, liquid or gaseous fuels, biofuels are derived from relatively recently dead biological material and are distinguished from fossil fuels, which are derived from long dead biological material.

Bioethanol is technically defined as a light alcohol produced by fermenting carbohydrates such as starch or sugar in vegetable matter. Biodiesel is a fuel extracted from plant oils, which can be used in diesel engines without any need for modifications.

Coconut trees: Another crop that could be utilized in the production of biofuels.
Bioethanol can be produced from sugarcane, cassava, corn, sweet sorghum, and other starch and sugar-bearing crops. On the other hand, biodiesel can be derived from plant oils like coconut, soybean, rapeseed, canola, sunflower, jatropha, malunggay, and palm oil.

The use of biofuels in the Philippines started even before the Japanese occupation, according to the article, “The Philippine experience in substitutes for gasoline and diesel,” written by Filipino scientist and inventor Felix Maramba.

“At this time (Second World War), gasoline was the standard motor oil fuel, but in 1922 some sugar centrals started using an alcohol-gasoline blend for locomotives and trucks hauling cranes,” Maramba wrote in his article, which was published in the book The Filipinas Journal. “The La Carlota Sugarcane Experiment Station started using straight hydrous alcohol as motor fuel in 1928. The sugarcane farms followed suit; so did some bus companies.”

It is no wonder why the Philippines is the first country in Southeast Asia to enact a law on biofuels. “There is no way we won’t follow (the Biofuels Act). It is mandated by law,” said Dr. Nena O. Espiritu, professor at the College of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB).

Dean Lao, Jr., chairman of the United Coconut Association of the Philippines (UCAP) urged the government to take advantage of the lower price of nature-friendly biodiesel by raising coconut methyl ester’s (CME) mix to diesel to 5% so as to generate huge foreign exchange savings equivalent to P23.4 billion yearly.

Aside from enhancing the fuels’ ability to cut pollutant greenhouse gas emission, the increase in the biofuel will enable the Philippines to displace a big amount of imported diesel, Lao said.

“We are importing 13 billion liters of diesel (yearly). From B2 (2% biodiesel) to B5 (5% biodiesel), we can displace an additional 390 million liters equivalent to P23.4 billion,” he said during a press briefing hosted by the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food Inc. (PCAFI).

Having ratified the Biofuels Act of 2006, the government subsequently implemented a biodiesel mix of 2%. Despite its early adoption, the Philippines has been overtaken by other Southeast Asian countries in maximizing use of the environment-friendly technology.

Vehicles: More vehicles means more oil.

“When we started in 2006, we were the pioneers. Now, we’re the laggard,” said Lao, adding that Indonesia is now the leader in biodiesel with its mix reaching to 30% and even announced early this year a 35% blend.

The country’s commercialization of biodiesel has stagnated since 2009, the last time that the biodiesel mix was raised from 1% to 2%.

Along with the cheaper price now of biodiesel compared to fossil fuel-based diesel, the Philippines is missing on the other advantages of a higher biodiesel mix. These are improved vehicle mileage and the reduced pollutant carbon dioxide emission to the environment.

Pollutant emission from 100% biodiesel has been proven to be 74% lower than those from petroleum diesel, according to a life cycle analysis conducted by the Illinois-based Argonne National Laboratory.

As it uses generally vegetable oils compared to the depleting petroleum resource, biodiesel is deemed a renewable and biodegradable fuel.

“Biodiesel meets both the biomass-based diesel and overall advanced biofuel requirement of the Renewable Fuel Standard,” said the Department of Energy (DOE).

“Using biodiesel as a vehicle fuel increases energy security, improves air quality and the environment, and provides safety benefits,” DOE explained. “Biodiesel in its pure, unblended form causes far less damage than petroleum diesel if spilled or released to the environment. It is safer than petroleum diesel because it is less combustible.”

Using biofuels can readily reduce the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Dr. Rodel D. Lasco, a member of the United Nations International Panel on Climate Change, said the mitigation potential for bioethanol is between 500 to 1,200 megatons of carbon dioxide. For biodiesel, the mitigation potential is between 100 to 300 megatons of carbon dioxide.

“A biofuel plant that uses biomass energy will contribute far more to reducing greenhouse gas emissions than one that uses coal energy,” says the report, Biofuels for Transportation: Global Potential and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy in the 21st Century.

The main challenges for a sustainable biofuels industry are in the agricultural sector, experts claim. Coconut and jatropha (locally known as tubang bakod) are the identified potential sources of feedstocks for biodiesel. Sugarcane, cassava, and sweet sorghum are prospective crops for bioethanol.

“Considering that these plants are embedded in the agricultural food production systems, any arable land displacement to give way to feedstock production raises the issue on priority: food or energy security,” Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCAARRD) wondered. “With the country’s small landmass, biofuels can encroach on food production, hence creating the food-versus-fuel issue.”

So, what’s the real score now? “In some areas of the country where there is still an abundant resource base to support both food and energy crops, the efficient use of biofuel feedstocks for the local co-production of heat, electricity, and transportation fuel will have a significant positive impact on the rural economy,” said Dr. Filemon A. Uriarte, Jr., an academician of the National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST).

“It will also enable rural populations to have access to cleaner forms of energy with the consequent improvements in the quality of life,” the NAST academician added.

But in places where the production of crops for energy will significantly reduce the areas available for food production, “there will be a need to search for win-win solutions such as the use of higher yielding food crops and the cultivation of new or marginal areas without adversely affecting the environment,” Dr. Uriarte suggested.

The PCARRD agrees. “The council adheres to its stand that biofuel crops should be developed and concentrated in agroecosystems where they can best perform, without compromising the country’s food requirements and at the same time preserving a sound environment,” it said.

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