Renewables re-visited

The Bioethanol plant at Yarm, Stocton-on-Tees

The Bioethanol plant at Yarm, Stocton-on-Tees

In my pre-political career, I spent four very happy years with United Distillers/Guinness plc (now Diageo), in Korea and Singapore.  Indeed I was “Mr. Johnnie Walker” in Korea.  In the course of my time with United Distillers, I visited a number of distilleries, both malt and grain, in Scotland.

So it came as rather shock today, in a meeting with representatives of the bio-ethanol business, to realise that in essence, the bio-ethanol production process is simply an analogue of a grain whisky distillery.

Thankfully, they start generally with wheat (not malting barley), and with sugar.  They ferment it.   They distil it.  And the result is – well – vodka without the water.  (It is the malt whisky and the barrel ageing that give whisky its distinctive character).

I’ve always been a sceptic about bio-fuels.  They add cost.  They reduce performance. They use land that we could be using for food.  So I was impressed to find that UK bio-ethanol, made from British wheat or sugar, doesn’t quite match my expectations.

First, the wheat we grow in the UK is largely soft wheat, unsuitable for bread-making.  Second, the land use for wheat is three-quarters offset by the value of the main by-product (or as we have to say these days, co-product).  The spent grains, after fermentation, become high-protein animal feed, which we need anyway, and which displaces imports of (typically American) soya beans.  And of course the ethanol displaces imports of fossil fuels.  There is a substantial two-way balance-of-payments benefit.

The industry also claims that it reduces CO2 emissions, even allowing for the energy inputs along the way – though we in UKIP are less obsessed with that aspect.

But the game-changer for me was the claim that bio-ethanol is now price-competitive with regular petrol, and doesn’t require subsidy.  Is there any other renewable (except hydro) which can say that?  And the icing on the cake: bio-ethanol is high-octane, and doesn’t reduce engine performance.  It may even enhance it.

The difficulty facing the industry is that they have invested £750 million in the UK based on the earlier mandated 10% figure for the proportion of bio-fuels in transportation.  Recognising the land use change implications (known as “ILUC”) for bio-fuels generally, the EU institutions are now proposing to reduce that figure.  The Council wants a 7% cap for bio-fuels – and fails to take into account the fact that bio-ethanol is benign in terms of land use.  It doesn’t have a significant ILUC issue.

We need to get this idea through to the UK government.  Otherwise a £750 million investment, and several thousand jobs in the North of England, are at risk.

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38 Responses to Renewables re-visited

  1. tallbloke says:

    Ethanol shortens the service interval between major overhauls on engines though, due to its hygroscopic tendencies. I seriously doubt they can produce it cheaper then petroleum from $88/barrel Brent light either.

  2. Martin Brumby says:

    Agree with tallbloke. You might discuss with engine manufacturers but my understanding is that ethanol actually causes engine damage, especially above 10%.
    It also exacerbates problems in cold weather
    Loads of other links on the web.
    And if they don’t need subsidy, why is use mandated at all?

  3. Ex-expat Colin says:

    That kind of thing worked for the Beetle in Brazil I think. Cannot imagine it beating petrol for todays cars. Performance engines yes…flash wallet needs to accompany that. Mix it…dunno?

    Not sure that UK land should be used like that. Beer, food no problem…housing?

    Ukraine might be interested? If the squabbling stopped.

  4. Me_Again says:

    I always thought that ethanol was a higher octane than petrol, even performance petrol. Someone I knew several decades ago put lots of dehydrated ethanol in the petrol tank of the RSM’s new Ford Capri 2.8i, this is not encouraged and blew the cylinder heads through the bonnet about half a minute after he turned the ignition. They only found three.

  5. Francis says:

    My first question would be why do they grow the wrong type of wheat? Is it easier to grow, or is it for animal feed? Crops grown for fuel is a bad idea as had proved the case in the US. Farmers will grow what pays them the most. Less food crops in favour of fuels crops forces the price of food crops up and this is spiral continues as demand for both crops increases. As a feedstock it is not only subject to price variations but the weather can and does affect crop yield. Add to that the seasonal nature of the feedstock, which means large quantities have to be purchased and then stored to ensure continuity of supply. This all adds up to making future cost and security of supply totally unpredictable. If we then consider the fluctuation in the price of the fuel, this makes a very poor basis for a sound business model.

    In the meantime we still landfill or export our waste, waste that is a perfect feedstock for processing into fuels and gas. If only logic could be applied to alternative energy production, if only!

    • catalanbrian says:

      The reason for growing soft wheat, rather than hard wheat in the UK is that the UK climate is more suited to growing winter wheat (sown over the autumn and winter months) and the majority of this is so called soft wheat. Spring wheat, which gives a much lower yield, is generally hard wheat and much of this is used in breadmaking but the overall production is not adequate for the breadmaking market so the difference is made up with imports. The major difference between the two types is that with soft wheat the starch breaks down during milling, whereas with had wheat this is not the case. Soft wheat is really not a lot of use for breadmaking other than for so called French bread. And by the way I agree that in general using agricultural land for growing anything but food crops is not a good idea, although growing fuel crops is a better option than paying farmers to grow nothing!

      • Francis says:

        Hi, well thank you for the explanation. Of course as you say it is better to grow something than get paid to do nothing at all.

      • Me_Again says:

        Wow, straight out of a book Brian…..but I don’t disagree

      • catalanbrian says:

        Not from a book at all. I was born on a farm and I have spent pretty much all my life involved in the business of agriculture, mainly as an adviser.

      • Sock Puppet Hunter says:

        I will quote from a book though, or at least an online source, because it is more complex than that. The source is a US website, and they refer to the North American experience, but it is notable that in fact they state that Hard wheats grow better in colder climates, than soft wheats, and that Winter wheat can be Hard or Soft varieties, or either Red or White cultivars.

        The sowing period has nothing to do with whether a Hard or Soft, or Red or White varieties are grown. Admittedly this is a “Flour” site rather than a “Farming” site, but they do seem to know that different types, and cultivars can be used for different purposes, and it is Not true that Soft wheat is used only for bioethanol and animal feed production. Humans eat Soft wheat products too, whether it is Winter or Spring sown.

      • Sock Puppet Hunter says:

        But the continent grows just two types of wheat: hard and soft. Both have winter and spring crops, each of which produce red and white varieties. Hard wheat is high in protein and grows best in colder climes. (Durum wheat, the hardest kind of wheat, thrives in locations like Montana and Manitoba, where winter means serious business.) Soft wheat is low in protein and grows plentifully in the Carolinas, where winters are mild and dry.

        Two basic types of flour are milled from these two varieties of wheat; the others on the U.S. market are hybrids. Here’s a quick roundup of the wheaty basics in the flour department.

        Full Story Here >>>>>

  6. also oil from hemp seed could be used hemp can be grown on land that is no good for most modern crops does not need fertilisers or pest control and also improves the soil it grows on the seed is pressed for the oil whats left is a highly nutritrious animal feed the outer strands can be used for making all manner of things from clothes to plastics the centre core called the husk can be used for building houses what more could you ask for when will those in charge wake up

  7. November 2024 off topic but worth a read from raedwalds blog
    With a general election only six months away, Prime Minister Nigel Farage thought this must be the worst time ever to agree a joint UK-Indian Marshall Plan to rescue the mess that the disintegration of the Eurozone had wrought. His party’s slim overall majority of four in the house would crumble as at least twenty old UKIP diehards rebelled, and he would have to depend on the twenty-five remaining Labour Party members on the opposition benches to get the measure through …

    OK, it’s weak fiction. But you take the point that this is a pivotal time in British politics, a time when almost anything could happen. The stable system of 2.5 State Parties that fools like Ian Kennedy wanted to legitimise in a quasi-constitutional role by crooked fixes such as tax funding is over. Not since the Labour Party upset the cosy duopoly of the Conservatives and Liberals has the national appetite for political change been so great.

    As we start another week in which even the fall of Kobane will fail to shift UKIP’s Rochester campaign from the news, the dying parties must rue the day they abandoned Britain’s voters for a mess of metropolitan pottage. Political change in the UK is akin to a very large, heavy flywheel; it takes a lot of effort to get it moving, but once in motion the inertia is irreversible. And as long as the speed governor that is our unwritten constitution functions correctly, it will not run away with us.

    Hey ho.

    • Me_Again says:

      Excellent, excellent points. The fly-wheel is a magnificent allegory.

      “I don’t want my country to be just another star on someone else’s flag”

    • Ex-expat Colin says:

      Flywheels normally used for smoothing. I’m looking for a latent sledgehammer effect and been waiting far too long.

      Harman at the last BBC QT (Clacton)…. yakety yak and of course GE’s are always different to Bye Elections. Hence the sledgehammer requirement.

      UK Fishery problem (again) popped up on BBC R4 this am. Uk can’t sell 70k tonnes of mackerel, and Russia gets the hit. Well, they don’t want it apart from anything else. So the old EU there is going to increase 2015 quota (25%) for the lads. Nothing about what happens now though…you know, running into winter and income down. No wonder Farage missed those densely populated Fishery Committee meetings.

      Wait for it……

  8. Mark W Tebbutt. says:

    Within 10 years the majority of new cars sales in the UK will be electric. Volkswagen announced this week they will have a range of 300 mile range battery electric range cars on the market by 2020. The 100 mile range Nissan Leaf electric car which is available to buy / lease today achieves 158 MPGe with recharging costs of about 2.2p a mile (charged over night on economy 7) v 12.5p mile for a 50 MPG diesel @1.39 a litre. No internal combustion engine car can match electric cars on running costs.

    Tesla Motors unveiled the fastest 0-60 MPH 4 wheel drive production saloon car in the world last week. The Tesla model S P85D. Its 100% electric with 1 electric motor per axel and achieves the 0-60 sprint in a mere 3.2 seconds and goes on to a top speed of 155 MPH. It has a range of about 260-280 miles per charge.

    • Me_Again says:

      Wish they’d go with the hydrogen powered vehicles. Only waste product is water. Problem with electric vehicles is that the power needs generating somewhere. Yes hydrogen needs producing but it is a by product of many industrial processes for one and if you want Solar then use it to electrolyse brine to make hydrogen.

    • ferretman555 says:

      We have a Generating capacity problem that has so far been been contained by astronomical consumer costs, much luck, and juggling to balance the loads:-
      This is further being undermined by the vast housebuilding and immigration scandal that is extra loads on water/gas supplies and the rest of our infrastructure.

      Electric private cars are not the answer unless we have cheap and abundant supplies.

      • Me_Again says:

        …as well as a callous disregard for the older people who die because they can no longer afford to keep warm. I expect the windmill lobby see these additional deaths as a positive since they are reducing the CO2 by dying and not switching on their gas or electricity at all. Then of course the poor dears no longer eat so there’s less methane produced. Yes, all in all I expect the renewables buffoons are more than happy with an extra 30,000 deaths a year.

    • Sock Puppet Hunter says:

      Marvellous, but you are forgetting the battery costs, which need replacing every few years as they do wear out. Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally stated….

      “When you move into an all-electric vehicle, the battery size moves up to around 23 kilowatt hours, [and] it weighs around 600 to 700 pounds,” Mr. Mulally said at Fortune magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference in California.

      “They’re around $12,000 to $15,000 [a battery]” for a type of car that normally sells for about $22,000, he continued, referring to the price of a gasoline-powered Focus. “So, you can see why the economics are what they are.”

      Ford is currently promoting its $39,200 Focus EV at events around the country. It has a 23 kilowatt-hour battery pack. A Ford spokeswoman said Mr. Mulally’s comments were designed to provide a indication of the car’s battery costs.

      Based on the price range that Mr. Mulally indicated, Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford appears to pay between $522 and $650 a kilowatt-hour for its electric-vehicle batteries. In the past, auto makers and battery makers have been reluctant to disclose the cost per kilowatt hour.

      So add around $100 per week to your costs to account for battery depreciation.

      Tesla say they hope to decrease the battery costs to $100 per kilowatt hour before 2020, but this is dependent upon a technical breakthrough, as yet unknown, or wishful thinking I would surmise. Price inflation may mean that technical improvements will only serve to keep battery prices as they are today, rather than rising with inflation. Battery price stasis seems more likely, than an actual cost reduction.

  9. cosmic says:

    Whisky is a high value product which attracts substantial taxation.

    I doubt the bioethanol business would exist without considerable subsidies, some maybe not obvious. Furthermore, it’s my understanding that to produce a litre of biofuel in the UK or the USA takes about a litre of fossil fuel. You have to look at the big picture, including farm diesel, fertiliser and pesticide use.

    Furthermore, ethanol is not a magical additive to petrol. It causes problems with accelerated wear and its hygroscopic nature causes particular problems with engines which are not in regular use: chainsaws, boats, lawnmowers, some cars. Modern car engines are very intolerant to low grade fuels and lubricants.

    If British wheat is largely substandard because of its protein content, which I believe is hit and miss, that’s suggestive that some other crop of higher value should be grown. The subsidy regime needs to be looked at. I’ve seen solid fuel boilers which can run on wood pellets or low grade wheat. I don’t see that the answer is to create a market by government action, based on false premises.

    The situation in Brazil is quite different, where they have a different climate and start from sugar from sugar cane, not starch from cereals, which then requires to be broken down to sugar.

    Despite what you say, I remain unconvinced that the UK bioethanol business has compelling case to be made for it although I’ve no doubt its spokesfolks make their best efforts.

    • Me_Again says:

      Incidentally why wouldn’t they use their own ethanol and why in the UK and USA?
      Anyway I’d like to see some sort of proof that it takes that much fuel to produce that much fuel, but if so it would be pointless as you suggest.

      “…..that to produce a litre of biofuel in the UK or the USA takes about a litre of fossil fuel.”

      Think I’ll stick to Thorium Roger.

    • Ex-expat Colin says:

      If I turned up at an ethanol outlet I’d likely have to look for a glass…sod the car!

      Would you actually trust a new tech battery to power you thru 300 miles. I know we are used to batteries of the Lead Acid and Silver type, but they are tiny compared to what is bolted under an E-car…a very big/spendy battery. Its the business of Amperes per hour (AH – capacity, like a tank of fuel) and whether they can hold that capacity. Hold is the word and not loose it like a hole in a tank. Thats not quite a true analogy, because a battery can die in a second or so, or less.

      Whats the insurance like on such cars? You know..oh well you knackered the battery by ummm…using it, whatever. The 2nd hand market ?

      The batteries in the new Dreamliner a/c have not done so well. Now encased in strengthened fire proof boxes. So you can have the battery fire/failure in flight and then hope that a/c power systems cope…appear to do that – view a/c safety case for more info. That frequently grounds this a/c fleet…new type bloody batteries!

    • ferretman555 says:

      Readers comments seem to doubt the veracity though.

    • Me_Again says:

      “…Onshore wind is cheaper than coal, gas or nuclear energy when the costs of ‘external’ factors like air quality, human toxicity and climate change are taken into account,…2

      Wow would they like to build any more fiddle factors into this equation? How the hell do you calculate a cost for something as vague as air quality, unfathomable as human toxicity [let’s not include the place where the neodymium is dug out the ground or that would screw the calculations], and as disputed as climate change?

      If that’s the best you have Brian, you’ve just shot yourself in both feet + a couple of reloads.

      • catalanbrian says:

        Why is it that you have to treat everything as a competition that you have to win, rather than as an intelligent discussion. I rather think that the matter in question is rather more important than a question of shooting oneself in the foot with a couple of reloads. As I have said elsewhere I bet you cheated at games when you were at school. And you typify UKIP, the voice of dismal, small-minded English reaction

      • Me_Again says:

        What? So because I’m ridiculing a study with bags of unquantified fiddle factors in it, I’m somehow competing with you?
        Your arguments are becoming more and more strident and less and less coherent Brian, suggest you up the dose again.

        As someone with a science background and orientation, I’m deeply suspicious of studies which use ‘variables’ in such a cavalier fashion.

        If I typify UKIP supporters scepticism, that’s the warmest compliment anyone could pay and I thank you.

  10. c777 says:

    Who needs them?
    One of these could power a whole town.
    Welcome to the future.

  11. ferretman555 says:

    As it all based on the Carbon Theory and the green House effect, might now be a good time to ask, how does a greenhouse work?

    Heat and light is radiated from the Sun, penetrating our atmosphere and the glass, thereby heating the inside of the greenhouse to above the outside temperature. At night, or when the sun is covered by clouds, the temperature drops rapidly, because no heat and light are being received from the sun. We control the greenhouse temperatures through ventilation and convection air currents.

    The Carbon theory states that “greenhouse gases” retain this heat, resulting in global warming.

    Our atmosphere acts as an insulation layer, without it the planet would fry in sunlight, and freeze in darkness. We can see an example of this in the desert temperature variations with clear skies night and day.

    The question is how can our global temperature increase, when the atmospheric insulation surrounding us cuts down both the incoming and outgoing heat by radiation?

    Brin Jenkins.

  12. thomas fox says:

    One problem with the economics of bio fual from soft UK wheat  is -will  it increase the price of poultry feed on the already stretched  margins of the affordable egg and chicken producer ?    Maybe this is the reason EU wish to reduce  this fuel production ?

    Sent from Molto for iPad

  13. Me_Again says:

    On the windy side of things this from Tallbloke’s own blog

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