Bumpy road of biofuel industry leads Cofco to gates of tiny farms

Bumpy road of biofuel industry leads Cofco to gates of tiny farms

It was exciting to be mentioned in this article by Kandy Wong in the South China Morning Post (and sorry it is a locked site).

The premise of the article is that as much as cellulosic fuel would like to develop in China, it’s going to be a heck of a challenge because farms are so small, and there are so many stakeholders to deal with in collecting biomass for both bioelectricity and cellulosic ethanol.

Before Cofco could put its new plant on the right track, it must solve the collection problem, said William Kao, chief executive of Pro-Tek (Xiamen) Electroplating Development.

“There are just too many farmers owning plots that are too small, which means it is difficult to manage by machinery,” he said. “If much of the collection of biomass is done by hand, there is increasing handling and labour costs.

“The solution would be collective farming,” Kao said. “Put the lands together and form large uniform plots of over 1,000 mu, and work by machine.”

But collectivisation would not only be costly but also highly disruptive to family farmers, especially given the mainland’s bitter experience with forced collectivisation during the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in mass starvation.

In addition to the difficulty of collecting agricultural waste from so many small farms, there is competition for the material.

“Agricultural waste can be used by farmers for fertilising lands through burning,” said Robert Earley, the low-carbon transport programme manager for the American non-profit organisation, Innovation Centre for Energy and Transportation. “Besides, the raw material is often used to generate bioelectricity.”

Moreover, if Cofco’s plant was located too close to bioelectricity generators, there would be direct competition for sourcing raw materials, Earley said.

Before Cofco can efficiently collect enough agricultural waste, its first task must be to unite the farmers behind its project.

The company is still seeking advice from experts for the collection problem.

According to Novozymes, there are some big biomass collectors such as Shandong’s Dragon Power doing the job, and Cofco may have to co-operate with these firms to gain a steady supply.

Let’s hope that they can figure out some way to get that biomass collected.  Transporting biomass long distances to cellulosic ethanol plants doesn’t work from a lifecycle GHG emission perspective or an economic perspective — so the best case scenario for this kind of development is:  local feedstock, local production (and ideally…) local use.

iCET is currently working with Novozymes on a study to compare the relative benefits and drawbacks of different uses of cellulose material, including biomass electricity and cellulosic ethanol.  In many ways, biomass electricity is turning out to be a winning technology, but the fact is that vehicles in China still need liquid fuel to burn, and cellulosic ethanol is one of the best choices.  Results will be coming soon…

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