Canada and waste gasification – what can Canada do in China?

Today’s Globe and Mail contains a great article entitled GARBAGE IN / ENERGY OUT which focuses on technologies being developed and implemented by Canadian companies for converting municipal trash into carbon sources for energy production.

Where in the past, waste-to-energy meant simply burning trash to create heat for steam turbines, gasification uses ultra-high temperatures and a zero-oxygen environment to break materials into their basic atomic elements, and recombine the carbon into carbon monoxide which is useful for all sorts of chemical and energy reactions, including conversion into fischer-tropsch liquids, methanol or through combustion, to electricity.

Combustion produces nasty by-products such as dioxins which have made waste incineration not just politically unpopular, but also dangerous for public health.  Gasification, on the other hand, completely destroys hazardous organic chemicals, while making other contaminants relatively easy to collect.  In the meantime, gasification collects all the carbon into a useful energy product, meaning that there are no direct carbon emissions resulting from the destruction of garbage.

So far, gasification hasn’t made a big spash in China outside the coal-to-methanol sphere which, let’s admit, is not exactly a low-carbon energy.

But let’s look at this.  China is interested in energy security — particularly petroleum security.  It’s got lots of garbage.  It’s interested in a low carbon economy.  Waste-to-fuel would seem to be a key technology for reducing GHG emissions from the transport sector, which China (and the rest of the world) are struggling immensely with.

There’s got to be a place for Canada somewhere in this equation.

What needs to happen?

As it stands right now, the fuel supply in China is tightly controlled.  Only 5 plants can produce bioethanol and sell it into the PetroChina / SinoPec fuel distribution networks. The reason for this is that the government is worried about all of China’s food supply being used to make fuel ethanol by small, uncontrollable companies.  Government doesn’t even want to deal with small biodiesel producers, who barely make a dent in China’s diesel demand.

In order to sell clean fuels to market, some policy changes need to be made, which will allow particular, certified producers of clean fuels to sell their fuels into the national fuel distribution system.  Such a policy should include criteria for fuel sustainability, technological and economic feasibility, lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions, etc.  It should also include a verification system so that companies can be monitored to ensure that food is not being used to make ethanol to sell into the distribution system.

If change is going to happen, we need a good policy analysis with a complete policy suggestion (which iCET is currently working on), a technology provider, and importantly, an investor who is ready to put his/her money where his/her mouth is.  It’s the best way to get a meeting with the powers that be, and the best way to make change for cleaner transport fuels in China.

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Don’t want to fly Air China again

I don’t really like to complain, and I know it doesn’t make a huge difference posting on my personal blog, but I need to remind myself not to fly Air China.

I recently took the direct flight from Beijing to New York, and Air China is the only operator that does it. And you pay dearly for the privilage of sitting in their tightly cramped seats for 13 hours.

It wasn’t just the seats.

Flight CA981 leaves Beijing at 1:50 in the afternoon, which is quite a reasonable time, and actually, as far as I know, we left on time.  It wasn’t long, however, before we discovered the interior of the old 747 Jumbo had some problems, and I can’t figure out why they weren’t dealt with before we took off:  I think they would have been easy to recognize long before the flight left Beijing:

  1. The reading lights were broken.  My section had no reading lights, the section ahead of me had reading lights whether they wanted them or not.  For the whole flight (at least during the times when the cabin lights were turned off, which was most of the time), I couldn’t read — couldn’t do anything really, but twiddle my thumbs.  Watch the movie you say?  See #2:
  2. The entertainment system is terrible.  Not only are there no in-seat TVs which I have expected as a standard on long haul flights now (call me spoiled?) but there were only two movies planned for the whole 13 hour flight.  The rest of the time, we watched the flight progress on the GPS map.  Very exciting.  Oh, and the in-flight exercise film, which I do really enjoy, was played 4 or 5 times.  Even though I enjoy it, I eventually lost interest.
  3. The flight attendants continually missed seats or rows in the service of food and drinks.  I thought this kind of service would have been standardized practice, but no, I had to jump over my neighbour and ask for my meal. Why not push the attendant button?  See #4.
  4. The attendant button was broken.
  5. The selection of drinks is abysmal.  Great Wall red and white vinegar wine, or Pepsi or Yanjing Beer (the beer is fine).  Compared to other airlines, however, my tastes were not satisfied.

So, you say, I got what I paid for?  Well no.  Air China is the only airline that operates direct flights between New York and Beijing.  And they make you pay for it.  My round trip economy-class ticket was 11,600 RMB.  The closest competitor, which has a stop over somewhere was abour 9,000.  The cheapest ticket, on China Eastern, is about 6,000 RMB including tax.  I wouldn’t expect little bottles of Baileys with fresh brewed coffee on that flight, but we will see, because I’ll take China Eastern next time, I think.

The return flight was somewhat better.  The entertainment system was half decent, but the attendants continued to miss seats and people in the distribution of meals and other services.  Oh well.

What’s it all mean, folks?  I think Chinese people need to expect more from their national airline.  You can’t accept half-baked service just because “China is a developing country.”  Vote with your feet and your pocketbooks, take some other airlines, and force Air China to put on a better face for China!

UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation, 1 year later: what does it mean for China?

The UK’s Renewble Fuels Agency recently released its first year annual report.  In the 2008-09 season, the UK provided some 50 billion litres of fuels for road transportation, and this time around, 2.6% of it was biofuel, in conforming with the UK’s biofuel policy, the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO).

Since 2008, all companies which provide more than 450,000 litres of fossil fuels for UK road transport are required to mix a certain percentage of biofuels into their fuels.  In the 2008-09 season, the first year of the programme, the target was 2.5%.  For the 2009-10 season, a target of 3.25% has been decided upon.  In fact, in the first year of the policy, already 2.6% of fuels provided were biofuels.  With a reported 47% Greenhouse Gas savings in biofuel according to the data reported by fuel suppliers, the policy has already resulted in 1.2% GHG savings in the transport sector compared to if they had provided 100% fossil fuel.

China’s biofuels right now make up about 0.81% of the fuel supply, and they are made mostly from corn ethanol (about 1 million tons/year corn ethanol).  Based on international experience with corn-based ethanol that uses coal for its process heat, GHG savings of between 0 and 20% or so can be achieved compared to gasoline.  Based on this information, we can see that right now, as a very rough estimate, China’s biofuels are optimistically delivering a GHG savings of 0.16%.

Imagine if China developed a policy like California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard, which aims to reduce GHG emissions from fuel in the road transport sector by 10% by 2020?  Or the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive which aims to reduce fuel GHG emissions by 6% through biofuel use and refinery efficiencies?  Such policy would give real direction to China’s fuel producers, allowing them to understand their roles in the fight against climate change, and giving government a perspective from which to set policies on new fuel technologies.

I wrote a brief review on the RTFO policy and RFA’s annual report, which is posted at iCET’s website.   Check out the rest there!