Study proves New Zealand could forge a green transport fuels future

8 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineFebruary 28, 2018

New Zealand could build a renewable low-carbon transport fuels industry – but only if the nation decides to act.

A report by Crown Research Institute Scion outlines how the country could grow and process feedstock crops into green fuels particularly aimed at the heavy transport, shipping and aviation industries.

Scion undertook extensive stakeholder discussions, and modified a computer model (Bioenergy Value Chain Model, developed by the Energy Technologies Institute, UK) to create scenarios of what crops and processing facilities would be needed to produce different quantities of transport fuel sustainability.

This modelling of fossil fuel replacement with biofuel equivalents ranged from 5% to 50% substitution.

With combustion of liquid fossil fuels in 2015 representing about 23% of New Zealand‘s domestic greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels could have a major impact on overall lowering of carbon emissions.

The modelling tool is available for more quantitative scenarios, based on what Scion hopes is an informed deliberation, planned strategy and long-term implementation to manufacture green fuels within New Zealand.

The study findings, presented in the New Zealand Biofuels Roadmap Summary Report, shows drop-in fuels from non-food feedstocks, particularly forestry grown on non-arable land, is the most attractive option.

This form of biofuel production would also provide strong regional development and employment growth in regions such as Northland, East Coast and the central North Island.

“However, both our modelling and stakeholder discussions are explicitly clear that market forces alone will not be sufficient to kick start large-scale biofuel production,” says Paul Bennett, Scion science leader clean technologies.

“If New Zealand can agree on the future role and scale biofuels should play in decarbonising New Zealand transport, then we can develop a nationally coordinated implementation plan, aligned with stakeholders. Part of that internal agreement needs to be getting the public on-board as key beneficiaries of a sustainable liquid transport fuels approach.”

Bennett says there are five main benefits from New Zealand shifting to a biofuels future: reduce our greenhouse gas emissions; meet New Zealand‘s international commitments to the Paris Agreement and our Net Zero target by 2050; rejuvenate regional economic and employment growth; gain energy independence from oil imports, and maintain access to international markets for our goods and services.

By growing longer-term crops, such as energy forests, Scion‘s modelling shows that by New Zealand could build a biofuelled future.

The quantitative scenario modelling clearly shows tens of thousands of hectares of purpose-grown feedstock crops and billions of dollars of capital investment in processing plant construction and production would be needed to make an ideal a reality.

“Naturally, it wouldn‘t be easy, nor quick to develop a green, renewable liquid transport fuels industry,” says Bennett.

“But New Zealand has the capability and resources to do it sustainably given a public consensus, political will and biofuel stakeholder investment. Our modelling tool will be invaluable in scenario planning around what we want to be a national debate. We can forge a biofuelled future and ensure multiple benefits for our children, our country and the world.”

Scion is the lead CRI for research into bioenergy production for New Zealand, and CEO Dr Julian Elder says the study was undertaken to investigate what liquid biofuel options are best suited to New Zealand.

“We believe this study is a great starting point for an open and fact-based discussion around the New Zealand biofuels opportunities. We recognise that the information reported here is not an exhaustive study of all elements of a new biofuels industry, but hope this study will inform and catalyse such a debate.”

The Biofuels Roadmap is a considered and thorough piece of work that shows why and how New Zealand can transition to a low-carbon transport fuel future says Z Energy chief executive Mike Bennetts.

“All the pieces required for our country to transition aren‘t crystal clear, but this study shows we have enough of a biofuels four-lane highway for us to start driving down,” he says.

“We may have to swap lanes somewhere, but to get to that level of precision now is impractical. We should use this roadmap as a call to action. How many more reports do we need to bring a closed-loop domestic biofuel production system into being that doesn‘t adversely affect food supply chains?”

Professor Ralph Sims, director, Centre for Energy Research, Massey University, says biofuels, liquid and gaseous, will have a role to play in moving towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by around mid-century both in New Zealand and globally.

“The greenhouse gas emissions from using biofuels can be considerably lower than fossil fuels on a life cycle basis. The carbon dioxide emitted from the combustion of biofuels in a vehicle is recycled through the succeeding crop so can be assumed to be neutral to the atmosphere. However, some emissions may eventuate from any diesel or gas-fired electricity used during production, harvesting, transport, and processing. In the longer term, this could all be undertaken using near 100% low-carbon renewable energy.

“Growing trees for energy could fit with the one billion trees target, though the impacts on soil carbon, including growing short-rotation energy forests, would vary with soil type, crop and location but would need to be taken into account. There may also be competition for the use of this woody biomass that could also be combusted to provide process heat and thereby displace coal (for example in some Fonterra plants).”

Sims says with New Zealand moving towards 100% renewable electricity generation, the early trend towards electric vehicles will grow, but a future without demand for some liquid fuels with their high energy density is hard to conceive so biofuels could be the solution.

“Biofuels have good potential and New Zealand could benefit from their local production. Biodiesel from tallow (animal fats) and ethanol from pine forests have been investigated in New Zealand for more than 40 years, but with limited commercial success to date. Developing biofuels is not easy. But with the current drivers of energy security, reducing greenhouse gases, forest carbon sinks, and regional development, their promise is worth pursuing.”

The two-year study was supported by Scion‘s Strategic Science Investment Fund from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.