Friday, 19 January 2007

Canary Grass - to Grow or Not to Grow

ruokohelpi aka reed canary grass

A news piece today in Finnish daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (behind paywall) states that cultivation of reed canary grass weed ('ruokohelpi' in Finnish) should be increased six-fold in Finland for the purpose of bio-fuel production.

While we at TES are all for increase of liquid fuel alternatives to fossil oil, we are not sure that canary grass is the right option.

Without going to the benefits of canary grass, it's problems are hard to circumvent:

  1. It has a fairly low net energy balance (EROEI). This means that it makes no physical sense to cultivate it for energy production using current means. This is regardless of whether it is being burned via gasification measures or being converted to bio-diesel via FT-BTL (or both).

  2. It doesn't scale too well in terms of it's land use. If we were to cover even 20% of Finnish transport oil use with bio-fuel from canary grass, we'd have to reserve one quarter of our cultivated land for canary grass production. It begs the question: where would we grow our food? No wonder the food industry is not happy about the proposed six fold increase, fearing for increase in price of it's basic grain ingredients.

Then again, all of the above is of no importance to Finland or farmers here as long as EU keeps pouring double subsidies to the cultivation of bio-fuel plants, reed canary grass being one of them.

So, unless we wise up, we'll end up making bio-fuels that consume more energy to make than they release when burned AND when oil starts being scarce, our bio-fuel production will crash too.

This story should work as a small reminder to those believing that price on the market is everything and the only real indicator of an energy sources future. If externalities (such as subsidies) are not calculated into the price of a product, price tells us very little about the long term potential of that particular fuel.

Whither Cellulosic Ethanol
Cellulosic Ethanlo vs. Biomass gasification
Support for Global Energy Flow modelling and a Net Energy database