Good Energy

The guys at Good Energy have been really supportive and excited about the expedition, so much so that they have made a contribution which allows me to keep the blog regularly updated during the expedition, so they and everyone else can follow the journey. Good Energy supplies 100% renewable electricity sourced from wind, water, sun and sustainable biomass. CO2 from coal-fired electricity generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the world. Switch your electricity supply to Good Energy using this link and not only will you be supporting the pioneering community of independent green generators, but for every sign up they get they’ll make another donation to help get the bus around the world. It helps you cut your personal CO2 emissions, helps them grow a great business, and helps me get round the world.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Iranian State Sponsored Bus

The fundamental idea behind Biofuels is that, unlike fossil fuels, the carbon they release when they are used is carbon that was already in the atmosphere. Nothing new is being added. Fossil fuels on the other hand require digging carbon atoms out of the ground in the form of crude oil and burning them releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

All well and good in theory but there 3 major problems that biofuels have to overcome to really work on an environmental level.

Firstly growing massive amounts of oil producing crops to meet the planets fuel needs is practically impossible, and unsustainable agricultural practices in places like Malaysia and the Amazon mean that rainforests are being felled to grow palm and soya for oil. Obviously this is completely counterproductive from a CO2 point of view and environmentally worthless, but it is cheap, and does tick the boxes governments have set out for “green” fuel producers. This crappy legislation is responsible for biofuels with a higher carbon footprint than diesel, which by the way, I can’t help referring to as “the good stuff” much to my own annoyance.

Secondly growing biofuels means there is less space left to grow food crops. Biofuel crops account for a tiny portion of the land that could be used to grow food, however food prices are dependent on the balance between how much food is produced and how much food is consumed. If there is a tiny bit more food available, then food is cheap, but if there is a tiny bit less, then food becomes dramatically more expensive. Agrofuels have been credited with sending food production below this tipping point and sending crop prices sky high.

Then there is a third problem which is that producing biofuels takes energy, and requires a small but not negligible quantity of chemicals which are mainly produced as by products of the petrochemical industry.

The first two problems can be solved in a number of ways. The key thing is proper legislation that rewards sustainably grown fuels with a traceable feedstock. Oil producers say this is too complicated because of the way fuel is blended before being sold. Crap. You can buy sustainable electricity that is “blended” in the National Grid so why not fuel from a big blending tank. The Renewable Fuels Agency in the UK is working on improving the UK legislation.

You can also use waste oils, of which there aren’t a huge amount, certainly when compared with the fuel need, but the right legislation (like that in the UK) has encouraged a very efficient network of recycling of waste oil by individuals and companies. Certainly there is no excuse for waste oil going to waste. And new ideas on sources of waste are being developed and pushed as commercial projects in the quest to meet demand. Uptown Oils one of my sponsors are working with sewer grease which has to be scraped out of the drains to free up pipes. In China they are already using the same technology to recover grease from restaurants on a massive scale.

There are so called second generation crops, which are showing promising signs of providing solutions. Jatropha is a desert flower whose seed produces oil and it grows in arid conditions where food crops can’t be grown. MFC in Mali are doing research work to see how yields can be improved with crop rotation, resting the land and cross breeding varieties.

There is also a lot of work going on with vertical Algae growing. Algae produce huge amounts of oil, per hectare of land (or moreover water) compared with traditional oil crops. It can be fed with sewerage, or it can even be grown at sea. The difficult bit is extracting the oil from the Algae, but again new techniques are being pioneered as we speak.

The third problem which doesn’t get talked about much, rests on the fact that planet Earth has a fossil fuelled infrastructure. Ethanol is an important ingredient in making biodiesel. There are bioethanols available, but not widely, and the transport footprint becomes a factor for producers that want to use it, let alone the cost.

In London Uptown Oils wanted to power their processors with generators running on the biodiesel they produce from restaurant waste oil, but they would need special permits as it’s classed as “waste incineration”. Aside from the mad bureaucracy, sustainable energy can be used to produce biofuels, if it’s cheap and available.

Here in Tehran, I have drawn a blank on finding waste oil. We found a broker that sold waste oil from chips factories to soup makers, for 80cents/litre. 1000 litres would cost $800, cheaper than fuel in the UK, but a lot more than my shoe string budget could afford, and a lot more expensive than filling the tank with Iranian Good Stuff (which would cost about ten quid!). Regardless it was the wrong sort of oil, too lardy and dirty. The next best option was to use fresh oil, and an Iranian environmental NGO persuaded a local cooking oil producer to provide 900litres of fresh but unprocessed oil. It has been extracted from soya beans, but not filtered, bleached or neutralised, so isn’t fit for cooking. The best thing about it is that I can now say that the expedition is (sort of) Iranian State Sponsored because the NGO that lobbied on my behalf is part funded by the government. I shan’t mention it to US Immigration.

I’m disappointed it’s not waste, but after a week of chasing my tail, I have to make a compromise. At least it’s not diesel, and this is after all a vegetable oil producing nation. I now have enough fuel to get to India where I hope to find some Jatropha.

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