Coppiced willow farming here

This column appeared in the Waikato Times in August 2008.  I have altered some of the wording to update it for this Hot Topic post.

The change to renewable energy sources can seem daunting. Those with stakes in fossil fuels are often negative, claiming change will be too expensive, too difficult, or not yet necessary. Cries of economic doom have greeted even the modest emissions trading scheme which may or may not be carried forward by the new government.

It was encouraging therefore to read a few months ago of the plans of renewable energy company Pure Power to launch a variety of shrubby willow as a biofuel crop in New Zealand. Biofuels which use food crops or destroy rainforests have had a justifiably bad press. But not all biofuel crops are equal. Coppiced woody plants like the willow Pure Power plans to use have a very good ratio of energy output to the energy put into converting them; they can be grown on poorer soils not used for food production; they require little fertiliser or irrigation; using new technologies they will produce not only biofuel but also a range of products for making paints, resins, adhesives and bioplastics.  Pure Power will have nursery stock ready for planting this year and hopes for a rapid expansion of planting in subsequent years.

Two years ago I read with a sense of excitement a report from the Energy Panel of the Royal Society of New Zealand.  Here was detailed evidence from a selection of our best energy experts from academia and business that New Zealand could move within a relatively short space of time to a low or zero-carbon basis for energy and transportation. Biofuels for transport were among the solutions proposed. It has been disappointing since then to see very little public evidence of response to the report from government circles.

Pure Power’s plans for developing a willow farming industry are very much in line with what the Energy Panel was envisaging.  Dr. Jim Watson, the company’s Energy Evangelist, is a past president of the Royal Society of NZ and currently chair of their National Science Panel. He also chaired the Energy Panel. He has a vision of biofuel energy as a primary industry for New Zealand large enough to transform the economy. However, when I spoke with him he expressed concern at the lack of government support for its development.  Grants to companies engaged in biofuel research and possible production have begun in a small way, with a recent grant of $12 million to LanzaTech, a company working on biofuel from industrial flue gas waste, but Watson saw much more needed and lamented the small size of the fund from which such grants will be made. Strategic funding from government could be of key assistance in such areas as helping educate landowners about the economics of energy crops, providing funding for pilot plants for which investors can be difficult to find, and establishing technology hubs. A mandated preference for New Zealand biofuel products would help the infant industry to develop.

Watson considered that while the previous government talked of New Zealand leadership in tackling climate change there was not sufficient action to support it. Large sums of money are spent purchasing oil from overseas but little in developing a home renewable energy industry. He spoke of the need to prioritise value for government spending downstream from immediate and more politically popular spending, and of developing cross-ministry agendas which carry a vision for the whole of society.

The previous government claimed that it did hold hopes for a domestic biofuel industry. One hopes the present government will say the same, though their early actions in removing the compulsory requirement for a percentage of biofuel in transport fuels are hardly indicative of a very serious approach to the question. But holding hopes is some distance from the kind of active leadership Jim Watson envisages. No doubt there is room for argument about how government should best fulfil its role, but this is hardly a time for caution and delay. Global greenhouse gas emissions are continuing to rise alarmingly. Climate change considerations apart, oil will in any case run out sooner or later. The matter is too important to be left entirely to market uncertainties. Government direction and regulation should be provided as they are needed.

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