From Smoke to Mirrors

Kevin Cudby doesn’t rush to easy conclusions in his new book From Smoke to Mirrors: How New Zealand can replace fossil liquid fuels with locally-made renewable energy by 2040. He is clear that fossil fuels must be eliminated but seeks to be realistic about how that can be done. The focus on New Zealand is not exclusive; however, he considers that New Zealand can provide an example which many others will want to learn from and follow. There’s also an economic imperative that we be able to show those who holiday here or buy our products that they are not thereby exacerbating climate change. Cudby envisages a society continuing to have the transport opportunities we currently enjoy and depend on, but fuelled differently. He fully accepts the warnings of climate science, taking James Hansen as a guide in that respect.

The book painstakingly leads the reader through a wide variety of technologies relevant to its search.  Battery vehicles receive close and sympathetic attention but are seen as unlikely to be sufficiently developed to be widely used in NZ road transport before 2040, though they may well make sense for some transport businesses. In discussing hydraulic hybrid (rare as yet) and plug-in battery hybrid vehicles he notes that their low fuel consumption will cancel out rising fuel prices. Hydraulic hybrids should have proved by 2020 whether they can deliver what the promoters promise; he certainly sees them becoming common on machines such a ditch diggers. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles show much promise, and he sees a future for them in New Zealand, though not in significant numbers before 2040.  The discussion of these differently powered vehicles is illuminating in its detail, with very useful explanations of how they work and what problems have yet to be overcome in each case.

Liquid fuels will continue to play a major part in NZ transport by 2040, in the author’s view. They will also remain essential in non-road equipment and vehicles, which Cudby frequently reminds the reader are substantial users of fuel. It will not be enough to eliminate fossil fuels from road transport. Air and sea travel must also be fuelled from non-fossil sources. At this point in his book the Biomass Gasification and Fischer-Tropsch (BGFT) process enters the scene. It yields synthetic crude oil that can be converted into diesel, kerosene, fuel oil, and petrol. BGFT fuels directly replace conventional liquid fuels. They work best with dry biomass. They are expected to be commercialised by 2015, and although they will be more expensive than conventional fossil fuels their use should not affect transport costs because improved vehicle efficiency will offset the higher cost. Cudby estimates that to provide sufficient biomass to satisfy its entire liquid fuel requirements with BGFT synthetic fuels New Zealand would need purpose-grown energy forests covering between nine percent (low scenario) and thirteen percent (high scenario) of its total land area. Excluding from consideration native forests and conservation areas, as well as arable or high quality pastoral land, he finds that between 29 percent (low scenario) and 40 percent (high scenario) of steep low quality land would suffice for the energy forests. I was reminded of the report in 2006 of the Energy Panel of the Royal Society of New Zealand 2020: Energy Opportunities which envisaged a rapid transition to carbon-neutral transport fuel and produced an analysis which demonstrated that New Zealand can easily grow the required biomass without impinging on productive soils.

The book also considers the Hydrothermal Liquefaction (HTL) process, a likely useful complement to BGFT because it copes well with wet biomass and is a promising candidate for converting microalgae into liquid fuels as he notes NZ company Solray Energy is demonstrating. Algae biofuel receives attention but Cudby sees it as not yet ready for commercial-scale stand-alone fuel production. Biodiesel, which he differentiates from synthetic diesel such as BGFT or HTL, is not an option for running the NZ transport system but could fulfil a very useful niche role as a lubricity additive to synthetic diesel. Ethanol will have a role, but for the present its high cost and inferior environmental performance compared with synthetic hydrocarbons tells against it.

This general outline does little justice to the detailed coverage Cudby gives to all these and many related topics as he outlines the options for transport and non-road liquid fuel use. The technically inclined reader will be well engaged. As the author proceeds to his assessment of the options he acknowledges that the world’s transport systems will eventually depend on solar fuels, hydrogen, batteries, or perhaps algal biofuels. However for now none of them are competitive with conventional vehicles fuelled by synthetic biofuels. While we wait to see which technologies will ultimately succeed we should get on with the decarbonising of our supply of liquid fuels. He proposes opening renewable energy facilities at 18-month intervals beginning in 2018. The first six factories would make hydrocarbon liquid fuels. Thereafter it would depend on how world technologies are developing. The products of the first factories would certainly be needed during a 20-year investment life of the factories.  Energy forests have a twenty-five year rotation and he looks to an acceleration of the process in the first stages by using some existing forests for energy, by planting trees close together and harvesting them sooner, and by using unwanted pine trees, gorse and other scrubby weeds.

There are two distinct stages to the transition. The first is replacing the essential hydrocarbon fuels, that is, non-road petrol and diesel, aviation kerosene, and fuel oil. The second is carbon-neutralising road transport, which may involve the vehicles as well as the fuels and perhaps include a mix of different technologies.

It can be done by 2040 but in Cudby’s view it won’t happen as a result of carbon pricing schemes, whether by emissions trading or a direct tax. Energy companies will continue to pursue the enormous potential for liquid fuels made from natural gas, tar sands, heavy oil, oil shale, coal, and methane clathrates. We must therefore progressively ban imported fossil fuel as we develop our biomass synthetic fuel, and while we are about it ban indigenous fossil fuels as well.

“…the only foolproof way to eliminate fossil fuels is to outlaw them”. This is an eminently sensible thing to say, especially when the writer has set out in considerable and thoughtful detail how they can be replaced. But as I read this section of the book I tried to imagine our Minister of Energy engaging with it and failed. In fact he is doing precisely what Cudby says the energy companies will continue to do, pursuing fossil oil to its last drop, holding out a promising future for coal and expressing hope that methane clathrates can be tapped.

Full marks to Cudby and others like him for a thorough and patient exploration of the means by which we can end our reliance on fossil fuels. His vision of New Zealand showing the way, able to demonstrate renewable fuel in almost every type of vehicle even invented, is not bombast but technically grounded.  “What are we waiting for?” are his final words. To which I fear the answer is political leadership intelligent enough to understand the danger of climate change and resolute enough to take a lead in tackling it. And voters ready for such leadership. Technologically, if Cudby is right, we are ready, but politically is another matter.

54 thoughts on “From Smoke to Mirrors”

  1. While I don’t agree on any import ban it is good to see a viewpoint expressed on tackling the challenges we face without resort to visions of imminent apocolypse and a desire to overthrow the current socio-political paradigm.

    1. Quite possibly you did. However I think this involves trees as opposed to other crops used in bio-fuels such as Maize and Supar Cane. As such I don’t think this is such a bad thing.

      There are large parts of the country where current farming practices are marginal and environmentally damaging. Transforming them to growing trees to be used in future bio fuel production won’t necessarily mean a large drop in production of other agricultural products.

      I quite like this solution myself as one thing N.Z. has is an abundance of land, (for our population size), and water.

  2. Yes, here’s the quote:

    “Based on the results of these [various] surveys, I estimate New Zealand could produce enough biomass to satisfy its entire liquid fuel requirements with BGFT synthetic fuels, from purpose-grown energy forests covering between nine percent (low scenario) and thirteen percent (high scenario) of its total land area.”

    1. Sounds quite high to me. I wonder what percentage of land that is currently unsuitable for agriculture could be turned over to fuel production.

      Otherwise, we are looking at replacing agricultural land for fuel production, which presumably will increase food costs.

      1. John D, Cudby has estimated that, if you look at what I have written in the review. The researchers on whose reports he depends excluded arable or high quality pastoral land from their considerations and also excluded native forests and conservation areas when they arrived at a total of 8.7 million hectares of medium to low quality grazing land. Cudby comments that we have known for decades that this land is very useful for growing pine trees. He estimates energy forests grown exclusively for BGFT fuels would occupy between 1.5 million hectares and 3.5 million hectares.

        Incidentally, the Royal Society Energy Panel report which I referred to in the review has maps of the areas they considered suitable for planting in energy forest. You can find them on page 13 of the appendices. They too come up with over 8 million hectares, and are specific about the parameters:
        “The land sought and identified was less than 1000m in elevation, less than 15 degrees of slope to allow for mechanized harvesting and excluded land known to be committed to dairy and horticultural use, DOC land and native forests.”

        1. Sounds interesting.
          I wonder what the effects on biodiversity and habitat would be, affected by such a large area of pine.

          I would imagine that this would also increase the wilding pine problem.

          I am not trying to be unduly negative here. The ideas sound worth evaluating, but there are downsides to all proposals

          1. Cudby addresses that question too, referring to the side-effect of steepland energy forests in providing new homes for native plants and animals.In maturing pine forests native undergrowth tends to colonise the forest and sometimes becomes as thick and impenetrable as that in native forests. Native birds and insects also find homes in pine forests. He feels quite positive on that score. I don’t recall his addressing the wilding pine problem as such, but he does write of unwanted pine trees as a having a role in increasing the biomass available for energy production in the early stages of the transition to biofuels.

            1. It will be interesting to see how this pans out. If NZ has the ability to produce wood economically for the purpose of fuel generation – and I am sure we can and am all for it – the we would likely see a situation where the land owners will sell their energy wood to the highest bidder. IOW the price of energy wood will be dictated by the international price of energy and liquid fuels.
              While its great that we will be able (hopefully) to grow our own liquid fuels, we will be paying international prices for it unless we grow this on state land and with state protection and do not export.

              Lifeboats in a severely energy constrained future will be either cramped full or the occupants tipped out by first class passengers….. (Titanic)…. 😉

            2. SHOCK HORROR!!!

              Private businesses getting market value for goods and services.

              Whatever will happen next – People free to chose what goods and services they can buy?

            3. I am just pointing out Gosman that in a severely energy constrained future even nations who think they sit pretty because they can produce bio fuel locally still will need to pay the perhaps horrendous prices of the international market.
              Unless of cause, NZ does what many of the Arab oil producing nations do today (you are probably well aware) and subsidize their fuel locally (check what a L of gas costs in Saudi Arabia or Dubai).
              So my point is that even though we might be able to produce enough to satisfy our needs and could do so cheaply perhaps, this will not mean that you can afford to drive your car as you will still compete with the gas strapped customers elsewhere….!

  3. Native birds and insects also find homes in pine forests. He feels quite positive on that score.

    Bryan, that sounds very naive of him. Ever seen the difference in wildlife between native forest and pine forest?. It doesn’t compare I can assure you. For one thing where is all the nourishment for native bird populations…….. pine cones?. And what happens to the wildlife when the plantations are leveled?. Does he address these issues?.

    Then there’s the matter of soil structure and health. If you’ve seen areas which have been logged, it’s hard not to imagine that the ground is being heavily depleted of essential nutrients. I do wonder how many times plantations can be grown in the same area before the soils essentially become knackered. And yes, I’ve pondered that for a long time about the current practice of growing pine for timber. Time will tell on that score no doubt.

    Unless they can get algal based fuels up and running, trading fossil fuels for biofuels is very short sighted. It’s just trading one problem, albeit a rather large one, for another further down the road. Is there something about the word “sustainable” that people find confusing?.

    1. Yes DW, having lived in the central North Island close to the large pine plantations, I agree they do not compare with native forest as a habitat for wild-life and the degradation after felling is dismal to see.
      On the other hand, extending the forestry estate will earn NZ carbon credits, will it not?

      1. Carol, won’t returning much of our degraded land back to native forest also earn us credits?.

        Personally I’m less worried about carbon credits (something that will be subject to much manipulation IMO) and more concerned with seeing us go down the path of true sustainability. That involves consideration of the local environment as well as the global one.

        1. I agree with you, Dappledwater.
          How long does it take to establish, or even plant, native forest after a pine plantation has been cleared? What kind of soil rehabilitation will need to be carried out? I think this is something that we should be starting on sooner rather than later.

          I know a number of farmers who have been restoring native forest in ‘corners’ of their farms with success, showing that this is possible on a small scale, so how do we upscale that? Are there native plant nurseries already functioning with the capability to provide for coverage of hundreds/thousands of hectares?

          1. Carol, native forest is a strong methane sink whereas pine forest is not. Given that methane is our main problem in NZ, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, isn’t that another reason to be actively encouraging such reforestation?.

            And yes, I agree with you there are growing pockets of farmers that are returning to more sustainable practices, and are making huge efforts to reforest areas of their farms. Friends of mine have been involved in a large project to re-vegetate the wet lands and waterway margins on their property.

            Heck, they even have environmental farm awards today!. All good stuff, but it definitely needs to be scaled up, and sooner rather than later.

      2. Forestry does not lock up carbon permanently because every twenty years we cut them down and use the timber which ultimately releases the carbon.
        We may need the timber but they are not ‘green’.
        They are also a disaster for wild life as there is no natural food in them.

    2. Dappledwater, I don’t think Cudby is suggesting that pine forests can be compared with native forests as habitat. I imagine that the comparison would better be made with the land remaining as marginal pastoral. He does address the question of the soils, quoting researchers that radiata pine forests now into their third successive cycle of harvesting and planting find recent plantings doing better than the original forests. He also says that pine forests do not require nitrogen fertiliser, regular cultivation or irrigation. Soil disturbance occurs only once in every twenty-five years and can be further reduced by eliminating maintenance operations such as pruning and thinning. Erosion, to which steep grazing land is susceptible, is largely eliminated.

      Cudby doesn’t propose forestry biofuel solutions as necessarily permanent, as I read him. He remains open to other developments including algae. But he thinks that they can offer a way out from fossil fuels comparatively quickly and serve as at least a helpful stop-gap while we see what other technologies develop. It is essential to stop burning fossil fuels as soon as we possibly can. I’m no expert on the way that Cudby and others offer to achieve that, and I’m explaining his position rather than espousing it, but it certainly sounds miles better than business as usual, and it doesn’t ignore the matters you raise.

      1. He does address the question of the soils, quoting researchers that radiata pine forests now into their third successive cycle of harvesting and planting find recent plantings doing better than the original forests.

        Isn’t that treading dangerously close to denier logic?. What about the soil?. Ecological systems don’t operate in a linear manner.

  4. That’s nice that you wonder how many times plantations can be grown in the same area before the soils essentially become knackered. Perhaps you might investigate what the productivity is like in Kaiangaroa where large scale Pine plantations have been in existence for a number of decades now.

    BTW have you had a chance to think about the question I posed you about OTC Derivatives?

  5. Perhaps you might investigate what the productivity is like in Kaiangaroa where large scale Pine plantations have been in existence for a number of decades now.

    Decades?. Dude, seriously try educating yourself, your lack of knowledge is embarrassing.How long do you think it takes for a pine forest plantation to mature?. All that woody biomass that is logged from the forest, what exactly do you think it contains?. And no, wood is not a suitable answer. You don’t really understand ecology at all do you?.

    As for OTC, what in the “Ascent of Money” documentary did you not understand?. There’s a whole episode devoted to the topic.

    1. Ummmm…. my uncle worked as an area manager in Kaiangaroa. I spent plenty of time there when I was growing up. The life cycle of a typical Pinus Radiata in Kaiangaroa is approximately 12 years before harvesting. Plenty of time for multiple crops to be produced over it’s time in operation.

      1. Correction, just checked with him. It is around 20-25 years . That is still plenty of time for at least three crops to have been produced on the same land. An y fall off in production would be starting to be apparent now. Do you have any evidence for this?

        1. Any fall off in production would be starting to be apparent now.

          There you go again. Dude, have you actually read anything about ecology?. Why do you expect some fall off in pine forest yield after two successive plantations have been harvested?. Did your uncle tell you that?.

          1. I’d expect to see a fall off in productivity from the land after three successive harvests. Do you have evidence this is the case.

            Trees are basically carbon from the air and soil coupled with water and nutrients. Carbon and water are not the problem, especially with increased CO2 levels. The proble m is nutrients but this has been sorted out with the use of fertilisers. It is no different to growing any other crop.

            1. I’d expect to see a fall off in productivity from the land after three successive harvests.

              So just guesswork, based on no understanding at all of soil biology.

              The proble m is nutrients but this has been sorted out with the use of fertilisers.

              Errr, no. Now you’re veering slightly off topic. In terms of the application of nitrates and phosphates to New Zealand pastures, a new problem has been created – eutrophication. Never hear about the problems with the Rotorua lakes?, coastal waters? and waterways?.

              Why do you think those elements (nitrogen & phosphorous) have to be added to the soil is the first place?. I’ll give you a really big hint – it’s got something to do with my original comment about pine forests depleting soil nutrients.

        2. In a perfect world we would be returning all waste from the energy extraction process back to the forest so we would effectively be harvesting carbon and a bit of water leaving the N, P and K etc to be recycled.
          Also, are trees the best ROI for solar energy extraction? Euphorbia sap can be fed into existing oil refineries to produce liquid fuels. Hemp is several orders of magnitude better than trees and algae several more. Sure there are technical problems with those but we had had a whole range of them when we first discovered fossil fuels. Pity we didn’t bypass the dino-juice and go directly to renewable liquid fuels 200 years ago, we wouldn’t have quite the mess we face now.
          The fish-hook in renewable energy from biomass is that we are running out of food and we may not be able to afford to waste dwindling land resources on fueling SUVs. We also have to consider the risks of vast monocultures with the wacky weather patterns we’re experiencing. I don’t imagine the pine forests of Nth America will be much use for fuel since the pine beetle ripped through them.

            1. I suppose there’d have to be some ‘real’ forests on large areas set aside. But considering how much more valuable/important crops could be in an unreliable world climate, surely using areas beside railway lines and other waste(d) land unsuitable for general agriculture might be an option.

      1. As I thought you have no real idea about OTC Derivatives and just regurgitate leftist propaganda without fully understanding it.

        Are you trying to be ironic?. I doubt I know better than an economics professor. Are claiming some superior knowledge over people who actually study these things for a living?.

        And to compound your litany of gaffes, you claimed 12 years for Pine Forest harvesting. I don’t know who you think you’re convincing, apart from yourself.

        1. Are you going to actually tell us what OTC derivatives are or are you simply going to rely on linking to something that it looks like you don’t understand?

          1. Are you going to actually tell us what OTC derivatives are

            What exactly is it you don’t understand?. And why do you keep banging on about it?. Not every thread has to eventually end up focusing on your misconceptions of economics.

    1. It certainly figures in his assessments of the various options he discusses. It’s one of the reasons he’s cautious about algae production facilities at this stage, for instance.

  6. The big killer in CO2 emissions is coal. We only use it because its cheap and we could do without it. Huntley is near the end of its life span and we should shut it. Coal production only has a limited life span and we should budget to do without our export earnings from it.
    Where is the government on this? They must realise what’s going on in the world.

  7. An aspect that rarely gets a mention is the reduction in demand for fossil fuels. I can get myself across ChCh on the energy input of half a weetbix, yet I regularly use several tonnes of VW Golf slurping comparatively vast quantities of petrol. Multiply that by the millions of trips we make each day in NZ that could be achieved with wind-sheilded electrically assisted bicycles for solo and tandem commuters and 4-wheeled shells with 250cc (max) motors for mothers HAVING to deliver kids to school etc. Of course we all blanch at the suggestion because they would be lethal in the walls of SUVs and pantechnicons that crowd our streets…. but hey guys, we just have to reduce or remove the latter. Plus have a big rethink about the design of our cities and the absolute necessity to commute further than we can walk to work, learn and shop.

    1. Correct. I drive my electric Toyota Starlet around for all local needs. It runs 64% of renewable electricity according to NZ electric mix at this time. I believe we could do away with 50% of our fuel needs by intelligent use of the infrastructure we have (ride sharing etc.) and an extension of electric local transport options in cities.

    2. I can get myself across ChCh on the energy input of half a weetbix

      Snap!. Well, not quite. 4 sandwiches(home-made bread and home grown salad veges – no fertilizers or insecticides) and a bottle of water got me 18.5 kms out on the ocean in my kayak last week. Too much swell for a dive unfortunately, but caught dinner (kahawai) on a lure, paddling back in.

    1. Tuktuks have a lot going for them. Unfortunately we insist on driving cars capable of over 160kph even though most of the time we’re in stop-go gridlock. On the open road, where most drivers seem to regard 100kph as the minimum (even in heavy rain at night) we’re perpetually in a situation where a split-second’s distraction can put you off the road or into the path of on-coming traffic. The road casualties would be a lot lower if we all drove tuktuks or the like even though they clearly lack the airbags, crumple zones etc we need to protect us from excessive speed.

      What really gets up my nose is the drivers who pull to the left in passing lanes then speed up so cars attempting to overtake either have to wildly exceed the speed limit or hope for a 10km passing lane.
      And cops who park their speed cameras at the end of passing lanes in anticipation of being able to meet their quota before lunchtime.

  8. I have long felt that a family should have two cars. A petrol/diesel one for grunty long distance work and a smaller electric one for going to the dairy or going to work. The electric one could be not much more than a golf cart.
    Gordon Murray Designs has a very interesting three seater design which would be fine for a short journey but we need concessions from the government to encourage the switch..

    1. Thats my solution to the EV, cost me $9000 to convert and save a lot more $$$ in fuel than the after tax interest in $9000 in the bank:
      We have a diesel for the long hauls or family trips.
      Buses will be great once the network is better with a lot more connections during a day.

    2. Nice conversion indeed, Thomas – have forwarded the link to one of my mates who’s always proposing to electrify one of his old bangers! (The latest project is constructing his own biodiesel plant to run his Renault diesel.)

      As a family with four drivers we do run two cars (it was a scary moment becoming a 2 car household) – a 2 litre Forester for long-hauls and outback, and a Charade for around town. IIRC the Charade is actually lighter on fuel than, say, a Prius anyway, and getting the maximum number of years out of a (well-maintained) vehicle strikes me as sensible in carbon-budget terms. However, I accept that future generations may well see me as only marginally less insane than most of my contemporaries!

      Decent little diesel runabouts are not easy to come by in Australia, unfortunately, and nippy little affordable EVs seem a way off yet…

      And, as a resident of Adelaide I must sadly confess – I haven’t ridden the bus, yet.

      1. Quoting Bill: “…and nippy little affordable EVs seem a way off yet…”
        one of those long shot coincidences turned up today, from the Royal Society. EVs may be the only affordable option sooner than anticipated.
        Posted: Sat, 16 Oct 2010 under Science in the News
        Wellington, Oct 16 NZPA
        The cycles of oil supply crunches leading to price spikes and recessions, followed by recoveries leading to further shortages outlined this week by a parliamentary researcher are inevitable, says a national sustainability think tank.
        Auckland academic, Dr Wayne Cartwright, said Sustainable Aotearoa New Zealand (SANZ) agreed the risks outlined in The Next Oil Shock, a research paper by Parliamentary Library economics and industry research analyst Clint Smith “is sound and provides very valuable future insight”.
        But he warned that though known oil reserves will last another 25 to 32 years, the oil “supply crunch” starting as early as 2012 was not only likely as low-cost reserves were exhausted, but “inevitable”
        “And … the outcomes are likely to be more extreme than suggested in the paper,” said Dr Cartwright.
        “It is likely that the cost of oil-based fuels will increase between 300 percent and 500 percent over the next seven years,” he said.
        Read on at
        Stop Press: I had read the article from a clipping but when I checked the link before posting here, found that the RSNZ site is having problems and won’t proceed beyond the 1st page. It should be corrected soon but if anyone wants an emailed copy of the full article just ask.

        Whatever, it looks like even our Glorious Leaders up at Fort Fumble are getting the message, assuming of course they are paying any attention. Why is that little pink birdie up in the tree going “oink, oink”?

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