Biofuels are not a new phenomenon. The most well-known form, bio-ethanol, has been used in Brazil since 1925, powering flex-fuel cars round the congested streets of Sao Paolo. What is new is the level of political and public interest. A year ago almost no-one had heard of them. Now they make front-page headlines.
It is generally accepted that global warming has serious economic consequences. Biofuels are a clean-burning, renewable energy source, made from plant material. When burned they release only the carbon dioxide absorbed during the plant’s lifetime. They are therefore considered to be a prime tool for combating climate change.
Aside from environmental credentials, biofuels also help address the other pressing energy concern: security of supply. In the UK, native supply of oil and gas from the North Sea is diminishing, which makes us dependent on foreign imports and vulnerable to the vagaries of geo-politics, and wildly fluctuating prices. The Biomass Task Force estimates that there are more than 1 million hectares in the UK available for non-food use, which would give us a healthy indigenous and sustainable supply.
So how does all this impact British business?
Well, going green is not necessarily a cost centre. There are financial advantages to doing so, and as the bio-fuel industry is in its infancy, it is highly advantageous for early adopters. Biofuels are not subject to the climate change levy, the Renewables Obligation and Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation offer further incentive to adopt biofuels, and they will help offset the almost inevitable green taxes that are on their way.
Forward thinking companies have already recognised the business benefits of adopting a more sustainable approach: companies like Tesco and Marks & Spencer are doing it to win customer approval and because it makes sound commercial sense.
However, choosing the right form of bio-fuel is essential. In the UK we are unlikely to see a headlong rush to ethanol. While there are certainly advantages, including the ability to use the UK’s wheat surplus and support for dwindling agricultural income, there are also problems. Not least of which is the ongoing conflict between energy crops and food crops.
Far more practical and effective is to use a fuel source which we have in abundant supply: wood. Being a solid fuel, wood technically comes under the heading of biomass, rather than bio-fuel – but the principal of burning organic matter remains the same.
The most effective and economic use for wood is to supply local heat. When burned instead of fossil fuels to supply heat wood is 85 per cent efficient, compared to a 30 per cent efficiency rating when used to generate electricity. Given that heat uses nearly half of all our current energy resources, and is responsible for a third of all carbon emissions, wood can have a dramatic impact on our carbon emissions.
The advantage for businesses is that wood fuel – in the form of pellets – can have an immediate impact on carbon emissions. They are a proven technology, and already widely used on the continent, so relatively low risk. Unlike solar and wind they provide consistent power when required, not when the weather dictates. They are cheap, immediately available and easy to use.
In addition, wood pellets are not visually problematic or highly intrusive. It is hard to imagine a protest to prevent trees being planted gathering much momentum. Boilers that burn wood pellets fit inside buildings, just as traditional oil, gas or coal-fired boilers do.
Wood fuel doesn’t require years of R&D investment. It doesn’t need endless government grants to get off the ground. And it delivers a return on investment far more quickly than many other sources of renewable energy.
In fact, the beauty of using wood lies in its simplicity.
Sometimes solving the problems of the future doesn’t require radical, sci-fi solutions. It just requires rethinking the basics.