By Kathryn Lougheed
BP biofuel plant Vivergo fuels opens this year amid concerns over whether their use of one million tonnes of wheat will impact on the UK food market. A BP film, Cows and Cars, put across the company’s arguments that the plant's negative carbon footprint will be the equivalent of taking 180,000 cars off the road and how they will use surplus wheat not destined for the human food industry.
English rugby player and Strictly Come Dancing star Austin Healey's enthusiastic and light-hearted fronting of the Cows and Cars film was in direct contrast to the serious subject being discussed. Biofuels - fuels generated from plants rather than fossil fuels - is an issue which triggers some passionate arguments both for and against. The BP film sought to convince the audience how, when done properly, biofuels can provide a renewable source of energy that doesn't ruin the environment.
The Vivergo plant is, simply put, a huge brewery and distillery that, with the help of microbes similar to those used to brew beer, converts the starch in locally-sourced wheat into pure alcohol. Once it goes live this year, it will generate one third of the bioethanol required by the UK motor industry required to meet government targets. The leftovers from the distillation process will be converted into high-protein animal feed that will provide one fifth of that required by UK farmers, making the most out of the wheat that previously would have been used to make animal feed alone.
The key arguments against Vivergo appear to be aimed at the use of wheat as a biofuel rather than specifically targeting the BP plant. "The problem with producing ethanol from wheat is that it is very inefficient in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions," says University of Aberdeen scientist Professor Pete Smith. The fertilisers required to grow the wheat and the fossil fuels still required to make these fertilisers release huge amounts of greenhouse gases. In addition, the inefficient nature of wheat as a biofuel means that the amount of land required to grow enough to meet growing future needs could indirectly displace food production.
The wheat problem was something that BP strategist Olly Mace began to address when he explained how BP are currently working on second generation biofuels which will allow far more fuel to be generated from crops grown on a smaller land area. In the future, permanent biofuel crops that don't require fertiliser and don't compete with food crops could provide part of the answer to world energy needs, but these are some way off.
Biofuels as a whole are still in their infancy and mistakes have been made. Deforestation and land eviction to make way for biofuel crops is a concern for a number countries, as well as competition with food crops in poor countries unequipped to deal with such problems. But Olly Mace believes that lessons have been learnt and the Vivergo plant is an example of biofuels done well. At least until something better comes along.