September - December 2007
Power and poisons

In search of green alternatives

IT USED to be that the only reasons LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) gas tanks would be on the streets were because they were either being delivered to homes or were attached to stoves on the carts of vendors of banana cue and kwek-kwek (deep-fried batter-coated quail eggs). Now, however, LPG is powering thousands of taxis plying Metro Manila streets — and no one is the wiser, save for pleased taxi drivers and operators who say their fuel expenses have gone down by at least half.

With gasoline, “going up and down the road from Muñoz, when I get to Edsa, the fuel gauge starts flickering,” says one taxi driver. But since he switched to LPG, he says, the gauge has been less prone to spasms.

There’s another plus to the increased use of LPG by taxis, though: it’s supposed to be a more environmentally friendly fuel than gasoline. The Department of Energy (DOE) says that compared to regular gasoline, auto-LPG has around 20 percent less ozone forming potential, at least 15 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions, and up to 80 percent less toxic emissions.

That’s partly why the government included auto-LPG in its alternative-fuels program, which it says it is undertaking not only to address environmental concerns, but also to attain energy self-sufficiency and security and contribute to the urbanization of rural areas. “Energy security means we have to enhance our uses of indigenous and other non-conventional or alternative uses of fuels,” says Mario Marasigan, director of DOE’s energy utilization and management bureau.

The primary aim, of course, is to reduce the country’s dependence on imported oil. And because the transport sector has guzzled in increasing amounts of oil for the last decade — even as total local consumption has gone down by two percent from 2000 to 2006 — it is supposed to be the initial beneficiary of the government program.

Admittedly, rising oil prices rather than environmental worries are the main driving force in the mad dash for alternative fuels worldwide. The Philippine government’s motivation is no different, but green campaigners nevertheless see its effort as a step forward. Vehicle emissions, after all, account for up to 80 percent of air pollution in the Philippines. Around 2,000 people die each year in the country’s major cities, such as Metro Manila, Davao, and Cebu, due to the effects of air pollution, says a 2002 World Bank study. More than 9,000 Filipinos suffer from chronic bronchitis annually because of pollution.

Taxis line up for LPG. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

The transport sector is also one of the main sources of greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. A recent United Nations (UN) report says that transportation, including emissions from the production of transport fuels, is responsible for about one-fourth of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, and that this share is only getting bigger and bigger as time passes.

Yet some environmental groups such as Greenpeace cannot help but point out that biofuels used in transport represent a less direct solution to help reduce emission of greenhouse gases. “Biomass needs to be transformed to a liquid or gas form, which requires additional energy,” notes Greenpeace. The UN report in fact says that using biomass for combined heat and power rather than for transport fuel is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade.

THE ENERGY department doesn’t deny this, but it’s obvious that its more pressing concern at the moment is saving pesos for the government rather than saving the planet. Indeed, the government hasn’t given up on its oil and gas explorations just yet, even as it tests the viability of auto-LPG for taxis and biofuels like bioethanol and biodiesel for other vehicles. Natural gas is also being tapped for public buses. Still, according to Marasigan, the government is also looking into solar, hydropower, wind, and geothermal resources.

Which is just as well, since the alternative-fuels program is not exactly going at race-car speed (although it is still progressing at a pace faster than a Senate hearing). One major challenge in developing biofuels has been enlisting the support of private investors, says Marasigan. He says that while the new biofuels law offers investors incentives such as zero specific tax, exemption from the value-added tax, and assistance from government financial institutions, “it doesn’t mean that this will be enough for them to invest in the country.”

Developing feedstock for the biofuels is another nagging worry, with questions about land use only complicating matters. Ironically, the one potential feedstock that seems to be attracting interest from investors also has some experts hollering caution.

Jatropha, a wild fruit bush, has been around for centuries but is not native to the Philippines. Its seeds are poisonous, but these also yield oil that can be used in diesel engines. The government is still trying to determine which variety would work best on local soil, but that has not stopped one of its corporations from entering into multibillion-peso agreements involving jatropha.

This early, Philippine National Oil Company Alternative Fuels Corporation (PNOC-AFC) has already signed a memorandum of agreement with a Korean firm for a $210-million jatropha plantation and biorefinery. It has also inked a deal with the Land Bank of the Philippines to allocate P10 billion for the cultivation and propagation of the supposed wonder plant. The PNOC-AFC has even given P20 million in financial assistance to Bukidnon to propagate jatropha.

The converted LPG engine can be found in the trunk of a taxi. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

But a recent study by agriculture professors from the University of the Philippines in Los Baños advises those who have become giddy over jatropha to study the facts first. According to the academics, jatropha becomes a viable source of biodiesel only if diesel is retailed at P40 per liter; if the crop has a high fruit yield of 36,000 kg per hectare; if the variety has a high rate of oil extraction (at least 34 percent); and if byproducts are included and provide 50-percent additional income from the oil revenue.

They say, though, that no jatropha variety grown in the Philippines yields 34-percent oil; current laboratory oil extraction rates range from 28 to 32 percent. At a low-yield level of 12,000 kg per hectare, jatropha becomes profitable for farmers growing it if the diesel price increases to about P140 per liter at a 30-percent rate of oil extraction (revenue from oil alone). This estimate excludes processing and marketing costs. Current estimates put the processing cost at P12 per liter, which means biodiesel from jatropha could actually cost P152 per liter.

The academics also say that there is also a five-year wait for the jatropha crop to reach optimum fruiting. The professors wonder whether the processing plants and the technological know-how to process raw oil into biodiesel and develop byproducts would be ready by this time.

WHAT IS not widely known, however, is that the diesel being sold locally already has some biofuel content. It’s actually a biodiesel blend that has one percent of coconut methyl ester (CME), which is sourced locally. Marasigan says that the country was able to produce 110 million liters of CME last year — more than enough for the 70 million liters needed for an annual supply of the biodiesel blend.

SOME gasoline stations now sell bioethanol, which has a ten-percent ethanol blend. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Coconut oil is used to produce CME. Cocodiesel lowers the emission of nitrous oxide and sulfur oxide, which are the main contributors to smog. It also promotes more efficient combustion and less engine vibration, and is supposed to improve fuel economy by as much as 20 percent.

A survey conducted by the energy department showed improved engine emissions and overall performance, as well as reported increase in mileage. There were some negative comments in the survey, but the DOE says these were due to factors other than CME.

The one-percent CME in diesel was mandated to be in use nationwide by last April by the Biofuels Act of 2006, which was signed into law in January. In 2009, the CME content may go up to a minimum of two percent.

The biofuels law also mandates the use of at least a five-percent bioethanol blended into gasoline by 2009. After two years, the National Biofuels Board should determine the feasibility of using bioethanol, after which it can recommend a minimum 10-percent bioethanol blend.

Some oil companies are already offering gasoline with as much as 10-percent bioethanol blend. But unlike CME, the ethanol used by these companies is imported, since the Philippines has yet to have the capability to produce this. While the country’s first bioethanol plant is already being built in Negros Occidental, it is not scheduled to be in operation until next year. By 2009, 10 bioethanol plants will be needed to produce the country’s ethanol needs, but only three of these (including the Negros plant) are in the pipeline.

Industry statistics show that a total of some 26 million liters of ethanol-blended gasoline were sold nationwide last year. A liter of the blend is usually about P7 cheaper than the same amount of unleaded gasoline, but indications are those who opt for the former know it is the greener choice.

Most likely, locally produced ethanol will come from sugarcane. As it is, the Department of Agriculture has set aside 60,250 hectares for sugarcane that will eventually be used to produce 274 million liters of bioethanol. The government calculates that the 2009 bioethanol requirement will be 50 million liters less that amount.

Sugarcane ethanol can help reduce greenhouse gases, says Greenpeace. It also says sugarcane ethanol has a “positive energy balance,” which means that the end product generates more energy than required from its production. When sugarcane is used as a raw material for ethanol production, 8.3 units of energy is delivered for every unit of fossil fuel spent in production.

GLOBALLY, THE leader in sugarcane ethanol production is Brazil, which has a 30-year-old biofuel program. Interestingly, the Philippines began exploring the viability of biofuels about the same time as Brazil — only to drop the effort in the mid-1980s “due in part to domestic political turmoil, and in part to stable world oil prices,” say academics Raymond Tan and Alvin Culaba. At the time, the country was looking at two types of fuel: bioethanol, derived from sugarcane and used in a gasoline blend called alcogas, and biodiesel, derived from coconut oil and called cocodiesel. Two decades later, the Philippines is trying to pick up where it left off.

During the mid-1980s, almost all the cars sold in Brazil — which was apparently more serious about biofuels than any other country on the planet — ran exclusively on ethanol. Trouble came in early 1990s, however, when low oil prices led the government to remove subsidies on ethanol. High sugar prices also discouraged production. This led car manufacturers to find a cheap way for a car to burn both ethanol and gasoline. In 2003, the first flexifuel car was introduced in Brazil. Today 85 percent of the cars sold there are flexifuel.

VEHICLE emissions are responsible for about one-fourth of global energy-related greenhouse gas emissions. [photo by Isa Lorenzo]

Yet for all of Brazil’s success with ethanol, it is hardly the perfect model for biofuel development, says Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Jasper Inventor. “We certainly believe that it has reached a point where it’s not sustainable anymore,” he says. “It’s reached a point where you’re cutting forests in the Amazon (to grow sugarcane), where there’s actually some form of modern-day slave labor in plantations.”

It’s not certain how similar efforts elsewhere will end up. In the United States, where alternative fuels regained popularity some seven years ago, corn is the feedstock of choice for biofuel, even if experts say it is less “efficient” than sugarcane. The U. S. Congress has mandated that 7.5 billion gallons (28 billion liters) of the country’s fuel should come from ethanol or biodiesel by 2010. That’s equal to less than one percent of the annual U.S. fuel consumption. The United States, home of the gas-chugalugging SUVs and Inconvenient Truth Teller Al Gore, ranks first worldwide in terms of annual volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

Experts say that even if the entire U.S. corn and soybean corps were turned into biofuel, it would replace just 12 percent of the country’s yearly gasoline consumption and six percent of its diesel consumption. In the meantime, U.S. scientists are looking for ways to improve the energy balance and greenhouse benefits of corn ethanol by creating a “closed-loop system,” where cow manure would be used as biogas to create biofuel.

As for the Philippines (which ranks 38 among the top 50 greenhouse gas emitting countries), Marasigan says that the government will explore other types of fuel such as the extraction of methane from solid waste — aside from coal gasification and coal-bed methane. But as far as public buses are concerned, it’s placing its bet on compressed natural gas (CNG) that will see bus operators shelling out half the amount they are now spending for diesel. Natural gas is lead-free, produces practically no sulfur oxides or particulates and up to 30 percent less carbon dioxide than diesel.

The government’s compressed natural gas plan, however, is stretched out for completion in seven years, although anytime now 200 CNG-fed buses (with 185 already allotted to particular bus firms) will be arriving from abroad. Shell is also committed to selling CNG by the end of this month, albeit with just four stations offering this. (There is a move as well by the Philippine LPG Bus and Taxi Co. Inc. to pilot-test next month 10 buses running on LPG. The company plans to import up to 200 buses.)

Marasigan says that the near future of biofuels includes cellulosic technology, which produces energy from sustainable agricultural and forestry wastes. The DOE, he says, needs to keep on studying alternative fuels for the transport sector so that the department can achieve its goal of 60-percent energy security for the country by 2010. As Marasigan sees it, the bottom-line definition of energy security is being in a situation in which “whatever happens internationally, the country will have an ample supply of energy.”

At present, he says, the Philippines has already achieved energy security of more than 55 percent. Marasigan thinks achieving 100-percent energy security is improbable “unless we produce our own crude oil in (a) big quantity.”

Perish that un-green thought.