What's Up Down Under

By Ian Thomson | February 05, 2008
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As Australia quickens its steps towards a biofuels future, industry leaders expect 2008 will be a watershed year for ethanol production Down Under. They point to events such as the start of work on the long-awaited ethanol plant at Dalby in Western Queenslandthe first purpose-built, grain-to-fuel ethanol facility in the nationand the climate change issue as significant indicators of the successful future of biofuels.

Progress at the $A130 million ($112 million) Dalby plant will be closely monitored by many people, including three farmers in the same Western Queensland region who are forging ahead with plans to construct a plant of their ownknown as Western Downs. At least another 10 plants are proposed in other states and the Northern Territory.

Political commentators will tell you that a lack of action on climate change was one of the reasons the Coalition Government led by Prime Minister John Howard was thrown out of office last December. Millions of Australians have embraced the issue, realizing the need to seriously consider an ever-increasing use of renewable transport fuel to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles.

Bill Elliott, director of Brisbane-based BBI Biofuels Australia, says the only way for ethanol production across the country is up. "The state of New South Wales has mandated the use of ethanol-blended fuel, Queensland has set a policy of blended ethanol by 2010 and the other states are becoming increasingly aware of the need to reduce greenhouse gases linked to global warming," he says.

Regional Economies Invigorated
"I remain confident that the new Federal Labor Government led by (Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd will join its state counterparts and turn its attention to an ethanol mandate so things can really get moving in this country," Elliott says. He also points to the other significant benefits related to the expansion of biofuels production. "Ethanol production across the country delivers far more than just the vital need for cleaner and safer alternatives to fossil fuels," he says. "The ethanol industry is reinvigorating rural economies. As more plants go on the drawing board, the massive investment in infrastructure provides new jobs in the construction, farm and automotive sectors. Many of those jobs will go to young people in the areas where ethanol plants will be builtstopping those people from having to seek work in the big cities."

With the NSW mandate and Queensland setting a policy of 5 percent blended ethanol two years from now, it's obvious that more ethanol plants on drawing boards across the nation will need to quickly move from development to the construction stage. A minimum of six plants able to produce 200 million litres (50 million gallons) of fuel ethanol per year will need to be built by 2011 to meet the needs of NSW and Queensland alone.

Conference Tackles the Issues
The signing into law of the U.S. Energy Bill late last year is also being seen as a major boost for the fledgling Australian biofuels industry. Elliott says the legislation requiring a five-fold increase in the use of transport fuelsmost of which will be ethanolis an historic turning point for the renewable fuels industry. "The Americans have raised the bar enormously as they strive for long-term energy security," he says. "Australia, which is obviously a long, long way from the enormous progress made by the Americans in the biofuels industry, can take the lead from Washington and speed up the ethanol process."

The events at home and abroad in recent months have set the scene for what promises to be a fascinating industry talk fest April 8-10 in Sydney. The BBI International Ethanol 2008 Australia Conference in the plush and expansive Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre will thrash out the issues and concerns confronting industry leaders on the march toward a transport future based on renewable fuels. Delegates and speakers will make their way to Sydney from the United States, Asia and from across Australia to the third and biggest annual conference of its type.

Food Versus Fuel on the Menu
One hot issue on the agenda is the so-called food-versus-fuel debate. Those opposed to ethanol production say that when it comes to ethanol plant feedstocks, we must choose between fuelling our cars and feeding the people. Others say we can do both. The debate has raged in the United States and now it's Australia's turn to take a long, hard look at the facts as they're presented by several experts in the field.

BBI Conference Coordinator Louise Jordan says the 2008 event will face the food-versus-fuel issue head-on. "We are planning a debate of our own on stage at the conference," Jordan says. "We have approached a number of speakers to be involved in the discussion, with the highly-respected Todd Sneller from the Nebraska Ethanol Board already signalling his acceptance."

Jordan says she expects the 2008 conference to be the biggest yet, with more than 500 attendees and 50 industry booths at the trade show to be held in conjunction with the event. "The conference will provide the latest developments in biofuels production across the globe, and outline just what's happening in the emerging Australian ethanol revolution," she says. "Australia has come a long way in biofuels development and there is still a long way to go. A well-planned conference with excellent speakers generates discussion on the best ways to speed up the push for nondependence on fossil fuels."

Oil Titan Comes to the Party
Oil giant Caltex Australia will have a presence at the conference, with an address by the company's National Fuels Marketing Manager Michael Ridley-Smith.
The involvement by major oil companies in Australian biofuels production and distribution has taken leaps and bounds in recent times, a move unexpected by many in the renewable fuels industry.

The latest edition of the Caltex industry magazine, The Star, contains six pages on biofuels. It quotes Ridley-Smith as saying Caltex was well ahead of most competitors in the number of sites at which ethanol blends are available. "Some areas of Australia are better suited for biofuels expansion than others," he says in the magazine. "With its sugar plantations, Queensland is a logical place for further growth, so are grain growing areas and Caltex has committed to taking at least 30 million litres (7.5 million gallons) a year from the grain-to-ethanol plant at Dalby in Queensland."

Apart from an oil company's perspective, other topics to be covered at the Ethanol 2008 Conference in Sydney include:
Ethanol automotive technology

Future production technologies

Basics of ethanol production

Plant construction and management

Establishing feasibility

Financial structure

The ethanol market

Elliott says the conference represents a major step in the development of the Australian biofuels industry. "It will provide highly-valued and accurate information for those already established and others keen to jump on the renewable fuels bandwagon," he says.

Ian Thomson is managing editor of Biofuels Australasia. He can be reached at ithomson@bbibiofuels.com or 07 3360 7018 and 0409 827-387.