Thesis punts biofuel

Clean, renewable energy sourced from plants can meet South Africa’s energy needs without harming the environment, says a UWC graduate.

Denver Jacobs has written his Master’s degree thesis on the viability of biofuel production in South Africa.

Biofuels, he says, could be a boon to the country but would need strong policy guidance from government and a drop in the cost of raw materials needed to produce it.

Cars running on biofuel would be kinder on the environment, says Mr Jacobs.

And with South Africa importing 70% of its crude oil needs, biofuels could ease that dependence and ensure greater energy security amid fluctuating oil prices. South Africa could also ditch its reputation as the world’s 14th highest emitter of CO2 by cutting back on fossil fuel emissions.

But there’s a problem: cost. Mr Jacobs found petrol was cheaper than producing biofuel from crops like grain sorghum, sugar cane, soya beans and sunflowers, mainly due to the current inflated prices of feedstock crops – a result of recent poor harvests.

“For all its potential benefits, though, the production of biofuel is not yet economically viable in South Africa – but a sharp drop in the prices of raw materials and strong policy guidance could help make biofuel production more attractive.

“If I had done my study a few years ago when crop prices were low, my results would probably have been very different,” says Mr Jacobs.

He suggests that government subsidise either the cultivation of feedstock crops – as is widely done in America and across Europe, and initially in Brazil – or the biofuels industry itself through tax rebates and other incentives.

Unfortunately, Mr Jacobs says, potential biofuel producers are frustrated with the lack of government implementation, with the National Biofuels Industrial Strategy having more or less ground to a halt.

He cites Brazil’s ProAlcool programme as a good example of substantial job creation in both the biofuel and car industries through the production of ethanol from cheap sugar cane.

The country did so by supporting the manufacturing of flexible-fuel vehicles that can run on either biofuels or petrol using the same tank.