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Engineering: Bioenergy Can Create Jobs in Right Legislative Environment


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South Africa has the intellectual capital and natural resources to produce renewable bioenergy (i.e. liquid fuels and electricity from biomass) that could be used to power cars, contribute to the national power grid and create thousands of jobs .

Although the country already produces substantial amounts of renewable energy, new investments are primarily driven by government institutions such as PlantBio Trust, Central Energy Fund and Saneri, says Stellenbosch University’s Professor Johann Görgens. “ These institutions are willing to face the financial risks associated with these investments under less than ideal conditions due to their mandate for socio-economic development and job creation.” The lack of active participation from private investors is largely attributed to perceived lack of incentives that would encourage investors to enter the biofuels market. The absence of mandatory blending for instance has been cited as one of the key issues causing the private investors to drag their feet. Another issue which continues to be the bone of contention is the feed-in-tariff (price government will pay when buying electricity generated from renewable resources).

Bioenergy industry has the potential to create thousands of jobs and make an impact on poverty, says Görgens. However, this should be done in a responsible and sustainable manner, avoiding the use of food crops and resources allocated for food production. Dr Sandile Ncanana, the executive portfolio manager for biofuels at PlantBio Trust explains that PlantBio has developed a strategy based on international trends with regard to technology development. “More importantly” he says “PlantBio also considers biofuels production in a South African and African context when it comes to issues such as crops, climate, land availability and sustainability”. “The aim is to balance, social, economic and environmental needs”, says Ncanana. The conversion of biomass residues from agriculture (e.g. lignocelluloses) and non-food crops (e.g. sweet stem sorghum) to bioenergy could be right step towards sustainable production of second generation biofuels.

Görgens was speaking ahead of the upcoming Bio2Biz Conference that will take place in Durban from September 20 to 23. Promoting Bioenergy and its industries will be one of the issues topping the agenda in a forum where scientists will meet the business community and government representatives to discuss how to roll-out ideas to stimulate the national economy.

Organising institutions include the Innovation Fund, BioPAD, Cape Biotech, eGoliBIO, LIFElab and PlantBio. PlantBio in particular is funding various initiatives in South Africa aimed at developing bioenergy. PlantBio’s biofuels portfolio include feedstock development through plant breeding, development of novel enzymes for cellulose degradation and optimisation of various processes that include pre-treatment of biomass (i.e making biomass to be more accessible to enzymes) for cellulosic ethanol production. In essence, PlantBio’s investment portfolio covers the whole biofuels value chain.

Bioenergy is made from any material derived from a renewable biological source and not a fossil fuel. A simple example is heat produced by burning wood. In many parts of the world agricultural products like maize, soybeans and sugarcane are being grown for biofuel production. In South Africa, government has been very clear through the Biofuels Industrial Strategy that food crops or land currently being used for food cultivation should not be used for biofuels production.

University of Pretoria plant biotechnology graduate, Mr Thabang Bambo, who will be attending the Bio2Biz conference, said food security in the developing world was a major impediment to biofuel production. “There is a feeling that food sources will be threatened if agricultural land is given over to producing biofuel.” At the same time the potential for bioenergy to create jobs and reduce environmental damage has been recognised and biotechnology can help to develop new energy crops that could grow in land that is not adequate for food production, he said.

Jacques Diouf, the Senegalese Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agricultural

Organisation, said the biofuel industry has huge potential to alleviate poverty in developing countries especially sub-Saharan Africa.

In an article in London’s Financial Times he wrote: “Biofuels provide us with an historic chance to fast-forward growth in many of the world’s poorest countries, to bring about an agricultural renaissance and to supply modern energy to a third of the world’s population”.

The Bio2Biz conference will be featuring a line-up of international speakers on bioenergy including Roger Reisert, CEO of the United States-based company C2 Biofuels, Derek Mathews from Silver Sands Ethanol RSA, Gina Schroeder of Enercheck Solutions and John Morris of the Syringa Institute. Dr Sandile Ncanana, Executive Portfolio Manager (Biofuels), PlantBio Trust will chair the session on Bio-energy.

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