Locally grown? Fuel for thought

By Nicola Young

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This Ferrari Spider can run on a blend of 85 per cent ethanol. PHOTO/SUPPLIED
This Ferrari Spider can run on a blend of 85 per cent ethanol. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

How do you know you're a bit of a greenie geek? If, on your first Friday night out in your new big smoke, New Plymouth, you go to a presentation at the local environment centre on ethanol as an alternative fuel to petrol.

Yep, that's me - I'm fascinated by practical low carbon alternatives and ethanol isn't a new one.

The first cars were designed to run on alcohol made from plants. As inventor Alexander Graham Bell said in 1917: "Alcohol makes a beautiful, clean and efficient fuel - and can be manufactured from almost any vegetable matter capable of fermentation."

There has been controversy around biofuels in recent years with some concerned they would compete with food and intensify agriculture production.

While this can be true, the guest speaker at The Hive, Richard Lee, presented a model for ethanol production that used lots of different species, rather than a monoculture of canola or sugar cane. He also drew a connection between ethanol production from plants and a way to address our decline in environmental health, particularly water quality and loss of wetlands.

A plant that could be a possibility in the mix of a diverse productive forest is raupo or bulrush, a wetland species.

There could be nut trees at the top, sheltering other species in the middle, and raupo in wetland swales, all presenting realistic annual harvest to provide surprisingly high volumes of usable fuel.

A raupo relative is used for ethanol production in the US, where it's known as cattail. With fast-growing starchy roots, it is an ideal sugar source for conversion to alcohol through fermentation with yeast - just like making home brew.

Ethanol-production could even be combined with food forests. Food forests are not new either - they are the idea that instead of having mass monocultures, it's possible to grow many different species together to create an ecosystem producing local foods.

It's been a week since the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment released her report on water quality in New Zealand which looked at nutrient modelling based on different land uses.

Could an ethanol-food forest combo present a feasible alternative for farmers who are economically pressured into converting to dairy? We'd need some Government leadership to support a research pilot and possibly incentives to get over the set up hurdles, but it could be part of the solutions we need.

With Whanganui community gardens sprouting up, schools and kindergartens teaching kids about vegetable gardens, or customers demanding regionally-grown produce, creating local food solutions seems relevant and timely. Maybe plant-based ethanol production can piggy-back on this trend and kill two birds with one stone (not the best conservation analogy, my apologies).

I found this quote from 1923 by Rolls Royce engine designer Harry Ricardo about ethanol, well ahead of his time given climate change concerns.

"By the use of a fuel derived from vegetation, mankind is adapting the sun's heat to the development of motive power, as it becomes available from day to day; by using mineral fuels, he is consuming a legacy - and a limited legacy at that - of heat stored away many thousands of years ago. In the one case he is, as it were, living within his income, in the other he is squandering his capital."

Ricardo's words "consuming a legacy" and "squandering capital" could also apply to the asset sales referendum.

Friends have asked how I'm going to vote and whether voting is a waste of time given most of the sales have gone ahead, including Air New Zealand in a rush just last week. My vote will be a no - the issues are more complex than a simple question and answer, but that is the message I want to send loud and clear.

Whether the need for change is driven by peak oil, conflict in oil-producing nations, increasing prices or climate change, there are real alternatives out there. What we need is leadership and investment in solutions that bring multiple benefits. I'd love to see a diverse forest using a mix of native species and agricultural crops that could produce both ethanol and food while stabilising our environment and offering sustainable return on investment for farmers.

Nicola Young is a former Department of Conservation manager who now works for global consultancy AECOM. Educated at Wanganui Girls' College, she has a science degree and is the mother of two boys.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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