How biofuels enter the race against the coronavirus pandemic
For 2020, hand sanitisers and disinfectants are what new iPhones and electric vehicles were for 2019. So, who are the Apples and Teslas of ethyl alcohol, asks Zoltán Szabó and explains how a climate solution is being turned into health assistance.
Zoltán Szabó is a Hungarian sustainability consultant in the bioeconomy.
Two billion kilos of alcohol is the “normal” size of the European alcohol market, but Europe actually has a reserve production capacity of an additional 6 billion kilos thanks to Europe’s fuel ethanol plants, which are working literally around the clock to tackle the current crisis.
They are getting huge amounts of ethanol to hospitals, nursing homes, power production facilities, government offices and other types of social institutions.
They are, almost overnight, optimising recipes for effective hand sanitisers (which should contain 80% alcohol) and then just making the stuff and getting it out to the public.
For any hospital or nursing home or jail or other social institution, the much-needed disinfectant is going to be supplied by the nearest ethanol plant.
The modern ethanol industry, delivering lifesaving solutions today, exists only thanks to Europe’s biofuel policies over the past 17 years. Ethanol is the most prominent biofuel in the world, but it is also a critical ingredient for pharmaceuticals, bio-plastics, bio-chemicals, food and many other necessities.
2020 is not even the first time that ethanol, despite having sometimes been misdescribed by urban idealistic campaigners, emerges as a solution and plays a vital role in a crisis.
In 2012, the Northern Hemisphere experienced a devastating drought. The United States produced 20% less corn than expected. In 2002 or 1992 or 1982 if that had happened, world corn (and food) prices would have spiked. But prices remained relatively stable and low.
What happened was that US farmers had in the decade prior increased their corn yields in response to US biofuel policies by making large scale investments into their land.
As a result, a significant part of the US corn crop going to biofuel plants wasn’t being diverted from other uses (which was and remains the conventional wisdom); it was corn that simply wouldn’t have been grown.
When the drought hit, this “extra” corn was available for all uses, not just ethanol, and as a result, the price increase was mitigated. Much less corn was used for ethanol production that had been predicted.
The “inflexible mandate” that was at the centre of anti-biofuel discussions turned out in the real world to be a “flexible mandate”. By encouraging greater on-farm productivity, the ethanol industry turned a devastating drought into a non-event for global food security.
For these and similar reasons the FAO suggests moving from the food versus fuel debate to a food and fuel debate. Both the IEA and the IPCC counts on biofuels as a key transport decarbonisation measure in the 2030 timeframe.
And perhaps the truly accurate way to approach the debate is to appreciate that biofuels, especially ethanol, are food and fuel and a bit of flexibility.