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When the crude runs out: Life after oil

By Geoffrey Lean

Published: 05 February 2006

Burly, blue-eyed and with an outdoor blush to his face, Peter Kendall looks exactly like the successful Home Counties farmer he is. But he is producing oil, at the cutting edge of an energy revolution unexpectedly endorsed by President George Bush last week.

Mr Kendall farms 1,500 acres in the village of Eyeworth, in Bedfordshire. Not long ago, it was a traditional local farm - now 400 acres are devoted to growing crops, not for food, but for fuel.

And, wearing another hat, as deputy president of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), he is spearheading a campaign to get these energy crops to replace much of the oil burned by British vehicles. He sees it as a crucial part of any attempt to combat global warming, which scientists warned last week is likely to melt the Greenland ice cap.

Last week, he found an unlikely ally. President Bush - famously from the dirtier end of the US oil industry - used his annual State of the Union address to condemn his country's "addiction" to the black gold and launch a campaign to get fuel from plants instead. "We are," he promised, "on the threshold of incredible advances."

Business and investors need no telling. General Motors announced 10 days ago that it was going to launch an aggressive marketing campaign, running into tens of millions of dollars, to promote vehicles that can run on the fuel. And investment in it is booming, attracting some of the same people who financed the rapid expansion of Silicone Valley.

Hundreds of thousands of Britons already, unwittingly, run their cars on it, blended with ordinary petrol. The new Tory leader, David Cameron, is backing it. And Sir Richard Branson has said he wants to run the 100-strong Virgin aircraft fleet on plant power.

Its main attraction for Mr Bush is a reduction in the massive US dependence on imported oil from "unstable parts of the world". He said he hoped these "biofuels" - with other "cleaner, cheaper and more reliable alternative energy sources" - would help "to replace more than 75 per cent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025".

For Mr Kendall, it is the clean part that matters most, apart from the chance to provide more income for Britain's farmers. Biofuels emit much less carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming.

"For 20 years, farmers have been perceived to be a pain in the arse by society - with food mountains, the stigma of environmental damage, BSE and foot and mouth," he says. But now the way biofuels can tackle climate change "allows them to be seen as producers of solutions rather than problems".

Mr Kendall's energy crop - oilseed rape - enables the production of biodiesel, one of the two main biofuels for vehicles, and the one most produced in Europe. It is mainly made from oily crops - sunflower oil and palm oil are other sources - though waste fats from cooking can also be pressed into service. It is used in diesel engines, most often as 5 per cent of normal diesel fuel, though modified vehicles can run on it alone.

The other, ethanol - mainly used in the Americas - is a substitute for petrol produced by fermenting crops rich in sugars and starches, such as sugar cane and beet, wheat, corn and rice. President Bush also wants to develop the technology to be able to use grasses, wood and crop wastes, which would mean that the fuel was not eating up food supplies. It can be used in conventional engines at mixes of up to 15-20 per cent of petrol, and much more in modified ones.

Back at the birth of motor vehicles, biofuels seemed set to drive them. Henry Ford planned to run his Model T on ethanol. And the first diesel engine - unveiled at the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris - burned pure peanut oil. Both were swamped by the availability and cheapness of crude oil, then well into its century and a half of phenomenal growth. But now the end of oil is in sight. The world has been burning more oil than it has discovered, every year for the past quarter of a century. Some analysts predict that production will peak in a couple of years; even industry optimists expect it to do so by the 2030s.

Even worse, burning oil releases vast amounts of carbon dioxide, which scientists say is rapidly approaching dangerous levels in the atmosphere. They say that the world has perhaps only a decade in which to act to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Mr Kendall is intensely frustrated by the gap between the British government's words and deeds on global warming. He contrasts Tony Blair's placing the climate change at the top of the world's agenda last year with the fact that the country's emissions of carbon dioxide have been rising. "We seem to be doing the least while talking the most," he complains.

That has certainly held true for biofuels. Under an EU directive, Britain was supposed to be using them to meet 2 per cent of its transport needs by the end of last year. In fact, it achieved only 0.3 per cent, the worst performance of any country in Europe, says Mr Kendall. The 25 countries of the EU as a whole did five times better, at 1.5 per cent. The best - Germany and Sweden - were 10 times as good.

Partly as a result of NFU pressure, the EU began legal proceedings against the Government - and last November ministers promised to reach 5 per cent by 2010. This, says Mr Kendall, will be the equivalent - in saving resources, and cutting carbon dioxide emissions - of permanently taking one million cars off the road

Tesco already quietly blends 5 per cent of ethanol with the petrol sold on 40 per cent of its forecourts. Drivers using its 185 supermarket petrol stations - in London, the South-east and the North-west - have no idea that they are partly filling their tanks with fermented Brazilian sugar cane. Soon this will be replaced with ethanol made from British sugar beet. And Britain's first big plant to produce biodiesel from oilseed rape is to open on Teesside next month.

Yet, Mr Kendall adds: "There is no comparison with what I see them doing in other countries." France already has about 20 biofuel plants, and 30 of its cities run their public transport on fuel containing 30 per cent biodeisel.

Meanwhile, the Austrian city of Graz powers its public transport entirely on fuel made from waste cooking oil collected from restaurants and homes. As The Independent on Sunday reported in December, Mr Cameron has put his weight behind a similar drive here.

Brazil is the world champion. Ethanol from its sugar cane now provides more than 40 per cent of its motor fuel. Two and a half million cars on its roads run on it, and all its petrol contains 25 per cent of the biofuel. More than half the cars in its showrooms are "flexible fuel" vehicles - able to run on this blended petrol, pure ethanol or both.

Five million cars in the United States can already use a rich mix of 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol, and "gasohol" - containing 10 per cent of the biofuel - is widely sold. US ethanol production has quadrupled in recent years.

Britain, says Mr Kendall, could meet its target of providing 5 per cent of its fuel from plants just by using its exportable cereal surplus and its surplus production of oilseed rape, and by growing energy crops on unproductive, set-aside land. In the longer term, he adds, we could grow enough to meet a fifth of our fuel needs.

He wants to introduce a system of certification to ensure that producing the fuel does not cause environmental damage - and to keep out palm oil, the cultivation of which is destroying tropical rainforests, and so endangering the orang-utan.

But, otherwise, he can't wait for the energy revolution. "As a farmer," he says, "I would love to be running my car on my crop."



Corn, wheat, sugar beet and cane, rice, and other crops produce bioethanol. A ton of cane can yield 72 litres.


Sugar cane is rolled to extract the juice, which is fermented. Grain has to be ground up before being fermented and distilled like alcohol.


Ground corn and wheat are treated to separate out the sugars. These are then fermented.


The result is distilled into bioethanol, which, if it is to be added to petrol, as is common, must be further purified.


In the EU, 5 per cent bioethanol can be added to petrol, and in the US's gasohol, 10 per cent. Flex-fuel vehicles can run on up to 85 per cent.


To run on mixtures greater than 15-20 per cent bioethanol, cars must be adapted to alter the compression ratio or spark timing.


The carbon dioxide expelled by your car will be consumed by plants, some of them fuel crops.