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
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
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
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
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
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."
BIOETHANOL: THE GREEN ALTERNATIVE
1. FUEL CROPS
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
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.
5. MIXED AND DELIVERED
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
6. INTO YOUR CAR
To run on mixtures greater than 15-20 per cent bioethanol, cars must
be adapted to alter the compression ratio or spark timing.
7. AND CO 2 IS RECYCLED
The carbon dioxide expelled by your car will be consumed by plants,
some of them fuel crops.