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Tree plantations: Australia's future fuel source?
Like Ford Motor Co., Barney Foran has a better idea. While the American automaker mulls better ways to build cars, the Australian scientist figures better ways to power them.
To hear Foran tell it, Australians could be traveling in vehicles powered by methanol produced from plantations of trees covering 30 million hectares (74.1 million acres) of the country's cropland and high rainfall pasture zones, all within the next 50 years.
This is the scenario Foran outlined last week at an international conference on greenhouse gas control technologies in Cairns, Queensland. And in the bigger, often conflicting picture of energy exploitation and the environment, what's prudent for one is healthy for the other, according to Foran.
"Using methanol will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 400 million tonnes (440 million tons) a year within the next 50 years compared to continuing 'business as usual,'" he said. "That's about as much as emitted by the energy sector today in 2000."
"Planting deep-rooted trees will also help control problems such as dryland salinity, will create employment in rural Australia and help replace future energy imports," Foran added.
At CSIRO, Australia's national science agency, Foran devised a computer model to show that 30 million hectares of trees planted over the next 50 years could produce enough methanol to replace, over time, liquid fuels currently produced from crude oil and its derivatives.
CSIRO researchers developed the OzEcco model to look at the influences of population, lifestyle, organization and technology to explore their possible impact on Australia's environment and its physical economy.
The model assumes that the Australian population grows to 25 million by 2050, that food exports are maintained at current levels, and that renewable energy and more efficient electricity production continue to be implemented to reflect government policies on greenhouse gas emissions.
"We looked at the production of methanol that would be needed to meet 90 percent of Australia's total oil requirements and all of its transportation needs," Foran said.
"Methanol would be produced from the 'biomass' of forests growing under a 20-year rotation at a rate of 20 cubic meters a year," he noted. "Plantations would need to be established at the rate of 400,000 hectares (988,000 acres) a year costing about $2,500 a hectare. We also assumed that the cost of a biomass electricity plant would be about one and half times the cost of a traditional electricity plant on a megawatt basis."
A methanol economy "would successfully 'decarbonize' economic growth in Australia and also help restore degraded areas of land in Australia," Foran said.
The model also predicted the generation of 100,000 direct jobs by 2020 and more than 400,000 by 2050 with the new methanol economy. Most of these jobs would be in rural areas of Australia.
The model showed total savings on energy imports by 2050 of $18 billion in today's currency, if oil is priced at US$25 a barrel.
Foran allowed that several issues would need to be investigated before the methanol plantation program could become a reality.
"What are the effects of plantations of single tree species on our biodiversity?" he asked. "We also need to know whether we are ready for such radical changes to our economy from both a political and social point of view."
The fifth International Conference on Greenhouse Gas Control Technologies was organized by the Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme. This program is part of the International Energy Agency established in late 1991 as a major international collaboration to investigate technology for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases generated by human activities.
Major sponsors of the conference are the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth, the Australian Greenhouse Office, BHP, BP Amoco, the U.S. Department of Energy and Rio Tinto.
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