NSW scientist leads international research efforts on biofuels

 International Energy Agency bioenergy meeting in Croatia
DPI New Forests program leader Dr Annette Cowie (third from left on bottom) was amongst 40 participants in the International Energy Agency bioenergy meeting in Croatia.

A NSW government scientist has been appointed as co-leader of a key International Energy Agency (IEA) collaborative research program examining biofuels as alternatives to fossil-based fuels.

Dr Annette Cowie, who is the NSW Department of Primary Industries’ New Forests Program Leader, was appointed last month to co-lead IEA Bioenergy’s Task 38, which is examining the greenhouse gas impacts of bioenergy systems.

Dr Cowie has an international reputation for undertaking the science needed to set standards for greenhouse accounting including research that underpins Australia’s first carbon trading scheme, the NSW Greenhouse Gas Abatement Scheme.

Dr Cowie was one of 40 participants invited to an Expert Consultation on Bioenergy organised by the IEA in Croatia last month. At the meeting, serious concerns were expressed over the sustainability of some ‘first generation’ biofuel systems, such as corn to ethanol and canola to biodiesel, currently operating in the United States and Europe.

Dr Cowie said: "These systems have small greenhouse gas mitigation benefits, and when other environmental impacts are considered such as air and water pollution, their net impacts can be negative compared with fossil fuel systems.

"Other biofuel systems such as sugar cane to ethanol in Brazil and oil palm grown in South East Asia for biodiesel have apparently greater greenhouse benefits.

"However when indirect impacts such as deforestation and loss of soil carbon are considered, there is cause for concern", she said.

There are also likely to be serious social implications caused by reduced international food supplies and increasing prices, particularly in third world countries. In Mexico earlier this year there were food riots when corn prices increased four fold due in part to US corn being used to produce ethanol.

Dr Cowie said so-called second generation biofuels produced from "ligno-cellulosic feedstocks" show much more promise, both in terms of greenhouse and other environmental and socio-economic impacts.

These feedstocks include sawmill residues, woody weeds, plantation biomass and energy crops.

The aim of IEA Bioenergy is to improve international cooperation and information exchange between national bioenergy research and development programs.

Task 38 develops and promotes standard methods for calculating greenhouse gas benefits of bioenergy systems. A major objective is to help decision makers to identify bioenergy systems that have the greatest greenhouse mitigation potential.