Cowie heads up IEA biofuels research

Annette Cowie amongst delegates at an IEA Bioenergy meeting in Croatia.
Annette Cowie (centre, bottom), amongst delegates at an International Energy Agency Bioenergy meeting in Croatia.

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

Dr Annette Cowie, NSW Department of Primary Industries’ (DPI) New Forests program leader, was appointed to co-lead IEA Bioenergy’s Task 38, 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.

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.

"These systems have small greenhouse gas mitigation benefits," Dr Cowie said.

"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 food riots followed four-fold corn price increases, due in part to US corn being used to produce ethanol.

Dr Cowie said so-called second generation biofuels produced from "ligno-cellulosic feedstocks" showed 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.

NSW DPI is currently involved in research into the efficiency and viability of lignocellulosic (or second generation feedstocks).

The aim of IEA Bioenergy is to improve international co-operation 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.