San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Biofuels Show Promise; Present Problems, Too

The biofuels industry in Costa Rica is a mixed bag of products and opinions. Several biofuels options exist in the country, but gas stations have yet to adopt the Environment, Energy and Telecommunications Ministry’s (MINAET) biofuels program, which has been delayed because of various concerns, including the insufficient supply of biofuels.

Most of the biofuels produced in the country come from sugarcane and palm oil, which are processed to make ethanol and biodiesel, respectively.

According to the 2007 State of the Nation report, the country’s three largest ethanol producers distill 200 million liters of ethanol on an annual basis.

Most of this ethanol is either exported or used in small doses in pilot programs along the Pacific coast.

If all goes according to plan, MINAET’s biofuels program, which was created by executive decree in 2008, would lay the groundwork for creation of a national industry fueled by naturally grown sources. However, the agricultural sector has said that it is not yet prepared to supply the crops it must harvest to create a large-scale biofuels industry in Costa Rica (TT Feb. 6).

The biofuels program was originally scheduled to start in October 2008, but it has yet to take off. Under the early proposals, conventional gasoline would be mixed with up to eight percent ethanol and diesel would be mixed with five percent biodiesel.

Officials said they hope to offer gasoline laced with 10 percent ethanol and diesel with 20 percent biodiesel sometime next year. According to MINAET’s “Truths about Biofuels” report, this would mean a savings of up to $300 million per year.

Mario Zaragoza, a spokesman for MINAET, said that biofuels would be imported at first to give the nation’s farmers time to plant more African palm trees, sugarcane and other plants used for biofuels.

Producers would be able to sell the additives to the National Oil Refinery (RECOPE). But critics of the program do not believe it is beneficial to invest in a national biofuel industry.

Francisco Alpizar, coordinator of the environment development center for Central America at the Tropical Agronomy Research Center (CATIE) in the Atlantic slope town of Turrialba, said he believes the land would be best used for other crops.

According to the National Biofuels Commission, the country would have to increase the amount of land dedicated to sugarcane cultivation by 35 percent to achieve the 2010 goal of mixing all gasoline with 10 percent ethanol. To reach a goal of 20 percent biofuels in diesel fuel, production of African palm trees would require a 34 percent expansion.

But an on-going study by CATIE seems to indicate that the increase would be difficult because of the extent of protected land areas and the production of other crops that are already planted.

Alpizar said the production of pineapples, bananas and coffee, Costa Rica’s three main cash crops, has proven more profitable to farmers than biofuel crops.

Alpizar also noted that the country’s biofuels program is “product” centered and does not consider the “supply side.”

“The process of moving from traditional fuels to biofuels is not just a question of ‘let’s do this,’” he said. “Car suppliers will need to fix the engines in the process of implementing biofuels. A biofuels plan requires an integral approach, and those details have not been established.”

According to Alpizar, a cleaner future for the country’s transportation sector will not come through a large biofuels industry, but rather through investment in newer technologies such as electric cars.

“We need to switch to newer engines,” he said. “When you have a dying corpse, and the corpse is jumping, you try a last effort to save it. Biofuels, in my opinion, are the final attempt to hang on to internal combustion engines.”

Only Sugar Cane & African Palms? While critics argue that increasing land dedicated to sugarcane and African palms could harm food production and farmer profits, MINAET’s biofuels report claims that several other options exist that “will not compete with food supplies.”

Among the plants listed in the report is the Jatropha tree, a native Central American plant that has been touted as a major player in the future of biofuel production.

The tree produces toxic nuts, the seeds of which can contain up to 40 percent oil which is extracted, processed and turned into biodiesel.

Costa Rican Seed Company President Ed Acosta, who owns an 80-acre Jatropha farm in Guanacaste in the northwestern corner of Costa Rica, said that the tree grows mainly along fence lines and it wouldn’t have to compete with large farms.

Wilfred Deremerris, a biofuels researcher at the University of Florida, said the nuts could be harmful to humans and animals if grown in large numbers. However, he said the toxicity offers a positive characteristic.

“It’s not a crop that would have to compete with food for consumption, so it can be completely dedicated to biodiesel production,” he said.

Some other “non-competitive” sources listed in the MINAET report are sorghum, sour yucca and fig trees. MINAET’s report also states that planting these crops will help recuperate barren agricultural lands.

“It’s possible to plant these crops where you can’t develop other agricultural products, resulting in a great benefit for the location and the farmers,” the report says.

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