Monday, October 5, 2009

South Africa: Biofuels, Take II

South Africa has been making considerable strides towards renewable energy as part of its overall attempts for sustainable development. You may remember the last big attempt, a few years ago, when the company Ethanol Africa halted construction of a plant when the government suddenly realized the implications of using corn, the staple food for a country with roughly 25% unemployment and 50% under the poverty line, to fuel cars. The resulting food vs fuel debate has never died down – nor should it; food should never be taken out of the mouths of poor people and put into the gas tanks of rich(er) people’s cars. That’s not sustainable development.

But biofuels made out of waste vegetable oil? That’s another story entirely, and one ripe for sustainable sustainable development. And First in Spec (FIS) biofuels are looking to invest R1.5 trillion over four years in three biodiesel plants processing waste vegetable oil. The energy will go towards the mining, forestry, fisheries and agricultural industries, starting in the spring of 2011.

The problem: South Africa doesn’t produce enough waste vegetable oil to make it sustainable in-country. FIS’s solution: procuring waste vegetable oil from Canada, India and Australia.

I have to wonder if those countries have enough waste vegetable oil for their own biofuels – probably not. Waste vegetable oil is hardly plentiful outside of MacDonalds – and even in MacDonalds, it’s hard to say how long that will last. It’s trying to power its entire UK delivery vehicles on the company’s own grease. Though if we ask them, I suppose they would suggest that the solution to a lack of waste vegetable oil is to eat more French fries. Which, if health is a key component of sustainable development, doesn’t work so well.

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