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Biodiesel Demand Grows Across Continents

Dieter Weigel fills up his station wagon with 100 percent biodiesel before heading off on vacation. Biodiesel is widely available in Germany, the biggest producer of the alternative fuel.
Emily Harris, NPR
Dieter Weigel fills up his station wagon with 100 percent biodiesel before heading off on vacation. Biodiesel is widely available in Germany, the biggest producer of the alternative fuel.
A Berlin gas station puts biodiesel at the top of its line-up. As long as it remains about 52 U.S. cents  cheaper per gallon than other fuel, biodiesel producers and distributors say it's competitive.
Emily Harris, NPR /
A Berlin gas station puts biodiesel at the top of its line-up. As long as it remains about 52 U.S. cents cheaper per gallon than other fuel, biodiesel producers and distributors say it's competitive.
A truck unloads rapeseed at Bio-Ölwerk Magdeburg, a biodiesel producer in Germany.
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A truck unloads rapeseed at Bio-Ölwerk Magdeburg, a biodiesel producer in Germany.
Bio-Ölwerk Magdeburg has just expanded production of biodiesel, but is concerned the industry will consolidate in favor of big international players.
Emily Harris, NPR /
Bio-Ölwerk Magdeburg has just expanded production of biodiesel, but is concerned the industry will consolidate in favor of big international players.

The ultimate clean fuel, at least at first glance, is vegetable oil. Plants make it from sunlight, water, and a greenhouse gas — and they remove carbon dioxide from the air as they grow. The oil is easily converted into fuel for diesel engines.

Around the globe, there's now a rush toward so-called "biodiesel." Here's a look at its consequences on three different continents:

Germany

Europe is the king of biodiesel; it makes an estimated 77 percent of all biodiesel, worldwide, and Germany alone makes half of this amount. Part of the secret to its success has been a tax break at the pump.

Berliner Dieter Weigel says he buys biodiesel because of the tax break. He filled up his station wagon with 100 percent biodiesel before heading on vacation this month.

"It's 10 cents cheaper. The environmental aspect is not so important," Weigel says. "I think people should drive less for the environment, and not fill up biodiesel."

Biodiesel is made in Germany with rapeseed oil, a seed similar to canola. In most cars, it mixes easily with ordinary diesel. Its share of the market is expected to grow as Europe pushes for 10 percent of transport fuels — and 20 percent of overall energy use — to be renewable by 2020.

Walking into biodiesel production plant Bio-Ölwerk Magdeburg is like entering a popcorn popper. It's hot — and it smells like frying oil. The machines don't pop exactly, but they bang.

Business has been good enough that the plant is expanding. But Managing Director Rheinhard Kluge isn't sure this will last. Germany is ending the tax break for pure biofuel at the pump; instead, the government will demand that every liter of diesel fuel contain a little bit of biofuel. Kluge says that as a result, big oil and gas companies will be the winners in this business.

"We had three good years here in this plant. Now I think we get three hard years. After that, we hope we survive," Kluge says.

Other unintended consequences of the biodiesel boom are much bigger. In fact, they're global.

Trucks daily dump rapeseed, grown nearby, at Bio-Ölwerk Magdeburg. Some farmers have expanded into the biofuel business by planting on land once required by law to stay fallow. Others have put in rapeseed where wheat or barley once grew.

Critics say this pits growing fuel against growing food.

George Monbiot, author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning, says agricultural land worldwide is already under stress from drought and urbanization.

"When you add the biofuels market to this mix, you see what could be a recipe for catastrophe. Already with far less than 1 percent of the world's transport fuel coming from biofuel, we've seen a doubling in the price of corn, and near in price of wheat," Monbiot says.

European Union officials contest this thought, saying that just a small proportion of the cost of food is related to the cost of the ingredients. But Monbiot and other critics want Europe to stop pushing biofuels until gasoline and diesel from corn stalks, straw, or even sewage are commercially available. That could happen in the next 15 years, according to some estimates.

There's another difficulty: Europe can't produce enough biodiesel to satisfy the expected demand, which means there will be imports from places like palm oil plantations in Indonesia.

The pressure is getting through in Europe. The European Union is drafting new rules for countries to use biofuel that is "sustainable." And the industry is setting up its own sustainable certification program. Skeptics aren't sure such certificates can be trusted. But Ian Brinkman of Biox, a Dutch company importing palm oil for power plants, says its sustainable production will grow if consumers demand it.

"The larger the demand will be, the higher the price will be for sustainable produced palm oil," Brinkman says. "So, the larger the incentive for producers to change to sustainable practices."

Given the technological, environmental, and political constraints, Peter Jensen with the European Environment Agency says it's just hard to replace fossil fuel.

"We are looking for alternatives to a solution that has actually worked quite well for 100 years," Jensen says.

Biofuels are still seen here as the most immediately available way to reduce carbon emissions. But in the search for a green fuel, the bloom is off rapeseed or palm.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.