Biodiesel offers Kenya a viable clean transport route

Drawing on the struggles of global warming and fossil fuel prices, countries worldwide are seeking alternatives with renewables such as biofuels.

The falling costs of renewable energy technologies vis-à-vis the rising fossil fuel prices augur well for the desire to resolve the electricity gap, achieve clean cooking, and enhance the reliability of the electricity supply.

This will also address the dominance of dirtier energy sources in Kenya, where wood accounts for 68 percent and petroleum 22 percent, with electricity supplying just nine percent.

Clearly, Kenya’s energy supply heavily depends on diminishing biomass and non-renewable petroleum, mostly imported, as the two primary energy sources.

The transport sector makes up the biggest consumer of petroleum products, accounting for about 67 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and 11.3 percent of the total greenhouse gas (GHG) discharges in 2015.

Therefore, it is urgently important for the Kenyan government to implement low carbon initiatives within the transportation sector. This involves promoting research, development, and the use of renewable technologies in transport.

Kenya— government agencies, non-government organisations, and the private sector— is taking a keen interest in biofuels and, in this case, biodiesel.

Biodiesel is a liquid biofuel obtained largely from edible agricultural biomass through the combination of either fats or oils with alcohol in the presence of a catalyst. Biodiesel sources include; plant oils, used cooking oil, animal fat, and algae.

Biofuel use in the transportation sector has several notable benefits that outdo conventional fossil fuels.

It has negligible sulphur content, 67 percent lesser aromatic content—toluene and benzene—and 1500C flashpoint, which is 900C higher than petrol and diesel. Further, biodiesel offers a 47 percent reduction in particulate matter (soot and hydrocarbons) pollution and a 70 percent reduction in CO2 emission.

Even more interesting for the environmentalists, biodiesel is non-toxic and fully degrades in about 28 days from a waterway environment. Overall, biodiesel has extended efficiency for injectors, comparable energy and power content to ultra-low sulphur diesel, and appreciable lubricant characteristics that reduce engine wear and tear.

In practice, biodiesel is blended with petrol or diesel at different ratios. The American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTMI) has approved the use of B5 (five percent biodiesel, 95 percent petrol-diesel) for all types of compression engines without separate labelling for both light and heavy-duty.

While ASTMI sets additional requirements for using B20 (20 percent biofuel), it’s a common blend with reported benefits of a better balance of costs, emissions, cold-weather performance, materials compatibility, and doubles up as a solvent.

Both developed and developing countries are trying to achieve a carbon-neutral world by 2050 by reaching the peak of greenhouse gas emissions. The global community ratified a binding agreement to limit global warming below 20C, preferably at 1.50C.

As a way of putting theory into practice, there has been a global surge in biodiesel, currently at 150 billion litres, ahead of the Renewables 2020 forecast of 144 billion litres. From 2011 to 2020, biodiesel has seen a 97 percent increase in production globally.

Among other biofuels, biodiesel has been described as the most promising fuel in sustainability. It has a carbon emission-reducing potential of an average of 50 percent to 81 percent.

Moreover, it will be possible for biodiesel to conform to future stricter emission thresholds. Consequently, biodiesel should be at the forefront in the efforts to decarbonise global transport, a major source of GHG emissions.

Kenya is among the first countries in the region to have both research and commercial biodiesel refineries. An example is edible oils, fats, and soap manufacturer GilOil, which is an early entrant into the biodiesel production sector looking to commercialise biodiesel from used cooking oil.

According to research on the potential for biodiesel production from waste cooking oil in Kenya, major hotels in Nairobi discard an average of 60 kilogrammes of oil/fat weekly.

Annually, Kenya consumes 700,000 tonnes of vegetable oil and fat, with about 40 percent ending up as waste. Waste vegetable oil (WVO) sourced from fast food outlets, restaurants, and food manufacturers has an overall low production cost and is readily available and free with a much less conversion process.

The use of WVO for fuel generation obviates its reuse for cooking, which currently poses a health hazard for being carcinogenic.

The carbon dioxide saved per litre of biodiesel combusted in place of petroleum diesel is 2.64 kilogramme.

At a monthly production capacity of two million litres, GilOil will for instance save 5,280 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions per month, equivalent to 63,360 metric tonnes per annum.

This would translate into a saving of about $1.5 million (Sh170.8 million) per month which can then be utilised to provide additional job opportunities in the country where 40 percent of youth remains unemployed.

Overreaching plans

Being conscious of the country’s transport sector’s role in curbing GHGs emissions, the government has laid out plans for gradually morphing into a sustainable transport system through targets in the National Climate Change Action Plan (NCCAP).

Kenya’s target is to transition to zero-emission motor vehicles by 2040. Part of the overreaching plans include the creation of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), Light Rail Rapid Transit (LRRT) systems, rooting for Non-Motorised Transport (NMT), and the extension of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR).

Interestingly, the initial 28 kilometre stretch of the BRT along Thika Road, to be launched this June, will only be accessible to electric and hybrid buses, and those using biofuel blends. The latter is a big win for early investors in advanced biodiesel, which does not create competition between fuel and food production.

Better yet, the government adopted the Climate Change Act of 2016, which seeks to promote low-carbon technologies to enhance efficiency and reduce emissions.

Based on the former discussion on the benefits of biodiesel and the latter policy focus, the government needs to tap into the potential of biodiesel by stirring up production and consumption.

Biodiesel demand can be created by reducing biodiesel levies, increasing allowable carbon emission percentages, offering policy and financial support for biofuels, and stepping up the requirements to curtail soil, air, and water pollution. In addition, it is possible to drive biodiesel consumption through taxable credits for the refiners.

A more impactful approach in promoting biodiesel in Kenya would be mandating the quantities of biofuel that should be blended into road-transport fuel. For instance, the United States has a biofuel blending programme dubbed “the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS),” which requires oil refiners to blend biofuels into fossil fuels.

The programme requires that in 2022, refiners blend about 21 billion gallons of biofuel into the country’s total fuel consumption.

Additionally, other than creating regulatory mandates, the government can encourage extended producer responsibility (EPR) to enhance the collection of biodiesel feedstock. EPR would be exclusively crucial for increasing the amounts of used cooking oil collected from the producers.

As for the Nationally Determined Contributions, Kenya has a target of reducing carbon emissions by 30 percent in the next eight years.

A substantial amount of this reduction should be targeted at the transport sector, which accounts for 13 percent of the country’s emissions and which is recording the fastest growth compared to the rest.

Exploiting Kenya’s bioenergy potential, currently put at 15.6 metric tonnes for biodiesel production for use in the transport sector, could catapult the country closer to our national target.

Biodiesel presents an opportunity amidst the challenges of finding secure, affordable, and clean energy to drive Kenya’s transport decarbonisation efforts.

Mr Mungai is CEO, Kenya Climate Innovation Centre and 2016 Eisenhower Fellow

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