Biodiesel currently does not present as a more affordable energy alternative for the local mining industry, says Sandton-based energy product supplier InnoFES MD Alexander Grobler.
He says that, while many renewable-energy product producers and suppliers boast of the benefits of biodiesel application, the only realistic benefit of biodiesel in South Africa is reducing a company’s harmful emissions, as the cost per litre is on par with that of conventional diesel.
Grobler claims that the production and implementation costs associated with biodiesel production in the country are vastly more expensive than that of fossil fuels. The initial cost of production and infrastructure outlay, as well as the time required before real savings can be realised, are not attractive enough to tempt mining houses into changing from using traditional fossil fuels to other fuel sources.
He does not deny that biodiesel has its merits, highlighting US-based fuel and oil additives producer Bell Performance’s report, ‘Biodiesel: Advantages and Potential Problems’, which outlines some of the key benefits of biodiesel use. The report stipulates that, if implemented properly, biodiesel – as renewable energy – is continuous and reliable, unlike alternative element- dependent energy resources, such as solar-, hydro- or wind-based power sources. Using biodiesel further enables mines to be less dependent on foreign oil sources.
The most noteworthy benefit, as outlined by the report, is biodiesel’s ability to reduce harmful emissions. Recent renewed global awareness around the negative effects of industrial scale pollution has become a growing concern for the mining industry, which is under mounting pressure from investors and global social stakeholders to lower its environmental impact. The report states that, “biodiesel lowers carbon monoxide emissions by up to 48% and particulate matter emissions by up to 47% . . . sulfate emissions . . . can be reduced by up to 100% [compared with] regular diesel fuel”.
While these seem to be attractive benefits, InnoFES, an energy product supplier established in 2016 by mining and oil industry professionals initially looking to biodiesel applications and demand in South Africa, was met with a myriad of problems.
Grobler cites unreliable producers and exorbitant primary manufacturing oil costs, also known as feedstocks, as the main culprits for effectively irradiating the potential of the biodiesel market in South Africa.
Erroneous suppliers are largely to blame for undermining buyer confidence in the biodiesel market in recent years, he adds. He fervently warns prospective biodiesel users of the danger of untrustworthy biodiesel suppliers, stating that many such local suppliers have been caught cutting corners to save money and increase profit margins.
Grobler avers that, while these producers may offer their biodiesel at lower prices, below-par biodiesel inevitably costs mining houses much more than they realise. These suppliers often sell their biodiesel for automotive applications at prices as low as “R2.50/ℓ, but it isn’t biodiesel”, he stresses, adding that, “instead, they are supplying the substance extracted from tyres and plastic, which is acceptable for burners, but not for use in vehicles”.
Biodiesel that does not adhere to international quality-control standards will cause a plethora of issues, such as filter blockages and injector failure, in diesel engines. This may result in engine damage, forcing companies to repair or even replace their diesel engines. This has resulted in people being “afraid and sceptical” of biodiesel as an alternative fuel source, says Grobler.
As is the case with most energy alternatives, the biggest drawback of implementing biodiesel as a green energy solution is the overall expense of local biodiesel implementation costs cited by InnoFES. Grobler explains that the manufacturing process for biodiesel that meets international quality standards remains much too expensive in South Africa, and is not attractive enough to tempt large energy consumers such as mines. The feedstock for biodiesel has become vastly more expensive, leading to much higher production costs and resulting in a product pricing similar to that of conventional diesel fuels.
The only viable biodiesel feedstock in South Africa currently is used cooking oil (UCO); however, Grobler states that the cost of UCO has “dramatically” increased in recent years in response to growing local and global demand. Currently, biodiesel manufacturers can expect to pay between R7/ℓ to R8/ℓ for UCO, even before the UCO has been treated and turned into biodiesel.
While Grobler believes that biodiesel is not feasible in South Africa currently, he remains optimistic about the future. “I do believe that production costs will get cheaper. Cheaper is key.”