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Mace Group is a construction contracting and project management consultancy company, established in 1993 with its headquarters at Atelier House-London. The company is said to have undergone rapid-expansion and growth over these few years of incorporation, employing over 2000 people. It operates over 50-construction projects at any one time, and diesel-powered construction plants are used on most of them. However, as part of its commitment to promote sustainable development, the firm is seriously considering ways of reducing the carbon footprint of its construction process. In view of this objective, Mace-Group is considering the use of biofuels as a replacement to petrodiesel. Hence, the need for this MoTI consultancy project, to assess the feasibility.
The Consultancy Project:
This research project involved assessing the feasibility of using biofuels in construction plant, with special focus on operations of our client organization (Mace Group Ltd). The project team constituting four (MPhil ESD) students from centre for sustainable development, was inaugurated on 14th January 2010-with the mandate to investigate, identify and report to the client any possibility or otherwise of having biodiesel as alternative to petrodiesel in construction industry. The cross-disciplinary team, which comprised (1-Mechanical Engineer, 1-Civil Engineer, 1-Production Engineer and 1-Environmental Engineer); was given a timeframe of 9-weeks within which findings, report and recommendations on the project would be made available to the client. My personal role in the teamwork was to investigate specifically, technical issues associated with use of biofuels in engines and construction equipment.
The project team was saddled with the challenge of answering the following research question: "What are the possibilities of using biofuels in construction plant, to reduce the carbon footprint of the construction process"?
The scope of the project covered the following topical issues:
Identify and report any previous directly relevant studies.
Investigate technical-issues in respect of using biofuels in construction plant.
Investigate ethical-issues in respect of use of biofuels in construction process.
Investigate costs/availability of biofuels in the UK, and recommend suppliers.
Identify any quality/technical standards or industry guidance that should be adhered when using biofuels.
Summarize findings and make recommendations to Mace-Group, on whether use of biofuels is viable option.
Considering, the fact that our research question covered almost entire life-cycle of biofuels: from security of supply to technical issues, and from ethical/regulation issues to cost-benefit-analysis; the methodology for our investigations was not uniform across the board. The methodologies applied to the project varied according to specific sub-issue being investigated. However, it broadly included the following: Review of existing literature on biofuels production/use, review of specific-case study materials on application of biofuels in construction industry (UK & US), semi-structured interview of stakeholders (producers/consumers in the UK), special enquiries from equipment manufacturers (e.g. CAT/Volvo/Cummins/DAF/John Deere/etc), and field work (site-visit) to select construction sites around Cambridge.
COMMENTARY/ANALYSIS OF THE MAIN PROJECT ISSUES
Biodiesel Production/Security of Supply:
Our investigation on this theme revealed that biodiesel is a renewable and clean burning fuel, which is sourced directly from plants and vegetables; which make it a clean-source of energy supply. A critical analysis on biofuels, using techniques/analytical tools from MoTI taught component confirmed that current exponential growth and wide interest in biodiesel production, is influenced by factors such as: concerns for global energy security, peoples' awareness of environmental and economic issues, and response to evidence of global warming/climate change. From all the analysis made, it is obvious that biodiesel is well positioned and it is set to take over the market from petrodiesel, in terms of meeting carbon reductions. However, the future of biodiesel in terms of sustainable feedstock supply; to create the desired synergies with demand is uncertain. Our studies reveal that for now, the market is ready, the production processes are ready; but the future of feedstock supply from agriculture remains a critical issue.
Technical Issues with use of Biodiesel:
The team was able to establish from results of different empirical studies, that biodiesel runs smoothly on existing-petroldiesel-engines without significant modifications. Here, the experience derived from decision theory as taught component of MoTI, was used to understand how these decisions are considered with many alternatives. It was found under this analysis that biodiesel and its various blends have similar engine-performance-characteristics to petrodiesel, and can run effectively in existing-diesel engines. However, because of its different solvent properties, biodiesel can degrade rubber parts in engines such as gaskets and hoses. Also, at low temperatures, biodiesel waxes and becomes totally solidified at extreme low temperatures. Another technical challenge the team found with biodiesel use is that water ingress into the fuel at production stage, reduces heat of combustion of the fuel. This means users might experience more engine smoke, harder starting and less engine power. Water was also confirmed to cause, corrosion of vital fuel system components such as: fuel pumps, injector pumps and fuel lines.
Environmental Impacts, Ethical & Regulation Issues:
On this theme, knowledge gained from decision-theory and sustainability-assessment tools in ESD3 were fully deployed to understand the economic/environmental views, the different approaches to valuing the environment, and their difficulties. A life cycle analysis as part of experience gained from MPhil taught component, was employed to thoroughly analyze ethical-issues associated with use of biofuels in the construction industry. It was established that biodiesel has minimal environmental-impacts compared to petrodiesel, in terms of magnitude of carbon emissions. There are also flexible governments' regulations to encourage wider participation. The team however, realized that while the advantages of using biodiesel appear to be many, the increased use of biodiesel on commercial scale again calls for careful considerations. The positive impacts such as; reduction in carbon emissions are evident, but indirect negative-impacts such as security of feedstock supply from agriculture and land use, are more critical issues to deal with. Biodiesel production from agriculture requires intensive land cultivation and this poses great danger to global-food security.
Cost Benefits Analysis, Tax & Rebate Issues:
Combined tools from micro-economics and decision-theory were used here, to analyze the costs benefits of biofuels over fossilfuels. It was confirmed that biodiesel, though potentially effective in mitigating green-house-gas (GHG) emissions and general environmental benefits; has other supply chain issues that might prove too expensive for its use as alternative fuel in the construction industry. In the UK for example, our cost benefits analysis revealed that promotion of biofuels use is unlikely to add much to GHG savings. It was surprising to discover that the costs associated with the promotion of biofuels use, will largely outweigh potential-benefits. The uncertainties surrounding this situation are too enormous to determine the exact future of biofuels use, and the future of its sustainable supply lies very bleak. Also, like many other emerging-clean-technologies today, biodiesel production/utilization appears like an expensive, challenging, knowledge-based business that involves a lot of uncertainties; and there are no guarantees of success at the moment, with respect to commercial-quantity demand/supply.
Equipment Manufacturers' Position/Warranty Issues:
The present position of heavy-equipment-manufacturers has made the future of biodiesel even very 'cloudy'. Over 70% of the suppliers contacted by our team, for their individual-positions on the use of biodiesel in heavy-construction-plant could not guarantee its use in their equipment. Diesel engines/heavy equipment manufacturing giants such as: CAT/Perkins/John Deere/Volvo-expressly stated that for now, the use of biodiesel in any of their equipment automatically invalidates customer's warranty on the equipment. A few companies such as: Cummins/Isuzu/Detroit/etc-approve the use of standard biodiesel not exceeding 20%. However, 100% biodiesel use now, is completely out-of-the-question, as manufacturers are not ready to take any risk on their equipment. Manufacturers' unsupportive/un-encouraging position is based on the premise that use of biofuels could lead to any of the following issues: fuel system seal failures and filter clogging, fuel injector blockage resulting in poor atomization of biodiesel, increased injection pressure and corrosion of fuel system components.
Project Summary/Recommendations to Client:
Based on the team's investigations/findings, a presentation was done to the client, and the followings 'open-ended' recommendations were made to Mace-Group; leaving them with the decision to choose what they consider best to meet their aspirations:
That for now, the security of biofuels-supply in the UK in large commercial quantity is yet to be guaranteed, to support heavy construction industries usage.
That biodiesel is found to be very compatible with existing-diesel-engines, and can be used in construction-plants with little or no modifications.
That environmental impact of biofuels are found to be very minimal compared to petrodiesel, and biodiesel is confirmed to reduce carbon-footprint of construction process.
That in terms of cost-benefits, it is unlikely that biodiesel usage will add much to GHG savings, and costs might likely outweigh the potential-benefits.
That at the moment, original-equipment-manufacturers (OEM), are not fully in support of biodiesel use in their machinery; and such usage automatically invalidates warranty.
This project was indeed very challenging, as it exposed one to 'messy-realities' of dealing with a complex real-life issue; but at the same time rewarding, in that it availed me of the opportunity to exhibit my dynamism and apply the lessons learnt from taught components to a practical-world-issue. I deployed and relied heavily on analytical-tools learned from strategy, decision theory and micro-economic modules of MoTI to tackle my specific-tasks. To me, the daunting and most frustrating aspect of this exercise was, the challenges involved with managing stakeholders' expectations, as-well-as data/information synchronization from wide-variety-of sources. But, I think the most interesting and tricky aspect learned here, is the exposure to contrasting methods of reaching decisions on contentious issues. The MoTI taught modules assisted in no small measure to achieve the project-objectives; especially on issues of strategic, financial and economic importance. The challenges highlighted-here, were also overcome basically by sustained-team spirit, effective communication and strong desire to meet the project objectives and client's aspirations.
The overall impact of this exercise on me is the opportunity to enhance my critical reasoning/decision-making ability. The fascinating part I can ultimately take-away is the team work experiences, which involved the idea of engaging all-members in an issue; to dialogue together and arrive at a decision that would no longer be challenged by any-one-party. I found the exercise very-exciting, and I view it as the most appropriate way of acquiring hands-on training-experience, and business-acumen. The best learning-experience took place along the lines of managing stakeholders' expectations and overcoming obstacles to deliver on overall-project-goals. There were no specific-issues with project-objectives/team formation, but I rather view the project-scope to be too broad for the timeframe of 9-weeks. Finally, I would like to personally-emphasize that biofuels, though appears to have high potential for mitigating the-carbon-footprint, the threshold of its entry into the market is also very high-viewing from financial/economic perspectives. With unfolding contentions on biofuels-supply and global food-supply, only time shall reveal the actual path forward!