The Feasibility Of Biofuels Use Construction Essay

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Background of Client Organisation: Mace Group is a construction contracting and project management consultancy company, established in 1993, with its headquarters in Atelier House-London. The company has undergone rapid expansion and growth over these few years of incorporation. Currently, the firm employs over 2000 people and has a turnover of about £680M. Mace is said to operate over 50 construction projects at any one time and diesel-powered construction plant are used on most of them. However, as part of its commitment to promote sustainable development, the company 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 any possibilities.

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 professional engineers (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.

Project Objectives/Scope: The project team was saddled with a 'tough challenge' of answering (within a short timescale), 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 biofuel (i.e. potential for engine damage, availability of guarantees from engine manufacturers, possible need to modify engines, possible increase in other emissions and carbon reduction through use of different grades/types of biofuels).

Investigate ethical issues in respect of the use of biofuels in construction process.

Investigate the costs and availability of biofuels in the UK. Identify and recommend suppliers of verified-ethical products. Identify any additional costs in respect of use of such biofuels.

Identify any quality standards, technical standards or industry guidance that should be adhered when using biofuels.

Summarise findings and make a recommendation to Mace as to whether use of biofuels is a viable and ethical means of reducing the carbon footprint of the construction process.

The Research Methodology: Considering the fact, that the research question given to us covered almost entire life-cycle of biofuels-from security of supply to technical issues, and ethics/regulations 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 case study materials on application of biofuels in construction industry (UK & US), semi-structured interview of stakeholders (producers/consumers in the UK), specific enquiries with equipment manufacturers (telephone/email correspondences with: CAT, Volvo, Cummins, DAF, John Deere etc), and field work (site visit) to select construction sites around Cambridge.


2.1 Biodiesel Production/Security of Supply: Our investigation on this theme revealed that biodiesel is a renewable energy and clean burning fuel that is sourced directly from plants and vegetables or recycled household vegetable oil; which makes it a clean source of energy. 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 about 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 synergy 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.

2.2 Technical Issues with use of Biodiesel: Pertinent issues covered in this area include: engine performance on biodiesel, carbon reduction/other emissions, and possibility of engine/equipment modifications before use of biodiesel. The team was able to establish from results of different empirical studies that biodiesel runs smoothly on existing petroldiesel engines without any significant modifications. Here, the experience derived from decision theory as a taught component of MoTI became useful, in understanding how these decisions are considered in the face of many alternatives, and the potential probabilistic risks with direct bearing on technical issues. 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 without any significant modifications on the 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 tempreatures. 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.

2.3 Environmental Impacts, Ethical Issues & Regulations: On this theme too, knowledge gained from decision theory and sustainability assessment tools in ESD3 were fully deployed to understand the economic and 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 to use of 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 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 that poses great danger to global food security.

2.4 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, in the entire life cycle. It was confirmed that production of biodiesel though potentially effective in mitigating GHG emissions and general environmental benefits; has other supply chain and processing 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 greenhouse gas 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 in the UK, and the future of its sustainable supply lies very bleak. According to some studies, the direct and indirect costs involved in the cultivation, production and use of biofuels may negate perceived savings and emissions reductions. Like many other emerging clean technologies today, biodiesel production is 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 and supply.

2.5 Equipment Manufacturers' Positions/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 position on use of biodiesel in heavy construction plant could not guarantee use of biodiesel in their equipment. Diesel engines/heavy equipment giants such as; CAT, Perkins, John Deere, Volvo-expressly stated that for now; the use of biodiesel in any of their equipment automatically invalidate customer's warranty on the equipment. A few companies such as; Cummins, Isuzu, Detroit, etc-approve the use of standard biodiesel not exceeding 20%. 100% biodiesel use now, is completely out of the question as manufacturers are not ready to take any risk on their equipment. Manufacturers' unsupportive and 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.

2.6 Project Summary/Recommendations to Client: Based on the team's investigations and 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 plant without significant modifications. However, in extreme cold weather conditions where biofuel gel and waxes, additional tank may be constructed for blending or heated fuel lines may be added to thin the solidified biofuel.

That environmental impact of biofuels use is found to be very minimal compared to petrodiesel, and biodiesel is confirmed to reduce the carbon footprint of construction process.

That in term 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 in any way, is at the detriment of the customers and may automatically invalidate their equipment/engine warranty.

3. SELF REFLECTION/DISCUSSION: To provide a critical, but fair assessment of this MoTI consultancy project is another challenging task on its own; considering the diversity and complexities involved with the project: from overwhelming aspirations of the client, to analyzing real-world challenges of biofuels production and use in commercial context. The project was indeed very challenging, as it exposed one to 'messy realities' of dealing with complex real-life issues; but at the same time rewarding in that it averred me the rare opportunity to exhibit my dynamism and apply the lessons learnt from taught components to practical-world issues. 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 the exercise was the challenges involved with managing stakeholders' expectations and data acquisition/information gathering from various sources. But, I think the most interesting and tricky aspect learned, is the exposure to contrasting methods of reaching decisions on contentious issues. The MoTI taught modules assisted in no small measure in achieveing the project objectives; especially on issues of strategic, financial and economic importance. The challenges highlighted were also overcome basically by sustained team spirit, effective communication and strong desire to meet the project objectives and client's aspirations.

4. LESSONS LEARNT/CONCLUSION: The overall impact of this exercise on me is the opportunity to enhance my critical reasoning and decision making ability. The fascinating part I can ultimately take away is the team work experience. The ideas of engaging all stakeholders in an issue; to dialogue together and arrive at a decision that would no longer be challenged by any one party are the tricky part learned. Being my first experience to a consulting project of this kind, I found the exercise most exciting, and I view it as the most appropriate way of acquiring hands-on training experience, and business acumen. The best learning experience in this exercise 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 and team formation, but I rather view the project scope to be too wide for the timeframe of 9 weeks. As a final thought however, I would like to strongly emphasize here 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 and economic perspectives. With unfolding events on biofuels supply and global food supply, only time shall reveal the actual path forward!