At the time of the first oil crisis, oil provided nearly half of New Zealand’s primary energy needs but the country’s oil self sufficiency was less than 10 percent. Reducing dependence on imported oil became, from the mid-1970s to at least the mid-1980s, one of the primary objectives of New Zealand’s official energy policy.
Throughout this period, a significant and growing portion of New Zealand’s research effort was devoted to the production, harvesting, and processing of biomass for energy. In fact, by the early 1980s more than 80 percent of expenditure on New Zealand’s new and emerging renewable energy research was being spent on biomass, chiefly on research into using biomass to produce a liquid replacement for the imported oil used in road transport (EECA, 1996). There are a number of pathways by which this may be achieved (see Figure A1). However, it was technologies that allowed for the conversion of biomass into alcohols (via gasification to methanol, and hydrolysis to ethanol), which received the greatest attention in New Zealand during this period. About half the effort went into research on potential resource availability while most of the rest focused on improving energy conversion processes or issues associated with the performance of equipment using biofuels (EECA, ibid.). Thus, a considerable amount of the research effort was focused on the technical and economic aspects of converting forest crops into alcohols. Invariably, the conclusion of this research was that while a switch from oil to home grown biofuels was technically possible, the economic cost of making such as switch would be substantial. The analysis showed that the fuels produced by such a program would be substantially more expensive - at least 50 percent and in many cases twice as expensive – than petroleum-based fuels (Anon, 1979, EECA ibid.).
Figure A1: Conversion Routes from Wood to Transport Fuel
As the 1980s advanced, declining oil prices (refer Figure 2 in the main text), as well as the results of the various bioenergy studies plus an increase in types of oil/transport fuels, self-sufficiency increased to around 50 percent in New Zealand. This was achieved through the utilization of natural gas resources and the discovery and development of a number of small indigenous oil fields rather than any dramatic new use of biomass. There was subsequently a waning of interest in New Zealand in bio-based transport fuels research. Research from this period tended to concentrate upon such things as firewood or the ability of woodfuel crops to provide other benefits (e.g. to help solve a waste disposal problem). Shula (1990) provides a ready reference to important international material on most issues relating to energy forestry and a clear documentation of New Zealand’s forest energy experience up to 1989.
Most recently the New Zealand focus has been restricted more to looking at the recovery of a bioenergy component from conventional forestry, to identifying the current and projected energy use in a number of sectors of the economy (see ECCA, various), at the direct combustion of the energy component from conventional forestry crops and waste materials in (typically) combined heat and power (CHP) plants and in seeking to gain a better understanding of possible implications of international commitments relating to greenhouse emissions on the economics of bioenergy (Tustin, 2000).