March 2013

Biofuel under fire

Bioenergy touches upon some very urgent global issues. On the one hand, deployment of the right kind of biomass can help curb the greenhouse effect. After all, when using biomass as a source of energy, CO2 is released which these plants absorbed from the atmosphere during growth. Hence, in the ideal situation there is no net CO2 emission. On the other hand, irresponsible deployment of biomass may cause much harm.

First generation

It is mainly the first generation of biofuels that is currently under heavy fire. This is produced from food crops such as rapeseed or maize. Particularly the poorest will suffer when the price of their basic food rises. This will happen when the agricultural production is unable to keep up with the growing demand for these crops, which is partly caused by these crops being used as biofuel. Moreover, nature reserves disappear as a result of land being cleared for agricultural purposes. Consequently, the net reduction of CO2 emissions from first generation biofuels in practise turns out to be much lower than anticipated.

New sources

ECN therefore chooses to only develop technology for second and third generation biofuels which are not yet deployed commercially on a large scale. The second generation biofuels are made from woody and herbaceous crops, residue and waste flows such as straw and waste wood. The future will see a generation of biofuels made from ‘new’ sources such as algae and seaweed. These options do not use food as a feedstock. Nevertheless, second and third generation biofuels cannot be seen separately from the large claims placed on the earth by the growing world population; claims on resources, water, land and sea.

Lack of space

It will be difficult to sustain and feed a world population of 9 billion in 2050 and to also maintain enough space for nature and biomass production. A key role is played by the growing global meat consumption. Currently, more than two-thirds of the global agricultural area is used for the production of fodder. Some think that the solution lies in maximal intensification and technological innovation of agriculture and livestock farming, whereas others believe that we should simply cut back significantly on our meat consumption.

ECN’s contribution

So how does ECN contribute? We aim to ensure that to the extent that biomass is produced, this is done with due care and high efficiency. We are working on advanced technology to convert the relatively low-grade biomass flows in a clean and efficient manner into high-grade energy and other useful products. Moreover, we offer advice to authorities that need to make difficult choices in this complex dossier that touches upon all conceivable sustainability issues. This is another way in which ECN contributes to responsible deployment of biomass.

Hein de Wilde is researcher of energy use and emissions in transport at ECN. Would you like to respond to this blog? Send him an e-mail.