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Analysis

Global Trends in the Bioenergy Sector

Wed, 02/19/2014 - 08:41

The use of renewable resources to generate energy has become an iron-clad priority to create a sustainable world with bioenergy being an important contributor, given its role as a potential substitute for conventional power generation and fuel production. Biomass, composed by products from agriculture, forestry and waste among other sources, represents the fourth-largest energy source after coal, oil and natural gas. This positions it as the renewable energy resource with the highest availability, able to fulfill energy needs both locally and globally. However, land availability is an important factor to consider in determining the full potential of generating energy from biomass.

Another important aspect is that algae have not largely been taken into account in determining bioenergy capacity, while being a valuable potential energy source. Bioenergy production has been closely linked to government policies since the production of low-cost biomass fuels is highly dependent on local incentives. But the global increase in the price of fossil fuels is incentivizing a faster growth of the biomass and biofuels sectors as the security and the diversification of energy sources becomes an ever higher priority. According to the World Bioenergy Association report on bioenergy potential, the global primary production of biomass has reached 4,500EJ (exajoules) per year. By using 5% of this amount, almost 50% of the world’s primary energy demand in 2006 would have been covered. However, there are fears that the use of biomass for energy production could negatively impact the economy and the environment. For bioenergy to bring the private and public sector together, it is essential to demonstrate that its advantages exceed the costs of any potential environmental damage.

First generation biofuels are currently being produced from sources such as corn, raising food security issues that threaten to limit their role in future energy supply. On the other hand, sugarcane ethanol biofuels avoid greenhouse emissions and can be produced in a sustainable way. The role of biofuel by-products have not been usually taken into account when charting the benefits of biofuels and their possible uses in the livestock industry. If these are accounted for, the amount of land needed and the demand for cropland is reduced. The production of second generation biofuels allows for the use of feedstocks that do not compete with foodstuffs and can be grown on marginal land, largely avoiding land usage issues and posing no risks to food security.

The global biomass market is still quite centralized, with the large markets of Brazil, India and the US accounting for around 50% of the total industrial use of biomass worldwide. However, more diversification is becoming a possibility with the use of biomass gasification for use as a complementary fuel in combined cycle power plants. But for the moment, the low price of natural gas makes it the more cost- competitive choice. The clear leader in the production of biofuels is the US with a 48% share of the global market. In order to promote the use of biofuels in markets such as the US and Brazil, the latter accounting for 22% of global biofuel consumption, public policies have been enforced to blend biofuels with gasoline. These are examples that show that bioenergy production is linked to public policies and to the commitment of countries to mitigate climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Biomass includes wood and agricultural crops, herbaceous and energy crops, organic wastes and manure. In developing countries, these resources are largely consumed for cooking and heating with considerable impacts on health and the environment. In these countries, modern bioenergy supply is minute when compared to traditional uses. However, a total of 280TWh of bioenergy electricity was produced globally in 2010, accounting for 1.5% of the world’s electricity generation, with 8EJ of bioenergy for heat also being used by industry. In 2011, 10% of the world’s total energy supply was generated from biofuels and waste, actually marking a step back from the 10.6% it accounted for in 1971, thirty years earlier.

As stated in the study for Large Industrial Uses of Energy Biomass by the IEA, the use of biomass for energy purposes is growing in the world. The International Energy Agency’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2012 present cost effective strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the energy sector by 50% in 2050 compared to 2005 levels with the objective of stabilizing atmospheric greenhouse gases around 450 parts per million and limiting the global temperature rise to 2°C by the end of this century. According to this roadmap, bioenergy can play an important role in reducing emissions, and its share of world primary energy supply is expected to increase from the current 10% to 24% by 2050.