Biofuels are set to replace 10 per cent of EU transportation fuel by 2020. Yet, the long-term sustainability of first generation biofuels, made from grains and vegetable oils, has raised concerns as production starts to compete with food supplies.
Attention has now turned to second generation biofuels, produced from non-edible sources such as wood or waste plant residual like straw. In the next decade, these biofuels are expected to replace three to five per cent of transport fuel.
At the moment however second generation biofuel production is not commercially viable, says the most recent 2010 International Energy Agency report. Sylvain LeDuc, from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis has been looking at the consequences of scaling up biofuel production and the conflicting policy implications this may have in Europe.
What does your research involve?
My work looks at the production of second-generation biofuels from woody biomass, such as managed forests of willow or popular plants. This involved identifying the most cost effective locations for the biomass plants. For example moving the feedstock, the woody biomass, over long distances (from where it is grown to where it is processed) will increase costs. Since biomass is a limited resource, the best use of wood was also looked at as there are several industries competing for the feedstock. The pulp and paper industry, sawmills and Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plants are the three main candidates.
How did you do this?
So we asked what is the best use of the forest right now? We looked at the total amount of woody biomass available in Europe today. The demand for existing industries, paper and saw mills, was taken out. Using the feedstock left over, we calculated the best use of this resource in terms of cost, efficiency and carbon emissions.
And what was the best use?
CHP plants are preferred over biofuel production plants, unless financial support for biofuels is high. We assumed that the biofuel plants were already up and running commercially and found for one tonne of wood, it will cost less and produce more energy if the wood is convert into heat and power instead of biofuels. This could have big policy implications for the future. In addition, carbon emissions were greater from the biofuel production so CHP plants in have a greater mitigation potential.
How will this alter the EU plans for biofuels?
What policy the EU should put into place to meet the 2020 target will change depending on what the objectives are and if it is to meet the transportation fuel quota then high financial support will be needed. If it were to meet carbon emissions, then CHP would be a better option. So conflicting policies would need to be chosen between. For example, a large policy instrument and high financial support would be needed if the EU wants to push forward second generation biofuels into the market.
So then electric cars make more sense?
Yes, that is what our work shows us. It is more efficient to use the wood to produce heat and electricity and charge our cars than to convert it into biofuels to use as a fuel.
But aren’t the two activities aiming at different markets? CHP produces electricity whereas biofuels are liquid fuel we can put in our cars?
That is the big problem. With biofuels, people can carry on happily driving their normal cars. If we decide to use biomass for CHP instead, a big transportation system change would be needed. You’d need to buy a completely new electric car.
Do you think EU will reach its 10% target by 2020?
Yes this can be achieved overall but maybe not domestically produced. Biofuel can be imported from other countries outside the EU such as Brazil.
by Becky Summers, City University, London