IEA finds biofuels contribute to sustainable energy future

By Kris Bevill | April 22, 2011

A long-term roadmap for biofuels recently released by the International Energy Agency shows that biofuels have the potential to comprise 27 percent of the global transport fuels market by 2050, an impressive increase over the industry’s current 2 percent share. The report, “Technology Roadmap: Biofuels for Transport,” is one of a series of roadmaps being prepared by the IEA aimed at advancing global development and uptake of key technologies to reach a 50 percent CO2 equivalent emissions reduction by 2050 over 2005 levels. The roadmaps will be made available for governments, industries and their financial partners to identify steps needed to advance and implement technologies, such as those developed currently for advanced biofuels.

Sustainability was a major focus of the IEA’s biofuels report, which stated that there are three pillars of sustainability that must be considered: environment, economic and social. Current trends of energy supply and use are unsustainable in all three areas, according to the report. The IEA found that biofuels, if developed and expanded thoughtfully, can contribute to a sustainable energy future. “Through careful management and appropriate project choice and design, negative impacts can be minimized or avoided, and biofuel projects can in fact have positive impacts,” the agency stated in its report. An example of this type of project, according to the report, could be perennial energy crops grown on marginal lands, which would reduce erosion, increase carbon stocks and water retention, and provide additional income for rural economies.

The conventional biofuels and advanced biofuels industries must address separate hurdles in order to continue to expand and contribute to lessening greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the report. Conventional biofuels’ conversion technologies should be improved to increase efficiency, lower costs and improve the overall sustainability of the production process. Because the advanced biofuels industry is yet to reach commercialization, it requires further research and development and strong policy support, the report stated.

Short-term recommendations highlighted in the report include phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and introducing a carbon pricing mechanism to encourage the deployment of GHG emission reduction technologies. Policymakers should create stable, long-term policy frameworks for biofuels that will increase investor confidence and allow biofuels production to expand. Federal loan guarantees and grants should be provided to alleviate the high amount of risk related to commercial-scale advanced biofuel plants. “Mandates alone are not enough to promote the deployment of those technologies that perform best in terms of land use, energy efficiency, GHG reductions and social and economic impacts,” the report stated. “This is particularly true for advanced biofuels, which are currently disadvantaged by higher production costs.” In the long term, financial incentives for biofuels should be linked to their respective sustainability and even those incentives should be phased out over time, as biofuels become competitive with fossil fuels. The IEA’s low-cost scenario shows most biofuel technologies becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels by 2030.

In order to meet the 2050 production projections, the biofuels industry needs to commercialize advanced biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, by 2015, the agency found. The IEA also recommended that industry should develop and implement sustainability certification schemes, develop efficient integrated process technologies for biorefineries, engage in public-private partnerships, establish large-scale field trials and develop new feedstocks, and share demonstration project data more widely to improve public acceptance.

The Global Renewable Fuels Alliance applauded the report’s findings and said it falls in line with the organization’s stance that biofuels can play a role in securing the world’s energy future. “The IEA confirmed that biofuels can reduce GHG emissions and improve energy security without jeopardizing food security,” said GRFA spokesman Bliss Baker. The GRFA specifically supports the IEA’s recommendation for long-term, stable biofuels policies and funding guarantees for advanced biofuel technologies.