New Book Addresses Biofuel Future

Tuesday, May 11, 2004
“In the absence of strong government policies, we project that the worldwide use of oil in transport will nearly double between 2000 and 2030, leading to a similar increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” said Claude Mandil, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) at the launch in Paris today of “Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective”.

“Biofuels, such as ethanol, biodiesel and other fuels derived from biomass could help change this picture, by offering an important low-greenhouse-gas alternative to petroleum over this time frame.”

This new IEA publication looks at recent trends in biofuel production and considers how the future may look if recent initiatives in IEA countries and around the world are fully implemented. The report takes a global perspective on the nascent biofuels industry, assessing regional similarities and differences as well as the cost and benefits of the various biofuel options and technologies.

A major finding of the IEA’s analysis is that recent policy initiatives, if fully implemented, could result in up to a 5% displacement of motor gasoline use with biofuel (mainly ethanol) worldwide by 2010. This would represent an important step. However, in OECD regions most of this production will likely be of conventional ethanol using grain feedstocks such as corn and wheat. While this type of biofuels production can provide important benefits, production costs are generally high and reductions in fossil energy use and CO2 emissions are modest. Further, grain-based ethanol (as well as conventional oil-seed-based biodiesel) must compete for land with crop production for other purposes, such as for food and animal feed, and supplies are likely to be limited.

“Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective” also reports that countries such as Brazil and India – that can grow and utilize sugar cane as a primary feedstock – are already producing relatively low-cost bio-ethanol with excellent characteristics. The high-yielding sugar cane that these countries use also provides sufficient crop waste to power the conversion of sugar to ethanol, virtually eliminating the need for fossil energy inputs and providing large “well-to-wheel” reductions in CO2. Since over the next two decades these and other developing countries may be able to produce more sugar cane ethanol than they need domestically, the IEA proposes that a global trade in biofuels be more rigorously pursued and identifies existing obstacles to this trade.

However, for the longer term, research into advanced biofuels production techniques is bearing fruit. It now appears likely that within a few years the first commercial-scale production facilities will be built to produce ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks such as crop wastes, grasses and trees, using far less fossil energy and providing much larger reductions in “well-to-wheel” CO2 emissions per litre of fuel than the current processes. Use of cellulosic feedstocks would also substantially increase potential biofuels supply. Advanced biomass conversion to synthetic diesel fuel is also under development, using gasification and other techniques, which could eventually allow commercial production of much higher yielding, low-greenhouse-gas biodiesel fuel.

The book reviews these important developments, but stresses that much greater government attention and support for demonstration and commercialization of this “next generation” of biofuels is needed in order to ensure that they succeed and that the potential benefits of biofuels use in the future are maximized.

Overall, the book finds that the future for biofuels use around the world is bright, though current production practices in IEA countries fall short of maximizing the potential benefits on offer.

Biofuels for Transport: An International Perspective may be ordered from IEA Books, International Energy Agency, 9 rue de la Fédération 75739 Paris Cedex 15. Fax: (+33 1 40.57.6559, e-mail: books@iea.org, www.iea.org/books.

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