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Global Bioenergy: Who's Leading, Who's Following?

16 May 2011

GLOBAL - Heather Youngs is part of an analysis team at the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, writes Sarah Mikesell, senior editor of

Heather Youngs, analyst, Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley

The Energy Biosciences Institute team's role is to analyze the entire bioenergy sector from feedstock development to agronomy to plant genetics as well as bioenergy conversion - meaning how to take biomass and convert it into fuels and energy. Youngs and the team also analyze bioenergy law, policy and socioeconomics - the interplay of bioenergy with the social fear of how it will be implemented.

"We look at the entire bioenergy portfolio and make sure we are moving in the right direction," Youngs said. "We are very interested in doing things sustainably; we want to really understand what the long-term environmental impacts of biofuels are at large-scale levels."

In this two-part series, Youngs explains which countries are leading bioenergy efforts and also offers a view of successes and concerns specific to the US.

Global Market Influencers

A lot of recent attention has been on Brazil's plan to significantly expand their sugarcane production to 63 million hectares. Youngs said the Energy Biosciences Institute wrote a paper in the journal Science on this topic last August and believe that if Brazil completes the full expansion, it will equal 200 billion gallons of sugar cane ethanol. Youngs said that scenario includes being able to produce fuel from both the sugar and the bagasse or leftover plant residue.

"Brazil has expanded their zoning, and there are a lot of cleared acres in Brazil right now that are occupied by cattle grazing which is a really low density operation," she said. "They feel they can free this acreage up and grow sugar cane. There has been some controversy between the local government and sugar cane producers regarding creating an even larger area that is open to growing cane."

"There's a lot of risk in policy definition right now - probably more in the US than the EU - of the definition of renewable biomass and what counts toward our government incentives."
Heather Youngs, analyst, Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley

According to Youngs, Brazil has changed the status of sugar cane ethanol from an agriculture product to a fuel, so it will be regulated now as a strategic fuel rather than an agricultural product.

"Brazil tightly controls the fuel market; they plan and contract fuel about a year in advance," said Youngs. "Right now, sugar cane ethanol producers have an option to switch between producing ethanol or sugar depending on the market. It's an open question right now what this change in regulation status will do to that option."

Brazil's plan is projected over 20 years, taking them out to 2030. Youngs said the Energy Biosciences Institute's feeling is that Brazil's success will depend on how much foreign investment they allow.

"They are going to need some help with the capital; there are some big partnerships going on between the big oil companies and sugar producers," Youngs said. "One example is the $12 billion partnership between Shell and Cosan. How this will affect the international market will be interesting to watch."

And from an international perspective, Brazil is expected to focus on a few key markets.

"One target would be the US, but our current tariff on Brazilian ethanol is a barrier," said Youngs. "Trying to get into the EU market has been difficult. One of the strategies that we've been hearing is that Brazil has been working to transfer knowledge to growers and producers in African countries as a gateway to the EU."

And of course there's China, who has been very proactive about trying to include renewables like bioenergy in their portfolio, she said. Yet their energy demand is growing at a huge rate and the overall contribution is still small.

"Their biofuel program is getting a little hung up because they have a lot of concerns about achieving it sustainably," Youngs said.

Biogas plant supplied by Biotech at Panavila Muslim Working Women's Hostel, Trivandrum.

Youngs noted that China is struggling with water deficits in some regions. While Youngs believes their sustainability issues have pushed back their biofuels efforts, one area that continues to grow is biogas.

Biogas is a way to produce methane either from regular feedstock (biomass) or waste. It can be any kind of organic waste - including waste from garbage, animal waste or waste water from cities or sugar cane ethanol production.

"China and India have had a biogas program since the 1980s for rural family-scale use and in the last decade they've really moved to large biogas facilities, mainly at large-scale animal facilities" Youngs said. "There are several facilities that will process 300-500 tons of manure each day."

On the other hand, Germany has always had a large-scale approach and has concentrated on the most efficient means of conversion. Youngs noted that Germany is the leader in biogas technology with over 4,000 plants. In contrast, the US has 150. The Germans have put a lot of research into dedicated energy crops for biogas, which can be five times more efficient than waste biomass. In 2007, 47 per cent of biogas in Germany was from dedicated energy crops.

"Germans have concentrated on a very efficient conversion process and infrastructure," Youngs noted. "They've required all their biogas production facilities to be within about 4 kilometers to their pipeline. Whereas in other countries, the biogas pictures is very rural and is not connected to an organized infrastructure."

The UK is very active in the renewable fuels arena, Youngs noted. They are very concerned about limited resources for biomass and how they can they proceed in a way that is socially and environmentally sustainable.

"The UK is definitely concerned about the impact on farming and the landscape level impact," she said.

Developing Countries vs. Developed Countries

Whenever you look at a particular country, there's always an interest in trying to implement renewable energy and there's a role for bioenergy, says Youngs. The goals are just different depending on which country or area of the world you are looking at.

"For developing countries, it's really more about enabling small scale farmers to provide a basic means of access to energy on a daily basis; we are talking about cooking, heating and electricity," she said. "This is true for African countries and in remote regions of India, China and Tibet. A lot of those regions are using biomass now and are burning wood directly to create energy. Using more efficient and clean burning locally-generated biogas decreases air pollution in homes and saves labor."

For developed countries, there is typically a national policy goal to meet a volume or percentage requirement from a renewable source, she said. However, the top down process that creates the goals is also creating a significant disconnect between policy goals and what will be required to meet those goals.

"The thought is that if we establish the goals, then the industry will rise up to meet them, but in reality, we are seeing that it's not that easy," Youngs said. "There's a lot of risk in policy definition right now - probably more in the US than the EU - of the definition of renewable biomass and what counts toward our government incentives."

Incentives Are Needed

Programs in every country are requiring incentives to be successful. Youngs said a group is going in and making the technology available. For example, the Chinese government put in biogas facilities that the government paid for, increasing the number of homes with biogas systems from 18 million to 40 million in the last five years.

"For Germany, they found out that biogas production only works when there's a feed-in tariff. When they took away the feed-in tariff, production fell off," she said. "The market hasn't matured to what we would view as a market pull where the demand side is really pulling production. The technology still has to be incentivized."

Next week, we'll reveal Youngs' view of the US bioenergy market - what are they doing right and where they could improve their efforts. Part Two will post next Monday, May 23, 2011.

May 2011

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