The challenges facing bioenergy
The use of bioenergy is not without controversy. The main challenge is the negative impact of bioenergy generation from excessive land use. From an environmental point of view, growing feedstocks such as soybeans and corn can lead to more deforestation, degradation of soil, and harmful changes to ecosystems. From a social point of view, despite yield growth potentials, the more feedstock is used for biofuels, the less there will be for food production. This has been exacerbated by the Russia-Ukraine war, which has disrupted the global food supply chain as both countries are major exporters of several leading crops. Hence, concerns have arisen in the US that the increasing use of crops for biofuels will limit food supply and add pressure to food prices.
To tackle the problem in the long term, there needs to be a switch away from conventional, food-based biofuel feedstocks to advanced biofuels which use non-food crops, municipal solid waste, and agricultural and forest residues. The IEA forests that 60% of the global bioenergy supply in 2050 will need to come from sources that do not need dedicated land use to achieve net-zero emissions. Accelerating advanced biofuel production requires stronger incentives compared to those for conventional biofuels. In the US, the federal Biomass Crop Assistance Program provides financial assistance to producers of advanced biofuel feedstock. The Biden administration has also included in its FY23 budget $245m to accelerate the R&D of next-generation biofuel technologies.
Another challenge is that the traditional use of bioenergy (burning wood or traditional charcoal) remains controversial as it can cause more emissions and deforestation. The EU still categorises bioenergy as green in its Taxonomy, but has strengthened the criteria to exclude certain forms of wooden biomass from qualifying as “renewable”. In the US, the EPA sees bioenergy as a cleaner fuel, while also recognizing its negative potential if not managed well.
Moreover, bioenergy-based solutions face skepticism that the supply chain – which involves biomass growing, transportation, storage, and processing – can emit more CO2 and harm the environment. That is why more precise monitoring and reporting of life-cycle emissions along a bioenergy technology’s supply chain needs to be in place.
Finally, competing low-carbon technologies can complicate the growth of bioenergy. In the transport sector, the massive adoption of EVs will be a major threat to the demand for biofuels. As mentioned above, RNG developers are expanding their business footprint to the power sector, though these developers will likely encounter competition from renewable energy. Nevertheless, biofuels are still likely to maintain their niche in transportation, especially in heavy-duty trucks and airplanes, as it will be challenging for EVs to provide long-haul services without a step-change in technology.