Adam Brown: A roadmap to navigate technology hurdles
British bioenergy expert says the sector has lost momentum and needs greater public policy support
Between 2010 and 2012 the International Energy Agency (IEA) developed a series of roadmaps on a range of topics related to renewable energy, providing guidance on addressing technology challenges in different scenarios. These roadmaps are now being updated and a new roadmap on bioenergy will be released within the year as the outcome of a scientific literature review that involved researchers from the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN). British physicist and IEA Bioenergy Technical Coordinator Adam Brown provided a preview of the new roadmap during the third edition of the Brazilian BioEnergy Science and Technology Conference (BBest), held October 17 to 19 in Campos do Jordão, São Paulo State, Brazil.
In an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, Brown said the global bioenergy sector is currently growing at a considerably slow pace. One of the reasons is the lack of clear policy guidance on the expansion of biofuels, says Brown, who holds a doctorate of chemical physics from Cambridge University, UK and has more than 35 years of experience working with both government and industry.
Founded in 1974 and based in Paris, France, the IEA is linked with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and is a leading source of thought leadership for the global energy industry.
On October 31 the IEA announced that Brazil had joined as an Association country alongside China, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Singapore and Thailand. Under the agreement, Brazil and the IEA plan to work jointly across a wide range of activities, including implementation of the Biofuture Platform, an initiative bringing together the public and private sectors across several countries to promote the use of biofuels. Read our interview with Adam Brown below.
What are the goals of the roadmap and how does the new edition differ from the previous ones?
The goal was to assess what is needed to make bioenergy happen in the future. The newly released roadmap also has this aim, but incorporates updated insights from scientific articles published in 2017 on new bioenergy technologies. Much has changed since the first roadmaps were published. For example, electric vehicles are being developed quite quickly. The fact is that bioenergy has been growing, but not very quickly, in recent years. New technologies and methods, such as second-generation ethanol, are being developed, but not as quickly as we foresaw.
As I mentioned before, electric vehicle production is growing and is promising, but remains incipient. Last year there were 2 million electric vehicles in the world. I think one of the main reasons for the loss of momentum in the bioenergy industry is the lack of clear policy guidance in many countries. We have talked about the policy uncertainty in Europe over the future of bioenergy. This uncertainty has led many countries not to put in place policies which really encourage bioenergy. The lack of policy support has curbed investment. Another issue is that fossil fuel prices have come down a lot. An oil barrel was US$120 back then and now it’s around US$55. So the fact that oil remains much cheaper means it’s much harder for biofuels to compete. In the electricity sector, the cost of other renewable technologies has come down a lot. In many cases, bioenergy for electricity is now more expensive. So the context in which bioenergy is operating is tougher than it was.
So is the problem the fact that the new bioenergy technology being researched and developed hasn’t reached decision makers?
For biofuels, bioenergy, and most low-carbon technologies to gain traction, you need to have policy frames which are helpful. And there’s a very big difference between a fossil fuel—where most of the expense is in production and refining—and most low-carbon technologies, which are much more capital intensive, especially in terms of research and development. But if you have policies in place that create a reliable and secure environment for the next 10 or 15 years then investors will be happier to proceed and will be able to borrow money at lower interest rates, and biofuels will ultimately be cheaper to produce. So there’s a link between the policy framework and the cost of the energy produced. If a country wants to have biofuels in the energy mix then the policies have to adapt to do that.
In recent years, pre-salt oil and gas production off Brazil’s coast has competed with biofuels for investment. Has this also played a part in weakening biofuels?
At least in Brazil you have a long-term experience in the market for biofuels. And Brazil has done a lot to encourage bioenergy production. So at least there are policy frameworks and there is a history of creating a market, which helps to secure investment. Those frameworks aren’t there in other countries. I think that is why Brazil has been a leader and still is. There’s a lot of bioenergy innovation in Brazil.
The roadmap makes projections for 2060. Are there any examples you could provide?
In our low greenhouse gas scenario for 2060 we see bioenergy playing a much bigger role than it does now, by about five times in terms of final energy production. That use is particularly concentrated in the transportation sector, where it is expected to increase from about 3 exajoules [3% of total transportation demand] today to 30 exajoules by 2060, or about tenfold. That means bioenergy and especially biofuels can’t be used in only a few countries. Emerging economies will continue to grow over the next decades, so there needs to be a diversification away from the few countries now that take biofuels seriously to many more countries. But that will only happen if these countries not only develop the technical capabilities to produce biofuels but also put in place the right policies.
In your presentation at BBest you discussed some of the controversies still remaining around bioenergy production. What are these controversies about?
Bioenergy is still considered to be controversial because of a number of concerns about whether it’s really sustainable. First of all, there are questions about whether it really saves carbon. There are also concerns about potential land-use changes and deforestation to produce biofuels. Chopping down prime tropical rain forest creates carbon debt by converting natural ecosystems into farmland for growing biofuel crops. So there are a series of concerns about the real benefits from bioenergy. Some of the questions that are being asked are: Will bioenergy compete with food production? Will bioenergy have an impact on wildlife and biodiversity? This is especially the case in Europe. In Brussels you will encounter a lot of people who come with the starting point that bioenergy is not a good thing. They need to be persuaded that it can be done in a sustainable way. That climate is different in countries like Brazil and the US, where bioenergy has seen wider acceptance.
But even in the US and Brazil there are those who feel that bioenergy could threaten food security and lead to more monoculture. What are your thoughts on this?
Bioenergy can never be said to be either good or bad. Like anything else, you can produce it in ways which have positive impacts or negative impacts. It’s quite clear there are some things you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t go to the rain forest and chop it down for any reason, never mind producing bioenergy. The secret is to identify ways in which you can do bioenergy and have positive outcomes, not negative ones. It means there are some things that you shouldn’t do, but there are also plenty of opportunities to use methods and techniques which don’t lead to competition with food, for example. There can be a synergy between food production and supply and bioenergy.
In 2015, FAPESP and the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment (SCOPE) issued a joint international report titled Bioenergy & Sustainability: Bridging the Gaps, describing not only success cases, but also what hasn’t worked.
Yes. There are currently concerns, for example, about the production of palm oil in parts of Asia because people believe that the opportunity to produce palm oil leads to deforestation. It is widely accepted that you shouldn’t use prime tropical forest land that have very carbon-rich soils. But there are some positive examples in Brazil, like intensifying cattle production in one area and thereby freeing land that can be used to grow sugarcane in a system that also benefits from the use of residual biomass to produce electricity.
So one of the IEA’s goals is to point to these positive examples.
We tried, in a roadmap, to identify ways in which you can produce bioenergy without creating impacts on food security. The IEA has produced a whole series of roadmaps covering more than 30 bioenergy technologies. In 2011 we produced a roadmap on biofuels for transportation and in 2012 we produced one on bioenergy for heat and power.
What are your thoughts on President Trump’s decision to repeal the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan?
I can’t really comment too much on that, except to say that it’s not clear yet exactly what the future holds for the US. And so far the Trump administration seems supportive of bioethanol production. We have to wait and see how things pan out in the US before we can assess where it is heading.
What advice could you give to Brazil from the IEA’s new roadmap?
I think we see that, increasingly, bioenergy needs to be well meshed with the rest of the agricultural system. That means integrating the production of food, fuel and other agricultural produce. And Brazil has already put many ideas like these into practice. When you look to the future, where bioenergy can play the biggest role, particularly for long road transportation, clearly a wider range of fuels will be needed other than just ethanol and second-generation ethanol. Bioethanol will certainly still have a big role, but there’s also a role for fuels which can be used, for example, in aviation and shipping, and this should be an increasing focus in Brazil. So we need to concentrate on ways of optimizing the efficiency with which we make these fuels. If you have a biofuel with a 50% improvement on gasoline, that’s great; but if you go to a very low carbon scenario, then that needs to improve a lot. A major research effort in the sector is far overdue.