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2nd-gen biofuels can play “crucial role” - IEA

The potential for sustainable second-generation biofuels is considerable, while first-generation biofuels have only limited potential, concludes a study by the International Energy Agency.

Second-generation biofuels are produced from agricultural and forestry residues, and do not compete with food production, explains Sustainable Production of Second-Generation Biofuels - Potential & Perspectives in Major Economies & Developing Countries.

The study focuses on the opportunities and risks for countries and notes that, by 2030, 10% of global biomass residues could provide 50% of the biofuels required to reduce carbon emissions and keep global temperature rise to 2°C above pre-industrial levels

“It is increasingly understood that first-generation biofuels have only a limited potential to provide sustainable fuels, and that a switch to more efficient technologies is needed” to avoid low profitability, minimal lifecycle emission savings and negative impact on global food prices of first-generation biofuels," says Didier Houssin of IEA.

“If second-generation biofuels are produced from agricultural or forestry residues, the problems related to first-generation biofuel production can be avoided, creating a win-win-situation for farmers.”

“The production of second-generation biofuels offers great opportunities for the agricultural sector in these countries,” adds Mike Enskat of Germany’s Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) which financed the report. “However, the mistakes in the production of first-generation biofuels must not be repeated.”

Intensive biofuels RD&D needed

“To ensure a successful deployment of second-generation biofuels technologies requires intensive RD&D efforts over the next 10 to 15 years,” the report concludes. “The technical development will mainly take place in OECD countries and emerging economies with sufficient RD&D capacities like Brazil, China and India.

“In many developing countries, the framework conditions needed to set up a second-generation biofuel industry are not currently sufficient,” it notes. “The main obstacles that need to be overcome include poor infrastructure, lack of skilled labour and limited financing possibilities.”

Evaluating second-generation biofuels

Investments in agricultural production and infrastructure improvements would promote rural development and can significantly improve the framework for a second-generation biofuels industry, and this will allow developing countries to enter second-generation biofuels production once technical and costs barriers have been reduced or eliminated.

“The suitability of second-generation biofuels for countries’ respective needs has to be evaluated against other bioenergy options; this should be part of an integrated land use and rural development strategy, to achieve the best possible social and economic benefits,” it explains.

“Agricultural and forestry residues should be the feedstock of choice in the initial stage of the production, since they are readily available and do not require additional land cultivation,” the report states.

“More detailed research is still needed to ensure that second-generation biofuels will provide economic benefits for developing countries; this research includes a global road map for technology development, an impact assessment of commercial second-generation biofuel production, and improved data on available land.”

How to assess biofuels potential

It is too early to assess the potential social, economic and environmental impacts of large-scale second-generation biofuel production, but the report suggests research steps to understand the potential and the impact of second-generation biofuels in developing countries and emerging economies. Among the steps:

  • Creation of a global road map for second-generation biofuels, to enable governments and industry to identify steps needed and to implement measures to accelerate the required technology development and uptake;
  • Set-up of pilot and demonstration plants outside the OECD in order to develop supply chain concepts, assess feedstock characteristics, and analyse production costs in different parts of the world;
  • Collection of field data from commercial second-generation biofuel production from residues to better understand impacts on agricultural markets and the overall economic situation in developing countries; and
  • Improved data accuracy on sustainably available land in developing countries to determine the potential for dedicated energy crops.

“Less developed countries will first need to invest in agricultural production and infrastructure in order to promote rural development, which will help these countries to significantly improve the framework conditions for the production of second-generation biofuels,” says Paolo Frankl of the IEA Renewables Division. “This way, these countries can profit from the new industry, once technical and economic barriers have been overcome.”

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