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Symposium 2009

Proposal - Realizing value from biomass utilization: looking beyond biofuels

The Challenge

Food security and promoting modern uses of biomass as a source of energy are two key goals in developing countries. Are these conflicting interests impossible to reconcile or two ends of a common st ...

Food security and promoting modern uses of biomass as a source of energy are two key goals in developing countries. Are these conflicting interests impossible to reconcile or two ends of a common strategy?

Biomass is the most important source of energy in many developing countries, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa.

 

Biomass today provides some 10 percent of global primary energy. In many rural regions in the developing world, biomass is still the dominant source of primary energy, particularly for cooking. It is widely accepted that much more energy services could be obtained from sustainable biomass than is presently the case, and that biomass has a considerable potential for contributing to increased energy security, economic development, and climate change and air pollution mitigation. These multiple objectives are important, as they reflect, in practice, a variety of perspectives through which the area of biofuels or modern biomass may be viewed. At least four distinct perspectives may be discerned:

Livelihood security and rural development: the distributed production of biofuels (whether cane ethanol, straight vegetable oil or biodiesel) may be seen as a means for enhancing farm incomes, supporting income diversification, and essentially contributing to rural development. It is interesting to note that in India, the biodiesel programmes focusing on Jatropha are being actively promoted and led by the Ministry of Rural Development. I would argue that this perspective is not an option, but rather a necessity for many developing countries including India, where the farm sector in many ways is becoming unviable, while at the same time it is difficult to grow employment at the rate required in other sectors of the economy.

Environmental: biofuels are seen as one of the important means for reducing carbon intensity and thereby leading to the mitigation of GHG emissions. Further, as rural incomes rise, there will be a natural tendency to substitute traditional fuels (like fuelwood) by commercial fuels (such as kerosene or LPG) for cooking. This transition may have significant GHG emissions implications, and if “modern” energy services could be provided from biomass, this transition could be avoided or reduced. Apart from global environmental benefits, the “modernization” of biomass may also produce significant local environmental and health benefits in terms of reduced particulate emissions.

Energy security: biofuels are seen as a means to reduce dependence on oil imports, and thus contribute to energy security at the national level. To the extent that any reasonable substitution of fossil fuels would require a significant scaling-up of biofuel production beyond what may be considered feasible, this particular perspective may not be very significant, except perhaps for particular segments. Further, if biofuel production increases substantially, strategic and geopolitical aspects of biofuel production and trade may assume increasing importance.

Innovation and new business opportunities: while the production of fuel is the most visible transformation of biomass, it is perhaps important to consider that there is increasing interest in bio-based products, or the use of biomass as a feedstock for downstream industries. Indeed, an interesting and important question is with regard to the techno-economic viability of an integrated biorefinery (analogous to a petroleum refinery). By using biomass as a feedstock, a biorefinery integrates biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power and a spectrum of biobased chemical feedstocks. In addition, it is possible that we may be able to create entirely novel biobased products. Viewed from this perspective, the utilization of biomass appears to present an important context for innovation and new business opportunities.

Each of these perspectives brings with it a range of different issues – economic, social, political and institutional, in addition to questions regarding the underlying carbon cycle implications and technology options. In a sense, they provide the criteria on the basis of which alternative biomass utilization pathways may be evaluated and assessed.

Different combinations of feedstocks, conversion routes, fuels and end applications lead to a wide range of pathways for biomass. Some of these pathways are already commercially viable at large-scale; while others are at varying stages of research, development and commercialization. Further, the feasibility, relevance and desirability of pathways may vary substantially from country to country. For example, in India, it is possible that stationary applications (such as for diesel generator sets) may be more viable and relevant as compared to transport (automotive) applications. In turn, this may mean that it may be more important to look at straight vegetable oil (SVO), rather than automotive-grade biodiesel. A narrow focus on liquid biofuels for transport might not be adequate.

The evaluation of such alternative biomass utilization pathways is a major challenge. Evaluation criteria may include GHG mitigation potential, the potential impacts on soil, water and biodiversity as well as the satisfaction of primary human needs such as food, and whether biofuel production may also offer opportunities for positive effects in terms of environmental and developmental co-benefits. In addition to mitigation benefits, it will therefore be important to look at parameters such as the net energy ratio as well, in absolute terms, and on a per hectare basis, as land & water use efficiency are also important considerations.

Ultimately, the transformation of biomass into fuel and industrial products, is truly a sustainable development opportunity – one that can help meet the environmental objective of mitigation, the economic objective of enhancing energy production and the social objective of inclusive growth through rural income enhancement. It is only when we are able to design policy approaches that explicitly recognize and internalize all of these three objectives (which encompass the perspectives mentioned above), that we will be able to realize the full potential of the biomass resource.

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