Critical mass: biomass production in the BRICS nations

22 February 2013

The journey towards alternative energy sources across the BRICS countries has been mired in controversy. Philip Kleinfeld pores over the moral and economic issues facing the production of biomass with Anselm Eisentraut, bioenergy analyst at the International Energy Energy.

After a decade of consistent growth, the biomass industry is attracting increasing attention. Across the non-Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, the renewable resource accounts for over 22% of the total energy supply. In the US alone, 40% of corn stock is now used as an alternative to petroleum. Worldwide that number is expected to reach 14% by 2021, according to research by the OECD.

But growth has started to slow, according to a recent study by the International Energy Agency. A series of ambitious pan-European, US and emerging market support policies had helped encourage the diversion of grain yields to fuel production, with a view to mitigating anthropogenic climate change. But this set up a destructive contest between food security and energy efficiency. Alongside financial speculation, the sudden decline in stockpiles set global food prices on a steep upward trend, causing starvation in countries from Afghanistan to Haiti.

Things reached a climax during the 2007-08 food crisis, when the World Bank blamed crop diversions for a large part of the price rise. Writing in the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding summed up our moral unease by claiming the biofuel industry was gradually "squeezing out our capacity to feed ourselves".

The precise impact of biofuels on commodity values is harder to determine than some critics like to admit. Plenty of analysts argue that biofuels are not a significant driver of agricultural prices. In a research note to their paper 'Placing the 2006-08 commodity price boom into perspective ' the World Bank even revoked their initial statement. The bioenergy sector tends to agree. Recent European legislation designed to water down use of biofuels was fiercely opposed by the industry lobby, and with some measure of success.

As with most areas, the balanced approach is probably the wisest. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has been clear to criticise what it calls "ideologically motivated debates about biotechnology".

That ambiguity about impact, together with the converging crises of climate change, fuel shortage and international conflict, means the search for alternative energy sources is more or less unavoidable.

The IEA remains open in principle to the biofuels industry, as long as it creates meaningful reductions in CO2 emissions. In its most recent Technology Roadmap on biofuels for transport and bioenergy for heat and power, the group offers a detailed, evidence-based path for the technology - arguing that biomass will, with sound policy, become an increasingly important source of energy.

Anselm Eisentraut is a bioenergy analyst in the renewable energy division of the IEA and lead author of those two roadmaps.

"There's no doubt that the increased use of grains and oilseed for biofuel production does have an impact on commodity prices," he says. "But it's difficult to assess the exact extent. The food versus fuel debate had a huge impact on public perception of biofuels. It raised questions about whether they could really be part of a cleaner, more sustainable energy system, and whether countries would persist with or revise their exisiting support policies.

"But other countries continue to promote production and use of biofuels. The need to improve our energy security by reducing our dependence on oil, gas and coal is high on that list, particularly for energy-importing countries with fast-growing economies."

The image of Western vehicles metaphorically burning the food of emaciated Africans is hard to shake. But, as Eisentraut points out, it isn't entirely fair. There are ways of using biomass without affecting food security: by developing non-grain biofuels produced from agricultural residues such as straw.

"The food versus fuel debate had a huge impact on public perception of biofuels. It raised questions about whether they could really be part of a cleaner, more sustainable energy system."

Nor is it fair to say that all forms of biomass involve trade-offs with food crops. Built into the title of the IEA report is an important distinction between biomass used for fuel and bioenergy used for heat and power. The former category is produced predominantly from agricultural crops, but other processes for power generation aren't.

Cogeneration (CHP) is a process that involves the simultaneous production of heat and power - and can use woody biomass in its residual form. Even without that resource, CHP is a highly efficient practice. By utilising the heat lost in the standard boiler and power generation process, CHP can reduce carbon emissions by as much as 30%.

Generation nations

In a recent report commissioned by Greenpeace, Europe's leading energy analysts Pöyry Energy Consulting discussed "the large technical potential for industrial combined heat and power across Europe".

The same is true for each of the BRICS nations - whose need for cheap, efficient energy is just as great. In both cases, with strong demand for secure energy and political clarity, cogeneration could flourish. It's impact on food security should be closely monitored. If demand for wood energy crop plantations grows significantly, rising land demand may have an effect on grain and oilseed production. But at the moment it doesn't.

And that spells good news for bioenergy-based cogeneration production in each of the BRICS countries. In Brazil, 4.2% of the country's total electricity supply is derived from biomass - a number that's likely to climb with so much land available and food security less of a political issue. In China (0.7%) and India (0.4%), the numbers are less impressive, but still sizeable.

Concerns do remain. Direct land use change in the Brazilian Amazon has wiped out vast parts of the country's agricultural diversity. And, aside from the problems of ecological homogenisation, reckless deforestation - accelerated by the production of biofuels - may undo much of the net effect biomass has on general levels of carbon dioxide. Nor is the sector entirely self-sufficient. Brazil owes much of its status as a top ethanol producer to generous government subsidies.

"It's the most competitive biofuel producer in the world but the market is still not free," Eisentraut says. "To avoid inflation, gasoline prices are still regulated and at a lower level than the actual market price would be at the moment."

Mechanisms of government support are equally important for CHP production. In China, agricultural residues in biomass CHP plants are supported by a premium for each ton delivered. A feed-in tariff for biomass-based electricity is also provided on top of a medium and long-term development plan for boosting all sources of renewable energy.

"With those support mechanisms in place, we expect bioenergy electricity generation to grow from 73TWh in 2011 to 294TWh in 2017," Eisentraut says. "Support policies play an important role in promoting the use of bioenergy for heat and power."

The creation of new income streams and jobs in the agricultural and forestry sectors is another key driver of the bioenergy industry. A report by the International Institute for Environment and Development estimates the employment potential of biomass to be 500,000 and 266,000 for Brazil and China respectively. With many of the BRICS countries boasting large forest resources, the old dichotomy of growth or green couldn't be further from the truth.

For cost reasons, natural gas remains the most popular fuel used in cogeneration production. But lots of people are hoping that will change. The general drive towards decarbonised economies, spurred on by governments, activists and the public will, it is hoped, provide the backdrop for wider change in the energy supply.

The ethical challenges around food security present perhaps the biggest challenge to the wider industry as it looks to establish itself without help from the state. The extent to which our skepticism will affect the production of biomass for heat and power is yet to be determined. But the numbers are fundamentally positive for an industry very much on the rise.

Anselm Eisentraut, bioenergy analyst at the International Energy Energy.

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