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Editorial comment

In early March, the International Energy Forum released the report ‘Biofuels: Potential and Limitations’. This document was commissioned in response to the closing statement of the 11th International Energy Forum, 2008, to be presented at the 12th Forum at the end of March 2010. The forum stated, ‘a realistic and comprehensive assessment of [biofuels’] future and potential environmental and economic implications is an important factor for investment decisions in the coming years.’

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The report produced discusses the current state of the biofuel industry and offers policymakers suggestions on how to increase production and launch biofuels into the mainstream, as many governments are demanding a viable alternative to fossil fuels in order to curb greenhouse gases and oil/gas demand. However, the report closely scrutinises the problems surrounding the mass production of biofuels, and in particular first generation biofuels that are argued to be holding back mainstream introduction.

Currently, the only acceptable first generation biofuel is ethanol produced from Brazilian sugarcane and first generation technology is far enough developed that mass production is possible. Yet, other products of this first generation are continually criticised due to concerns over food crop displacement and effects on the environment and climate change. The report acknowledges this and recognises that ‘there is an urgent need to review existing biofuels policies…to protect the poor and safeguard against food insecurity.’ The International Energy Agency supported these notions in their own report earlier this year entitled ‘Sustainable Production of Second Generation Biofuels.’ The report states, ‘it is increasingly understood that most first generation biofuels, with the exception of sugar cane ethanol, will likely have a limited role in the future transport fuel mix.’ First generation biofuels are therefore not likely to be acknowledged as a key alternative fuel for further development and future use.

Second generation biofuels are put forward as a more viable option by the IEF report, however, government targets are criticised for being far too ambitions, especially the US policy for 60 billion litres per year of second generation biofuels to be produced by 2022 and the EU policy of 10% of transport sector fuel to come from renewable sources by 2020. The report comments, ‘most of the initially established biofuel production targets, which remain generally applicable, are either too ambitious or unsustainable over the long term.’ The IEA supports the notion that second generation biofuels are a better option than first generation however their report states that, ‘while second generation biofuel crops and production technologies are more efficient, their production could become unsustainable if they compete with food crops for available land.’ Also, the technology for mass production of second generation products is not available and there is little experience when it comes to commercial production for such ambitious targets. However, one is of a mind to believe that with less ambitious targets and careful planning, second generation biofuels could become a practical commercial fuel alternative in the future.

Despite the promotion of second generation biofuels and the encouragement by governments for energy companies to invest more in renewables, the Financial Times has pointed out that the need for investment and production in renewable energy, particularly biofuels, could affect investment in oil and eventually cause another supply crunch. The article reads, ‘targets to boost the use of biofuels create uncertainty over future oil demand, and so run the risk of prompting oil producing countries to cut investments in projects needed to ensure sufficient oil supply once the world emerges from recession.’

So, are biofuels really a feasible option, and is commercial production realistic to the levels mandated by several nations within their relatively short time frames? From the above references and opinions the answer appears to be no, however, there is arguably a case for alternative and renewable energy sources that needs to be approached with more caution and realistic targets if biofuels are to be a serious contender.