The development of biofuel has been hailed as a sustainable way to combat dependency on declining oil reserves, but a new study suggests there are substantial obstacles to large-scale deployment of biofuels. It is still an open question whether biofuel can meet a significant proportion of the world’s energy needs, say John Fike and co-authors in a paper in CAB Reviews. There are numerous practical questions about biomass systems, from feedstocks to logistics to pretreatment/process technologies, to be addressed. While policies aimed at reducing carbon emissions may support biofuel, other environmental impacts are also of concern, say Fike and his colleagues at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
The cost of hauling the feedstock to the refinery is a key issue, and so a high proportion of farms within a given radius of the refinery would have to commit to producing the feedstock, as a need to transport the feedstock over long distances would make bioenergy production uneconomic. The distance of the refineries from the energy user is also an important factor. There are many logistic and socio-economic issues that will need to be resolved along with the purely technical issues, say the Virginia Tech team.
Policy is critical, and if US policies were to create a value for carbon sequestration, this would of course change the economics of bioenergy production. Tax levels on biofuel relative to fossil fuel are another central issue. Fike and his co-authors question whether the US government would allow a switch from food to bioenergy production to allow large increases in food prices, as some models have predicted. Some residents may oppose the dramatic industrialisation of the countryside that comes with bioenergy, but others may feel that this is a price worth paying for renewable energy.
The paper, Challenges for deploying dedicated, large-scale, bioenergy systems in the USA by John Fike, David Parrish, Jeffrey Alwang and John Cundiff appears in CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources2, No. 064, 28 pp.