Use of biofuels to grow sharply in next five years

Biofuels will heat more homes and fuel more vehicles, leading the growth in renewable energy worldwide through 2023, according to the International Energy Agency, or IEA. John Dyer reports.

Critics of biofuels argue that they requires more energy to produce than their value as an energy source merits. (Image credit: Antonio R. Villaraigosa via Flickr)

The IEA’s Renewables 2018 market analysis predicts that power generated from biofuels would increase by 37 gigawatts in the five-year period, reaching 158 gigawatts in total worldwide and meeting around 3 percent of total global electricity demand. Sugar cane, wood, corn and other renewable materials produce biofuels. A single gigawatt powers around 700,000 homes.

That growth comes as renewable energy – including biofuels, solar, wind and other sources – is slated to comprise around 40 per cent of worldwide power generation, the analysis found.

‘Overlooked giant’ in the renewable energy field

“Modern bioenergy is the overlooked giant of the renewable energy field,” said IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol in a press release.

“Its share in the world’s total renewables consumption is about 50 per cent today, in other words as much as hydro, wind, solar and all other renewables combined. We expect modern bioenergy will continue to lead the field and has huge prospects for further growth. The right policies and rigorous sustainability regulations will be essential to meet its full potential.”

The IEA’s report forecasts growth across renewable sectors.

New solar photovoltaic panels are forecast to add another 600 gigawatts of power to world capacity, for a total of 1 terawatt worldwide. Wind industry is forecast to grow 60 percent. Growth in hydropower output would slow but harassing cascading rivers would still remain the largest source of renewable energy through 2023.

Working hard to clean their polluted skies, Chinese officials’ deployment of renewable energy sources put the world’s most populous country on track to outpacing the European Union as the largest consumer of green energy in the next five years.

Challenges remain, however.

Regulatory barriers or lack of political support have hampered the adoption of solar and wind energy in the heat and transport sectors. If governments enacted more measures to compel or incentivize renewable sources for electricity and transportation, total renewable energy consumption could increase by as much as a quarter, the IEA’s report found.

Fast growth across many sectors

In the meantime, biofuels are growing fast in those sectors. Brazil will have the largest share of renewables, for example – almost 45 per cent of total consumption – largely due to biofuels as well as hydropower. Brazilians power generators use bagasse, or the dry husks that remain after extracting the juice from sugar cane.

Buildings are expected to use 8 per cent more biofuels through 2023, the report found. Biofuels in the transportation sector would grow to 3.8 per cent in 2023 compared to 3.4 percent last year.

Americans use bioenergy more often in their buildings than anyone else. But Europe accounts for the most bioenergy consumption at 54 per cent. The growth comes from Italians using pellet stoves and Germans using pellet boilers.

To grow the use of biofuels further, IAE officials said construction could use more biofuels, including in the cement industry, relying on waste and residues from farms and fields that could remain open space if farmers could recycle agricultural products that they now throw away. Air quality would also benefit from that process.

Biofuels face tough criticism

Critics like the Washington Post editorial page writers have said biofuels like ethanol require more energy to produce than their value as an energy source merits.

“The environmental harms of ethanol arguably outweigh its benefits, because it takes massive amounts of energy to distill ethanol from corn — and massive amounts of fragile farmland to grow that crop,” the newspaper wrote.

But defenders of ethanol said those critics ignore the costs associated with drilling, refining and shipping oil around the globe, often from regions where violence and strife are common. Ethanol in the US costs around 20 percent less than gasoline to produce, for example, they said.

“It’s simply cheaper to grow corn and make it into ethanol than it is to extract oil from the ground and refine it into gasoline,” said Geoff Cooper, president and chief executive of the Renewable Fuels Association.

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