Biofuels are at something of a crossroads. The International Energy Agency says the global production of biofuels has expanded more than sixfold over the last ten years, yet biofuels still only make up around 3% of all road fuel energy. While making fuel from plant matter may, in theory, seem more attractive than using oil, the reality of biofuel production is that it comes with various costs and question marks.
The concerns about biofuels
The world’s most dominant biofuel is corn-based ethanol, and it raises food, land and water issues, due to the demands of growing extra crops for fuel feedstock. There has been much hope and investment in next-gen biofuels. These include cellulosic ethanol and various other complex plant- or waste-based fuels that could overthrow diesel and gasoline without the resource requirements of ethanol.
But these advanced biofuels have not managed to scale up at the rate many had hoped to see. In the USA, for example, there is action being taken to attempt to scale back or repeal a mandate that requires oil refiners to incorporate more and more biofuel into the US transportation industry. Domestic development of cellulosic biofuel has failed to meet government projections, and enthusiasm for ongoing ethanol subsidies isn’t high.
Weighing it up
So the question that remains is whether we should continue to invest in biofuels, despite what many will tell you has been rather slow progress thus far – add to that the criticism that biofuel seems to be unable to stand on its own without subsidies from governments. But those who believe in the importance of biofuel investment will argue that die-hard advocates of fossil fuels merely persist with the repetition of outdated claims about homegrown fuels, or that petrol is somehow the cleaner option for the environment.
Reports have illustrated that biofuel production is actually driving farmers to use existing cropland more efficiently, meaning they supply more food and energy than ever without endangering grasslands or forests. And the cost of food is slowly declining, according to recent UN studies.
The case for increasing biofuel production has only become clearer over the last ten years, and the industry now attracts billions of dollars in investment while supporting hundreds of thousands of jobs. It is a terrific prospect for investment, with the recent slow progress only meaning there is greater potential for rapid growth in years to come.