How to Realize the Bioenergy Prospects?

Semida Silveira

1.1. WHAT IS THE NEWS?

Biomass has been a major source of energy in the world since the beginning of civilization. It has been important in development processes, including early stages of industrialization in several countries. In Sweden, for example, the first concerns about preservation date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, resulting from the recognition of the central role played by forests in energy provision (see also Kaijser, 2001). Biomass was also essential in the initial development of the iron industry in Sweden and, later on, the same happened in Brazil, where charcoal is still largely utilized in iron reduction. Biomass remains a major source of energy in many countries. Ethiopia and Tanzania, for example, derive more than 90 per cent of their energy from biomass. In fact, the African continent as a whole relies heavily on biomass resources for the provision of energy services.

When observing what happened in the past two centuries, we have the impression that the more industrialized a country became, the more dependent it grew on fossil fuels. But there are exceptions. Norway, for example, was able to industrialize without developing the typical dependency on fossil fuels thanks to its hydropower endowments. At a global level, however, the industrialization period has been characterized by an increasing use of fossil fuels as energy carriers. Thus there is a tendency to think that countries with large biomass dependency are poor countries with a low level of industrialization. The generalized view has been that countries climb an energy ladder that leaves biomass behind in favor of more efficient fuels and technologies, which are often based on coal, oil and gas.

In the past decades, the old rule, that the richer and the more industrialized a country is, the more dependent it becomes on fossil fuels, has been broken. Many countries have realized the need to harness local resources to increase the security of energy supply, reverse fossil fuel dependency and improve trade balance. The global environmental agenda, for example in the form of the Agenda 21 and the Climate Convention, has also played a role in this process for more than ten years now. As a result, there is a general trend to search for energy alternatives involving locally [1]

available renewable resources, while simultaneously pursuing increased energy efficiency throughout the economy. Countries have chosen different paths to move towards sustainable energy systems, and the accomplishments vary significantly.

The good news is that the connection often made between biomass utilization and poverty starts fading. All types of energy services can and are being provided today using biomass, with the reliability, safety and efficiency required by the modern economy and society. Moreover, this is not only happening in rich countries, it is also happening in many developing countries. The other good news, and part a corollary of the former, is that industrialization, which is seen as an important step in the development process, can be achieved using sources of energy other than fossil fuels, and this can create jobs and contribute to regional development instead of displacing people, eroding local economies and destroying the natural environment.

There are reasons to believe that the turn of the century has also been a turning point for bioenergy. This results not only from the recognition of the bioenergy potential, but also from the maturity of technologies, the reliability of positive results achieved so far, and the awareness of policy makers about the multiple benefits accrued from bioenergy. To developing countries, this means that the old idea of climbing an energy ladder that gradually goes from biofuels to fossil fuels as a way to access modern energy services should be questioned and reviewed under the light of recent technological development and international opportunities for investing in renewable alternatives.

This may sound almost like a manifesto for bioenergy. Let it be so. Biomass can be used to produce different forms of energy such as heat, electricity and transport fuels, thus providing all the energy services required in modern society. We know that. Some countries have actually come a long way in testing technologies and models that can be replicated. These countries are already realizing their biomass potential. In Sweden, for example, biomass already accounts for 16 per cent of the total energy supply. In Finland, biomass responds to 19 per cent of the country’s total supply. In Brazil, 27 per cent of the energy comes from biomass, almost half the part being sugar-cane based, including an annual production of some 10 million m3 of ethanol which are used in the transport sector. In these countries, biofuels are being used to feed modern and efficient systems, providing essential energy services.

Truly, opportunities come with challenges. We have to face the crude fact that, despite all efforts being made to introduce renewables and despite their rapid percentual growth in many regions, fossil fuel annual additions to the world energy supply are still much larger in absolute terms. A quick look at OECD countries reveals that most of them still depend about eighty per cent or more on fossil fuels for the provision of energy services. Also, developing countries are largely meeting their increasing energy demands with fossil fuels, thus replicating past trends and nonsustainable experiences. Unless very significant and more proactive measures are taken both nationally and internationally, this situation will persist for many years to come, delaying the shift towards sustainable energy systems.

Bioenergy options are at hand, satisfying technical, commercial, environmental, social and even political requirements. Energy infrastructure is important for social and economic development in modern societies, and bioenergy is attractive at all stages of development due to its potential integration with development strategies in rich and poor countries alike, and in comprehensive ways hardly matched by other alternatives. It is no exaggeration to see bioenergy options amongst the most attractive energy forms that we can harness today, with technologies and system solutions that are already mastered, with strong public and political acceptance, and often also with a commercial appeal.

Certainly, we ought to be realistic about what can be accomplished, and at what speed and range. A sustainable use of biomass requires comprehensive management of natural resources such as land and water. There are a number of factors that need consideration when it comes to achieving a fair balance in the use of scarce resources. For example, it is necessary to guarantee that land competition does not jeopardize food production and security. In addition, there are questions of security of supply, vulnerability of energy systems and the challenging task of designing policies that can address the development of multisector systems. Still, these broad tasks should not keep us away from ambitious targets, particularly in the face of promising multiple rewards in the direction of sustainability.

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