FAPESP and the Sustainable Development Goals

Biofuels are crucial to the energy transition, but misinformation must be overcome

Biofuels are crucial to the energy transition, but misinformation must be overcome

The view was expressed by participants in a discussion on “Bioenergy’s major contribution to the energy transition” organized by the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (image: Agência FAPESP)

Published on 07/17/2023

By José Tadeu Arantes  |  Agência FAPESP – Emerging countries such as China, India and others in Asia, Africa and the Americas, especially Brazil, can play a crucial role in the energy transition thanks to the large amount of land and sunshine they have, as well as vast areas of pasture for conversion into cropland. They can supply global markets with biofuels made from sugarcane, corn and other crops, helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and achieve net zero carbon (emission minus absorption) by 2050. At the same time, this will be a substantial source of income and can contribute to a reduction in the world’s significant economic asymmetries.

The outlook is highly promising, but a major obstacle must be overcome in the shape of false narratives that continue to circulate worldwide, especially in the rich countries of Europe. “Until recently, the story was that there wasn’t enough land and biofuel production would compete with food production as well as contributing to forest degradation, but this has been entirely refuted by Brazil’s experience. What's now being claimed is that there may not be enough biomass. When biofuels for aircraft and ships are accounted for, alongside the Europeans’ plan to prohibit the use of agricultural produce in their territory and permit only waste recycling, we start hearing this new narrative,” said Glaucia Mendes Souza, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Chemistry (IQ-USP) and a member of the steering committee for the FAPESP Bioenergy Research Program (BIOEN).

These issues were discussed by experts during a round-table session on Bioenergy’s major contribution to the energy transition hosted by FAPESP on June 20.

“We analyzed the situation in Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala, initially considering well-established biofuels such as ethanol from sugarcane and corn, and biodiesel from soybeans and palm oil. We concluded that the reduction in emissions was significant in every case, reaching 86%, that the biofuels in question were competitive in price with fossil fuels, that they created jobs, and that these countries had sufficient amounts of pastureland to double biofuel production by converting 5% on average into cropland for this purpose. The conversion rate for Brazil was only 3%,” Mendes Souza said.

The projection that Brazil’s biofuel production could double is actually conservative, as studies show that production could be increased by a factor of 6 merely by reusing degraded pastureland, without felling a single tree in the Amazon or Cerrado (Brazil’s savanna-like biome). 

“We’re now looking at Asia – China, India, Thailand and Malaysia – as well as South Africa. All these countries except Malaysia have large amounts of pastureland that could be used,” Mendes Souza said, referring to an ongoing survey that is being conducted under the aegis of the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The problem, as several of the discussants stressed, is enormous ignorance, which once again is being leveraged to construct narratives aligned with economic interests that oppose an effective energy transition.

Electric vehicles (EVs) were a controversial topic that came up during the session. EVs are often treated as a sort of panacea to reach zero emissions in the transportation sector. “In Brazil, unfortunately, we’re buying into a discussion that’s not ours. It’s important to recognize that future mobility will be electrified. That means power from an electric motor will be transmitted to the wheels. It’s much more efficient, eliminates a number of components and, above all, uses regenerative braking to recharge the battery, recovering 30% of the energy expended. This energy is wasted when you step on the brake pedal in a conventional automotive vehicle,” said Ricardo Abreu, a mobility consultant at UNICA, the Brazilian sugarcane and bioenergy industry association.

According to Abreu, experts believe EVs are here to stay, but what matters most is whether all vehicles will be totally electric. “In future, many vehicles will have a shelf full of batteries and an electric motor on each wheel, or on at least two wheels. The batteries will have to be recharged, of course. If the recharging is external, the vehicle will be 100% electric, but it’s possible to reduce the number of batteries by 80% and include an internal combustion engine in the vehicle to generate electricity for storage by the batteries. That will make the vehicle a hybrid,” he said.

The focus on totally electric vehicles is not driven by sustainability goals but by economic interests, especially the desire to maintain market share, and by geopolitical interests, such as not depending on countries that produce low-carbon fuels, he added. “This isn’t our problem. We don’t need to get into this discussion. If we decided by decree to have only 100% electric vehicles, what would the problems be? First, lack of recharging infrastructure. Second, batteries, which are expensive and require rare materials obtainable in only a few countries, creating the geopolitical dependence people want to avoid. Europe rushed into EVs because they didn’t want to be prisoners of the oil sheikhs, but now they’re prisoners of the Chinese battery makers,” he said.

Abreu noted the possibility of focusing instead on hybrids with a small battery and an internal combustion engine running on low-carbon fuel such as ethanol. “This is a faster solution because it doesn’t require all that infrastructure. It’s cheaper, too, because it uses a less expensive battery. And it can be entirely made in Brazil,” he said, adding that if all vehicles were 100% electric, demand would be low because of their cost, the fleet would age, and the huge gap between social classes in Brazil would widen.

Another problem with EVs is sourcing the electricity. The initial option in Europe was severely criticized during the event by Hugo Cagno Filho, chair of Brazil’s National Bioenergy Union (UDOP). “The Europeans presented EVs as a non-polluting option and reactivated their coal mines to fuel their electric power plants. That’s the worst mistake I’ve ever seen,” he said.

Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel, emitting twice as much as carbon dioxide (CO2) as natural gas and 30% more than gasoline. “They now realize what they’ve done and are talking about hydrogen instead. We believe ethanol will be one of the sources of their hydrogen, but [the fact is that] hydrogen won’t be produced by biofuel plants but inside the vehicle. A car that does this has existed in Brazil for many years,” Cagno Filho said.

In his view, lack of environmental awareness among consumers and pricing policy are persistent obstacles to more use of fuel bioethanol in Brazil. “I’ve been in the industry for 49 years, and unfortunately we haven’t yet managed to persuade Brazilian consumers that ethanol is ours and doesn’t pollute,” he said. “There are no public policies to educate consumers about the advantages of clean energy. People just see the price at the fuel pump. No one buys ethanol because it’s cleaner. They buy it because it’s cheaper. When the government announces a policy to lower the price of gasoline, we all respond with three cheers. This year, for example, there’s a very significant problem because the price of ethanol is below the cost of production and the sugar and ethanol plants have opted to produce more sugar. The average will be 30% ethanol and 70% sugar. Even so, most of the ethanol will be anhydrous for blending with gasoline,” he said.

Despite the obstacles, optimism regarding the role of biofuels in the energy transition predominated in the event’s two sessions, not least in light of the other value-added subproducts or derivatives that can be developed in addition to bioethanol and biodiesel. “The oil industry has determined the entire history of chemicals and energy production. The models developed are suitable for fossil fuels, but the chemical structures of renewables are very different. Petroleum contains little oxygen, while renewables contain a great deal. When you try to do with renewables something similar to what’s done with petroleum, you’re obliged to throw away a lot. For example, in production of polyethylene from ethanol, 2.4 kilos of water are thrown away for every kilo of polyethylene produced. That’s because we’re forcing the situation – trying to adapt one thing to the other,” said Luis Fernando Cassinelli, professor of polymeric packaging at Mauá Institute of Technology and also a member of the steering committee for BIOEN-FAPESP.

On the positive side, he continued, a number of highly interesting bioproducts have been developed. “For example, methionine, an amino acid used quite widely as a chicken feed supplement, can now be made from renewable resources. This is much cheaper than the petrochemical. Another example is succinic acid, which has many applications, The petrochemical costs ten dollars per kilo, while the product made from renewable biomass costs two,” he said. 

The flexible-fuel engines that power automotive vehicles made in Brazil were designed as an adaptation, according to Casinelli, who said ideally they should not run on ethanol, as a fully dedicated engine would be far more efficient.

“We’re in a transition,” he noted. “Brazil has never had such a great opportunity as it does now with bioenergy. Research is very important to provide tools for this development. I believe we won’t miss the boat as we did on other occasions.”

The round-table discussion of “Bioenergy’s major contribution to the energy transition” had two sessions. Besides Cagno Filho and Cassinelli, the participants in the first, on the future of biorefineries, were Angela Oliveira da Costa, representing the Energy Research Corporation (EPE), an arm of the Brazilian Ministry of Mining and Energy, and Alysson Camargo de Oliveira, representing Geo Biogas & Tech. The moderator was Rubens Maciel Filho, a professor at the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and also a member of the steering committee for BIOEN-FAPESP.

Besides Mendes Souza and Abreu, the participants in the second session, on biofuels and emerging markets, were Aulus Binelli, representing Vesta Greentech, and Erwin Franieck, representing SAE Brazil. The moderator was Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, a professor at the Federal University of Itajubá (UFI) and also a member of the steering committee for BIOEN-FAPESP.

The opening session of the event featured Marcio de Castro Silva Filho, Scientific Director of FAPESP; Marisa Barros, Undersecretary for Energy, Petroleum, Gas and Mining at the São Paulo State Department of the Environment, Infrastructure and Logistics; Carlos Nabil Ghobril, Coordinator of the São Paulo’s Agency for Agribusiness Technology (APTA); and Glaucia Mendes Souza.

A recording of the discussion on “Bioenergy’s major contribution to the energy transition” can be watched at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=wc8T2tEogaI


Source: https://agencia.fapesp.br/41919