Bioenergy, in the form of biogas or liquid biofuels finds themselves in the nexus of many things. And as it turns out, nexus of unrelated fields tends to languish in obscurity for far too long because no one in powerful places is willing to take hold of it and champion it.
And no bioenergy isn’t the kind of thing that is shown in The Matrix. One Uber driver who picked me up on the way to a bioenergy conference in Queensland thought that was what I was referring to.
Typically, bioenergy takes some kind of organic material and makes uses of various processes (synthetic or biological) to convert them into hydrocarbons that are chemically identical to fossil fuels. As it turns out, the way in which the earth cooks up all the historical organic matter into fossil fuels is not the only way in which organic matter can be converted into fuels. There are natural processes that can return these organic matter to precursors, which can allow us to derive the hydrocarbons we could use as fuels. These products are what we call biofuels and collectively, the use of organic matter within the contemporary carbon cycle (or short carbon cycle) to produce energy is known as bioenergy.
As much as these fuel and products are chemically identical to fossil fuels and can utilise all of the oil & gas infrastructure we have built over the past century, their production is so radically different from fossil fuel processes that the oil & gas companies seem to struggle with them. Or at least they find it hard to wean themselves off traditional production and capture new demands using bioenergy. On the other hand, the smaller, emerging players who wants to start bioenergy businesses find themselves shut out of the larger infrastructure base that is used to distribute these fuels because they are firmly locked within the fossil fuel ecosystem. And fossil fuel is just way more competitive if it’s about economics. Regulation does not see a clear path for bioenergy to take hold because they perceive it as a fringe activity, and the fossil lobby could easily quashes those thoughts from emerging. Across the world, bioenergy only took hold because regulation stepped in with blending mandates or direct subsidies to encourage the integration of bioenergy into the existing fossil energy system.
So while there are huge advantages in bringing in bioenergy because it helps prevent those oil & gas infrastructure assets from being stranded, they find themselves in the crosshairs of those parties whom they could help partly because they are in the ‘green camp’. On the other hand, the green camp doesn’t want to adopt and champion the bioenergy cause as much as wind and solar because bioenergy could potentially cement the position of the big oil. In markets where regulations require blending, oil & gas players have gotten involved in the bioenergy value chain, probably reluctantly and not without grumbling. They just try to meet the basic standards while taking all the political credit for having made the change.
There is also another group that bioenergy serves, which ends up becoming their enemies as well. They are the agrifood processing facilities or other food value chain players generating lots of organic waste. In countries where disposal of these organic wastes is well-regulated, anaerobic digestion plants are used for waste treatment. The biogas produced were seen more as a waste gas to be flared than an energy source to be harnessed. To harness these energy, more investments have to be made on the part of these distributed networks of players who might not have the capital readily available. They may not have the decarbonization ambitions either. There are also concerns that once we start harnessing energy from these, there will be more demand for organic waste and even agricultural residues which were traditionally used as substitutes for organic fertilisers. At the end of the day, getting the agrifood value chain involved in bioenergy seemed to be more like a distraction from their core business without contributing significantly to their business. In fact, there is increasing opposition to bioenergy that is driven by the view that it would pit energy against food production, which would be detrimental to a more fundamental need of mankind.
Hence, even though I would argue bioenergy is the most important energy source to support the transition, while playing a significant role in the net-zero world, there’s still so much wanting in this space. There is still no clear space that is adopting and championing this enough to mainstream it.
We will really need to change the narrative on bioenergy. More on this soon.