What are Modern Biofuels

The term ‘biofuel’ is usually used to refer to liquid or solid fuels manufactured from recently living organic material called ‘biomass’ (which can include plants, cooking oils, animals, microorganisms and so on), and made in relatively short human time frames. Fossil fuels also come from living material, but are made in geological time frames.

Biomass can be specially grown on farms, taken from forests (natural or cultivated) or from so called ‘marginal land’, collected from the waste from production of another crop (rather than being used as mulch, fertiliser or animal feed). Biomass can be made from organic garbage or manure, which is then usually (but not always) turned into methane (‘natural gas’) and purified. Biomass can also be made through the growth of algae in tanks or sometimes ponds. Sometimes the burning of mixed rubbish, or plastic pollution is also classified as a biofuel.

History and use

Biofuels such as collected wood, plant matter and dung have been used by humans for heating and cooking for a long time. Some of the earlier internal combustion engines were supposedly either designed or modified to run on biofuels – although I do not have documented evidence for this. Nicolaus August Otto who is usually said to have invented the first automobile engine in 1876, potentially fueled it with alcohol as well as coal gas. The diesel engine, could be run on fuel made out of peanut oil, and Ford’s model T could also run on bio-oils.

However it is usually agreed that the cheapness of petroleum products in the 1910s-20s, ended these experiments and engines were no longer built to work with bio products.

After the recognition of climate change, biofuels have sometimes been mandated by Governments to strengthen energy security, reduce GHG (through regrowth of crops), and because they can provide ways to subsidise some agriculture or other industries.

The EU issued its first biofuel directive in 2003 which recommended “tax exemption, financial assistance for the processing industry and the establishment of a compulsory rate of biofuels for oil companies”. This was so successful that by 2017 it was claimed that:

Biomass for energy (bioenergy) continues to be the main source of renewable energy in the EU, with a share of almost 60%. The heating and cooling sector is the largest end-user, using about 75% of all bioenergy (see section 1).  

European Commission’s Knowledge Centre for Bioeconomy. 2019. Brief on biomass for energy in the European Union. and

The UK was lowering coal consumption but replacing the coal with wood pellets imported from the southeast United States, and providing over $1 billion in annual subsidies to help pay the costs of production and transport, mainly at the Drax power station (“the British government paid Drax the equivalent of €2.4m (£2.1m) a day in 2019”).

Drax appear to claim that wood pelleting is good for the environment and that they buy from sources which encourage tree growth:

“Over the last 25 years, the US South has not only increased its total wood supply – the surplus annual growth (compared to removals) each year has quadrupled”

Managed forests often absorb more carbon than forests that are left untouched .

(Drax 2022c)

We might wonder how biodiverse the new forestry is, and how much GHG are emitted transporting the chips across the Atlantic. We can also suggest that biofuel fit in well with European conditions of burning fuels and subsidy of agriculture. It could also increase wood chopping

According to Eurostat:

Almost a quarter (23 %) of the EU’s roundwood production in 2020 was used as fuelwood, while the remainder was industrial roundwood used for sawnwood and veneers, or for pulp and paper production…. . This represents an increase of 6 percentage points compared to 2000, when fuelwood accounted for 17 % of the total roundwood production. In some Member States, specifically the Netherlands, Cyprus and Hungary, fuelwood represented the majority of roundwood production (more than 50 %) in 2020. 

Eurostat 2021 Wood products – production and trade

Roundwood comprises all quantities of wood removed from the forest and other wooded land, or other tree felling site during a defined period of time

Eurostat: 2018 Glossary: Roundwood production

A Guardian article claims that “Between 2008 and 2018, subsidies for biomass, of which wood is the main source, among 27 European nations increased by 143%.” So the subsidies could provide an extra energy to focus on activities which are already happening.

The IEA claims:

Modern bioenergy is the largest source of renewable energy globally, accounting for 55% of renewable energy and over 6% of global energy supply. The Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario sees a rapid increase in the use of bioenergy to displace fossil fuels by 2030.

IEA Bioenergy 2021?

Clearly bioenergy is significant in the technologies which count as renewable. However, the reduction of emissions from burning biomass, might be largely theoretical. One source claims:

biomass burning power plants emit 150% the CO2 of coal, and 300 – 400% the CO2 of natural gas, per unit energy produced.

PFPI Carbon emissions from burning biomass for energy

The complexity and confusion over biofuel use, appears to be being used as a way of making EU renewable figures more respectable, and as such is enmeshed in politics rather than in ‘physical reality’. An Article in Environmental Policy and Governance stated:

We find that the commitment of EU decision-making bodies to internal guidelines on the use of expertise and the precautionary principle was questionable, despite the scientific uncertainty inherent in the biofuels debate. Imperatives located in the political space dominated scientific evidence and led to a process of ‘policy-based evidence gathering’ to justify the policy choice of a 10% renewable
energy/biofuels target.

Amelia Sharman & John Holmes 2010. Evidence-Based Policy or Policy-Based Evidence Gathering? Biofuels, the EU and the 10% Target. Environmental Policy and Governance 20: 309–321. and official site

So it can be suggested that biofuels can act as a fantasy evasion of challenges. Supposedly “responding to industry feedback”, the UK government increased its targets for biofuel, and justifies expanding airports by claiming that planes will use “sustainable” fuels, even though only a small number of planes can be provided with biofuels with current technologies. This means even more magic and fantasy, creeps into responses.

In 2005, the US Congress passed a “Renewable Fuel Standard,” which required transport fuel to include an increasing volume of biofuel. The law was expanded in 2007 and as a result, 2.8 million additional hectares of corn were grown between 2008 and 2016

“The Energy Policy Act of 2005 used a variety of economic incentives, including grants, income tax credits, subsidies and loans to promote biofuel research and development. It established a Renewable Fuel Standard mandating the blending of 7.5 billion gallons of  renewable fuels with gasoline annually by 2012. “The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) included similar economic incentives. EISA expanded the Renewable Fuel Standard to increase biofuel production to 36 billion gallons by 2022.” (EPA 2022).

In late 2021, The Biden Administration released plans (Whitehouse 2021) for increased biofuel production for aviation. With the aim of enabling “aviation emissions to drop 20% by 2030 when compared to business as usual” and “New and ongoing funding opportunities to support sustainable aviation fuel projects and fuel producers totaling up to $4.3 billion.” Later reports suggested that the Build Back Better Bill would include $1 billion in extra funding for normal biofuels (Neeley 2021).

In 2022, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and a worldwide increase in fossil fuel prices. The Administration said (Whitehouse 2022) they were “committed to doing everything [they] can to address the pain Americans are feeling at the pump as a result of Putin’s Price Hike” and this involved spurring US biofuel production (“homegrown” to make it wholesome). This involved authorising the production of E15 in the summer months, when it is normally illegal, partly because it evaporates easily and adds GHG and particulates to the atmosphere including nitric, and nitrogen, oxides, although this is disputed (refs# AFP 2022). He also claimed to have negotiated “a historic release from petroleum reserves around the world, putting 240 million barrels of oil on the market in the next six months” (Whitehouse 2022). This is clearly not an attempt to reduce petrol consumption but the price of petrol which is likely to increase consumption over what it would have been otherwise.

The US Energy Information administration states that in 2021 “17.5 billion gallons of biofuels were produced in the United States and about 16.8 billion gallons were consumed. The United States was a net exporter of about 0.8 billion gallons of biofuels” (EIA 2022).

Biofuels are a major taxpayer supported industry, which appears to help delay change in at least some fields such as transport (automobile fuel), and are supported by that industry.