A New Day Dawning for U.S. Bioenergy?

Is the tide finally starting to turn after a “lost” decade? Are American biofuels and biobased products making a comeback?

It can certainly seem that the opposite is true. In the U.S., Big Ag and Big Oil remain stuck in a bitter stalemate over limits for corn starch ethanol and soy oil biodiesel. Europe is struggling to find the right limits for the use of “crop-based” fuels across-the-board and Brazil remains a muddle. Conventional wisdom has long held that at best biofuels are technologically outdated and at worst a collaboration with fossil fuel companies damaging the environment and holding back electric vehicles.

Yet, I detect signs of progress around the world - - “green shoots” of bioenergy growth, if you will. The examples are in both public policy and private sector breakthroughs. While much remains to be done to nurture these tender seedlings of progress, I am cautiously optimistic that a bioenergy renaissance is indeed underway.

New drivers of change

While the climate debate seems more heated than ever, it seems to be moving toward a more market-oriented, common sense approach, including the role of bioenergy in the mix of climate mitigation solutions. Increasing concerns over the massive buildup of petro-plastic wastes in our oceans are fueling new consumer demand and, importantly, new investment in bio-based and bio-degradable plastics as well as re-use applications.

For example, airlines in the U.S. and Europe are regularly announcing new options for fueling their planes with advanced biofuels to reduce carbon emissions. And, The U.S. Department of Energy recently launched a new “Plastics Innovation Challenge”.

Meanwhile, attacks on installations and shipping in the Persian Gulf have re-awakened old concerns over the vulnerabilities of the global oil markets. That may well resurrect efforts to promote global biofuels production for added insurance against oil supply disruptions.

At the same time, populist pressures are leading politicians of all stripes to pay more attention to stagnant rural economies with their abundant natural resources as new centers for bioenergy growth. America’s vast forests offer great potential as the raw materials for a new aviation biofuels industry in particular, if the federal government would modernize its approach to sustainable forest management and use.

Back to the Future, Again

During the Clinton and the George W. Bush Administrations, biofuels were widely embraced by both parties, the American people and numerous other countries. They can be again. Part of that impetus for change will come from the new success stories emerging around the world. That success will be triggered by reducing regulatory barriers, increasing research and incentivizing new markets.

Private sector leaders need to make the case more clearly and more forcefully for these industries, paving the way for better government policies. Nordic executives can play an important role for raising awareness, increasing demand and building markets worldwide.

Public support can go a long way to dispelling the many myths around bioenergy that have grown like barnacles over the past few years. Sustainable bioenergy will then be ready for its date with destiny in the 2030s when low carbon emission options in the transportation sector will be more critical than ever.

This text is adapted from an article co-authored by Doug Faulkner, president, Leatherstocking LLC and Gerard J. Ostheimer, Ph.D., Managing Director, below50, in the October 22nd issue of Biofuels Digest