Why Biofuels Have Been Left Behind


The price of renewable energy has plummeted over the past decade. Solar and onshore wind prices dropped 90% and 70% per megawatt-hour, respectively, according to BloombergNEF, and they’re now the cheapest form of new energy generation for two-thirds of the world. The price of lithium-ion battery packs fell 87%, and BloombergNEF predicts electric cars will become cost competitive with gasoline vehicles by the mid-2020s.

One form of renewable energy, however, has been noticeably lagging: biofuels

The first flight using blended biofuel took place in 2008, yet the fuel accounts for only a tiny fraction of global jet fuel consumption—less than 0.1% in 2018, according to the International Energy Agency. Even if petroleum prices skyrocket, biofuel consumption is predicted to increase to just 13.5% by 2050.

What went wrong? In short, a mismatch between government policy and the investment and time needed to ramp up complex biofuel supply chains. Venture capitalists accustomed to the relatively quick returns delivered by tech industry startups weren’t prepared to finance what could be a decade-long slog to develop new biofuels.

Entrepreneurs were overly confident about their technological potential while government policy did not offer the types of incentives and mandates that allowed solar and wind to take on fossil fuels and become self-sustaining. And the whipsawing of crude oil prices certainly didn’t help.

Why Biofuels Have Been Left Behind

Speaking of green technology making rapid advancements, one of the people who helped commercialize the lithium-ion battery says he has a way to cut mass production costs by 90% and significantly improve its safety. 

Hideaki Horie says his “all-polymer batteries” are far simpler to produce than lithium-ion batteries, which require billion-dollar factories with cleanrooms and airlocks. The new batteries can also be constructed in 10-meter-long sheets and are easily stacked (“like seat cushions,” he says) to increase capacity. The resin-based power source is also resistant to catching fire when punctured.

Why Biofuels Have Been Left Behind

Advances in green technology are great. The dropping prices of renewable energy are also great. The damage already wrought upon the planet, however, is not. 

The amount of ice in the Alps has shrunk 17% since the turn of the century, according to new satellite data from the Friedrich-Alexander-University Erlangen-Nuremberg. The Great Aletsch Glacier, a Unesco World Heritage Site and the largest ice field in the Alps, for example, shrank by 5 meters or more a year, the study showed.

The vast Arctic Siberia region, which is already warming faster than the rest of the world, experienced record heat and fires for the second straight year in June.

Average land temperatures last month were the highest ever recorded, more than 5 degrees Celsius above normal and slightly above the June 2019 mark, according to the monthly report by Europe’s Copernicus Earth observation agency. 

The retreating ice and burning Arctic highlight the ongoing threat of climate change as countries grapple with how to slow global warming while also tackling Covid-19, which has infected over 12 million people and killed over 554,000 globally.

The pandemic, as we’ve reported previously, has caused a drop in greenhouse gas emissions. New research finds that decline is likely to continue through the year and even the decade, with pollution anywhere from 2% to 12% lower than estimated by 2030, according to research firm Rhodium Group.

It is important to note, however, that Rhodium and other climate analysts have emphasized that the temporary emissions drop doesn’t outweigh the devastation done by the coronavirus.

“The emission reductions associated with our scenarios, while sizable, are certainly no cause for cheer,” the group wrote. “The economic damage and human suffering of Covid-19 has already been substantial and will likely continue for some time.” 

The Rhodium study casts the problem in economic terms, finding that each ton of avoided CO₂ cost the economy between $3,200 to $5,400. That’s roughly 100 times higher than some proposals for a U.S. carbon tax.

Josh Petri writes the Week in Green newsletter recapping the best reads and key news in climate change and green solutions.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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