UC Berkeley News


Shifting to a biofueled world
Research aims for wide social and economic benefits

| 12 April 2007

Much of the buzz over the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) has centered on the promise of new, cleaner fuels from renewable resources. Equally important will be research by EBI partners into the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the move toward biofuels.

EBI and socio-economic issues:
Potential areas of inquiry

The following excerpts are from the proposal submitted by Berkeley and its partners in the BP competition that led to the creation of EBI.

A major challenge in making the transition to sustainable energy is the integration of individual technical solutions into an energy system that is consistent with natural cycles, the economy, society, transportation networks, the power grid, and urban infrastructures. Some of the key areas of research that are critical to providing an integrated and systems-oriented approach to the transition towards sustainable biofuels production and use globally are outlined below. These are illustrative of the possible areas of consideration and not meant to be all-inclusive.

Global Socio-economic Impacts
The development of world trade in biofuels is expected to impact nations in many different ways. The EBI would interested in understanding the possible effects of various scenarios on socio-economic questions of food availability, social equity, and trade from a global perspective.

Next-Generation Assessment
The introduction of a large-scale biofuels industry will have a significant impact on energy, agricultural and food systems, and the environment. To understand these challenges, a new framework for assessing the social and environmental implications of biofuels is needed, one that uses the best available tools and methods from life-cycle assessment (LCA), fuel-cycle analysis, computer-based systems analysis, cost estimation, multicriteria decision-making, sustainability science, and environmental-impact assessment.

Biofuels Evaluation and Adoption
If biofuels are to make a substantial contribution to the world’s energy needs, new crops, new cropping practices, and new fuel production technologies will have to be adopted by a wide range of economic actors. … Projects in this area would seek to understand the energy, agricultural, and environmental impacts of current and potential biofuels, including potential costs and environmental implications of different production pathways and barriers that could prevent deployment of each pathway.

Biofuels Markets and Networks
The productivity, cost effectiveness, land use, environmental impacts, and transportation requirements of bio-energy crops needs to be integrated and modeled in a regional context, linking local, national, and global dimensions of supply and demand. This would include analysis of the allocation of land and other resources among competing alternatives to meet various levels of demand for biofuels.

Social Interactions and Risks
Development of a large-scale international biofuels industry will create changes at many levels in producer nations and may, therefore, create social concerns about biofuels. … Insights into the design of processes and policies concerning the public understanding of biofuel technologies and the modeling of social adoption in different political contexts on a global scale will be valuable

"Biofuels, unlike solar energy or gas-powered plants, affect land use directly, which means they affect the lives of the rich and poor directly," says Dan Kammen, professor of energy and resources and of public policy, and director of Berkeley's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory. "They affect fundamental things like the status of women, public health, and even how many calories kids in Kenya will eat. If we orient and oversee this biofuel initiative right, we can benefit all of those things."

Kammen, a member of the EBI executive committee, said that in many parts of the world, plants raised for biofuels are grown as subsistence crops, which are mainly farmed by women. "Biofuel technology can become either a problem or an opportunity for these women," he says.

How can we grow biofuel crops that do not supplant food crops? Kammen notes that the perennial grass miscanthus, for example, is a popular biofuel choice because of its rapid growth and high yield, but it can only be used for biofuel. Other crops, such as sweet sorghum, may be more appropriate biofuel sources in economically poor regions where fertile land is scarce; it is both a food and an energy crop, and needs little water and fertilizer.

Recognizing that the success of biofuel technology involves more than developing a plant stock that can yield more biofuel, such as ethanol, the EBI proposal specifically includes a socio-economic research component to address such issues.

Implicit in EBI's research agenda is the understanding that neglecting the socio-economic considerations of a biofuel economy likely will lead to a technology that primarily benefits affluent farmers, while leaving low-income, subsistence farmers behind.

"What's happening now is that land is being taken out of production for food as different countries move to biofuel," said David Zilberman, professor and chair of agricultural and resource economics and co-director of Berkeley's Center for Sustainable Resource Development.

"Sixteen percent of the corn acreage in the United States is going to ethanol, and it will rise to 35 percent in the near future as processing capacity expands," says Zilberman.

What's exciting about EBI, adds Zilberman, is that researchers can look into ways to resolve this food-fuel tradeoff. "We have to find ways to move to plants that are more efficient, to answer the call of biofuel without necessitating this land grab," he said.

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