The Future of Biofuels: “An Investigation of Science and Policy in the UK/EU”

Moayedi-Araghi, P. 2014. The Future of Biofuels: “An Investigation of Science and Policy in the UK/EU”. PhD thesis University of Westminster Faculty of Science and Technology

TitleThe Future of Biofuels: “An Investigation of Science and Policy in the UK/EU”
TypePhD thesis
AuthorsMoayedi-Araghi, P.

Biofuels were first used, as motor fuel (bioethanol) in 1860 in Germany and soon after, biofuels became the main rival for petroleum. But the abundance and the low price of fossil fuels had severe impact on the use of biofuels. Decades later, in 1970s, the shortage of fossil fuels due to the geopolitical conflicts, and the subsequent rise in the price of crude oil in 2000s, alongside energy security and climate change concerns, once again attracted the attention of governments to the use of biofuels. As a result of investment in biofuel production, the share of biofuels among the total renewable energy sources has increased since the beginning of the new century. The crop-based fuels (the so-called first generation biofuels) were considered as panacea to solve energy problems and environmental concerns. At the same time, research in advanced biofuel production methods, i.e. the second (non-food crops and residues) and the third (algae) generation has increased. However, in 2007-2008, biofuels were blamed for pushing up food prices, failing to meet environmental standards, and destroying natural habitats. As such, the use of first generation biofuels has been controversial. As for the second and the third generation biofuels, there is a need for further technological breakthrough. Currently, they cannot compete with crude oil economically, and are not commercially viable yet. In addition, fracking and the discovery of the new shale gas resources add further complication to this already complicated case.

Although there is vast number of publications on biofuels, and they have been discussed extensively, to date, very little effort has been made to integrate the knowledge to provide new ideas to inform policy. The aim of this study is to investigate, bring together, and analyse the current biofuel science and regulations to provide recommendations for policy-makers in the UK/EU. Therefore, an extensive and critical literature review of the refereed journals, books, relevant publications, and official policy documents was carried out in this study, and views of the experts in three different sectors (academic, governmental, and industrial/private) were collated and analysed. The participants were recruited based on purposive sampling, and the semi-structured qualitative interviewing method was adopted. The participants’ views were analysed in relation to the published literature in order to drive an inclusive and integrated insight to develop novel recommendations for the biofuels agenda and extend the knowledge about this platform.

This thesis suggests that, while the first generation biofuels are problematic, it is likely that they will remain dominant until 2022. The fate of the second generation biofuels is mainly determined by the advances in technology, and this type could become dominant beyond 2022. The potential of algae for the third generation biofuels is being increasingly recognised; however, to date, it is difficult to predict any time period for this method to become a commercial reality.

The future of biofuels is very much related to the price of fossil fuels. If the global supply of fossil fuels continues to be tight, the price of crude oil may go above US$100 per barrel beyond 2030. Increasing crude oil prices is interpreted as increasing demand for biofuels in the future. A robust development in biofuels research and technology, and tighter mandatory policies for biofuel blending is forecasted. But, if shale gas resources are used extensively in the coming years, the price of crude oil may decrease/stay under US$ 100 per barrel and as a result, at least the current level of investment in biofuels technology may be kept. However, a backing away from investing in biofuels and re-focusing on other climate mitigation methods beyond 2030 is also possible but very unlikely.

Based on the results of this study, there is no single, simple and generic solution for the issues surrounding biofuels. In this context, a range of recommendations are provided, a major one is for the UK/EU policy makers to push for the establishment of an international biofuels governing body, supported by the UN, to oversee sustained global biofuels production and consumption.

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