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Luciano Rodrigues

Director of Economics and Strategic Intelligence at UNICA and researcher at the Bioeconomy Observatory at FGV/EESP


Opportunities for bioenergy

Humanity is witnessing important transformations in several areas of society. Digitization, artificial intelligence, telemedicine, genetic engineering, among other movements, have accelerated in recent years, especially in the post-pandemic period. Among these changes are those associated with the energy transition and the circularity of business and production systems.

The energy transition is characterized by the need to expand the supply of energy with less emission of greenhouse gases.

These guidelines must be met with greater efficiency, changes in consumption patterns and replacement of sources fossil fuels for low-carbon renewable fuels.

The circular economy, in turn, gained notoriety from the seminal work of David Pearce and Kerry Turner in the early 1990s. In general terms, it advocates replacing the linear economy, based on extraction, production, use, disposal, for an economic system that prioritizes the preservation and improvement of natural capital, the optimization of resources and the management of finite stocks of renewable products. Concepts such as reuse, recycling and regeneration are basic principles of the circular economy.

These global macro trends should guide consumption dynamics, business strategies and public policies in various areas of the economy in the coming years. It is in this context that the bioenergy industry can effectively position itself in the face of the opportunities created by this global movement.

The sugar-energy industry, which ten years ago still witnessed discussions about ending the burning of sugarcane straw, is reinventing itself, with important changes in the production system, in the portfolio of products offered and in the environmental quality of the energy products sold. In the past, the logic of agricultural production as a source of food was initially conveyed with the manufacture of ethanol from sugarcane. In the last two decades, bioelectricity manufactured from sugarcane straw and bagasse has consolidated itself as a new product exported by the sector.

Today, in addition to sugarcane ethanol and bioelectricity, this industry relies on the production of second-crop corn ethanol, second-generation ethanol, biogas, biomethane and decarbonization credits. This is a significant growth in the portfolio of energy drinks in just one decade. Not to mention the numerous by-products generated, such as dry yeast, corn oil, biogenic carbon dioxide and dry distillery grains, for example.

These changes also allowed for adjustments in the production system, expanding the circular nature of bioenergy parks. Vinasse, which was seen as a problem, initially started to be used in crops with controlled application by spraying, migrating, in many cases, to a localized application system and, in recent years, guaranteeing the production of biogas and biomethane before return to the field. The gas produced in this system is used to replace part of the diesel consumed in the production process.

This is just one of many examples of the use of industrial waste to increase the quality and number of energy sources in this industry.

In the near future, we can envision new important advances. The carbon dioxide obtained in the fermentation of ethanol and in the purification of biogas can be allocated underground, from carbon capture and storage projects, allowing a negative balance of carbon dioxide in the ethanol industry.

The manufacture of sustainable aviation fuel from ethanol via the Jet Alcohol route, or from biomass via the Fischer, Tropsch route, can also bring real opportunities to the sector.

According to the International Air Transport Association, 450 billion liters of sustainable aviation fuel will be needed for the airline industry to reach the decarbonization targets set for 2050. In addition to the national and voluntary targets for reducing emissions in aviation, the resolution of the International Civil Aviation Organization, one of the United Nations agencies, defined that the sector's Greenhouse Gas emissions stabilize at the levels observed in 2019 and created the Mechanism for the Reduction and Compensation of International Aviation Emissions, with mandatory reductions to be from 2027.

Furthermore, the production of hydrogen with renewable energy from the reforming of ethanol, or with the use of biogas, can also be envisaged by the bioenergy industry in the future. In fact, today, we have plants with renewable electricity, ethanol, biogas and carbon dioxide, which can be used as an input for the production of sustainable aviation fuel and hydrogen (highlighted figure).

It should also be noted that the Brazilian production of biofuels already has an audited carbon footprint thanks to the requirements of RenovaBio , allowing the proper assessment of the decarbonization potential of each industrial plant, thus guaranteeing the generation of decarbonization credits.

In summary, despite the political, regulatory and market turmoil, the sector has made important advances in the last decade and has enormous potential to position itself at the forefront of an irreversible global movement.

We need improvements in the legal frameworks and regulatory environment, ensuring predictability and maintenance of the rules created, valuing the potential for decarbonizing bioenergy, investing in communication and disseminating the Brazilian system to other regions of the world with similar conditions. Finally, the productive sector needs to maintain efforts to increase energy and environmental efficiency in the conversion of sunlight into biomass and low-carbon renewable energy sources.