Despite its massive potential as a sustainable source of energy, bioenergy alone cannot fulfill global demand. To produce biofuels at the scale required to serve overall planetary need may require excluding large amounts of land from commodity crop production, putting food security at risk.
Bioenergy is derived from a range of renewable sources, including crops and crop residues. With careful landscape management and use of degraded and underutilized lands, bioenergy production is feasible and could offer monetary rewards for investors and local communities alike – as long as potential pitfalls are assessed and remedied, according to researchers.
Recent scientific investigations by forestry scientists in Indonesia and South Korea demonstrate the value of planting bioenergy-producing trees to restore degraded, marginal lands unsuited to food crops. They also reveal that if carefully managed, local communities can benefit from ecosystem services derived from sustainable biofuel production.
“Bioenergy is the most abundant and versatile form of renewable energy in the world,” said Himlal Baral, senior scientist, Climate Change, Energy and Low Carbon Development with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)
Baral and other international experts summarized the latest research on bioenergy in a discussion forum titled “Integrating bioenergy and landscape restoration in the tropics,” at the recent Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) conference in Bonn, Germany. Topics included biofuel species selection, resource use and entrepreneurial initiatives with speakers from research institutions, government, and private sectors
“Bioenergy is key to supporting the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the context of climate change and energy security,” Baral said, adding that scientists are primarily focused on SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 13 (Climate Action) and SDG 15 (Life on Land) to protect and restore ecosystems as they conduct research into drained peatland ecosystems in Indonesia.
Currently, most organic biomass is used as traditional fuel burned for heat or cooking – very little is used to generate electricity or heat through sophisticated or closed energy systems, said Nils Borchard, research manager of plant production at Natural Resources Institute Finland and a former CIFOR scientist, who works alongside Baral.
Their study of biofuel involves investigating bio-oil production to understand more about potential cropping systems and how to manage them, while learning more about which technology can meet specific energy demands.
Baral’s investigations in Indonesia involve experimental trials with the bioenergy crop “nyamplung” commonly also known as “tamanu” (Calophyllum inophyllum L.). The scientists argue that the crop should be planted and nurtured only on drained, marginal peatlands, which are not suitable for other land use. It should not lead to drainage of intact peatlands, which sequester large amounts of carbon.
Borchard’s work has also involved examining the potential to diversify palm oil plantations by introducing crops that produce oil for the production of biomass bio-oil or bio ethanol. Despite progress, questions regarding agroforestry and biofuel require further research, he said.
"...soil erosion was extreme due to deforestation, and floods and droughts frequently occurred"
“It’s very difficult to find solid and valid information on what is the best number of trees per hectare and whether fertilizer or drainage is required,” Borchard said.
Another line of investigation involves the potential for introducing bioenergy crops to peatlands that have been drained and rewetted. Additionally, solving puzzles around soil degradation in the tropics due to carbon loss will help scientists better understand the best plant species to use for rehabilitation of degraded peatland.
To generate small-scale value chains for villages in Indonesia, the scientists conducted research into local tree species to determine which crop species are best for restoring degraded lands while offering a source of biomass, or oily seeds and fruits to generate biodiesel.
Hyung Tae Choi, senior researcher of the Department of Forest Conservation at the National Institute of Forest Science (NIFOS) in Korea, reviewed the relationship between large-scale bioenergy plantations and water conservation based on research in Korea.
Over the past 50 years, Korea has implemented an extensive reforestation and land restoration initiative. By monitoring a major water erosion control project that began in 1974, scientists have witnessed the fluctuations of an arid, degraded watershed landscape under restoration.
“In the past, soil erosion was extreme due to deforestation, and floods and droughts frequently occurred,” Choi said. “The stream was always dry except on rainy days, but as the forests were restored, the water cycle changed a lot and now we have a steady flow.”
"Science does not support simple ‘one size fits all’ universal solutions for managing forest water"
During the watershed restoration period, scientists experimented with the water conservation effects of forest management. They noticed the water volume was at times more plentiful than at others. When the trees were at their most dense, the water supply decreased, but when the forest was thinned, the water supply increased significantly because understory vegetation and biodiversity increased.
“Bioenergy plantations in the tropics will definitely contribute to forest restoration and energy problem-solving, but should be planned carefully,” Choi said. “Science does not support simple ‘one size fits all’ universal solutions for managing forest water. Managing forests for water requires the right kind of forest or trees at the right place and at the right time with the right practices.”
Deforestation in South Korea was a major problem because people mainly used firewood as their household energy source and temperatures can drop very low, said Soo Min Lee, senior scientist of bioenergy research at NIFOS).
In the 1950s, more than 53 percent of mountains, which make up 64 percent of South Korea’s landmass, were deforested, meaning that one-third of the land had no tree cover.
"We need support from the local community"
Since reforestation, South Korea has a higher rate of forested land than most member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Lee said.
In the1970s, the South Korean government also started the transformative New Village Movement, which led to infrastructure development, including new roads for farming, wells, improving sanitation and stove installation. The primary energy source was changed from wood to coal.
Based on this example, we need to set up very clear targets, very clear specific bioenergy biofuel sources, and we need support from the local community, Lee said.
Although there is no single answer, using the nyamplung in peatlands has potential due to its diverse uses, he said. The flower provides honey, oils can be extracted from the seeds. It is useful for medicines and skin care products as well as biodiesel. The wood is a prized timber for carving, cabinetmaking and boat manufacturing.
Clean Power Indonesia, an Indonesian private power producer, introduced a land restoration and rural electrification initiative in Mentawai, a string of islands west of Indonesia’s island of Sumatra.
Some people living in rural Indonesia – about 40 percent of the population of 250 million people — do not have access to reliable and equitable electricity due to a problem in energy storage and distribution to its many islands. Further modernization of the country is dependent on the creation of local sources of renewable energy, which will most likely come from biomass.
"Imagine the lives that will be changed: the education sector; the healthcare; the industry..."
“Electricity is the main requirement for everything that you need: for healthcare; for education; for telecommunication; for fishery product processing or to encourage new industry,” said Jaya Wahono, chief executive of Clean Power Indonesia.
“Indonesia is the biggest archipelago country in the world. It’s very difficult to bring an energy source like diesel fuel, natural gas or even coal to the remote islands. We have to find another way to bring reliable, equitable and affordable electricity to all these local populations,” he said
The project was developed on the premise that no single person or company in Indonesia can deliver reliable and equitable electricity, but that the whole village needs to help and participate. Each village resident received an allocation of land to grow bamboo, a native species that grows throughout Indonesia, a ready source of biomass, Wahono said.
Local people earn income from selling their bamboo — a grass that grows back after it is cut — to the local power plant, converting it to bamboo chips which is converted to electricity and sold to the state-owned power company PLN (Perusahaan Listrik Negara), the only utility operation in Indonesia.
“Imagine the lives that will be changed: the education sector; the healthcare; the industry that can come into this area,” Wahono said. “This is the model that we want to replicate all over Indonesia.”
We are encouraging intercropping because they need to grow both bamboo and food crops, he added. The model provides the means to restore the land, produce electricity locally and provide cooking fuel.
Indonesia is reliant on three main sources of fossil fuel energy, including oil, gas and coal — only about 6 percent is derived from new and renewable energy (NRE) resources, said Nur Hygiawati Rahayu, with the Forestry and Water Resources Conservation division in Indonesia’s Ministry of National Development Planning.
By 2023, the country plans to increase the percentage of NRE to 23 percent, which includes bioenergy, she said. Bioenergy use is currently about 1.2 percent, but by 2025 it is projected to be 8.4 percent.
In its midterm development plan 2015-2019, Indonesia has allocated about 100,000 hectares for bioenergy from forest-based lands.
Using nyamplung and other similar plants, we can harvest seeds and produce oils without cutting the trees down, she said, adding that the government needs support for more research and development and a larger number of investors.
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