Drivers of Bioenergy Development

Interest in bioenergy is increasing in response to concerns about energy security, energy  independence, and environmental and climate impacts associated with use of non-renewable energy resources.   Proponents of agriculture and forestry see it as a tool to protect productive working landscapes and provide new markets for these volatile industries.  Bioenergy is seen as a potential stimulus for economic development, particularly in rural areas.  Much of current interest in bioenergy is a result of policy responses to challenges and perceived opportunities.  As interest in bioenergy swells, there are many challenges related to knowledge, technology, economics, and society.


Interest in ethanol as a liquid transportation fuel, although used in the United States since at least 1908 with the Ford Model T, grew in the late 20th century as a result of oil supply disruptions in the Middle East and environmental concerns over the use of lead as a gasoline octane booster.  Ethanol production in the U.S. soon grew with support from Federal and State ethanol tax subsidies and the mandated use of high-oxygen gasolines.  Additional incentives in the 1980s and 1990s, and passage of the Clean Air Amendments of 1990, further incentivized expanded U.S. ethanol production.  Continuing political tensions between the United States and numerous petroleum exporting countries has led to increased interest in “energy independence,” as a means of reducing reliance on volatile nations for petroleum energy supplies.

Today, nearly all ethanol production in the U.S. utilizes corn grain in fermentation processes creating first generation biofuel.  However, current bioenergy development is focused primarily on advanced biofuels and biopower projects, as well as next-generation biomass crops.  Policy at national and state levels provides major incentives for these development agendas.

In his 2006 State of the Union Address, President Bush rolled out the Advanced Energy Initiative which included increased research funding for cutting edge biofuel production processes.  In early 2007, he announced the “Twenty-in-Ten” initiative, a plan to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% in 10 years.  Congress responded in December 2007, by passing a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 (for a summary report, see: The RFS requires production of 36 billion gallons annually of biofuels by 2022, and includes specific provisions for advanced biofuels, paving the way for advanced technologies (see figure 1.3).  Many state governments have adopted similar policy initiatives and programs.  In 2007, the Bush Administration proposed a Farm Bill that included funds for new renewable energy and energy efficiency-related spending at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA; ), including support for cellulosic ethanol projects.  In May 2008, Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill, titled the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, with mandatory funding for bioenergy activities: ( ).

Government Funded Programs and Projects

Additional major influences on bioenergy development are new or recently expanded federally-funded or sponsored research initiatives, programs and offices.  Mostly notable are those within, administered by, or in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE; ) and the USDA.  Chief among the research centers are the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL; ), Idaho National Lab (INL; ), Sandia National Labs (SL; ) and the DOE’s suite of three Bioenergy Research Centers: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL; ) and collaborators; the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC; ) and collaborators; and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBI; led by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL; ).  The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE; ) sponsors energy initiatives and leads ten programs including a biomass research, development and demonstration (RD & D) program.  The USDA leads in bioenergy RD & D through its Economic Research Service (ERS; ), and Agricultural Research Service (ARS; ).  Through its Farm Service Agency (FSA; ), the USDA administers important programs incentivizing bioenergy crop production, such as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP; ).

Figure 1.3 Production Goals set by the Energy Independence and Security Act (2007)
University of Wisconsin.-Extension;