Julia Matney, Intern
U.S. Department of Energy
Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
Bioenergy Technologies Office
During my virtual internship at the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Bioenergy Technologies Office (BETO), I learned about the sustainable energy industry.
I study international relations at the University of Maryland, so when I arrived at BETO my knowledge of the energy industry was limited. However, I did know that environmental politics were an important element in my study of international relations, which is one of the reasons this internship intrigued me.
Finite Resources and the Convergence of Politics and Energy Policy
Competition for the world's natural resources, including fuel, is becoming a bigger issue in international politics as our world continues to progress and demand increases. A glaring example of the intersections between international politics and energy policy is the war in Ukraine. As the world was cut off from Russia’s oil and gas, there was a scramble to find alternative energy sources.
However, a less recognized example of the intersection of politics and energy policy is how U.S.-operating non-government organizations (NGOs) view biofuels. While I did not understand much about biofuels initially, learning about them through the lens of NGO opinions was fascinating. During this time, I created a database collecting and organizing those views, and I discovered that the use of biofuels can be a controversial topic in the United States.
NGO Biofuel Opinions Run the Gamut
Organizations across a variety of industries have diverse opinions on biofuels. Generally, agricultural groups support the use of biofuels for a variety of reasons, including the alternative source of income they provide farmers, and how they can help address disposal and reuse of farm waste. Also, the aviation industry broadly supports bioenergy as a means of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and is moving away from fossil fuels.
Notwithstanding, environmental organizations are key to the adoption of biofuels. Before entering this internship, most of my information about biofuels came from environmental organizations. Yet, there is hardly a consensus on the topic among them. Some groups consider biofuels to be a sustainable source of energy, while others take the opposing view. For example, some groups believe biofuels are a greenwashing tool of the fossil fuel industry that merely give the appearance of reducing CO2 emissions.
From my research, organizations that prioritize causes such as food scarcity, deforestation, and biodiversity were much less likely to support the development of biofuels. Their concerns primarily focus on the land that is used exclusively to grow feedstock for biofuel, which they feel could be used for more beneficial purposes.
However, across other environmental organizations, there was one recurring sentiment: cautious optimism. Many of the organizations I researched were open to a future with biofuels if their sustainability could be proven. However, because sustainability means different things to different people, success could be hard to define.
Building the Case for Biofuel Sustainability
Through my research, I’ve come to understand there is a great deal of study and scientific knowledge on the sustainability of biofuels, and that those in the bioenergy industry must educate the world on the potential of biofuels to reduce the impact of greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in comparison to fossil fuels. In addition, the bioenergy industry must remain vigilant and demonstrate that biofuels will not cause unexpected consequences elsewhere in the environment. There will be a lot of convincing to do.
In my time at BETO, I learned firsthand how DOE is working to understand the technologies needed to produce cost-effective biofuels while also studying their environmental impacts, from greenhouse gas emissions to land-use implications. It is the results of this work that will build consensus for a bioenergy future.