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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Opportunities and challenges facing new energy crops

Thematic area: Energy, resources, environment
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment
Status: completed
Duration: 2006 till 2010

Background and central aspects of the topic

The target of an intensified use of crops as renewable sources of energy represents an important question and challenge in the interface between energy, environmental, agricultural, research and economic policy. The diversity of potential options and strategies and the associated socio-economic and environmentally relevant effects is reflected in the large number of studies already available, as well as ongoing research projects, commissioned among others by the Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU), the Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV) and the Agency of Renewable Resources (FNR), or also the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The projects include e.g. »Ecologically Optimized Extension of Renewable Energy Resources in Germany«; »Sustainable Strategies for Biomass Use in the European Context«; »Material Flow Analysis of Sustainable Biomass Use for Energy«; »Data Gathering Energy Crops«; »Development and Comparison of Optimised Cropping Systems for the Agricultural Production of Energy Crops under Different Soil and Weather Conditions in Germany«; »Fuels from Renewable Raw Materials  – Global Opportunities and Implications for Sustainable Agriculture and Energy Supply in the 21st Century«.

TAB has up to now dealt with aspects of the area of »Energy Crops«, most recently in the partial report »Alternative Crop Plants and Methods of Cultivation« (working report 103) as well as in the preliminary study »Prospects for Low CO2 and Emission Traffic – an Overview of Fuels and Drive Systems« and in the »Industrial Use of Renewable Primary Products« monitoring project.

Objectives and approach

There are thematically related recommendations for investigations on the subject of energy crops by several parliamentary parties and committees of the German Bundestag, which are to be integrated and dealt with in this TA project. The key questions underlying these recommendations are, which plants come into question for energetic use, how realistic is the medium to large scale cultivation in Germany, and what are the effects on energy policy, (agrarian) economic policy, (agrarian) social policy and (agrarian) ecological policy. Apart from an in-depth analysis of the range of agricultural effects caused by extensive energy crop farming, questions will additionally be highlighted with an eye on the international situation, relating to the sources and the transportation routes of biomass both within and outside the EU, as well as with regard to regulations for the sustainable production of bioenergy, taking ecological and social standards into consideration (e.g. certification systems).

Beginning with these thematic recommendations from the parliamentary parties and committees, an array of questions will be defined which, according to the current TAB assessment have to date been discussed comparatively infrequently, and are thus extremely suitable for in-depth evaluation:

  • A differentiated review and analysis of the potentials of energy crops which have been used so far, or are potentially usable (including the plant-breeding challenges and the respective conventional and genetically oriented breeding strategies) and the cultivation method applied, with an eye on the various and heterogeneous requirements and conditions of the specific agricultural cultivation. Special consideration is merited by the regional site conditions, the regional distribution of energy crops or energy crop rotations in Germany, as well as the question of possible net energy yields.
  • An analysis of the existing and required or desirable structure of the cultivation and the processing of energy crops. This should determine which conversion factors are particularly suitable, in order to achieve the energy and environmental goals set (e.g. whether the power generated could or should rather be centrally or decentrally organised, in order to be both ecologically and economically, as well as socially, sustainable). Aspects of the trade and transport of bioenergy in particular need to be taken into consideration here.
  • A systematic observation of the (in particular agricultural economic and environmental) magnitude of the impacts of certain cultivation and crop utilisation scenarios with a focus on Germany. This includes for example the ramifications for agricultural production structures and farms, as well as changes in supply chains; furthermore the effects on the cultivation structure, the spectrum of crop species, the soil fertility and the humus balance, as well as on water supply and water pollution control. In addition there are implications for the production of fodder and foodstuff and their prices which have to be taken into consideration.
  • An investigation into the cultivation conditions for energy crops both within and outside Europe and an analysis of potential competitive relationships.
  • An analysis of the approaches and opportunities of internationally anchored sustainability certification measures for the cultivation of energy crops in particular and the production of biofuel under global production and distribution conditions in general.
  • A classification of the results from the analyses of potential and consequences in the energy, agricultural and environmental framework. Linked to this would be the illumination of future conflicting targets and competition for areas and objectives, as well as corresponding options for the resolution of such problems, in order to be able to exploit the opportunities associated with the increased cultivation of energy crops.
  • An identification of options for action for the sustainable expansion of biofuel production from energy crops, as well as of specific research requirements (e.g. plant breeding, conversion, accompanying research).

Approach

Due to the significance of the very complex subject matter and the manifold requirements of the spectrum of results, a phased TA project is envisaged. In view of the extensive results of numerous ongoing and soon-to-be published studies, the status of research will initially be reviewed and thoroughly evaluated in a synoptic comparison. The further specific programme of work will be determined in connection with the preparation of this overview (setting priorities and in-depth analyses).

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