From seeds to sales: A comprehensive look at the potential of bioenergy crops

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Homes stand on stilts in Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Balancing environmental responsibility and rapid development – as well as the energy and manpower needed to keep up with the pace – is a major challenge facing Indonesia.

Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Senior Scientist Himlal Baral has led a research project focusing on this ‘food-energy-environment trilemma’ since 2015. He and his team are examining bioenergy – energy derived from living organisms, such as trees and herbaceous plants – as part of the array of components needed to solve the challenge.

If the bioenergy sector plants its roots in sustainable agriculture methods, it can simultaneously help achieve other national targets like food security and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. Rather than growing the sector through the conversion of healthy ecosystems and arable land, the project seeks to establish a new approach of using Indonesia’s degraded lands for bioenergy production, thereby transforming them back into profitable landscapes.

In light of the government’s goal to increase the amount of renewable energy in the national energy mix from 6% in 2005 to 31% by 2030 – also aiding it’s program to procure 35,000 MW of electricity by 2030 – Baral has presented on his inquiries to the Indonesian House of Regional Representatives, who with interest requested a map of the country’s degraded landscapes, marking which biomass plants would work well where.

This has raised a few main questions for the team to examine, seeing the project extended to the end of 2020 as they continue to research the answers and gather the information the government needs. Which species are most promising for such a goal? How can biofuel and food production be achieved hand-in-hand? What are the impacts of bioenergy production on multiple ecosystem services?

Read more: What’s holding back biodiesel industry growth in Indonesia?

A man drives a boat through a bioenergy project area in Sumatra. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR

Step one is to figure out which species are best suited for various environments, in terms of carbon storage, growth and yield, and sustainability. This means testing out different species – woody biomass species such as Gliricidia sepium and Calliandra calothyrsus; oil seed trees such as Calophyllum inophyllumand Pongamia pinnata – and in various settings.

Some grow and yield more in waterlogged areas as opposed to dry; some thrive in agroforested or mixed settings while others require monoculture. Some store more carbon above-ground while others, below; some have positive effects on surrounding water resources and biodiversity, while others could cause harm.

Once certain species are identified as solid candidates for certain environments, the next step is to convert them into energy. For the scientists, this means calculating greenhouse gas emissions of their conversions as well as all the emissions involved in getting the bioenergy into the market.

And then there’s the market itself. In order to keep more benefits in local communities rather than carried off to others in the value chain, the project also looks at bioenergy business models for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), potentially involving partnerships with larger businesses and state-owned-enterprises. Investigations into governance and land tenure issues will also seek to give producers proper land security, to better incentivize good land-use practices.

Read more: Growing energy and restoring land: Potentials of bioenergy production from degraded and underutilized land in Indonesia

There are a number of challenges that will need to be avoided and addressed, such as keeping bioenergy from competing with food for land use, which can increase food prices and drive up food insecurity if bioenergy crops win out. Poorly planned production can lead to further degradation of forests; use of insecticides and fertilizers can harm the environment and contaminate water sources; and without proper governance, land tenure conflicts can increase.

But with the right crops in the right places, and the right business models to help locals hold onto the profits, bioenergy just may have the power to lift landscapes out of degradation and into the realm of national necessities.

By Gabrielle Lipton, originally published at CIFOR’s Forests News.

For more information on this topic, please contact Himlal Baral at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, which is supported by CGIAR Fund Donors. 

This research was supported by the National Institute of Forest Science (NIFOS) and the Republic of Korea.

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