The Future of Low-Carbon Road Transport: What Role for Second-Generation Biofuels?

Rapporteur’s Report, Energy Technology Innovation Policy research group, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

[Overview] The promise, prospects, and public policy trade-offs related to second-generation biofuels in road transport were addressed in an executive session convened at The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, on April 7 and 8, 2015. The workshop brought together twenty-eight of the world’s leading experts from the fields of policy, science, and business for an intensive two-day session (see the Appendix for a list of the participants). The discussions were off-the-record, with each participant present in his or her own capacity, rather than representing his or her organization. This report is a summary of the main points and issues raised over the two days. It has been reviewed by all the participants. The summary is intended to reflect the breadth of the discussion, rather than to suggest any form of overall consensus among the participants.


  • Several fuel options exist to steeply reduce net carbon emissions from road transport. They include electricity and hydrogen produced from renewable sources and sustainable, low-carbon biofuels. However, none of these fuel options can presently compete with conventional fossil fuels, and in the short term marginal emission reductions appear easier to achieve through engine efficiency improvements, including partial electrification in the form of hybrid electric vehicles, and selected first-generation biofuels. One of the key challenges is therefore to attract continued investment in R&D to bring down the costs of alternative-fueled vehicles and low-carbon biofuels.
  • Second-generation biofuels are now being produced at limited commercial scale in the United States, mainly in the form of cellulosic ethanol from different feedstocks. But investments in cellulosic bio-refineries will continue to depend on government subsidies for years to come. Consumers have not been prepared to pay a price premium for biofuels, as evidenced by low uptake of E85 by owners of flex-fuel vehicles. At the same time, with full production cost still above 5 USD per gallon, cellulosic biofuels are unlikely to become competitive with conventional gasoline and hybrid electric vehicles in the mass market for road transportation for the foreseeable future. Hence the need for direct government subsidies to make investments in cellulosic biofuels attractive…

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