Bioenergy Decision Support Tool

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The Bioenergy Decision Support Tool (DST) provides stepwise guidance to decision makers in governments to develop sustainable bioenergy policies and strategies, and to assess investment proposals. It was created as an interactive tool in e-book form which provides the full text and can be printed.

The UN-Energy Bioenergy Decision Support Tool (DST) was developed jointly by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) under the framework of UN-Energy. UN-Energy is an UN agency-wide coordination mechanism on energy.


The DST contains the following chapters:

  • The Techno-Economic Background provides the basics of bioenergy, such as explanations and definitions of the various bioenergy technologies, the feedstocks and applications of bioenergy as well as examples for bioenergy production chains.
  • Designing a Strategy answers important questions acting as cornerstones for the use of bioenergy: Who, Why, Which, What, Where and How?
  • Implementation and Operation describes important steps to successfully implement a bioenergy strategy: Develop supporting policy framework, linking the strategy to existing/potential programs and organize the set-up in order to successfully interact with technical, financial and administrative stakeholders.
  • Project Screening examines the decision process for the review of project proposals in order to orient the national bioenergy strategy with concrete projects.
  • Land Resources presents key drivers and analytical approaches associated with the allocation of land resources for bioenergy production.
  • People and Processes gives the reader useful advice about how to engage actors along the bioenergy supply chain.
  • Deployment and Good Practices offers an overview about good practices in agriculture and forestry and gives concrete examples of innovative deployment and good practices.
  • Evaluating Impacts presents a set of guiding questions for key environmental and socio-economic impacts, which help to examine the impacts from bioenergy systems.

The Techno–Economic Background

  • Definitions and Terms
  • Biomass Resources gives a short overview about the energy potential of different types of biomass and where to cultivate them: The way plants conduct photosynthesis is essential for their energetic value and for most of the plants, there are very specific regions where they grow. A brief outline of how a biomass resource assessment might be conducted, enumerates the essential parameters for energy crops and biomass-wastes: Identification of infrastructure for cultivation, estimation of production/transport/labor costs or, for biomass-wastes, where to find or locate processing sites.
  • The Bioenergy Production Chain names important facts about processing, transport and storage of biofuels. This includes processing-advice such as to press biomass into pellets.
  • In Sectors and Applications
  • Bioenergy Conversion Processes describes the various ways feedstocks such as oil or sugar crops can be converted into biofuels like biodiesel, bioethanol or hydrogen via different ways of processing such as fermentation or gasification. Furthermore, properties of processing methods are introduced.
  • Bioenergy Systems (Efficiency, Scale and Cost)
  • Liquid and Gaseous Fuels are two fuels that require different crops to be made from. Sugar and starchy crops are used for producing liquid fuel whereas biogas is often made from wet sources such as municipal solid waste.

Designing a Strategy

  • Who is involved? - Designing a bioenergy-strategy is a project in which many different stakeholders have to be included in order to succeed. The process of inclusion is optimally divided into different steps: Identifying Stakeholders, Establishing Bioenergy Task Force, Convening a Stakeholder Forum, Mobilizing Stakeholders and Monitoring Stakeholder Participation. Important stakeholders can be trade groups, NGO`s or small business owners. Possible roles and responsibilities of a bioenergy task force could be communication with high level officials, coordinating process and inputs to strategy formulation and resolving conflicts.

  • Why should actors pursue a bioenergy strategy? - Articulating objectives will help potential users to end up with priorities when considering whether or not to use bioenergy. Objectives of using bioenergy could be: Rural Development, that is the creation of income through generating options and stimulating rural economies. Or Reducing Green House Gas Emissions through advancing climate-compatible growth. After identifying cross sector linkages and evaluating relevant political and economic relations, priorities can be settled: One can determine an Energy Mix, legislative actions and an appropriate climate portfolio.

  • Which sectors demand bioenergy? - Setting priorities for bioenergy in relation to the policy objectives has some immediate implications for which demand sectors, applications and fuels will be emphasized. It is therefore important to evaluate energy demand across the different sectors and to consider differences and relationships across the demand sectors and applications or end-users.

  • What bioenergy feedstocks and technologies should be pursued to meet national objectives? - After evaluating the different sectors, the next step is to determine what feedstocks and technologies should be pursued to meet the priorities in a cost-effective and sustainable way. This determination process can be broken down into six steps: Identifying feedstock options, Evaluating Technical Capacity, Assessing Conversion Platforms, Inclusion of pre- and post-processing, transport and distribution infrastructure requirements, end-uses and energy services.

  • Where can bioenergy be geographically implemented? - A careful assessment of the availability and suitability of land resources is a key element in the bioenergy strategic process: availability relates to existing uses and preferences, whereas suitability refers to climatic biophysical and climatic properties to support growth of particular feedstocks. The land assessment can be the most complicated and time-consuming part of the whole bioenergetic process. In order to place bioenergy within the context of the many other demands on land resources, a detailed geographical mapping exercise will often be needed to support the bioenergy strategy.

  • How can the best opportunities for smallholders and land owners be created? - In bioenergy planning, whether it is on the strategy or project level, various institutions are involved that formulate the ownership/contractual options for smallholders. Institutions and systems of land ownership and land tenure are important to recognize in a given country in order to create the best opportunities for smallholders and land owners involved in bioenergy, for example with cultivation. This section reviews the critical elements in this discussion.

Implementation and Operation

When developing a bioenergy strategy, one has to consider important aspects:Developing supporting policy framework, linking the strategy to existing/potential programs and organizing the set-up in order to successfully interact with technical, financial and administrative stakeholders.

Resource Ownership: Types and Impacts

Supplying a bioenergy system with feedstock in a reliable and cost effective way is the basic determinant for the success of the project. In this context, the definition of resource ownership and property rights is very important as well as the implementations of appropriate institutions. In this section, various types of ownership schemes are reviewed. The significance of resource ownership is being examined. The resulting implications in terms of the distribution of socio-economic costs and benefits are discussed.

Small-Scale Schemes: Opportunities and Risks

Constructing and implementing small-scale bioenergy systems that will suffice local needs and reduce poverty as well as contribute to food security, is a complex challenge. It usually follows a certain pattern and takes time. Therefore, bioenergy can be particularly important for rural development if planned appropriately and inclusively. Bioenergy as a form of rural, off-grid energy should be part of a broader rural development approach if it is to have positive and sustainable impacts on the rural poor. This section examines small-scale bioenergy schemes and how risks and rewards can be changed to betimes vulnerable communities by institutional arrangements.

Devising an Implementation Strategy

An implementation strategy deals with how the goals of an overall bioenergy strategy (the objectives and the key bioenergy options) will be achieved and how one can pursue these options. In order to successfully develop such an implementation strategy, it is important to involve different branches of government and various agencies responsible for policy and regulatory issues in relevant sectors, such as agriculture, finance, energy, environment, and industrial development. In this section, important pieces critical for devising an implementation strategy and various implementation components will be examined and discussed.

Establishing Legal and Regulatory Frameworks

In order for national frameworks to be complementary to the bioenergy strategy after legislation has been developed, there are some key questions and aspects that need to be addressed. In this section, those aspects (for example legal arrangements, institutional frameworks and legislative measures) are reviewed.

Program Development

Trough formal institutions, government policies, business practices and infrastructure, effective policies and programs are developed. Nevertheless, these factors can hinder or facilitate the design and the implementation of the bioenergy strategy. As with any energy and environmental activity, Bioenergy programs serve various purposes: They might address multiple aspects of efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability in implementing a bioenergy strategy.

Integrating with Energy and Resource Baselines

Implementing a bioenergy strategy in relation to overall energy policies and the sector supply as well as the demand options and scenarios that support those policies is important for the strategy to be realistic and cost-effective. In turn, the energy options and scenarios depend on some reference system consisting of multiple baseline assumptions and estimates which themselves form a set. In this section, different types of baselines are discussed. Afterwards, a review of data requirements, bioenergy applications and the process of baseline development is executed.

Monitoring, Measurement, Reporting and Evaluation

Monitoring, Measurement, Reporting and Evaluation (MMRE) can contribute to the fit of national policies and national objectives and to the effective delivery of public policies. MMRE help governments to track the progress of policies and that promises are being delivered to stakeholders. In this section, it is analyzed whether or not MMRE systems can deliver reliable feedback mechanisms meeting sometimes changing national bioenergy objectives against the background of a dynamic and evolving nature of bioenergy.

Project Screening

Decisions on the allocation of land and granting operating licenses to bioenergy investments (inter alia those funded by international investors) become a more and more important theme for government authorities. Many of the same questions, which arose in the bioenergy strategy, need to be considered in order to make an informed and responsible decision on whether to go ahead with a particular investment project or what types of conditions to include in the eventual license agreement or how to form and implement a publicly funded bioenergy investment project. This section will examine the decision process for reviewing project proposals in order to fit the national bioenergy strategy with concrete projects.

Defining the Project Proposals & Evaluating Compability with Bioenergy Strategy

The project proposals for a bioenergy project should define key elements of the project: Location, size, infrastructure required, preliminary cost estimates and so on. A clear outline should be presented by the project proponent. A detailed outline is even more important when dealing with the risks of irreversible ecological and environmental damages. The key issues of defining appropriate and comprehensive project proposals are reviewed in this section.

Forming a bioenergy project proposal can be an opportunity to initialize a bioenergy strategy by illustrating institutional capacity needs and moving towards a more structured process. This section analyzes how a proposed project and a bioenergy strategy interact with each other and how they can reinforce or compensate each other.

Stakeholder Processes & Impact Assessment

A variety of stakeholders will work on design, approval and sometimes implementation of a bioenergy project. This section focuses on guidance on stakeholder processes and organization, being the most relevant aspects for design, review and approval of a project. A brief discussion is included on project stakeholder identification, organization and engagement.

In order to prevent unsustainable bioenergy projects from occurring, the project proposals should undergo an assessment of project impacts, which is more detailed than the initial screening. Evaluation of the risks and opportunities that arise from these impacts can show potential need for mitigation actions. Relevant impacts in the context of bioenergy projects can be related to food security, biodiversity, climate change and natural resource use.

Financial Viability

When looking at the costs of a project, many factors have to be included into the estimation of financial viability. Possible additional costs like mitigation costs or compensation payments as well as potential start-up costs or costs caused by training can increase expenditures of hard currency. Investment risks, GHG mitigation projects and related types of financing are briefly summarized in this section.

Land Resources

Increasing land pressures will require a good management of biofuels expansion in order to prevent loss of biodiversity and damage to ecosystem. In this section, key drivers and analytical approaches associated with the allocation of land resources for bioenergy production as well as an overview of land use for bioenergy systems is provided.

Land Use Efficiency & Land Resource Assessment

In the future, significant quantities of land will be needed to grow biomass feedstocks. The associated environmental impacts on land therefore can be detrimental if certain safeguards are not in place.In this section, definitions and metrics are presented for land use associated with bioenergy systems.

A comprehensive land resource assessment helps define and identify land that is both suitable for the particular bioenergy feedstock or application. The following section explains the steps that can be taken in a land resource assessment for bioenergy projects.

High Carbon Content Environments & High Biodiversity Environments

In order for bioenergy to successfully contribute to the mitigation of climate change, the particular applications and end-uses must have an improved carbon balance compared to replaced fossil fuels. In this section, an overview is given of the definitions and principles related to managing land resources and the carbon that is sequestered in plants, soils and root systems that could be affected by land conversion.

Bioenergy project development should avoid negative impacts on areas of high importance for biodiversity, conservation and ecosystem services. These impacts such as degradation of ecosystem services, water quality impacts and habitat destruction are summarized briefly in this section.

Marginal and Degraded Lands

The increasing pressure on land caused by the demand for food, feed, fibre and fuel has made marginal and degraded land more interesting for producing bioenergy crops. What is marginal or degraded land? How can they be used for bioenergy issues? This section tries to answer questions like that.

People and Processes

In order to ensure a good planning of a bioenergy project, it is important to define the roles of the various actors engaged. In this section, deeper background knowledge is provided on some of the people-process systems that are important in the design and implementation of a bioenergy strategy.

Participation of Stakeholders & Governance

Creating Synergies between citizens and the State is essential for moving policy from paper to the ground. In order to do so, active participation and commitment by key stakeholders is required. The various aspects of stakeholder participation are reviewed here.

The role of governance for the support of more sustainable bioenergy strategies via approaches to reform or the effects of power balances are reviewed here.

Community Engagements in Projects & MMRE

What steps are necessary for building community engagement when designing a bioenergy strategy? Sometimes, local communities have difficulties maintaining their positions when they are affected by medium to large-scale bioenergy projects, which they likely are when living in the vicinity of the project. In this section, important steps for the building of community engagement are reviewed.

The section MMRE continues the discussion on MMRE initiated in the Implementation section.

Deployment and Good Practices

The success of deployed bioenergy technologies depends on the institutional mechanisms and the supporting infrastructure. Good practices make the operation of bioenergy systems more sustainable. Combining effective deployment and good practice supports the implementation and success of bioenergy strategies. In this section, an overview of good practices in agriculture and forestry is presented. It also gives concrete examples of innovative deployment and/or good practice.

Deployment of Bioenergy Systems & Integrated Food Energy Systems

This section briefly reviews the interface between bioenergy technologies, markets and resource management, based on previous project and program experiences. Various examples of different types of energy carriers are given in relation to how technologies or systems were deployed and the institutional mechanisms used during implementation and deployment.

One of the fundamental potential conflicts related to bioenergy is the production of food. Integrated Food-Energy Systems are of great importance in the context of this problem by paying special attention to maximizing the overall returns and addressing food provision and food security internally in the system design rather than considering these issues separately. In this section, several best practices and case studies concerning this issue are discussed.

Co-Products & Sustainable Agricultural Practices

Producing co-products is essential for the long-term sustainability of bioenergy systems and connected systems. Utilizable co-products can improve the energy balance of the bioenergy system or can itself optimized for other uses.

Sustainable agricultural practices can, if done properly, help reduce pressure on the environment and direct land use while aimed at increasing productivity and providing economic benefits to farmers. This section gives an overview of good agricultural practice methods that can help to address land use pressures.

Sustainable Forest Management

The goal of sustainable forest management is to ensure long-term availability of forest resources while securing ecosystem services like soil and watershed protection. In this section, issues and resource management strategies are discussed with emphasize on the methods or approaches relevant for bioenergy.

Evaluating Impacts

Questions for key environmental and socio-economic impacts are provided in this module and will help to examine impacts from bioenergy systems. They are grouped into four main categories:

  • Food security
  • Environment and natural resources
  • Climate and emissions
  • Socio-economic impacts

The impacts and questions reviewed are most appropriate for the evaluation of large-scale projects.

Food Security

Bioenergy production has some potential effects on global commodity prices and may result with impacts on food security of developing countries. Most developing countries are price takers in the context of agricultural production, resulting with almost no impact on international prices. The guiding questions take the different aspects of food security into account and focus on national and local implications of bioenergy product.

Environmental and natural resources

In this section, guiding and sub-questions on potential environmental impacts of bioenergy production and use are presented. The questions are grouped into four different categories:

  • Ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Water availability and quality
  • Forest resources and products
  • Soil and land productivity

Climate and Emissions

This section contains questions aimed at inciting discussion and analysis on the potential climate impacts that bioenergy projects have, against the background of bioenergy having the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They are divided into two impact categories:

  • Greenhouse gas (GHG) balance
  • Potential impacts on air quality

Socio-economic impacts

In this section, relevant questions are listed concerning the potential negative impacts of bioenergy (land ownership, gender imbalances etc.) as well as the opportunities of bioenergy production:

  • Land tenure and displacement risk
  • Income generation and potential exclusion of certain groups/individuals
  • Employment and labour conditions
  • Increased energy availability and access
  • Economics, including cross-sector effects
  • Governance