Drivers of bioenergy

Interest in bioenergy? is increasing in response to concerns about energy security?, energy independence?, and environmental and climate impacts associated with use of non-renewable energy? resources. Bioenergy proponents see it as a tool to stimulate rural development, protect productive working landscapes and provide new markets for agricultural and forestry sectors. Much of current interest in bioenergy is a result of policy responses to challenges and perceived opportunities. As interest in bioenergy swells, there are many challenges related to knowledge, technology, economics, and society.


Interest in ethanol as a liquid transportation fuel, although used in the United States since at least 1908 with the Ford Model T, grew in the late 20th century as a result of oil supply disruptions in the Middle East and environmental concerns over the use of lead as a gasoline octane booster. Ethanol production in the U.S. soon grew with support from Federal and State ethanol tax subsidies and the mandated use of high-oxygen gasolines. Additional incentives in the 80s and 90s, and passage of the Clean Air Amendments of 1990, further incentivized expanded U.S. ethanol production. Today, nearly all ethanol production in the U.S. utilizes corn grain in fermentation processes creating first generation biofuel?. However, current bioenergy development is focused primarily on advanced biofuels? and biopower? projects, as well as next-generation biomass? crops. Policy at national and state levels provides major incentives for these development agendas.

In his 2006 President Bush rolled out the Advanced Energy Initiative which included increased research funding for cutting edge biofuel production processes. In early 2007, he announced the “Twenty-in-Ten” initiative, a plan to reduce gasoline consumption by 20% in 10 years. Congress responded in December 2007, by passing a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) as part of the Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 . The RFS requires production of 36 billion gallons annually of biofuels by 2022, and includes specific provisions for advanced biofuels, paving the way for advanced technologies (figure 3). Many state governments have adopted similar policy initiatives and programs. In 2007, the Bush Administration proposed a Farm Bill that included funds for new renewable energy and energy efficiency-related spending at the USDA including support for cellulosic ethanol? projects. In May 2008, Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill, titled the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 , with mandatory funding for bioenergy activities.

Government funded programs and projects

Additional major influences on bioenergy development are new or recently expanded federally-funded or sponsored research initiatives, programs and offices. Mostly notable are those within, administered by, or in partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the USDA. Chief among the research centers are the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) Idaho National Lab (INL), Sandia National Labs (SL) and the DOE’s suite of three Bioenergy Research Centers: Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and collaborators; the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC ) and collaborators; and the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBI) lead by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). The DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE ) sponsors energy initiatives and leads ten programs including a biomass research, development and demonstration (RD & D) program. The USDA leads in bioenergy RD & D through its Economic Research Service (ERS); and Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Through its Farm Service Agency (FSA) the USDA administers important programs incentivizing bioenergy crop production, such as the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP ).

Figure 1.3 Renewable fuels production goals (RFS) set by the Energy Independence and Security Act (2007). (University of Wisconsin.-Extension.)


United States Energy Information Agency, “Energy in Brief”. (

Renewable Energy Policy Project, Bioenergy (

Anerobic Digestion and Biogas

UW Extension have created seven modules focused on the use of anaerobic digestion technologies. Details of the process are introduced, as well as factors that influence start-up, operation and control of anaerobic digesters at different scales.

Contact Us:


Carol Williams
(608) 890-3858 (office)
(515) 520-7494 (mobile)
Department of Agronomy
1575 Linden Dr.
University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706

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A visit to switchgrass? trial plots run by Iowa State University researchers; near Ames, IA. Photo by CL Williams, 2010.