Response Doctoral Programme

Fei Wu, a RESPONSE fellow in the PhD program Science and Policy, successfully defended her PhD in March 2024!

Fei defending her doctoral thesis at ETH Zurich (Photo: Luisa Last)

Her PhD project, titled “ROSE: Role of Bioenergy in Sustainable Energy Systems” emphasizes the vital role of ancillary bioenergy, which does not require land in reducing carbon emissions in transport and industry sectors, in achieving carbon-neutrality. She highlights the urgent need to ensure that policies on energy, food and land use sectors co-evolve, since interplays exist between these systems, and therefore, meaningful policies can no longer develop in silos. 

Why do we need to consider ancillary bioenergy?

The Paris Agreement promises limiting global warming to 2°C by the end of the century, and the European Union Green Deal envisions achieving climate neutrality by 2050. Shifting gears in this regard calls for switching to renewable energy sources, and bioenergy is of particular interest as the only source with negative emission potential. However, the picture is not all rosy and straight-forward; growing crops for producing bioenergy can lead to conflicts with land use and production of crops for food, feed and bioenergy. To tackle these challenges of the energy-land-carbon nexus, in her first publication in Bioresource Technology Reports, Fei proposed a land-free type of “ancillary bioenergy”, where ancillary biomass such as by-products and waste is not primarily grown for energy and thus without land/food/feed competition. In this publication, she further addressed the strategic and optimal uses of ancillary bioenergy in different geographies, sectors such as decarbonizing transport, and in the presence of additional infrastructure, such as distribution networks.  

The potential of ancillary bioenergy and policy implications

Her paper in Environmental Research Letters presented the critical role of ancillary bioenergy in achieving a fossil-free, carbon-neutral and sector-coupled 2050 European energy system, alongside eliminating nuclear power and not impacting land-use agricultural sustainability. In her latest paper in Environmental Research Letters, she indicated the possibility of land-free bioenergy from future circular agro-ecological strategies, thereby addressing whether carbon neutrality and food sustainability are concurrently attainable. Her study shows the potential of ancillary bioenergy in providing similar ranges of future bioenergy as foreseen by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) without additional land use or compromising food availability. Nevertheless, Fei took to the stage at her defense, strongly recommending policymakers to consider simultaneously aligning energy system planning with the compatibility of sustainable food systems, given her findings that higher ancillary bioenergy provision or additional negative emissions could compete with food system sustainability. 

The PhD journey

Fei’s PhD journey of three and half years was dynamic and rewarding — it was highlighted by opportunities to collaborate with international universities, pursue outreach with the solar industry, and travel between Switzerland and the Netherlands. During her secondment at the Research Institute of Organic Agriculture, FiBL, Switzerland, she conducted her research using the global mass-flow food system model, SOLm. In addition to this significant collaboration, she has enjoyed a productive research visit at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management at TU Delft, Netherlands since 2022. Despite starting her PhD during the COVID-19 pandemic, Fei actively expanded her international network including invited talks at Chalmers University of Technology (2023, Göteborg, Sweden), Oslo University (2022, Norway), as well as through outreach with the industry (The Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, 2023). She also presented at several international conferences (EMPE 2021, EUBCE 2022, ISIE 2023). Her blog articles (e.g., ETH Energy Blog) brought additional impact by communicating research to the general public.

Next Steps

Fei continues her journey in this field as an Energy System Modeling Expert at Magnus Energy, a leading consultancy towards energy transition.

The RESPONSE program office dearly congratulates Fei on the successful PhD defense and wishes the very best for her future. Fei, it was a pleasure having you in our PhD program and the RESPONSE Doctoral Program.

Fei Wu was a fellow of the RESPONSE Doctoral Programme (DP) «RESPONSE – to society and policy needs through plant, food and energy sciences» funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Grant Agreement No 847585.

This article is co-authored by Fei Wu and Mary Ann George (University of Zurich, RESPONSE Program office assistant).

The featured image is generated by DeepAI in March 2024 using the prompt: “ROSE: Role of Bioenergy in Sustainable Energy Systems”.

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