Bioelectrochemical systems (BES) have been explored according to three main concepts: to produce energy from organic substrates, to generate products and to provide specific environmental services. In this work, by using an engineering approach, biological conversion rates are calculated for BES resp. anaerobic digestion. These rates are compared with currents produced by chemical batteries and chemical fuel cells in order to position BES in the ‘energy’-market. To evaluate the potential of generating various products, the biochemistry behind the biological conversion rates is examined in relation to terminal electron transfer molecules. By comparing kinetics rather than thermodynamics, more insight is gained in the biological bottlenecks that hamper a BES. The short-term future for BES research and its possible application is situated in smart niches in sustainable environmental development, i.e. in processes where no large currents or investment cost intensive reactors are needed to obtain the desired results. Some specific examples are identified.