CO2 REDUCTION POTENTIAL OF COST-EFFECTIVE BIOFUELS DEPENDS ON THEIR PRODUCTION PATHS
Since these regulations were implemented in the mid-2000s, the EU has learned a lot about the environmental and social impact of biofuels. Up to now, almost all biofuels used in Europe have been so-called “first generation”, meaning they are derived from food crops like wheat, sugar beet, and vegetable oils.
However, further development of biofuels from these sources is being cautioned due to concern about the impact it may have on food prices and availability. If this impact were to occur, it could lead to such unforeseen consequences as an increase in GHG emissions from the agricultural sector, adverse effects on biodiversity and a negative impact on such social factors as labour practices.
Needless to say, these “first generation” biofuels pose numerous concerns due to their relatively low yield per hectare, high costs, and large land area requirements.
In terms of decarbonisation, it is now recognised that many of these biofuels may not be as beneficial in terms of Well-to-Wheel GHG reduction as first thought. In fact, in some cases they may be no better than petroleum-based fuels. While the modelling behind these evaluations is not yet fully developed (especially the evaluation of indirect land use change effects) there is a consensus that, where possible, industry and governments should look at improving the performance of biofuels towards a ‘new generation’.
The fuel industry is currently engaged in intensive research and development aimed at unleashing the full potential of this new generation of biofuels, commonly referred to as “advanced biofuels” or “second generation”. They may offer a long term sustainable supply at a large scale, with lower cost and lower GHG impact, along with avoiding competition with food production. These biofuels will use non-edible feedstock such as straw, corn, wood waste, algae and other biomass.
Other promising alternatives having high yields, lower costs and minimum impact are algae oil production and sugar-to-diesel technology – particularly when combined with other conversion technologies. Some “advanced biofuels” have a GHG reduction potential of more than 70% - and in some cases up to 100% - as compared to fossil fuels. Subsequently, these could play a key role in the decarbonisation of the transport sector. Although oil companies are making significant investments in R&D and commercialisation, to address concerns about sustainability and indirect land use change there needs to be clarity in all regulations. .
Brazilian sugar cane ethanol
Brazilian sugar cane ethanol has been produced on a large scale for several decades. Strictly speaking it is a “first generation” biofuel, however it already outperforms other “first generation” biofuels in terms of yield, cost, GHG intensity, and sustainability. Increases in production may also be possible, while simultaneously addressing deforestation and other environmental concerns - thus allowing Brazilian sugar cane to play a critical role in meeting EU biofuel and transport decarbonisation objectives.
The “Blend Wall”
Lacking compatibility with existing vehicle designs and current fuel distribution infrastructures is one limiting factor to biofuels market appeal. Often referred to as the “Blend Wall”, several obstacles arise as a result of the differences between the biofuel molecules and those of the “incumbent” petroleum-based fuels for which current infrastructure and vehicles are designed. Currently, these restrictions are at the 10% (by volume) level for ethanol in gasoline, and 7% (by volume for Fatty Acid Methyl Ester biodiesel) in diesel. Such restrictions make it difficult to meet the 2020 targets set out in the EU Renewable Energy Directive.
Fuel providers, original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and regulators need to work hand-in-hand to overcome the “Blend Wall” and enable the use of higher bio-blends in road transport.
One possible solution is the use of “niche” products with very high levels of biofuel, such as E85, B30, or B100 . However, such grades require specially adapted vehicles, dedicated infrastructure and large incentives for fuel providers and OEMs to offer them at competitive prices. Such a long list of requirements seems to go against the economic and operational benefits of consumers and society previously achieved by standardising fuel grades across Europe. In other words, it renders this ‘niche’ grade economically inefficient for delivering biofuels and meeting decarbonisation objectives.
The alternative is to introduce higher standard grades like E15 and B10 , but these might require additional pumps at the service station. Instead, “drop in” fuels like Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (HVO) and butanol can play a key role in bridging the gap between blend walls and biofuel targets. For this reason, it is essential these are recognised and fully allowed in European and national biofuel regulations.