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Advanced Biofuels: What’s It Going to Take? Highlights & Themes from the Roundtable Discussion

07.03.20 | Blog | By:

There has been a high degree of focus by policymakers, the media, NGOs and others on technologies such as electrification as a means, perhaps the only means in some cases, to decarbonizing transport. However, it is becoming clearer that advanced biofuels and advanced alternative fuels will have to play a critical role as well to achieve GHG reduction targets in line with the Paris Agreement. Indeed, the consensus from organizations such as IEA and others is that decarbonization cannot be achieved without advanced fuels. So, what is it going to take to bring these fuels to market? What is the tipping point? What series of events/actions have to happen to make that tipping point happen?

These and other questions were explored during the recent roundtable discussion for Future Fuel Outlook members, “Advanced Biofuels: What’s It Going to Take?” I had four very well known and respected experts in the space who joined me for this dialogue and actually co-conceived the session with me:

  • Philippe Marchand, European Technology and Innovation Platform (ETIP) Bioenergy Steering Committee Member and Senior Biofuels Expert formerly with TOTAL
  • Dina Bacovsky, Austrian Delegate to the Executive Committee of the IEA Bioenergy Technology Collaboration Programme (IEA Bioenergy TCP)
  • Doug Faulkner, Co-Chair, U.S. Biomass Research & Development Technical Advisory Committee (TAC)
  • Gerry Ostheimer, co-founder and advisor, below50

The key themes to me that kept coming up again and again during the discussion were:

  • Some policies have worked well to foster advanced biofuels, such as the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), but others do not go nearly far enough, such as the revised Renewable Energy Directive (REDII).
  • There is an utter lack of trust from investors (including oil company investors) in policymakers when it comes to biofuels, and if that is not addressed and repaired, that will continue to hamper the development of the sector.
  • Bio-based fuels defy categorization and should not be categorized at all but for its ability to reduce GHG emissions. This is a problem that is still reflected in biofuels regulations such as the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS2).
  • The 2020s will be critical for setting policies that foster the scale up of bio-based fuels, and those fuels will be needed as a complement to electrification which is scaling up in countries such as China and the U.S. and regions such as the EU.
  • Ideological purity when it comes to decarbonization is a major problem. We have to accept that the world will not be able to instantly decarbonize and that technologies such as biofuels will be needed.
  • Much more investment in agriculture is needed around the world to scale up bio-based fuels.
  • Many oil companies have made commitments to going net zero by 2050. These companies are a natural fit for scaling up bio-based fuels using existing assets (refineries, pipelines, distribution, internal experience).

Following are a few highlights from the discussion.

Question 1: What is your definition of advanced biofuels and advanced alternative fuels? Which technologies show the most promise for scale up and why?

Dina Bacovsky: What I would like to mention here is that we have a range of very different definition of advanced biofuels. For legislative purposes, for example, in the EU, this is defined by feedstocks. And this of course is a very small definition. But this is much too specific just as Philippe says, so it’s probably better not to be so precise. My point of view was always the technology developers perspective. An advanced biofuel technology would be one that is not yet fully developed, but very promising. But then we also have the end-use aspect, where an advanced biofuel obviously would be something that is able to work well in the existing internal combustion engines, whether really unmodified or these engines could also be adapted to allow the use of these fuels. Personally, I think that any such fuel is one that is produced from abundant raw material that can be produced with low greenhouse gas emissions and that can be used in internal combustion engines. All of these should be considered advanced biofuels and it’s very sensible to promote their technological development and their communist commercialization.

As for the second question, which technologies show the most promise for scale up and why? Coming from a production technology perspective, I think that the gasification technology itself is very well developed and then you have different possibilities to go, for example, for biomethane, you could also go for Fischer-Tropsch fuels, and both of these are really quite developed at the moment. And of course, we have seen a lot of demonstrations of ethanol through the fermentation of lignocellulosic materials. These are, from the technology readiness level, those that are the furthest already. And then I think the next one in the line probably is fast pyrolysis bio-oil, which can be co-processed in the refineries. And if we don’t stick to biomass as a feedstock, but we include all waste materials, we could probably also see that the off-gas fermentation to ethanol and waste plastic derived hydrocarbon fuels show very good potential for scaling up.

Gerry Ostheimer: If we think historically, back to before the RFS, back to before the RED, you had a situation where people in a sense had a blank blackboard, and they were thinking hard about getting fuels out quickly. There was a sense of urgency and they were trying to also thread the needle and put in place legislation that was going to accelerate the uptake of the over the horizon technologies like Dina pointed out.

Even today, we can produce fuels essentially from commodities and what are called food feedstocks. And these tended to have GHG emissions that were an improvement over fossil but were not necessarily a massive improvement. And so advanced referred to technologies that largely did not use food feedstocks and provided much more significant reductions in emissions. And at the time this was going to be things like cellulosic ethanol and then other drop-in fuels as Dina pointed out. And I think Dina’s emphasis on usability in the current infrastructure and the current type of engine has become the way that we look at that.

But now 15 years later, we’re in a very different situation because even in Europe the mandatory emissions reductions, even for food based feedstocks would make them advanced if they were back in the day. We have this situation where things have gotten quite muddled. And this distinction between advanced and let’s say 1G feedstocks has gotten very confused because actually the GHG profile for a lot of 1G fuels has improved dramatically to the point where they would be and are advanced fuels as considered by let’s say the U.S. legislation.

My point is technology has moved forward. The benefits of food versus non-food have likewise become a little bit more confused. And personally, I think the pejorative view of food feedstocks is completely out of place. And especially, if you can produce fuels that have remission reductions of greater than 75%, you’re making a real difference.

I’ll just conclude by saying that the market needs to be pulled, and before, we didn’t have a sense of how markets would work. We didn’t have a sense for the types of policies that were going to drive uptake. We have a much better sense now. We know what to incentivize and focusing on emissions reductions has led to massive uptake of fuels. I think that’s we need to be thinking in terms of the markets. I agree we should be technology agnostic. Advanced fuels should be a fuel that is readily used and has significant emissions reduction say, greater than 75% relative to the fossil equivalent.

Question 2: When we’re talking about scaling up advanced biofuels, what sort of volumes are we talking about? What volumes do we have now and what might we need for a region such as the EU and, or the U.S.? Or North America, for that matter?

Dina Bacovsky: IRENA says that by 2050, we should have around 652 billion liters of liquid biofuels. And this also includes the demand for biojet. This means around a five-fold increase of global liquid biofuels production. This is not just as high as Gerry just mentioned, but it is still a lot that we need to do. I think what is commonly understood is that we should reach around 20 to 25% of global transport fuels consumption, to be replaced or provided by biofuels by 2050 or 2060 around that date.

Doug Faulkner: I think more in terms of political and public communications. There are strong experts in terms of numbers on this call. But for me, if I were trying to explain this to the public, it’s a good news, bad news story. There’s been lots of progress in the West for first-gen biofuels for ground transport, not so much in other areas. We need more biofuels in general and specifically like much more advanced biofuels. There’s very little time to catch up from the lost decade, which was the last 10 years.

Question 3: Can advanced biofuels scale up fast enough in the 2020s to really make a difference? What do you see as the biggest obstacle to scale up?

Philippe Marchand: That’s a difficult question because there are many angles to answer. If we just look at the technical angle, I’m not too worried. I mean, we have technologies. We have feedstock if we make the effort to mobilize these feedstocks to be processed in these mature technologies. So, technically speaking, it’s a challenge, but it’s doable. The real obstacle to me is the political obstacle. How do you convince investors that they should put that money into advanced biofuels rather than put that in pharmaceutical or in a nuclear or in weapons or whatever industry. That is where I think is the obstacle, because today the potential investors do not trust the politicians on the subject of biofuels. And I think the reason for that is that the politicians, at least in Europe, for sure are sending a message that they don’t love the internal combustion engine anymore. You even wonder if they love cars at all. Everything ought to be electrified is the mantra today that we hear. And even if we are convinced of that, it will take a lot of time to get electric cars as the standard in urban areas or suburban areas.

And unfortunately, to complement these huge obstacles is the fact that the biofuel stakeholders today are very diverse because of the diversity of the feedstocks, because of the diversity of the technology. They do not offer a unified single advocacy front to the politicians, but like the crude oil industry, the refining industry, or the car industry. We have this problem of trust in the fact that biofuels or solutions for today and whether they will last enough for the transition to the next step of low carbon technologies.

Gerry Ostheimer:  We’re talking here about accelerating and creating markets. A fact that I would like to add to this, is that just before the pandemic, several the oil majors made a commitment to be net zero by 2050. If you actually, go past the headline and, look at how they intend to do this, it’s like, yes, they’re making these investments and accelerating the uptake of we’ll call them renewable electrons, and which then could be then put into hydrogen, but they all list biomass as a contributor to them achieving their net zero balance. It turns out that the oil incumbents could facilitate the uptake of biomass.

We’ve alluded to the fact that they could do that in their existing refining facilities, but this would require very thoughtful incentives that would basically admit that we’re going to be using fossil carbon for a while.  We must get over this, this purity situation, where there is this very in vogue desire for zero emission vehicles. A scale could be achieved because we have big players in the oil majors that could really move this forward.

What is happening right now also is the demand signal is not getting to the agriculture sector. We’re not seeing the investment, particularly in places with lots of either degraded or underutilized land, whether in Africa, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, etc. And so there must be this systems transformation to reap the benefits of a global bio economy.

Questions 4 and 5: Are the types of policies that we have in place such as REDII, LCFS and RFS or RFSII the right policies to foster the development of these fuels? if not, what is really needed? If you could say one thing to a national leader about biofuels or advanced biofuels, what would that be?

Doug Faulkner: I’d say, are those the right policies? Not really, not now. I think those were good measures once and they achieved some progress, but I think they were written for a different time and place. The state level is not as powerful as the federal level. They’re too scattered, too diffuse. I think we really need an honest appraisal and an acceptance of where we are and where we need to go to end the addiction oil and look at everything including cutting government regulations. In the end, I think we may well need in the U.S. anyway, some form of a national carbon tax to clear away these old approaches. And there are many of those on the table.

Philippe Marchand: Well, if I would have to say something to a politician, I would say the same that I’ve been saying for the last year, which is that basically biofuels are available today, they are reasonably cheap solution compared to the others. And the beauty in into this solution is that it solves three problems that every country has: energy security, jobs and fighting climate change. You’ve got those three pillars: they’ve been there for long time. I mean, in Total, in France, we started producing biofuels in 1993, which is nearly 30 years ago. It makes a lot of sense and everyone benefits from that.

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