Biofuels International 2017 Conference in Edinburgh – A Peek into EU’s Biofuel Industry and Policy Outlook
by Aino Siirala* (Advanced Biofuels USA) The 10th Biofuels International Conference and Expo took place in Edinburgh this year. The conference was co-located with Bioenergy Insight 2017 conference which gave the participants an opportunity to attend both events at the same time.
The conference gave a comprehensive outlook of the biofuel field from the industry’s point of view, with many comments on the latest biofuels policy.
There seemed to be some concern in the conference about the future of conventional biofuels in the EU. EU’s biofuel production and utilization are regulated by the Renewable Energy Directive (RED I) and in November 2016 the European Commission released a proposal for RED II with stricter sustainability criteria for biofuels. RED II proposes the phase out of food crop based conventional biofuels and higher targets for advanced biofuels. The European Commission aims to decrease the ILUC (Indirect Land Use Change) impacts associated with conventional biofuels by setting a cap for conventional biofuels while ILUC-free advanced biofuels would have more ambitious targets.
The concern about the future of 1st generation biofuels seemed to arise because they comprise the majority of the biofuels produced and continue to do so. As Pharoah Le Feuvre from IEA demonstrated from his charts, production of advanced biofuels is predicted to grow even at a higher rate than conventional biofuels. Nevertheless, the share of advanced biofuels is very small compared to conventional biofuels (estimated production of advanced biofuels in 2022 is just 1 % of total biofuel production). Most of the biofuel produced is ethanol and most of the production is located in the Americas, the leading countries being Brazil and the USA.
RED II proposes the phase out of crop-based conventional biofuels by reducing the target level of 7% market share in 2021 to 3.8 % in 2030. At the same time, alternative fuels are targeted to increase the target level from 1.5% in 2021 to 6.8 % in 2030. Here, alternative fuels include advanced biofuels (incl. used cooking oil (UCO) and tallow biodiesel), fuels produced from fossil waste, renewable fuels of non-biological origin and renewable electricity. Advanced biofuels alone would have a target of 3.6 % in 2030.
At the Biofuels International Conference, industry players like Shell and Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd presented their point of view of the current policy environment. James Cogan, the technology, industry and policy analyst of Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd said it directly. Their company was founded on 2010 in response to RED I, when the climate for crop-based ethanol was more favorable. In his words, had they known about the RED II at that time, the company wouldn’t have seen daylight. The greatest investment of Ethanol Europe Renewables Ltd is a Hungarian ethanol plant producing corn based ethanol, not forgetting the co-products protein feed, corn oil, and animal feed.
The conference speakers seemed to share a consensus that European conventional biofuel production doesn’t have a negative ILUC effect nor a negative impact on the food sector. Quite on the contrary. Instead of talking about food VS fuel they talked about food AND fuel, as biofuel production often results in food or feed as a co-product.
Various speakers at the conference saw the same chain of events leading up to this date: at the time of implementing RED I, biofuels were commonly considered as a good thing. However, soon the media started writing about the problems related to biofuels like ILUC and food vs fuel. A debate was born and the policy started to be driven by media and the public. Many in the conference noted that it would be crucial to provide the media and the policy makers some scientific knowledge which they can base their policy on.
However, as an independent consultant Thomas Gameson pointed out, even the EU commission has realized that in recent years less and less arable land is being used for agricultural purposes in Europe. Thus, there is no fear of not having enough land for agricultural production. Biofuel crops have been grown in this abandoned agricultural land so the biggest effect in regards to land has been the reduced rate of land abandonment. So, instead of having negative impact on land or food markets, European biofuel production has increased the European animal feed production as the crop based biofuel production often gives animal feed as a co-product. This locally produced animal feed has replaced especially soya, grown in other continents and imported to Europe. Soya production has often been seen causing damaging change in land use especially in Latin America. So why should Europe decrease its conventional biofuel production, as we could easily replace a big share of petrol and diesel with it, asks Mr. Gameson.
However, James Cogan reminded us that EU crop based ethanol is ILUC free, whereas palm diesel is not. So while the share of EU palm diesel is now over a third of the total amount of biodiesel and it is still growing, we should actually get rid of it. However, RED II treats crop-ethanol and palm diesel equally, which according to him, doesn’t make much sense.
Jessica Robinson from National Biodiesel Board (NBB) provided us with an interesting insight to biofuels perceptions and implications. According to her, many have misconceptions of biofuels, such as “it takes more energy to produce biofuels than they release when combusted” or that there is a confrontation between food and fuel or that all biofuels have negative ILUC effect. Some of these misconceptions are promoted by e.g. petroleum industry which tries to have an influence on biofuel policies. Ms. Robinson pressed that it is important to get over of misconceptions since when they affect the way people think, they affect the policy makers. Not many policy makers would be ready to pass a law to mix 10 % biofuel to all diesel for cars, if people were convinced that it will break their car engines. Ms. Robinson introduced us the same remedy: we need to lean on research and keep the facts clear.
Although the Biofuels International 2017 Conference concentrated surprisingly much on conventional biofuels and the policy around them, advanced biofuels were discussed too. For example, Shell introduced its advanced biofuel projects including production of ethanol from cellulosic sugar cane residues and research about woody biomass into biofuels. Interestingly, Shell has also made research with algae but left the project with no economically viable prospects. According to Shell’s general manager of advanced biofuels, Andrew Murfin, at Shell they need to be experts on regulations, as they produce, supply and distribute biofuels on an international level.
The last speech of the Biofuels International Conference was given by Dickon Posnett from Argent Energy. While he discussed the UK biodiesel markets, we also learned about the company’s interesting concept of making crop-free biodiesel out of local waste fats and oils. One of their particular feedstocks is very exciting: sewer sludge (or fatbergs as Mr. Posnett calls it). Argent Energy has two manufacturing facilities utilizing waste fats and oils with a capacity soon to be 145 million liters of biofuel per year. This seems to be a great example of the kind of biofuel which EU directives still support. According to Mr. Posnett, producing biofuel out of fatbergs is difficult and costly. This couldn’t be done without UK government support.
*Aino Siirala studies energy and environmental engineering at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland. She volunteers as a reporter and writer for Advanced Biofuels USA to gain experience combining science and writing for a potential journalism career.