Report from EUBCE 2017 in Stockholm, Sweden
by Maija Sihvonen* (Advanced Biofuels USA) Participants from over 70 countries gathered at Stockholm’s Älvsjömässan for the annual European Biomass Conference, EUBCE 2017 in June 12-15. In the field of advanced biofuels two years is a long time, so it was interesting to see how the topics and focus points had changed since the EUBCE conference I attended in Vienna in 2015. This year, the geographical focus was clearly on Europe and specifically on the Nordic countries. Since the 1990’s, Sweden has led the way in promoting sustainable biofuels and its public transport section is becoming increasingly green. Currently, 100% of Stockholm’s public rail transport is running on wind or water power and 100% of buses on renewables: biodiesel, ethanol and biogas.
Biofuel technology has witnessed major advances in just two years. For example, in 2015, algae biomass was a marginal research topic, whereas this year’s conference included several presentations on microalgae and the role of seaweed in the bioeconomy. Seaweeds have high potential as feedstock as they contain carbohydrates suitable for biofuel production, grow fast and can be produced without competition for land use. Red seaweed contains up to 35 grams of monosaccharides per kilogram and is most suited for carbohydrate and furan production. At the moment, the potential of red seaweed is studied in the EU-H2020 MacroFuels project and the priority is to reduce feedstock cost to improve production efficiency.
Another field where major changes have taken place in recent years is aviation biofuels. Sustainable aviation fuels are coming out of the margins as the aviation industry is expected to grow 4-5% for the next 50 years and electrification is not an option in the short term and liquid fuels will still be required.
Oskar Meijerink from SkyNRG stated that the short-term objective is to provide a one-stop shop for sustainable aviation fuels. While in 2013 the production, upgrading and blending took place in Geismar, Houston and New York; in 2017 the production chain is shorter and both production and blending are done in Los Angeles. Currently, test flights are ongoing and continuous supply is planned for 2018.
Circular economy was a cross-cutting topic in this year’s conference. As biomass is getting scarce, sources such as food waste and sewage sludge, for which a whole session was dedicated in the conference, are gaining more importance. For example, in New Zealand alone, the meat industry produces 760,000 tonnes of waste every year. In the European Union, over 10 million tons of sewage sludge dry matter is produced yearly and currently 60-70% of it goes to landfills. One of the proposed technologies to convert sewage sludge into solid fuel is Torwash (coined from “wet torrefaction” and “washing”). In the Torwash process, biomass is treated in high pressure and temperature to produce pellets with high heating value.
While many technology-related problems are already being addressed, one concern has remained the same: the need for regulatory framework and solid markets for biomass materials and products. Lack of markets still restricts the implementation of full-scale project planning and dictates the feasibility of investments on renewable energy projects. The challenge for creating a circular economy is the lack of incentives as many virgin materials are still less expensive than the recycled alternatives.
Dana Younger from the International Finance Corporation stated that even though financing renewable energy has increased more than 2 billion dollars annually in recent years, financing is still largely on the conventional side: solar, wind and hydro. Geothermal energy and biomass have remained the neglected children – biomass due to lack of regulatory framework and economic incentives as well as insufficient return on investment.
Biomass is defined differently in Europe and Asia, even within Asia, which makes regulation more difficult. To secure feedstock supply and overcome technology-related challenges, new strategies to reduce the investment risk are required.
* Advanced Biofuels USA contributor, Maija Sihvonen, a technical writer and student of energy technology at Aalto University in Helsinki, Finland, aims for a career specializing in renewable energy and politics.