16 Oct 2014   |   News

Energy security means supporting advanced biofuels, says industry

Instead of roaring ahead in the race for renewables, pursuing biofuels in Europe is a halting, cautious venture. Industry and policymakers met in Brussels this week to spark new life into the effort

Biofuel representatives and policymakers gathered in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the stalling path to biofuel production in Europe, with some member states inclined to think that as things stand, neither the economic nor the environmental case for pursuing biofuel production stacks up.

The technical challenge is to find ways to convert biological materials to biofuels cheaply, in an environmentally friendly way, and on a large enough scale.  But a bigger barrier is the fall-off in political support that followed in the wake of food crops being diverted to biofuels after the EU introduced incentives for their production in 2009.

“If we’re going to win support for biofuels, we have to fight the political game,” said a bullish Sandrine Dixson- Declève, vice-chair of the European Biofuels Technology Platform, the event organiser.  “We have to go out there and promote the benefits of biofuels as part of the energy security discussion, because that’s the game in town right now,” she said.

The meeting comes in the run-up to next week’s European Union Summit, where energy ministers will vote on a 2030 target for renewable energy.

Fuel of the future 

There is a joke about advanced biofuel that says it’s the fuel of the future – and always will be.

It reflects doubt over whether second-generation biofuels, which involve breaking down the cellulose that forms the structural elements of plants, can compete with fossil fuels. To make a significant dent in the amount of conventional oil that refineries churn through each day, biofuel factories would need to massively ramp up production.

“There’s a lot of caution out there,” said Paul Verhoef, Head of new and renewable energy sources at the European Commission’s directorate for Research and Innovation. “My impression is that banks have extreme difficulties in assessing the risk of financing.”

The date for reaching “breakeven day” is a fixation for politicians. “Everywhere you go, people ask me, ‘when will biofuels be cost competitive?’” said Raffaello Garofalo, Secretary General, European Biodiesel Board. “It’s a funny question and nobody knows – but there’ll come a day.”

A law agreed in the European Parliament last year imposed a 2.5 per cent target for advanced biofuels by 2020. However, this was diluted down to a non-binding target of 0.5 per cent by EU energy ministers, much to the dismay of the industry.

Fluctuations in fossil fuel prices will continue to have a major effect on demand for biofuels, added Garofalo. The spread of fracking, meanwhile, promises to unlock new oil and gas reserves and provide an alternative path to energy independence.

Despite these setbacks, governments should stay the course with biofuel, advised Jonathan Hood, who helps coordinate low-carbon fuel policy in the UK Department for Transport. “It’s important to take a long-term view with any policy; oil prices are always going to be unstable,” he said.

Liquid fossil fuels are likely to dominate fuel supply to 2030, said Ausilio Bauen, Director of E4Tech, a consultancy firm based in London. “But our forecasts say that biofuels could double their contribution and make up 10 to 15 per cent of road transport fuel in that time.” Half of the growth could come from second generation biofuels, he added.

Europe’s biggest success story in advanced biofuels is the Crescentino plant in Italy, which is the world's first commercial scale plant making fuel from straw.

First generation strife

Materials from trees to shrubs, grasses, fungi, algae and animal fats have been turned into biofuels to power cars, ships and even planes. But diverting food crops to make fuel has provoked controversy and given biofuels a bad name.

The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive, adopted in 2009, originally required that 10 per cent of energy used within the transport sector came from renewable sources. Amid concerns over the negative impacts of crop-based fuels, the EU reduced this to 5.75 per cent.

The European Commission has said that public subsidies for biofuels produced from food crops will end after 2020. “This is the Commission’s position, I’m not sure the member states will go with this,” said Andreas Pilzecker, a policy officer in the European Commission’s directorate for Energy. The political realities might be different by then, he noted. 

Trying to put a lid on fraud

The reputation of the biofuel industry is not helped by fraud. There is quite a lot of bad quality biodiesel that cannot be traced back to its source, said Garofalo. A typical scam is when virgin olive oil is labelled as used oil, which can then be used to make biodiesel.

"There’s a financial incentive to buy refined oil, cook a chip in it to turn it into used cooking oil and then sell it at profit,” said Tomas Kaberger, professor of industrial energy policy at Chalmers University of Technology.

There is a frustrating dance over responsibility for this kind of thing, said Garofalo. “We go to the EU to discuss systemic fraud and we’re told it’s a matter for member states. We talk to member states and they tell us it’s an EU competency,” he explained.  

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