The number one priority is to develop a regulatory framework that offers the industry long-term continuity beyond 2020 in areas such as biomandated content.
A more level playing field is required if the true potential of biofuels is to be realised, argues Lars Peter Lindfors, Senior Vice President of Technology at Neste Oil Corporation…
Lars Peter Lindfors
Biofuels have already helped the world achieve a tangible reduction in emissions. As global CO2
emissions are forecast to rise by as much as 50 per cent over the next 25 years, however, the current state of play in the biofuel industry will need to see some major changes. Given the scale of the investments required, the industry needs a clear and unambiguous legislative framework, together with a consistent level of political commitment to that framework.
Achieving international consensus has always been a challenge, and it is perhaps, therefore, surprising that relatively few today question the importance of sustainability (particularly over the long term), or the need to combat critical phenomena such as global warming. It is only when one looks at what is being done in the short term and how policy is being implemented at national, regional, and international level that the cracks in this consensus become apparent. Good intentions are too often being muddied by conflicting decisions and even by that long-term bane of international trade, protectionism.
Nevertheless, the world has come a long way, especially since the original Kyoto Protocol. Numerous countries have adopted mandated bio-content requirements for traffic fuels, for example. Considerable technological progress has also been made, in terms of new refining processes, new types of feedstock, and completely new energy sources. While some of these developments will be important for society two or three decades from now, the ones that call for the most attention are those that can help us start making a difference today.
Making more of a difference today
The European experience of biofuels, and advanced biofuels in particular, such as hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO) – in other words pure hydrocarbons produced from renewable feedstock – are a good case in point. Biofuels offer the most direct route available today for reducing traffic-related emissions of CO2
and are already widely available. A recent report from the European Commission has estimated that the EU has cut this category of emissions by 25.5 million tons so far through using these fuels. They also have the potential to reduce many countries’ dependence on imported oil.
Compared to longer-term options such as LPG, electricity or hydrogen, biofuels do not call for the roll-out of a completely new level of expensive infrastructure and also sidestep the ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma that always goes with this type of investment in terms of which needs to come first: new infrastructure or new vehicles to use the energy that it will make available.
In fact, HVO takes this advantage much further – not only because it can be used in existing automotive and aircraft engines and fuel distribution systems, such as tanks and pipelines, without the need for any modifications, but because it can be used as a simple, drop-in component for the diesel pool with no blending limits, without compromising fuel quality. The technology also already exists to produce this type of fuel from a growing range of different inputs, including waste, residues, and other non-food materials, but the number of producers using it is still small.
Unfortunately, these types of advanced biofuels continue to face a number of challenges, not only in the EU but also in North America. Despite the introduction of the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive and Fuel Quality Directive, for example, a true internal market for biofuels has yet to emerge and a number of member states actively discriminate against advanced biofuels in favour of fuel produced by less advanced and significantly more limited FAME technology, for example. The US, for its part, has instituted separate requirements for domestic and imported biofuels that also put advanced biofuels at something of a competitive disadvantage.
In the case of Europe, some countries are yet to approve HVO as a biofuel or have imposed production quotas or restrictions on the feedstock that can be used to produce it. As a result of these and other trade barriers, it has been estimated that less than half of the total EU market for biofuels can as yet benefit from what HVO-based renewable diesel has to offer, severely undermining true competition in the process.
Biofuels offer the most direct route available today for reducing traffic-related emissions of CO2
and are already widely available.
The future success of the biofuels industry will depend on a number of factors and learning experiences. No easy challenge, it must be admitted, but a necessary one all the same.
The number one priority is to develop a regulatory framework that offers the industry long-term continuity beyond 2020 in areas such as biomandated content. The latter is a virtual necessity, given the fact that the raw materials required to produce biofuels are likely to remain more expensive than crude oil for the foreseeable future. Without this, industry will be unable – and ultimately unwilling – to make the type of investments needed, not only in capacity based on the best existing technology but also in new conversion technologies that can make use of a broad range of globally available feedstock.
Legislation also needs to become technology-neutral and focus on how best to achieve the objective benefits that biofuels can deliver, in terms of fuel quality and reduced emissions of CO2
and other exhaust pollutants. The marketplace will then be in a much better position to evaluate and choose the most competitive alternatives capable of delivering the results everybody is looking to achieve.
This shift to a more level playing field should also be accompanied by the elimination of protectionist measures and efforts to bring the global market for biofuels more in line with the oil market, and its market-driven efficiencies and liquidity. This is the way to make biofuels more competitive and less inherently expensive than they are at the moment. It will require harmonised definitions in areas such as waste and residues and the end of priority access to raw materials for some industries, together with effective policing to ensure that these changes are implemented fairly and equitably in practice.
With these types of developments, the biofuels industry will be much better placed to develop the technology needed to further promote society’s transition to new generations of biofuels, particularly those based on waste, residues and algae.
Lars Peter Lindfors
Senior Vice President, Technology
Neste Oil Corporation
[This article was originally published on 1st
July 2013 as part of Science Omega Review Europe