Friday, September 14, 2012

Biofuels in Troubles

Food versus Fuel
The European biofuel market is setting the agenda for the world of biofuels. Biofuels has come under severe attack from many sides again lately. This is nothing new, as we have previously discussed here on this blog. Last time around was back in 2008 when oil prices as well as most agricultural commodities rallied until they collapsed in the summer of 2008. This time around it was the drought in the US and the consequently high prices of corn/maize that started the debate. The debate was started by authoritative UN food agency that called for a suspension of US bioethanol scheme. As roughly 40% of the US corn production is used for ethanol biofuel production, the usual players started the fuel versus food debate. Nestle, Swiss multinational food company issued a statement already back in 2011, but were happy to repeat the message in 2012. European politicians already under financial pressure have already scaled back their support for biofuel. With the introduction of the Renewable Energy Directive in 2009 and introduction of the double counting for waste based biofuels (a programme which makes it easier to meet blend in targets) are now again under pressure to repair the biofuel policy. So it was really no big surprise when on September 10 Reuters could rumour a EU document that spoke about limiting crop based biofuels to 5% of transport fuels by 2020.

Biofuel already under pressure to improve
This EU initiative really should not come as a surprise. It is clear that current 1st generation biofuel will not solve the fuel issue, and biofuel that is either unsustainable or comes at the cost of human starvation is not a long time option. Already the Renewable Energy Directive has some quite ambitious targets, as the green house gas savings requirements rise from 35% over 50% in 2017 to 60% in 2018. Ongoing discussions over the so-called ILUC (Indirect land use changes) have been ongoing for years, and it boils down to the fact that no matter how you look at it, if you grow crops for use as biofuel they will inevitably end up having replaced a food crop and thus potentially contributing to reduction in food supply.

Silence from the industry?
So who is actually standing up for the biofuel industry. Well nobody really. The European Biodiesel Board, the European biodiesel manufacturer's association seeems to so be busy fighting their colleagues in the US, Argentina and Indonesia that they have not had the time to go in and defend the industry.

The future for the biofuel industry
So clearly production of biodiesel from virgin oils and bioethanol from corn and other food crops is not the final solution. However it is an important stepping stone in the search for better and more sustainable technologies. Already in Europe the biodiesel industry is under so much economic pressure that the majority of biodiesel plants are idle, and a large part of the remaining plants are running on used cooking oil, waste animal fats and other low quality non-edible by-product oils. A number of new technologies are under development, where the greatest hopes are tied to the cellulosic ethanol, which as a 2nd generation biofuel with no food versus fuel dilemmas is seen as very green. The hope is that you can really turn low value wood and agricultural by-products into valuable biofuel with clever technology. We are still waiting for the technology improvements that will allow profitable commercial scale production. In the meantime it is important that politicians do not rock the boat so much that all the commercial players will drown. Who is going to invest - next time the politicians want us to be more green?

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