An advanced biofuels coalition, Leaders of Sustainable Biofuels (LSB), Florence, Italy, welcomed the European Union’s commitment to decarbonize transport and has called on the EU to ensure sufficient confidence and predictability for investors by setting an advanced biofuels mandate to begin in 2021.
This call reflects the alignment of both the European Commission and European Parliament with such a policy request, while the European Council proposes the mandate kick off in 2025.
“This would create significant political insecurity for the sector and jeopardize the swift uptake of advanced biofuels in the EU. A binding target would set a strong framework for investments in sustainable, novel and innovative technologies and production facilities that will enable the industry to move forward and to unleash its full potential in Europe,” says a statement from the group.
In its statement, the LSB also highlights three other concerns. First, it stresses that tackling climate issues requires ambition, which in turn demands incentives to invest in measures that reduce emissions and at the same time keep a wide feedstock base. “Multipliers and double-counting should not be introduced if their impact is a significant reduction of the ambition level for the mandate,” notes the LSB.
Second is an objection to any European Parliament position that modifies the definition of biomass as this could affect long-term regulatory stability for investors in biofuel technology.
The third issue concerns the waste hierarchy principles to which member states should adhere. Here, the LSB worries that strict legal applications of these principles could be counterproductive as local circumstances on existing use of certain feedstocks varies greatly from member state to member state.
“Advanced biofuels are a fast track option to decarbonize transport. Investments in advanced biofuels have increased in recent years. However, only with predictable, long-term policies will the industry be able to dramatically increase investments and fully exploit the potential of those technologies. Advanced biofuels bring multiple benefits in terms of carbon dioxide reduction, investments, revenues for farmers and forestry, improved waste management practices, job creation and an increase in energy security. These opportunities are available in all member states,” concludes the statement.
The LSB, whose members include Clariant, Energochemica, Enerkem, BTG and UPM, believes second-generation advanced biofuels (2GAB) made from feedstocks not used for food represent a major industrial opportunity for sustainable energy technology development. And, with a policy and regulatory framework that supports such investment in place, significant 2GAB production could be deployed immediately.
However, while the 2021 EU regulation aims to shrink the environmental footprint of biofuels, a scientist at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL), Lausanne, Switzerland, believes this should take into account all compounds produced at biorefineries, not just biofuels.
“In my study, I wanted to show that calculating the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels tells just half of the story. What we really need to do is quantify the emissions of each product coming out of biorefineries,” says Edgard Gnansounou, professor at EPFL and head of the school’s bioenergy and energy planning research group.
The challenge is to take the whole processing chain into account. In the case of sugar cane-derived biofuels, for example, that would include emissions from growing and harvesting the plant, transporting it to a biorefinery, turning it into biofuel, and producing the other compounds and animals feed supplements that are generally made as co-products.
Gnansounou has developed a sophisticated computer model that takes into account all the different variables involved.
“I tackled the problem of allocating greenhouse gas emissions among the different co-products by specifying an environmental requirement for each one. Plant engineers can compare those emissions with their fossil-fuel equivalents and set up the right incentives to make their biorefineries economically viable,” he explains.
Gnansounou’s model is intended for second-generation biorefineries. “These should replace some oil refineries, but engineers still don’t have a clear method for calculating emissions across a biofuel’s lifecycle. What’s more, biorefineries have trouble competing with low oil prices,” he adds, noting that biofuels are two to three times more expensive than fossil fuels.
The renewable energy industry is too focused on the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels alone, believes Gnansounou, who recommends that it look more closely at the emissions of each co-product from biorefineries. This also would give consumers more information about the sustainability of biomass-derived products.
“Policymakers still haven’t fully grasped the emissions challenge, which is why it’s a good area for research,” he concludes.
Seán Ottewell is Chemical Processing's Editor at Large. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.