Navigant Research Blog

Going Small, Gas-to-Liquids Finds a Niche

— July 2, 2014

Typically, converting gaseous fuels like natural gas to liquids requires high upfront capital investment and substantial energy inputs to maintain operations and results in significant energy loss.  Despite these challenges, smaller-scale gas-to-liquid (GTL) deals have increased sharply of late.  They include a joint development project involving Waste Management, NRG Energy, Velocys, and Ventech to develop a platform than can convert landfill gas to renewable fuels and chemicals.

To date, GTL projects have been built in only the most extreme cases – where macroeconomic trends are especially favorable or when liquid fuels are unavailable (e.g., Germany during World War II and South Africa under apartheid, both of which relied on coal-to-liquid conversion).

These narrow circumstances explain why just five GTL facilities are in operation globally today, despite GTL technologies being proven commercially.  The most high-profile project, Shell’s Pearl Plant in Qatar, commissioned in 2011, cost a whopping $18 billion to construct, or about $8 per gallon of annual production capacity.  With such a high price tag, the project’s return on investment (ROI) hinges on a free supply of natural gas feedstock and a per-barrel oil price in excess of $40 (brent crude was trading at about $110 per barrel just before ISIS’ recent advance in Iraq).  Meanwhile, Shell recently cancelled another high-profile GTL project slated to be built in Louisiana, citing high estimated capital costs and market uncertainty regarding natural gas and petroleum product prices.  In short, commodity prices matter.

Modular Mode

In light of this limited market uptake, the recent surge of smaller-scale GTL projects is unexpected.  Targeting stranded or associated gas resources, however, these systems are able to skirt many of the macroeconomic barriers to the large-scale GTL projects described above.

Usually wasted or unused, stranded or associated gas presents a number of financial challenges to bring to market using conventional infrastructure.  In other words, the problem lies not in getting the gas out of the ground, but in finding a practical, economical, and efficient way of moving it to market.

In the case of stranded gas – gas fields located near local markets that are usually too small or in places too distant from industrialized markets – smaller-scale GTL processing can convert natural gas into a liquid product that is cheaper to transport.  In associated gas applications, where gas is either flared or injected into oilfields to maximize recovery, smaller-scale GTL can unlock new revenue streams.

Smaller and Safer

In both cases, smaller-scale GTL conversion has significant advantages over conventional infrastructure.  Shrinking the hardware allows greater tailoring of systems to the local resource supply and reduced construction costs.  The modularity of GTL systems allows capital to be allocated in phases, reducing risk to project investors.  And because the modules and reactors are designed only once and then manufactured many times, much of the plant can be standardized and shop-fabricated in skid-mounted modules.

The opportunity for smaller-scale GTL remains significant.  Stranded and associated gas is relatively abundant (estimated at 40%-60% of the world’s proven gas reserves).  One of the more exciting opportunities that has gained attention more recently is the pairing of frontend conversion technologies for processing abundantly available solid biomass and waste into synthetic gas (or syngas) which unlocks many more opportunities globally for smaller GTL platforms.  Navigant Research’s recently published Smart Waste report forecasts that annual revenue from municipal solid waste energy recovery will increase to $6.5 billion worldwide by 2023, due in part to the expansion of emerging technologies like small-scale GTL.

 

Gasification Projects Drive Smart Waste Evolution

— June 27, 2014

As the waste industry slowly evolves toward more integrated solutions for municipal solid waste (MSW) management, increasing volumes of trash are now being handled by so-called smart technologies.  Waste-to-fuels (W2F) – a subsegment within the energy recovery market that converts MSW into finished fuels, like ethanol and jet fuel – has become especially active, with advanced gasification technologies reaching important commercial milestones.

Enerkem, a Canadian company that recently gained first-mover status with the opening of a 10 million gallon per year (MGY) waste-to-methanol plant in Edmonton last month, is the first pure-play W2F project in development to reach the commissioning stage.  The company plans to add an advanced ethanol module later this year.  In April, British Airways and U.S.-based Solena Fuels (which are jointly developing GreenSky London, a 19 MGY facility converting landfill waste into jet fuel, bionaptha, and renewable energy) announced the selection of a site to commence commercial development and commissioning by 2017.

Faced with high capital costs, both projects depend on the low cost and widespread availability of waste as a feedstock to drive initial viability and future expansion.

Landfilling

According to World Bank estimates, nearly 1.5 billion tons of MSW is generated globally each year.  This total is expanding rapidly due to urbanization and rising levels of affluence in developing economies across Asia Pacific and Africa.

While 16% of MSW generated globally is never collected in the first place, and 27% is diverted for either material or energy recovery, more than 50% is still dumped in landfills, according to Navigant Research estimates.  Although there is plenty of trash to go around for higher value applications like W2F, market development depends on tightening regulations driving landfill diversion, since landfilling is typically the lowest-cost solution in areas where waste is actively managed.

In Western Europe, and to a lesser extent, North America, where waste diversion is gaining the most traction, momentum appears to be increasingly on the side of emerging companies like Enerkem and Solena Fuels commercializing breakthrough energy recovery conversion technologies.

Smart Waste

As forecast in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Waste, annual revenue in the smart MSW technology market – of which, energy recovery is a key subsegment – is expected to more than double from $2.3 billion in 2014 to $6.4 billion in 2023.  Annual revenue from smart MSW technologies is expected to surpass conventional technologies by 2019.

Annual MSW Management Revenue by Technology Type, World Markets: 2014-2023

 

(Source: Navigant Research)

While Waste Management in North America remains an active investor in Enerkem and other early-stage companies commercializing smart MSW technologies and solutions, traditional waste haulers face a revenue decline similar to that faced by traditional electric utilities.  As more MSW is targeted as a strategic feedstock, there is less trash for waste haulers to manage, resulting in less and less revenue.

Despite this evolution, companies like Enerkem and Solena Fuels still have a long road ahead.  These companies must compete for municipal contracts – in most cases, with traditional waste haulers – often pitting the high capital cost of an advanced energy conversion facility against landfilling on one hand and relatively inexpensive fossil fuel refineries on the other.

Enerkem’s Edmonton facility is estimated to cost $7.50 per gallon of production capacity to build.  GreenSky London, which incorporates the Fischer-Tropsch gasification process to convert MSW to synthetic gas (syngas), is expected to cost more than $14.00 per gallon of production capacity.  While the initial capital cost of such facilities is expected to decline over time, both platforms will depend on multiple revenue streams to be commercially viable.

 

Lufthansa Leads Biofuels Hunt

— May 6, 2014

Lufthansa announced last month that it has teamed up with U.S.-based Gevo to research the blending of alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) fuel with conventional kerosene for use in commercial flights.  While it’s not surprising that ATJ will be on the fast track for testing and ASTM approval for use in commercial operations, Lufthansa’s support of the ATJ biojet pathway demonstrates that it’s conducting an intensive search for a viable advanced biofuels conversion pathway.

Lufthansa is among the leading airlines that have sought partnerships with emerging companies at the vanguard of biofuels innovation.  On paper, the German carrier accounts for more than 40% of the biofuels purchased by commercial airlines since 2008.  It was the first commercial carrier to operate biofuels-powered flights, launching an initiative to fly more than 1,000 commercial flights between Hamburg and Frankfurt in 2011 powered by biofuels derived from jatropha, camelina, and animal fats.

Succumbed

In some respects, Lufthansa has become the canary in the aviation biofuels coal mine.  It abandoned the Hamburg-Frankfurt route in 2011, citing difficulty finding a sufficient volume of biofuels.  The move presaged a dramatic decline from 31,000 biofuels miles flown in 2012 by commercial carriers to just 3,000 in 2013.

Commercial Airline Biofuels Miles Flown by Flight Type, World Markets: 2008-2013

 

(Source: Navigant Research)

Among the industries actively seeking alternative liquid biofuels, the aviation sector has been one of the most aggressive in pursuing its sustainability goals.  While laudable, this significantly narrows the potential feedstock pool for an industry anxious to lower operating costs, hedge against future oil price spikes, and improve its carbon footprint.  The drop-off in biofuels miles flown reflects the challenge of pairing a low-cost conversion technology with an abundant and sustainable feedstock.

At least 75% of global biofuels production today is derived from just two feedstocks: cornstarch in the United States and sugarcane in Brazil.  The remaining share is produced from other food-based feedstocks like soy, canola, palm, and coarse grains converted to first-generation ethanol and biodiesel.  Despite a relative abundance, both ethanol and biodiesel lack key performance attributes of kerosene-based jet fuel, making them nonstarters for use in jet engines.

Just two fuel pathways are approved for commercial use in the aviation industry today.  The first, FT-SPK, is a gasification and catalytic process (Fischer-Tropsch) that was put into use by the Nazis during World War II and in South Africa under apartheid.  The second, HEFA (or Bio-SPK), involves hydrotreating oils derived from oil-bearing plants, animal fats, and used cooking grease.  This latter pathway has supplied nearly 100% of the fuel burned in the nearly 600,000 miles of biofuels-fueled flights that have occurred since 2008.

A disproportionate share of the biofuels consumed by airlines during this period has been produced from used cooking grease, a feedstock typically discarded as waste.  While produced in abundance in urban areas, the relative volume of used cooking grease represents just a drop in the bucket compared to the nearly 90 billion gallons of kerosene-based jet fuel consumed annually by commercial airlines and militaries around the world.  It was never the silver bullet envisioned by the aviation industry for offsetting petroleum use.

The Search Continues

While many commercial carriers remained focused on participating in demonstration flights and establishing commercial routes, Lufthansa refocused its efforts on scouring the globe for technologies with the potential to operate at an industrial scale.

In 2012, the airline inked a deal with Australia-based Algae.Tec to build a large facility in Europe based on a modular design that uses shipping containers.  Although the algae industry remains an outlier in the crowded advanced biofuels technology landscape, along the algae frontier, Algae.Tec is an even greater outlier with a potentially game-changing platform.

Lufthansa’s recent deal with Gevo to pursue ATJ offers the airline another potential pathway to industrial-scale biojet production based on fermentation.  With the lion’s share of global biorefinery infrastructure based on fermentation platforms, Gevo is pursuing a capital-light approach based on the retrofitting of existing conventional ethanol refineries.  Assuming ASTM approval of ATJ, Navigant Research’s recent Aviation and Marine Biofuels report projects that 180 million gallons of ATJ will be produced globally by 2024.

 

Disrupting the Trash Business

— May 5, 2014

One of the hallmarks of human society’s advance has been the ability to distance itself from the trash it produces.  This collection and disposal of waste – a role traditionally played by large waste haulers like Waste Management (United States) and Veolia (France) – has historically involved picking up trash from the curb and dumping it in a remote landfill.  As circular economy efforts begin to materialize, however, and emerging technology solutions increasingly target trash as a strategic resource, we are learning to get a little cozier with our trash … with disruptive consequences for the waste industry.

Solena Group’s recent announcement that it has selected a site to build a first-of-kind waste-to-advanced biofuels facility outside of London demonstrates how quickly the waste industry is evolving.  The facility will produce waste-derived aviation biofuels for British Airways and renewable diesel, as well as excess power for the electrical grid, while diverting 50 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) from crowded landfills annually.

To be sure, the management of solid waste remains big business.  According to the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries spend an estimated $120 billion annually on municipal waste management.  In low- and middle-income countries, urbanization and rising levels of affluence are projected to drive a four- to five-fold increase in waste management costs in places where 20% to 50% of recurring municipal budgets are already spent managing waste.  For upstart ventures, the waste value chain is potentially big business.  These entities are causing a disruption mirroring the  impact of distributed generation on the traditional electric utility business model.

Trash Doesn’t Equal Prosperity

The evolution of the waste management industry is precipitated by two key trends.

First, conscientious consumers who aim to trim consumption excess and reduce bulky packaging have contributed to a slow decline in per-capita waste generation in developed economies.  While the total volume of MSW generated globally is expected to nearly double in a little over a decade, the decoupling of waste generation from GDP growth in Europe and the United States is a cause for concern among haulers.  Less waste means less potential revenue from hauling and disposal.  Like electric utilities faced with increasing adoption of distributed energy resources, there is very little waste haulers can do to stem this trend.

The second trend involves the proliferation of zero waste policies seeking to divert waste from landfills.  These policies indirectly bolster waste’s value as a strategic resource, rather than something to be managed for health and environmental reasons alone.  This paradigm shift carves out opportunities for companies, such as Solena Group, that seek to mine trash for strategic resources and carbon, often at the expense of traditional waste management company revenue.

On the Offensive

Waste haulers, seeking to drive new revenue growth, are increasingly going on the offensive.  Since 2007, Waste Management, the largest waste hauler operating in the United States, has been engaged in a multiyear transformation aimed at turning its business model on its head.  Traditionally designed to pick up waste and drop it into a landfill, the company has invested between $300 million and $400 million in a portfolio of startup waste-to-energy solutions providers in order to take waste materials and put them to their highest and best use.  Rather than pick one technology, the company is betting on a suite of solutions gaining incremental market share.

As Navigant Research’s forthcoming report, Smart Waste, will highlight, the parallels between the electric utility and the waste hauler are many.  To maintain market share, both sets of companies are adapting, rather than resting on poles and wire or hauling and disposal laurels.

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles, Energy Storage, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Smart Grid Practice, Smart Transportation Practice, Utility Innovations

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Mackinnon Lawrence","path":"\/author\/mlawrence","date":"8\/2\/2014"}