Navigant Research Blog

EPA’s Clean Power Rule a Setback for Emerging Algae Industry

— October 2, 2014

From ethanol refineries to steel mills, major industrial processors are partnering with emerging advanced biofuels producers to monetize their emissions in a process loosely referred to as carbon capture and utilization (CCU).  With carbon regulations once again gaining traction, this could prove to be the paradigm of industrial synergy.  Industrial players generate revenue from a liability, otherwise regarded as waste; biofuels producers gain access to carbon-rich flue gases, which their proprietary industrial microbes or algae consume, resulting in the production of bio-based fuels and chemicals.

Companies targeting waste streams as a strategic feedstock for advanced chemical and biofuels production avoid one of the primary hurdles to commercial scale for conversion processes: the lack of access to inexpensive feedstock.  In the case of flue gas, advanced biofuels producers avoid a costly frontend feedstock conversion that can derail project feasibility.

Growing on CO2

There are many advanced biofuels ventures targeting carbon-rich gaseous feedstock sources through colocation partnerships with industrial facilities.  In the United States, BioProcess Algae, which designs, builds, and operates commercial-scale bioreactors that convert light and CO2 into high-value microbial feedstock, has deployed a demonstration plant at a first-generation ethanol plant in Iowa.

Algae are the ideal partner for industrial carbon emitters, digesting CO2 as they grow.  The more CO2 the algae consume, the faster they grow.

During this process, the algae return clean oxygen to the environment while also producing high-value oils and proteins.  These oils and proteins can be used in the production of transportation fuels, animal feed, chemicals, and food products.  As an added bonus, once the lipids and other co-products have been extracted from the algae, the residues can be used as a fuel for power generation, either co-fired in combustion facilities or converted to biogas in an anaerobic digester.

Left Behind

Among many advanced biofuels production pathways, algae’s unique advantage is high per-acre productivity.  Microalgae can potentially produce 2 to 20 times more oil per acre than other plants, making algae platforms a compelling solution to offsetting petroleum imports without converting large swaths of farmland to grow dedicated energy crops.

Unfortunately for the emerging U.S. algae industry and other companies targeting flue gas in the United States, though, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) excluded CCU as an approved strategy for emissions mitigation in its proposed Clean Power Rule.

Most algae companies today have long-term aspirations to partner with utilities for access to CO2 produced at power plants.  With nearly 5,000 potential industrial sources of CO2 across the United States – most of these power generation facilities – the addressable market for these emerging technologies is significant.  At its demonstration facility in Hawaii, Cellana currently relies on flue gas from diesel generators to feed its algae.  A CO2 source from power plants could potentially make the operation more economically feasible in the future, according to the company.

While algae companies argue that their technologies are ready for prime time after years of researching and building small-scale test projects, challenges remain.  Industrial algae production is effectively an agricultural play that requires advances in cultivation and harvesting to lower production costs to a level that can compete with commodity products.

 

Waste-to-Energy Needs New Regulations

— September 18, 2014

A recent study published by the Earth Engineering Center (EEC) of Columbia University estimates that if the total volume of municipal solid waste (MSW) produced in the United States were incinerated in waste-to-energy (WTE) power plants, 12% of the country’s total electricity demand could be met.  This is more than 5 points higher than the current share of U.S. energy demand met by renewable sources today (7%), with WTE representing just a small fraction of the total energy mix.

Just 86 WTE plants are in operation in the United States today.  No new plants have been built since 1995.  Meanwhile, Waste Management recently divested its Wheelabrator Technologies subsidiary, which operates 17 plants around the country.

With so much upside, why does this market continue to stagnate?

Waste Pyramid

The United States currently produces 250 million tons of trash annually across the country.  This represents 15% to 20% of the global total.  Despite an abundance of feedstock, three primary barriers limit market growth: lack of regulatory support, lack of public support, and low electricity rates.

Among these, lack of regulatory support is often cited as the primary barrier to realizing the market’s full potential.  Across the United States, for example, landfilling continues to be the de facto solution for disposing of MSW, with relatively few exceptions.  On average, about 11% of the MSW is diverted to WTE and around 35% is recycled or composted.  The remainder (54%) is landfilled.  This reflects a waste management regulatory regime in the United States that falls well short of more aggressive policies set forth by European policymakers.

European principles articulated under a waste management hierarchy pyramid framework provide strong support for WTE and energy recovery.  A combination of land constraints, higher electricity prices, and a perilous dependence on Russian natural gas has provided European policymakers the motivation needed to enact strong support for WTE and other energy conversion technologies.  Combined with higher tipping fees – the cost of disposing of waste – these policies help reduce dependence on landfills.

Plenty of Fuel

By contrast, waste management in the United States is not coordinated at the federal level.  Instead, policy implementation is left to state discretion.  Individual states – Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Hampshire among the leaders – have been far more aggressive in investing in infrastructure to boost recycling and energy recovery from MSW, but these policies have not yet found broad support across the rest of the country.

Recent market developments in the United States, however, signal a likely pendulum shift in favor of WTE and other waste conversion technologies.

In anticipation of tightening restrictions around coal-based generation from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), utilities and state policymakers are actively seeking alternative sources of energy that provide the coveted baseload capabilities of centralized fossil plants.  Among baseload renewables, WTE is among the few options logistically feasible across the country, with MSW generated in abundance and continuously in areas of high population density.

Meanwhile, according to findings in Navigant Research’s Smart Waste report, the traditional waste management market is facing a disruption similar to that faced by electric utilities at the hands of distributed generation.  Although these solutions seek to turn a liability (trash) into a strategic resource, WTE and other energy conversion technologies will benefit from greater emphasis placed on the value of waste as an input for renewable energy generation.

We expect energy recovery solutions to generate 70% of the revenue attributable to next-generation waste management technologies in North America.  While this represents a healthy growth opportunity, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, as the EEC study demonstrates.

 

Distributed Biogas Gains Footing in Revised Standard

— September 8, 2014

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized an extension of the beleaguered Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) to carve out a pathway for renewable biogas to qualify as a cellulosic fuel.  Expanding the scope of the RFS2 beyond liquid transportation markets could have promising implications for the slow-to-emerge cellulosic biofuels market.

Under the RFS2, the EPA requires domestic refiners and importers of transportation fuel to blend increasing volumes of renewable fuels into conventional gasoline and diesel.  The EPA sets the renewable volume obligations for various renewable fuels every year, and regulated entities must demonstrate their compliance by acquiring and retiring renewable identification numbers (RINs), which are publicly traded credits that fluctuate in value.

RINs provide an important financial incentive for the nascent advanced biofuels industry, helping these fuels compete with conventional fuels in the marketplace.  Cellulosic biofuels, a fuel pathway slated to deliver the greatest volume under the rule, have fallen short of expectations every year due to less capacity being built than otherwise predicted.

Expanding Universe

Under the expanded rules, biogas-derived compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and electricity used to power electric vehicles would qualify for cellulosic RINs.  The final rule is likely to lead to a substantial increase in the production of cellulosic biofuels and create new markets for materials previously regarded as waste.  Opportunities for upgrading biogas to so-called bioCNG or bioLNG – also referred to as biomethane or renewable biogas and already used in fleet applications like garbage trucks and municipal buses – currently show high promise for biogas-to-transportation fuel.

As outlined in the U.S. government’s Biogas Opportunities Roadmap report released last month, biogas has broad applications across a range of diverse industries.  Livestock farms, industrial wastewater treatment facilities, industrial food processing facilities, commercial buildings and institutions, and landfills all produce biogas – either directly or in the form of waste feedstocks that can be converted into biogas.  According to Navigant Research’s Renewable Biogas report, the biogas capture market across the United States is expected to reach more than $4 billion in annual revenue by 2020.

All in all, biogas remains a vastly underutilized resource across the United States when compared to countries like Germany that have used a range of incentives to drive investment, particularly in agricultural applications.

The Curse of Versatility

The challenge for biogas in the United States is that to some it’s a fuel source, to others a waste mitigation strategy, and to others a distributed generation resource.  That makes it difficult to tailor policies that address all potential opportunities.  Adding to the confusion, distributed biogas is often treated by utilities as a strategic resource alongside solar PV and small wind, when in fact it can be utilized in the form of a traditional generator set, a fuel cell, or sometimes concurrently, in combined heat and power configurations.

With these issues in mind, the EPA’s final rule relating to biogas introduced a relatively novel and subtle feature for renewable energy markets: incentive flexibility.  Under the rule, the EPA not only expands the scope of RFS2, but allows the same amount of renewable electricity derived from biogas to give rise to RINs for transportation applications and renewable energy credits for electricity generation, while also qualifying for incentives under state renewable portfolio standards.

This potential for multiple revenue streams unlocks the versatility of biogas as a resource and is likely to attract new investment in the U.S. biogas market.

 

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.

 

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