Navigant Research Blog

The Global Biofuels Industry: A Future in Doubt

Mackinnon Lawrence — December 11, 2014

In its recent report, The State of the Biofuels Market: Regulatory, Trade, and Development Perspectives, the United Nations (UN) notes that although the emerging biofuels industry has made great strides in the past decade – with ethanol and biodiesel becoming established commodities traded on all continents – significant barriers to commercialization persist across the developing world.  Global biofuels forecasts published in Navigant Research’s report, Market Data: Biofuels, support the view that future capacity deployment is heavily contingent on accessing a shrinking pool of capital investment targeting the industry.

As the UN report notes, conditions in the 2000s that drove annual investment in biofuels in the range of $10 billion per year – including uncertainties related to the price of petroleum products and peak oil speculation – have largely dissipated.  With shale oil & gas production on the rise in key biofuels markets like the United States and the price of crude sliding well under $100 per barrel, market realities have shifted.

Poor Timing

For the emerging advanced biofuels industry, the timing of this macroeconomic shift could not have come at a worse time.  While growth aspirations for the global biofuels industry shifted away from conventional pathways, such as corn starch, to ethanol, palm oil, and biodiesel during the financial crisis of 2008, greenfield biorefinery projects producing advanced biofuels have only just come online in the past year.

The development of these facilities involves capital costs in the hundreds of millions.  Since many of these projects were initiated and financed during a time when macroeconomic realities were quite favorable, a primary concern going forward is whether these first-of-kind facilities can spark additional investment to drive sustained capacity expansion.

This is unlikely given current realities.  To put this into perspective, according to our market data report mentioned above, global biofuels capacity – including conventional and advanced pathways – was just shy of 40 billion gallons per year at the end of 2013.  This represents 4.2% of the global liquid fuel market, or just under 1% of global final energy consumption.

Another $25 Billion Off

Advanced biofuels installed capacity – the focus of current commercialization efforts – accounts for just 1.2 billion gallons, or less than 2% of global biofuels production.  While that’s by no means insignificant, there’s still a long way to go in terms of reducing dependence on liquid fossil fuels, which account for 35% of global final energy consumption, according to data published by the Energy Information Administration (EIA).

In order for advanced biofuels to meet projected production capacity requirements by 2020 under expected biofuels supply mandates in key markets like the United States, European Union, China, and India (Brazil relies mostly on blending quotas), $25 billion to $35 billion in annual investment will be needed over the next 6 years, according to Navigant Research estimates.  This is a tall order for a suite of technology platforms that are not yet at price parity with petroleum-based fuels.

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