Navigant Research Blog

Targeting Aviation, Dedicated Energy Crops Take Root

— March 10, 2014

In our forthcoming report on aviation and marine biofuels, we forecast that global nameplate production capacity will reach 2.3% of global jet fuel demand.  This is just shy of 2.5 billion gallons of installed production capacity, up from just under 750 million gallons in 2014.  Depending on whom you speak to, this would be either a significant achievement or an abject disappointment.

For the optimists, surpassing a critical threshold of 1% is viewed as an important milestone in the emerging aviation biofuels market.  Experience with the commercialization of new technologies demonstrates that 1% to 2.5% market penetration often represents a technology inflection point, leading to accelerated market acceptance and diffusion.  Current nameplate production capacity for aviation biofuels stands at 1%, beating Boeing’s target to do so in 2015 by nearly 2 years.

For the pessimists, 2.3% in 2020 falls well short of aspirational industry targets.  The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has set a goal of meeting 6% of aviation fuel demand by sustainable aviation biofuels by 2020; Boeing’s primary competitor in the aircraft manufacturing business, Airbus, is targeting 5% by 2020.

Below Threshold

Adding further fodder for the pessimists, actual bio-derived jet fuel (biojet) production at emerging advanced biorefineries will fall below nameplate capacity.  Note that petroleum jet fuel – a high-performance kerosene-based product tailored for turbine engines – represents roughly 10% to 15% of the refined gallons produced from a barrel of crude oil.  Based on forecasts, the actual production of biojet fuel in 2020 is likely to represent just 1% of total jet fuel consumption.  ASTM certification of green diesel as a blend fuel with jet fuel would increase this share to just below 2%, still a ways off from achieving a technology diffusion threshold.

One of the primary obstacles impeding growth in the aviation biofuels market is feedstock availability.  It’s a multifaceted problem with no single solution.  While aspirational targets may prove lofty, based on recent developments, they may have accomplished their primary purpose: to stimulate industry investment, innovation, and development.

Two developments, in particular, show significant potential despite scant attention in the U.S. media.

From Prairies to Desert

Brassica carinata, or simply carinata, is an industrial oilseed mustard crop with two subtle characteristics: its oils produce long carbon chain molecules (C22) that can be tailored to match the carbon length (C9-C15) of petroleum-based jet fuels (picture a sawmill using whole logs rather than scrap timber); and it produces more fuel per acre on semiarid lands than any other oilseed in existence today.  The result is better yields of finished fuel than soy or other conventional oilseed crops, a significant achievement for an industry aiming to reach a production threshold measured in the billions of gallons.

Agrisoma Biosciences, a Canadian-based crop company, currently has exclusive global rights to commercialize carinata.  This effort is gaining traction in North America.  Technology developed by Applied Research Associates (ARA) and Chevron Lummus Global is processing test batches of carinata into renewable fuels that are 100% replacements for petroleum based fuels.  In 2012, Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) flew the world’s first 100% biojet civilian flight powered by carinata-derived fuel.  While Popular Science magazine named the milestone one of the top 25 scientific events of 2012, the event was overshadowed by a surge of aviation biofuels tests and commercial flights logged that same year.  More than 15 individual aviation biofuels initiatives took place that year, each relying on a fuel blend of no more than 50% biofuels.

Halfway around the world, a team of researchers in Abu Dhabi led by the Masdar Institute, Boeing, and Etihad Airways is studying the potential of halophytes, a salt-resistant desert crop that can be grown on marginal land.  Scientists leading the effort plan to build an integrated aquaculture ecosystem in which waste seawater from a fish and shrimp farm will nourish halophyte crops, which in turn, act as a filter that cleans the water for discharge into mangrove swamps.  The consortium recently announced that halophytes show even more promise than originally expected as a source of renewable fuel for jets.

 

EPA Resets the Biofuel Industry

— November 27, 2013

Earlier this month, the EPA proposed revisions to biofuel blending quotas for 2014 under its controversial revised Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2).  With a proposed reduction of an estimated 3 billion gallons – a volume roughly equal to 20% of current nationwide biofuels production – it’s the first time the agency is seeking to reduce the total biofuel requirements below the legislated targets.

Covering conventional ethanol produced primarily from corn starch and conventional biodiesel produced from food-based vegetable oils like soy, along with advanced biofuels derived from non-food feedstocks, RFS2 is the backbone policy driving biofuels production in the United States today.  The EPA has adjusted annual volumes for advanced biofuels in prior years, but the recent announcement is unprecedented both in the political dimensions and market ramifications.  It’s also the first time the agency has attempted to put the brakes on conventional ethanol production.  As described by Jason Bordoff, former special assistant to President Obama and senior director for energy and climate change at the National Security Council, the announcement marks a “drastic change in the Administration’s biofuel policy.”

Why the shift?  Below is a brief look at the key forces at play.

Big Oil’s New Swagger

Moving further offshore, mining heavy oils, and channeling investments into next-generation biofuels, oil majors have been scrambling for new growth opportunities in recent years.  In an unexpected reversal of fortune, these companies are positioned to ride a wave of new production from shale oil that has many analysts predicting the United States could become the world’s leading producer of oil within the decade.  Petroleum companies have recently slashed their biofuel investment portfolios while waging an all-out attack on the RFS2 in the courts and on Capitol Hill.  While not quite a “capitulation” by President Obama,  as some described it, the recent announcement by EPA represents a significant victory for the incumbent oil industry, which maintains that it should not be penalized under RFS2 when there is insufficient volume of biofuels to blend in the first place.

The EPA seems increasingly comfortable with facilitating a smooth commercialization glide path for biofuels rather than forcing a top-down overhaul of the liquid fuels market.  Biofuels Digest summarizes the EPA’s intent under the ruling this way: “The practical goal for the EPA is not to use the RFS2 renewable fuels schedules as a driver to produce investment in capacity-building or infrastructure for distribution.  Rather, the EPA opts for a more passive role of providing a market for those capacities that are, in fact, built – based on incremental, if any, changes in infrastructure.”  The onus for attracting investment has been placed squarely on the back of the emerging biofuels industry.

Crashing Ethanol’s Party

Higher pump prices in recent years, meanwhile, have resulted in consumers driving less.  At the same time, improved efficiency under CAFE standards means it takes less fuel to travel the same distance.  The rise of the Prius and Tesla’s recent success are harbingers of an emerging fleet of next-generation vehicles that will further trim consumption.  As a result, as biofuels production increases and oil demand flatlines, the headroom for absorbing supply has shrunk much faster than policymakers predicted when drafting the original RFS2 mandate.

Corn starch ethanol is proving to be a victim of its own success.  The United States currently produces roughly 50% of the total gallons of biofuel produced globally – mostly ethanol – which nearly exceeds the capacity of the U.S. gasoline market to absorb excess production (see blend wall issue).

(Source: EIA)

Policymakers, meanwhile, have shown a reluctance to incentivize demand in new consumer markets.  E15 (15% ethanol) has proven to be complex to implement and E85 (85% ethanol) has been a nonstarter.  This leaves the U.S. ethanol industry in an awkward position.  Either it must now initiate a grassroots campaign to attract billions in new investment for distribution infrastructure or look to export markets to offload excess supply.

 

Hunting Fertile Fields, Advanced Biofuels Providers Look Abroad

— October 18, 2013

With nearly 70% of global biofuels production centered on the United States’ corn and Brazil’s sugarcane harvests, concentrated commodity feedstocks have been the common denominator in biofuels industry growth over the past decade.  Advanced biofuels companies seeking to produce next-generation fuels derived from non-food feedstocks are attempting to replicate this model – without the associated social and environmental externalities of using food-based crops.  Access to land for mass feedstock production is a difficult challenge for which many innovative strategies have been proposed.

Companies like SG Biofuels, Ceres, and others are squarely focused on biotechnology innovation, involving complex biological modifications at the crop’s cellular and genetic level.  The central focus of these efforts is the optimization of dedicated energy crops for growth in a variety of locations where food crops are not currently grown, including poor soils and areas lacking irrigation.  Among these, jatropha, camelina, energy grasses like miscanthus, and dedicated trees like eucalyptus have received the most attention.

But optimizing crop strains to thrive in a variety of climates and soils is only half the battle.  Recent experience has shown that the success of even miracle next-generation feedstocks like jatropha, which can produce oil-rich seeds in poor soils and without irrigation, is exaggerated.  As with food crops, bountiful energy crop harvests (i.e., lots of biomass material for biofuels production) require irrigation and nutrients.

Land Ho!

Meanwhile, finding suitable tracts of land with nutrient-rich soil and irrigation for which a large quantity of crops can be grown – but without diverting land otherwise dedicated to food production (see The New York Times blog on food vs. fuel) – remains an elusive goal.  Increasingly, governments and corporations are looking abroad.

Since the food crisis of 2007-2008, foreign direct investment into countries with undeveloped agricultural potential has accelerated.  According to data compiled by the Oakland Institute, an estimated 56 million hectares of land (nearly the size of France) has been acquired in the developing world by international governments and investors since 2008.

Last month, China announced that it will invest billions of yuan into 3 million hectares (7.5 million acres) of farmland in Ukraine, its biggest overseas agricultural project.  This will more than double China’s current portfolio of 2 million hectares (5 million acres), mostly concentrated in Latin America and Southeast Asia.

China is not alone in this quest.  According to a policy paper published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center, “One of the largest and most notorious deals is one that ultimately collapsed: an arrangement that would have given the South Korean firm Daewoo a 99-year lease to grow corn and other crops on 1.3 million hectares of farmland in Madagascar – half of that country’s total arable land.”  Government and institutional investors across other developed economies, including Japan, the United States, the European Union, and wealthy Gulf states, are all actively involved in this rush.

Complicated by the checkered history of international land grabs, this trend is not without its critics.

Balancing Objectives

While intentions may be in the right place in most instances, the past has shown that consolidation of cultivatable land for foreign or multinational interests can often lead to the displacement of local subsistence farmers, as well as other negative environmental impacts.  In recent years, governments have, at least publicly, imposed more restrictions on biofuels investments abroad to prevent a scramble toward destructive plantation-style feedstock cultivation.

The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED) mandates that member states derive 10% of energy consumption within the transportation sector from renewable sources by 2020.  Recently signed legislation caps the contribution of conventional food-based biofuels, calling for a rapid switch to advanced biofuels.  A slew of sustainability standards, meanwhile, aim to mitigate the negative impacts of large-scale dedicated energy crop production for advanced biofuels.

In Navigant Research’s recently published report, Advanced Biofuels Country Rankings, issues such as available arable land and potential for sustainable feedstock hubs figure heavily into assessments of the potential of individual countries to support advanced biofuels commercialization.  At one time regarded as an issue exclusively focused on conventional biofuels, access to land for advanced biofuels production is proving equally sensitive.

 

Facing an Uncertain Future, Advanced Biofuels Seek New Markets

— April 18, 2013

With a debate over the efficacy of the U.S.’ Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) reopened on Capitol Hill in Washington and policymakers in Brussels wrestling with conflicting reports about whether biofuels impact the environment and global food prices, it’s just another day in the in the office for the global biofuels industry.  While the questions remain the same, the temperature of the debate feels different this time around.

Last year, severe drought prompted the UN to urge U.S. policymakers to scale back or waive mandated volumes of corn starch ethanol production.  In January, a U.S. federal appeals court ruled in favor of the American Petroleum Institute (API), arguing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) could not require refiners to buy credits for cellulosic fuel since there has yet to be any gallons produced commercially and at scale.

Meanwhile, across the pond, European policymakers are struggling to align alternative fuel ambitions with strict sustainability standards.  Progress has been clouded by recent reports complicating an already contentious debate over the land use impacts of increased biofuels production.  Clarity on the issue appears increasingly elusive.

These events have cast considerable doubt on the future of biofuels production in the United States and the EU, the first and third largest markets for biofuels respectively.  Current production offsets just 4% to 5% of petroleum consumption despite outsized ambitions from end-users like commercial airlines, defense, and ground transportation.  The mandates have been likened to filling a swimming pool with a thimble.

Shifting Gears

At the core of biofuel ambitions over the next decade is the commercialization of a host of conversion technologies targeting everything from agricultural residues to algae.  While conventional biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel derived from commodity crops are widely commercialized, advanced biofuels are still clawing their way toward commercial relevance.

First-of-kind biorefineries have come online in the past year with dozens more currently under construction, but the process has been slow, expensive, and arduous.  Navigant Research’s recently published study forecasts that just 9 billion gallons of advanced biofuel will be produced globally by 2020, a far cry from the lofty targets set by current mandates.

If the climate of uncertainty flowing from developments in Washington and Brussels persists, a mass exodus among advanced biofuel interests away from fuels production and toward bio-based products can be expected.  This migration is already several years in the making, but up to this point, most stakeholders have been content to hedge their bets in multiple markets.

Currently, the bio-based products market offers shorter runways to revenue than the fuels market.   In the low-margin, high-volume business of fuel production, profitability is predicated on economies of scale, which in many cases, are still a decade away for market interests.

By comparison, the bio-products market offers lucrative interests in high-margin, low-volume markets like food, feed, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, polymers, and paper.  Algae players are a key constituent in this group and are chasing high-value omega-3 fatty acid production.  Selling north of $2,000 a ton, omega-3s are a popular nutritional supplement, made more so by the increasing cost of seafood products due to overfishing.  By comparison, biofuels generate anywhere from $200 to $500 per ton.

The consequence of all of this is that advanced biofuels production at scale (for the sake of argument, greater than 7.5 billion gallons annually, or 1% of global petroleum fuel consumption) remains perpetually stuck on the horizon.  This will likely force policymakers to dial back biofuel ambitions to assuage public outcry for support of “snake oil.”  With Washington and Brussels jumping headfirst back into the debate, one wonders whether the biofuels industry has already reached this point.  Nevertheless, bio-based products and materials could provide a key stepping stone to advanced biofuels production profitability at scale.

 

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