Navigant Research Blog

Cellulosic Biofuels Not Dead

— April 4, 2014

Risk_webCellulosic biofuels have multiple advantages over conventional biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel.  Primary among the advantages is that the fuel’s feedstock is agriculture waste, which means it avoids controversial topics like the food versus fuel debate and direct or indirect land use change concerns.  Despite these advantages, hope for cellulosic biofuels has eroded because multiple companies have failed to produce the fuel at scale and a competitive price point.

The many failures forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to cut the annual volumetric blending requirement for cellulosic biofuels mandated by the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) to levels ranging from 6 million gallons to 9 million gallons between 2010 and 2013.  For 2014, the EPA has proposed cutting the original volume requirement for cellulosic from 1.75 billion gallons to 17 million gallons.  Additionally, KiOR, the company closest to producing cellulosic biofuels at scale, has run into financial stumbling blocks.  This situation is leading some to question whether cellulosic biofuels will ever take off.  But while the industry has certainly appeared to be on the brink, investors do still have hope, as demonstrated by Cool Planet’s successful closing of $100 million Series D financing at the end of last month.

Saving Cellulosic Biofuels One Plant at a Time

Cool Planet has often been described as similar to KiOR, as the two companies take cellulosic biomass and convert it to hydrocarbons chemically identical to petroleum-based fuels.  The two companies are, however, also “dramatically different,” as described in interview with Cool Planet’s CFO Barry Rowan.  The most significant differences are related to Cool Planet’s novel approach to production plant development, the production process, and the development of the company’s propriety biochar, CoolTerra.

Rather than focusing on one or more major production facilities, Cool Planet will develop numerous small-scale (10 million gallons per year) plants.  This approach has multiple advantages.  First, it reduces risk to investors, as each small capacity plant is significantly less costly than one giant facility.  Second, the development costs of each new plant are reduced and production margins improved since Cool Planet is able to innovate on lessons learned from past plant developments.  Third, it allows Cool Planet to bring the plant to the biomass rather than the biomass to the plant.  This reduces the transport costs for the cellulosic biomass and insulates Cool Planet against feedstock shortages.  Rowan notes that the capacity of each plant is limited to a fraction of a region’s cellulosic resources.

Cool Planet can use a variety of cellulosic feedstocks, which the company exposes to high temperature and pressure to create a biovapor.  The biovapor is then converted to a high octane gasoline blend stock.  In contrast, KiOR’s process produces a biocrude oil, which is then refined into gasoline and diesel products.  When put through a proprietary catalytic column, the biovapor created by Cool Planet’s process produces the biofuels and a residual biochar – both of which have markets.

The biochar produced from the biofuels development is then treated by Cool Planet to create the company’s proprietary product, CoolTerra.  According to the company, which has five PhDs working on this product, trial results show improved crop yields and growth rates, as well as reduced water and fertilizer input requirements.  The resulting impact is a fuel that is carbon-negative; any carbon produced is sequestered in the CoolTerra, which will be used to produce carbon-absorbing plants and thus reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations.

Development of Cool Planet’s first 10 million gallon facility located in the Port of Alexandria, Louisiana is underway; the plant should be operating by 2015.  The development of two other plants in Louisiana is scheduled to follow in 2015 and 2016.  Rowan estimates Cool Planet can be profitable at oil prices of $50 per barrel, well below today’s rate.  Real world tests of Cool Planet’s business model will demonstrate its viability.  If anything can be gleaned from the recent struggles and successes of KiOR and Cool Planet, it’s that the industry is not dead; rather, it is simply taking longer to adapt to technological and logistical problems than expected.  And it’s clear investors believe Cool Planet may have a winning approach.

 

Audi’s Strategy to Enable Carbon-Neutral Driving

— February 16, 2014

Audi recently announced that results from testing of the company’s synthetic liquid fuels, or e-fuels, indicate that e-fuels perform significantly better than conventional fuel counterparts in conventional vehicle internal combustion engines.  The company subsequently announced that it will broaden its e-fuels initiative through its partnership with French biofuels company Global Bioenergies.  Audi’s e-fuels initiative is unique, as no other major automaker has pursued the development or distribution of gaseous or liquid fuels – carbon-neutral or not – for the transportation market.

Audi plans to produce e-gas and, through a partnership with Joule, e-diesel and e-ethanol.  The company also intends to produce e-gasoline through a partnership with Global Bioenergies.  The purpose of this initiative is to provide drivers of Audi vehicles with carbon-neutral driving options as a selling point for its gasoline, diesel, and/or compressed natural gas (CNG)-powered vehicles.  However, Audi drivers worldwide may be physically unable to fill up with the carbon-neutral synthetic fuels developed by Audi due to a lack of refueling stations.  The automaker will enable Audi drivers to indirectly contribute to increased amounts of carbon-neutral synthetic fuels into the overall fuel pool through what amounts to offsets.

Powered by E-Gas

An example of how Audi’s strategy works is its production of e-gas, the e-fuel closest to market.  E-gas is produced from the electrolysis of water, which produces hydrogen, which is then combined with waste CO2, producing methane as a synthetic natural gas substitute.  The e-gas production facility is powered by wind turbines and uses concentrated waste CO2 from a nearby biogas plant.  The production and consumption of e-gas using this system generates no new carbon emissions.  The e-gas is then piped into the greater natural gas network at the e-gas production facility in Werlte, Germany.

Early adopters of Audi’s forthcoming CNG- and gasoline-powered vehicle, the A3 G-Tron, will be able to buy quotas of e-gas upon purchasing the car.  This allows them, through an accounting process, to say their Audi is powered by the carbon-neutral e-gas produced at the plant.  This offset option will only be available to European customers though, as light duty CNG vehicles have failed to catch on outside of Europe primarily due to a scarcity of CNG refueling stations.

Outside of Europe, similar programs are expected to emerge alongside Audi’s development of liquid e-fuels.  The end markets for these fuels are significantly greater than those for e-gas, since the vast majority of vehicles worldwide are powered by liquid fuels.  However, these e-fuels are still far from reaching the market.  Actual implementation of Audi’s carbon-neutral strategy outside of Europe is therefore limited in the near term, barring a significant increase in CNG infrastructure options.   But the promise of Audi’s and its partners’ work on liquid e-fuels may significantly speed development and adoption of carbon-neutral fueling options, holding  significant implications for the vast majority of vehicles in use powered by conventional petroleum-based liquid fuels.

 

Boeing Bets on Green Diesel

— January 31, 2014

The race for aviation biofuels has accelerated in the last couple of years.  More than 1,500 individual flights at least partially powered by biofuels have occurred since Virgin Atlantic powered the first commercial jumbo jet in 2008 with a blend of conventional jet fuel and biofuel derived from babassu and coconut oil.  More than 30 commercial carriers have flown with a blend of biofuels over this period.  Most recently, Boeing announced it would pursue ASTM certification for use of renewable green diesel for use in commercial aviation.

Despite aviation biofuels’ broad appeal among key commercial and military stakeholders, limited production and high costs have remained challenging barriers to the 3% to 6% share of global jet fuel consumption that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) believes is achievable by 2020.

Derived from diverse resources like algae, camelina, jatropha, and used cooking oil, the current pool of aviation biofuels is shallow due in part to a lack of production capacity – at least as measured against prevailing expectations just half a decade ago.  This is why Boeing’s recent announcement to pursue green diesel certification could change the game.  For the aviation industry, certification would enable green diesel to be integrated into existing supply chains at a cost that is competitive with petroleum-based jet fuel.

Plenty of Capacity

More chemically similar to fossil-based diesel than conventional biodiesel, green (or renewable) diesel’s advantage over incumbent biofuels is its compatibility with existing infrastructure.  This means that it can be dropped into existing pipelines, storage tanks, and most importantly, existing engine hardware.  This avoids the substantial costs associated with building out additional infrastructure, which conventional biodiesel and ethanol require – a bottleneck that has stymied conventional biofuels’ penetration into the global fuels supply chain.

Another advantage of green diesel relative to other advanced biofuels is availability.  In 2013, though green diesel contributed to just 2.7% of the total gallons of biofuels produced worldwide, it made up more than 95% of the advanced biofuels pool.  A recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report called green diesel the most successful advanced biofuels pathway with respect to scaling up production capacity.  According to estimates compiled for Navigant Research’s Industrial Biorefineries report, there is currently more than 900 million gallons of green diesel production capacity deployed across the United States, Europe, and Singapore.

Just two pathways – Bio-SPK and FT-SPK – have achieved ASTM certification for use as jet fuel.  At their current stage of development, both pathways have proven to be prohibitively expensive to use on a commercial basis.  Alaska Air and Horizon paid $17 per gallon in 2011; the U.S. Navy, meanwhile, has paid between $20 and $65 per gallon for advanced biofuels used in various non-combat operations.  While it is important to note that these prices are for relatively small quantities used primarily for testing, with green diesel’s wholesale cost in the range of $3 per gallon, it is currently available at price parity with petroleum-based jet fuel.  Jet-A wholesale costs are currently just under $3 per gallon.

Flight Path

Although ASTM approval for green diesel would be a boon for advanced biofuels and the aviation industry in the near term, the availability of sustainable feedstock to support a mature industry remains a hotly debated issue.

At best, green diesel certification provides a bridge to more scalable thermochemical conversion pathways for aviation biofuels: fuels derived from large-scale algae production, or more likely, the realization of industrial-scale non-food oil production from promising feedstocks like jatropha or camelina.  At worst, it buys the aviation industry a few more years to build on the difficult progress that has already been achieved.

While Boeing and commercial airlines are among the winners if green diesel certification goes through in the near term, refining stalwarts like Finland-based Neste Oil, Honeywell’s UOP, and Valero are also well-positioned to ride a surge in investor activity.

 

Ethanol Growth Lies in Optimization, Not Mandates

— January 31, 2014

The last 2 years have been punishing for the ethanol industry.  In August 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) revised the treatment of flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) under CAFE standards so that manufacturers will no longer receive credit for FFV sales beginning in 2017 if they cannot provide data proving E85 (gasoline with up to 85% ethanol) use by the FFV.  Then, in November 2013, the EPA proposed a reduction of an estimated 3 billion gallons of biofuels blending quotas for 2014 under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).  Additionally, while the EPA has approved the use of E15 (gasoline with up to 15% ethanol) in model year (MY) 2001 vehicles and newer, major automakers have been hesitant on the fuel, in some cases approving its use only in MY 2012 vehicles and/or newer.  As a result, there are few stations that supply E15.

All of these setbacks mean that the market for ethanol in the United States has peaked at 10% of retail gasoline consumption and has flatlined in recent years.  Additionally, Navigant Research forecasts in a forthcoming report, Biofuels for Transportation Markets, that retail gasoline consumption will fall before 2022 thanks to increasing fuel economy standards and interest in alternative fuel and light duty diesel vehicles.

Despite ethanol’s recent tribulations, though, there are opportunities for sustainable growth.

E30 = $

A report developed by researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) finds that the use of E30 (gasoline with up to 30% ethanol) can significantly improve vehicle efficiency in optimized engines, compared to a conventional internal combustion engine fueled with regular gasoline.  Efficiency gains are achieved through the high-octane properties of ethanol, which improve combustion, thus mitigating engine knocking and allowing for greater downsizing of the vehicle engine.

The findings are important because they identify an opportunity for ethanol to become an economic product for end consumers.  To date, E85 has failed to catch on in the United States because the fuel shows no significant improvement in reducing fuel costs due to the lower energy density of ethanol compared to that of straight gasoline.  While there are currently many FFVs on U.S. roads, on average FFV drivers rarely fill up with E85.  Reasons include a lack of available infrastructure and low driver awareness.  However, those reasons would evaporate if the cost of driving on E85 were significantly less than driving on E10.  If the latter were the case, E85 compatibility would be a more valuable selling point for automakers than it is now, consumers would be well aware of the cost savings, and demand for E85 would be robust and drive infrastructure development.

If it’s true that an ethanol blend above 10% can improve fuel efficiency given the right engine, then the cost savings to the end consumer will spur growth in a market that has stagnated.  Realizing this opportunity, though, requires significant buy-in from automakers that would have to develop the optimized engines and the assurance that fuel retailers will have the optimized blends available.  Those factors will likely require government support.

 

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