Navigant Research Blog

In the United Kingdom, Biopower’s Future Dims

— July 29, 2013

Earlier this month, in what some are calling a “blow to Britain’s renewable power industry,” RWE npower announced that it would close its aging Tilbury power station.  The German electricity generator, a key player in the United Kingdom’s power market, cited a lack of investment capacity and challenges associated with converting the plant to use wood, waste oil, and other biomass materials in place of coal.

In a separate development, the U.K. government confirmed in its most recent draft Energy Market Reform (EMR) delivery plan that facilities dedicated to exclusively burning biomass for power generation would not qualify for subsidies.  The exclusion from EMR’s Contracts for Difference (CfD) subsidy scheme is a nail in the coffin for an industry that was bursting with proposals for new-build large-scale projects just a few years ago.

The timing of Tillbury’s closure and the exclusion of dedicated biomass under EMR are in part coincidence, but together they bring the challenges facing biopower in the United Kingdom – ranging from environmental concerns to feedstock access to economic feasibility – into sharp focus.

Backlash

In its short quest to convert from coal to biomass, the antiquated Tilbury plant had overcome a fire in early 2012 that consumed nearly 6,000 tonnes of stored wood pellets as well as stiff resistance from those who challenge the environmental sustainability of burning organic resources in place of fossil fuels. In particular, the backlash against biomass stations has been widespread across the United Kingdom, forcing the abandonment of several proposed plants in recent years.

Although it is classified as renewable, the carbon impact associated with burning biomass remains an unsettled issue among policymakers from Washington to Brussels to London.  Campaigners also argue that the scale of demand for dedicated biomass fuel in the United Kingdom, mostly in the form of imported wood pellets, is unsustainable on two fronts.

First, the availability of biomass at home and abroad in sufficient quantity to meet the U.K.’s energy supply needs remains highly dubious.  The country currently supplies roughly 15 million tons of biomass from within its own borders, mostly in the form of agricultural residues and biogenic wastes.  Estimates, meanwhile, put total biomass demand at 102 million tons to meet an aspirational target of 6 GW of dedicated biomass power capacity by 2020, vastly exceeding domestic supplies.  With domestic biomass availability constrained by the U.K.’s limited land area, a rapid expansion of biomass importing capacity from North America and Russia would be needed.  The Tilbury plant alone would have burned more than 3 million tons of wood pellets per year – compared with 13 million tons burned in the entire European Union (EU) in 2012.

Second, biopower opponents cite the negative impacts associated with burning more biomass on the world’s forests, a key carbon sink in the fight against climate change.  While the EU has proposed sustainability policies for the use of solid biomass to generate electricity, ensuring global compliance remains a challenging proposition.

Exodus

Meanwhile, the U.K. government has embarked on an ambitious effort to overhaul its incentive structure to spur investment in renewables.  With subsidies for dedicated biomass scrapped altogether, effectively eliminating a key price support mechanism necessary to drive project viability, the government has sent a clear message that it favors cogeneration (CHP), coal-to-biomass conversion projects like Tilbury, or co-firing of coal and biomass over new-build dedicated biomass facilities.

The uncertainty surrounding the future of biopower subsidies under proposed EMR schemes, combined with sticky environmental concerns, has already led to the abandonment of 2 GW of biopower development projects in recent years.  The absence of dedicated biomass in the EMR, alongside Tilbury’s closure, is likely to spark a biopower exodus in the United Kingdom.

 

Despite Evidence, Food vs. Fuel Fight Continues

— July 3, 2013

A recent study released by ABF Economics, an agriculture and biofuels economics consultancy, has found no direct correlation between the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) – and thus increased ethanol production ‑ and increasing food prices.  The finding backs up a 2010 World Bank study that cited higher oil prices as the leading cause of increased food prices globally, reversing the institution’s earlier stance that linked increases to global biofuel policies.

The ABF report displays the complexity of the multiple drivers behind increasing global food prices.  High oil prices, rapidly expanding global demand for agricultural commodities, speculation in commodity markets, and expansionary U.S. monetary policy all play a role.  Of particular interest to corn-based ethanol producers in the United States, food price inflation has slowed since 2007, the year the RFS was last revised.

Although the study lends some good juju to conventional biofuels, which have been at the center of the contentious “food vs. fuel” debate since 2008, the study is likely to have little impact on the current direction of biofuels scale-up efforts.

A ‘Crime Against Humanity’?

When Jean Ziegler, then the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, called biofuels a “crime against humanity” in late 2007, ethanol production in the United States and Brazil was coming off a record surge in production capacity.  Biodiesel consumption, meanwhile, had also begun taking off in Europe, with growing demand met by emerging biodiesel production hubs like Indonesia and Malaysia.  The ethanol and biodiesel industries found ample support in the policy agendas of then Presidents Bush (U.S.) and Lula (Brazil) as well as European Union efforts to increase the consumption of renewable fuels across member states.  Surging oil prices, meanwhile, thrust biofuels into the spotlight as an antidote to energy insecurity.

But reports published in 2008 by Oxfam and World Bank added fodder to the backlash, linking biofuels to the steep increase in global food prices in 2007-2008.  Although OECD and others have taken a more cautious stance on the connection between biofuels and higher food prices, the debate has continued to simmer.  A policy shift away from conventional biofuels in favor of next generation alternatives derived from non-food commodity crops like cellulosic materials, algae, and jatropha, among others, was intended to spark a renaissance in biofuels scale-up, but, at least so far, this vision has failed to materialize.  Forecasts in Navigant Research’s recently published report, Market Data: Biofuels, reflect this reality.

Mind the Ceiling

Among the most lasting impacts of the food vs. fuel debate on the global biofuels industry is the integration of sustainability standards into public policy.  The RFS, the foundation of the U.S. biofuels regime, calls for 36 billion gallons of production by 2022, but caps conventional ethanol production at 15 billion gallons while imposing controversial greenhouse gas accounting thresholds for various fuel pathways.  In the European Union, meanwhile, the pendulum has swung decisively in favor of a sustainability regime that seeks to drive investment away from commodity crop-derived biofuels toward next generation non-food alternatives.  Thanks to greater efficiencies inherent in the sugarcane value chain, Brazil currently maintains the largest sustainable biofuel industry in the world, but has failed to skirt the global biofuels backlash.

Despite evidence like the ABF study, it’s unlikely that sustainability “safeguards” will be discarded as political and investment momentum continues to coalesce around next-generation feedstocks, technologies, and conversion pathways.  Companies like Novozymes (enzymes) and EdenQ (Cellunator), which have introduced product lines over the past year that improve ethanol production yields from corn, will likely see the greatest benefit from an improving food vs. fuel calculus for commodity grains.  Even so, expansion in commodity grain- and oil-based biofuels is nearing its economic, ecological, and political ceiling – regardless of which side of the debate the food vs. fuel evidence settles.

 

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.

 

Feedstock Shortages Fuel Pellet Boom

— April 12, 2013

Facing unresolved feedstock challenges – including access, cost, and security of supply – the global biomass power market is teetering on the verge of obsolescence.  Combined with controversy around emissions, changes in subsidy programs, and a boom in natural gas power generation, an increasing number of projects have  been cancelled in recent months across the United States and Europe.  Meanwhile, a wave of biomass pellet plant installments may presage an industry boom – albeit much later than otherwise expected.

In the United Kingdom alone, roughly one-third of announced biomass power projects across the country have been abandoned in recent years.  Many of these were dedicated facilities, ranging from 100 MW to 300 MW of capacity.

The Achilles heel of biomass power production is sourcing an adequate supply of feedstock at a reasonable cost.  Biopower’s problem is not so much a function of scarcity – biomass is ubiquitous and currently the fourth largest energy resource worldwide after coal, oil, and natural gas – but it’s an inefficient source of carbon relative to fossil fuels.  Unlike coal, oil, and natural gas, biomass lacks density in two ways.  First, it’s scattered across large swaths of land (such as forest thinnings from national forests) and must be collected and aggregated.  Second, its energy density is three-fifths that of coal, adding a premium to the cost of transporting volumes from source to customer.

Competing against low-price fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, biomass feedstocks can’t afford to rack up costs associated with harvesting, aggregating, processing, and transportation without heavy subsidization.  Where coal producers capture efficiency through economies of scale and an international transport infrastructure, biomass production remains, at best, a cottage-based market.

Pellet Pull

For these reasons, the financial viability of biomass power falls off a cliff when resources are sourced outside of a 50-mile radius, making larger projects with bigger biomass appetites much riskier.  These projects typically bank on a concentrated local source combined with the import of biomass pellets from international suppliers, a market still in its infancy.

Today, wood pellets are one of the largest internationally traded solid biomass commodities used specifically for energy purposes, but they represent only a fraction of the scale of the global coal trade.  Biomass pellets have lower moisture content than raw biomass, which decreases fuel degradation during the storage period, increases energy density, and creates a more homogeneous composition, all of which translate to higher energy efficiency during combustion.

Growth in biomass power generation is dependent upon the expansion in the international trade of wood pellets over the next decade – principally from Canada, the Southern United States, Russia, and Baltic region of Europe to the European Union and Asia Pacific.  Responding to the sudden surge in the global trade of industrial biomass pellets, Energy Exchange APX-ENDEX was launched in November 2011, becoming the world’s first dedicated exchange for biomass renewable energy.  The exchange is expected to bring more transparency to the market by adopting several certification schemes for industrial wood pellets already used in today’s bilateral contracts in order to ensure that the wood pellets originate from sustainable wood sources.

With the trade in industrial pellets still in its infancy, many biomass power plant operators like RWE in Germany and Drax Group in the United Kingdom have taken matters into their own hands, investing in upstream pelleting facilities outside their domestic markets.  Many oil majors – from Conoco to Chevron – are getting in on the action as well.  Although the biomass pellet market is heating up, it will be 5 to 10 years before biomass power generation picks up steam.

 

Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date

Tags

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

By Author


{"userID":"","pageName":"Biofuels","path":"\/tag\/biofuels?page=3","date":"4\/24\/2014"}