Sustainably available waste and residues could potentially replace 16% of Europe’s road transport fuel by 2030. This amount is equivalent to 37 million tonnes of oil per year.
There are many ways to get attention and Chris Malins possesses a few good ones. When he sits in a meeting area in Amsterdam’s RAI Convention Centre, the first thing you notice is his distinctive hair style. He has long hair dyed blue, which certainly makes him a recognisable character in the world of biofuels.
But more importantly it’s the recent research that he and his team participated in that really draws attention to Malins and what he has to say.
Residues for road transport fuel
At the end of February, Malins and his team at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), published a study on the potential of advance biofuels, entitled Wasted: Europe’s Untapped Resource.
The paper, based on research done by Chris’s team at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) together with the National Non-Food Crops Centre (NNFCC) in England, raised a few eyebrows by stating that wastes and residues could potentially supply 16% of Europe’s road transport fuel in 2030. And this could be achieved using only sustainably available wastes and residues within the European Union. Despite the big numbers illustrated by the report, Malins keeps a cautious outlook.
“This 16% figure, even if it’s a conservative estimate, has to be understood as a technical potential. At 16%, 10% or even 2% numbers, you’re still talking about a big industrial roll-out, a big deployment of new technology and a lot of economic opportunity for Europe, and some significant carbon savings, too,” he says.
Downward CO² emissions
Road transport is one of the few industry sectors where carbon dioxide emissions have risen greatly in recent years. According to the European Commission the transport sector is well on its way to becoming the European Union’s biggest source of CO2 by 2030.
If advanced biofuels reach their calculated potential, the CO2 savings could range from 60% to 85% in most cases and thus make a significant contribution to the EU’s climate targets.
“I think the advanced biofuel industry has potential, but we also have to be realistic. I don’t think it’s realistic to look into having 100% of fuel from biomass, but I think it’s realistic that it’s a part of a spectrum of options that you need to bring together in order to achieve targets for decarbonisation,” Malins estimates.
Potential for aggressive growth
The potential for growth and profitable biofuels business is there. Based on Malins’ report, up to EUR 15 billion of additional revenues could flow to the rural economy annually and 300,000 additional jobs could be created by 2030.
“There is no reason why growth in production of cellulosic biofuels, and especially cellulosic biofuels from waste and residues, can’t be quite aggressive up to 2030. What is needed for that to happen is to have appropriate policy framework in place and confidence for the stakeholders that everything is being produced sustainably,” Malins says.
“At the end of the day oil is big money. Technology that can replace any significant fraction of oil has massive economic implications. There will be a success for the first companies that can really get successful at producing these advanced fuels at an acceptable price.”
Forestry companies possess advantages
Malins sees that forestry companies have advantages when entering this biofuels market. He also calls for cooperation between various stakeholders.
“A company that understands forests, sustainability and forest management has enormous advantages compared to new market entries on a variety of levels. I think companies that get ahead of the curve, who have answers to sustainability questions ready and who are working with the environmental community and regulators rather than against them, are genuinely going to have the advantage.”
Ghost of first generation biofuels
Advanced biofuels, which are also called second generation biofuels, are liquid, high quality transportation fuels that are produced from inedible bio-based raw materials.
The first generation biofuels, which are produced from e.g. starch, sugars or vegetable oils, have had an issue with ‘fuel vs. food’.
Since most of first generation biofuels are produced from food crops the rise in demand for biofuels has led to crops being diverted away from the food market and thus increasing global food prices. This has led to some reputation issues also with the second generation biofuels, even if they would not use raw materials suitable for food.
“It’s fair to say that because of the first generation biofuels there’s a lot of backlash now. But I don’t think that has to be inherited by an advanced industry,” Malins says.
Advanced biofuels are a real opportunity
“With advanced biofuels there’s an opportunity for companies not just to profit, but to create more jobs, to push more money to the rural economy without doing it through high food prices. With more of a focus on these resources, which are underutilised and low value at the moment, it can be much more of a win-win proposition.”
Advanced biofuels are still very much in the early stages and people have different views and even definitions for them.
“I think the ball is still pretty much in play on advanced biofuels,” he says.
Long and winding road ahead
Despite all the promise that can be seen, it’s not only smooth driving in the future. In Europe, technology is now mature enough to enable us to start the production of advanced biofuels.
Still, uncertainty around biofuel policy past 2020 is slowing down the sector from reaching its full potential. Another big question, especially for smaller entries to the market, is financing.
“Big companies, that have the capacity to invest internally, have a real advantage. Still everyone’s going to have to justify quite significant capital expenditures.
“So, the real challenge is having a combination of policy measures and support that gives confidence both to the public that things are done in the right way and to investors that there’s a real market here and that it’s going to be persistent.”
A look into the future
Also choosing the right technology will be the key to success.
“Having watched biofuels for some time already, you shouldn’t assume that the technology is going to be a big success until it has jumped through that hurdle of commercial production. That’s the big question for the next five years.”
And if we look a bit further into the future? How does Europe power its automotive industry in 2030?
“I think it’s a genuinely open question at the moment. I would say that ethanol is not going to be the molecular choice even if some of the ethanol production technologies maybe are cheaper than synthetic fuel technologies. Companies like UPM, who are looking at synthetic fuel technologies, are going to have the advantage in the medium term. I certainly expect to see these cellulosic waste and residues to synthetic fuels technologies being important.
“But there’s also a raft of other options available. Maybe significant roll-out of biogas in heavy duty vehicles for instance, but this could really go either way.”
Efficiency is the key
When talking about the focus of the industry in the next few years, efficiency is the key.
“I think it’s a given that the companies should continue research and development, and making sure that these technologies are scaling properly and that you are achieving efficiencies. This is going to be important both financially and from the sustainability point of view.
Chris Malins currently leads the International Council on Clean Transportation’s (ICCT) Fuels Program from London. The ICCT plays an important role in Europe as it provides scientific research to regulators such as the European Commission. Malins’ team focuses on the sustainability of biofuels, especially the commercialisation of advanced biofuels and indirect effects of biofuel production. The team also looks into lifecycle analysis of fossil fuel production and possible opportunities to adopt new fuel standards.
Text Antti Ylitalo
Photography Getty Images, Miquel Gonzalez