Biofuels are back on the EU agenda

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Rapeseed (Credit: Phil and Pam Gradwell, via Flickr)

Rapeseed (Credit: Phil and Pam Gradwell, via Flickr)

Biofuels are returning to the political agenda in Europe as EU policymakers start to shape a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport after 2020. Biofuels producers continue to argue that they are an essential part of the solution, even as the low oil price puts an end to several cutting-edge projects, the European Commission prepares to publish a new report about indirect land-use change (ILUC) and some stakeholders urge a full focus on electrification. Sonja van Renssen investigates.

“Are we competitive? Certainly not in the short term, but the long term is what matters,” said Artur Auernhammer, a Member of the German Parliament and Chairman of the German Bioenergy Association (BBE) in his opening speech at a “Fuels of the Future” conference in Berlin, Germany, on 18 January. “Certified sustainable biofuels from Europe must be a key element in the European decarbonisation strategy both at present and beyond 2020.”

Dr Veit Steinle from the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure concurred: “If the Energiewende is to be implemented properly in Germany, we need an energy transition in transport. Of course we’re putting money on biofuels in this regard.”

“If we look at the current development of oil prices, it is very certain that at least in the short to medium term, the regulatory framework will be very, very important for the perspectives of biofuels.” – Bernd Kuepker, European Commission

It is equally obvious for EU biofuels producers that they are part of the solution. But others have moved on. Jos Dings, Executive Director of Brussels-based NGO Transport and Environment, said in an interview: “The big change since the [EU’s] first climate and energy package [in 2008] is the rise of electric vehicles. In contrast, we’ve seen very little progress in liquid fuels.” Still, Gernot Klepper, Chairman of the Board for ISCC System, which certifies bio-based feedstocks and renewables, reminded delegates in Berlin that biofuels make up about a fifth of final energy consumption in transport in 2050, in the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s two degrees scenario.

Martin Schmied from the German Environment Agency (UBA) called biofuels a “last resort” for countries like Germany and envisaged instead a transport sector based on electro-mobility and electricity-produced fuels such as power-to-liquid and power-to-gas.

Policy dependent

It is into this messy world that the European Commission will issue proposals to decarbonise the transport sector later this year. The first milestone to look out for is a legislative proposal in spring for national emission reduction targets covering economic sectors outside the EU Emission Trading scheme (ETS), i.e. transport, buildings and agriculture.

This will divvy up the goal agreed by European leaders in October 2014 to cut emissions from these sectors by 30% by 2030 versus 2005 levels. Transport accounts for the largest share, a third, of these emissions. At the same time, the Commission will issue a non-legislative strategy for decarbonising the transport sector and launch a public consultation on bioenergy. The latter will feed into proposals for a new EU renewable energy directive with sustainability criteria for solid and gaseous biomass as well as biofuels due by the end of the year. (A consultation on the new directive just ended on 10 February.)

In a new study, researchers have looked at the climate effects of advanced fuels such as straw and energy crops for the first time.

When it comes to biofuels specifically, the Commission recognises that it needs to do something. “If we look at the current development of oil prices, it is very certain that at least in the short to medium term, the regulatory framework will be very, very important for the perspectives of biofuels,” said Bernd Kuepker, Policy Officer at the Commission’s energy department, at the conference in Berlin. Advanced biofuels projects hosted by the likes of British Airways and BP have already fallen victim to the tumbling oil price.

So far the Commission has proposed neither to extend a renewable energy quota for the transport sector nor a greenhouse gas emission reduction target for fuel suppliers beyond 2020, however. Kuepker suggested that Brussels was questioning its role in biofuels policy. “Should we focus only on sustainability issues or also measures to drive technological development?”

New ILUC study

What has become ever clearer over time is that the future of biofuels in Europe lies in using advanced feedstocks such as energy crops grown on marginal land, and wastes and residues. Biofuels that rely on arable land have been discredited by studies that accuse them of indirect land-use change (ILUC), i.e. that their cultivation indirectly displaces forest and therefore increases carbon emissions. The existence and degree of ILUC continues to be contested by the biofuels industry.

This is why all eyes are turning to a new ILUC study that experts say will underpin post-2020 EU biofuels policy. The work, carried out by a consortium of consultancies – Ecofys, IIASA and E4Tech – uses a model called “GLOBIOM” to model ILUC for different feedstocks and policy scenarios. The work was finished last autumn, but the Commission has yet to publish it. Some of those involved expect it by the summer; others believe that the Commission may wait until the end of the year.

“Does it make sense to keep on modelling? The studies show that ILUC is real as a concept, whatever its size.” – Daan Peters, Ecofys

“It is a great shame that there is so much delay because we took a lot of trouble to seek interaction with stakeholders and now many are disappointed that the study is not published,” says Daan Peters from Ecofys, one of the authors. Why the delay? “ILUC is a sensitive topic with many different interests. The Commission could fear that some would not like the results.”

ILUC remains very sensitive – it basically refutes any contribution of biodiesel to climate action – and new findings are certain to displease some. In this case, “the study will confirm that the ILUC concept is true,” says Peters. The results remain confidential, but another source close to the work suggests that the new model does not overturn basic earlier conclusions: “I don’t think there is anything here that will fundamentally affect our understanding of the impact of European biofuels policy. There is nothing that fundamentally affects our understanding of the hierarchy between different feedstocks.”

What Peters and others close to the work also confirmed is that the researchers looked at the climate effects of advanced fuels such as straw and energy crops (e.g. perennial grasses, short-rotation coppice) for the first time. These have always been assumed to be ILUC-free. “It’s not necessarily so much about land use change per se as about thinking is there an impact on soil carbon,” said one expert. “You can have carbon sequestered in material that isn’t harvested.” How much carbon is stored in forestry residues and energy crops compared to that released through ILUC?

Where is the transparency?

As for every modelling exercise, the GLOBIOM project has already won its share detractors – and defenders – on the question of transparency. “The industry has submitted data. But was it even used?” asks Philippe Dusser, Secretary General of the European Oilseed Alliance. “The model is not accessible.” He cites the open-source GTAP model used by the California Air Resources Board as an example of best practice.

But Peters from Ecofys defends their work: “The model consists of tens of thousands of lines of code. There is no point in publishing it. It would be incomprehensible.” He says that the modellers are ready to discuss with experts however, and points to an advisory committee that also peer reviewed the study. One of the committee’s members, Chris Malins from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), said: “I think the expert review process for this study was very strong. Making something open-source [like the California model] isn’t the only way to do transparency.” 

A future for conventional

For Peters, the point is less about what the latest figures for ILUC are, than how to move forward in practical terms. “Does it make sense to keep on modelling? The studies show that ILUC is real as a concept, whatever its size.” He advocates a two-pronged policy approach: set a binding target for advanced biofuels and require conventional biofuels to prove that they are low-ILUC risk.

“ILUC avoidance is an idea with potential merit. Can you agree robust criteria to identify a good biofuel project?” – Chris Malins, ICCT

A biofuel is low-ILUC risk “when it can be demonstrated that additional biofuel feedstock is produced compared to the existing situation”, says Peters. He suggests this can be done through increasing crop yields (in a sustainable manner), reducing supply chain inefficiencies, and expanding into low-carbon, low-biodiversity land. It could be proven through existing certification schemes or national systems for both biodiesel and bioethanol. Peters concludes: “The biofuel sector could commit itself to ILUC-free growth in both conventional and advanced biofuels after 2020.”

Chris Malins, who leads the fuels programme at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), appears to agree: “We think that ILUC avoidance is an idea with potential merit. Maybe it is a more tractable proposition to regulate at the project level. Can you agree robust criteria to identify a good biofuel project?” Kuepker himself said in Berlin: “ILUC is very complex. For example, it is strongly influenced by international trade. There is most likely no one correct ILUC value in the world.”

Unique German experience

ILUC is not top of the agenda in Germany these days. Instead, stakeholders are finding plenty to talk about in the government’s new biofuels promotion policy. Germany is unique in Europe in that it has completely replaced a volume quota for biofuels with a greenhouse gas emission reduction quota for oil companies. Until last year, oil companies had to put a minimum percentage of biofuels on the market, but by the end of this year they will have to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 3.5% instead. That target rises to 4% for 2017-19 and 6% in 2020.

In practice, both the old and new German practice derive from EU legislation for 2020: the former from the 10% renewables in transport target for 2020 and the latter from the 6% emissions cut from road transport fuels required by the fuel quality directive.

“The good news is that the same biofuels volumes can contribute more to decarbonisation than we thought in the past.” – Elmar Baumann, VDB

The impact on the German market has been dramatic: biofuel sales (in metric tonnes) were down by 5% in 2015, says Elmar Baumann, Managing Director of the Association of the German Biofuel Industry (VDB). He expects a greater drop still in 2016. The “problem” is that the new legislation has triggered enormous improvements in biofuels’ carbon footprint. Until now, biofuels only needed to meet the EU-set minimum 35% emissions saving threshold. Now, “the mineral oil companies start to negotiate at 60%”, says Baumann.

The German market is attracting the best-performing biofuels, he says: “Both German rapeseed biodiesel and bioethanol are delivering emissions savings of at least 60%. The [3.5%] quota will definitely be achieved. Given the big emissions savings, the current quota is too low: already in 2014, a quota of 4% could have been met.” Official figures are due in April.

There are two uncertainties however. One, none of this data includes ILUC. Two, from 2017, oil companies can also count upstream emissions cuts from venting and flaring for example, towards the target. Their potential influence is “immense”. Baumann says: “You could cover the whole 6% target with upstream measures alone.” In other words, Germany would not need any biofuels. Brussels is due to issue guidance on how to manage upstream cuts later this year. In the meantime, the German biofuel industry is lobbying the government to tighten the target by 0.5% each year to get to the 6% in 2020. Within biofuels, Baumann expects strong competition from palm oil this year.

Wanted: fuels policy

“Stopping EU support for biofuels wouldn’t be the end of biofuels in Europe,” says Peters. He points to member states such as Germany, Italy, France and Finland as examples of those who plan to continue. The risk – and this is also what greatly worries the industry – is complete fragmentation of the European biofuels market. The Commission remains tight-lipped over how it plans to proceed however.

For Dings from T&E, the whole focus on fuels is wrong. “”We tried a technologically neutral fuels policy and it failed: the biofuels industry said no to [accounting for] ILUC and the oil industry said no to [accounting for] non-conventional fuels.” He wants conventional biofuels to be phased out completely and “only then” a “gentle” phase in of advanced biofuels that “do not use land to any significant extent”. The shift from volumes to quality that he talks about is what Germany seems to be achieving.

“We tried a technologically neutral fuels policy and it failed.” – Jos Dings, T&E

The focus for Dings must be on electric vehicles. He envisages not an advanced biofuels mandate, but an ultra low emission (read: electric) vehicles mandate. This would complement CO2 emission standards for cars and vans (and ideally trucks) for 2025.

ILUC has poisoned the biofuels debate for people like Dings. Electric cars are a better fit with air pollution goals, a decentralised energy system and autonomous driving. But what about aviation? Green MEP Claude Turmes says: “Biofuels should only be used as a ‘last resort’ where it is too difficult yet for electricity to replace oil-based liquid fuel. This is the case of aviation for example, but only for cruising since landing/take-off and ground operations could be done with electric engines”.

There are some signs that the Commission is starting to think about advanced biofuels for sectors like aviation as an industrial development opportunity. Experts are currently exploring whether and how the conventional biofuel industry could help grow advanced biofuels.  “Traditional biofuels will have to be accompanied by new options,” acknowledges Baumann. “The good news [however,] is that the same biofuels volumes can contribute more to decarbonisation than we thought in the past.” That just leaves policymakers to decide on ILUC.


  1. says

    From the studies I’ve seen, given the energy returns (EROI) yielded by biofuels, they do not merit policy support. Electrification seems to be the best option,
    No doubt, commercial interests driven by incumbent automakers prefer biofuels.

    • Jennifer Marquardt says

      The solution will be a portfolio with powertrains that matches best the specific requirements of transport segment they are made for. I am simply worried about people not knowing what damage batteries cause in our environment when Litium has to be explored in developing instable countries and transported all the way to us. Which means again the 1st world ignorance of shifting our environmental problems to poor countries.

      • says

        “a portfolio with powertrains that matches best the specific requirements of transport segment they are made for”, can you elaborate? Not sure what that means.
        As far as the Li mining objection, that’s a red herring. Lithium comes from places like Chile and Australia. It is recyclable so only needs to be mined once.
        My point, biofuels give you very little energy return over the energy required to produce it. To the extent that biofuels are made from waste – no problem. But, the use of cultivated crops for biofuels seems to be a non-starter for me and bodes far greater environmental damage.

  2. Barry says

    Aloysius you are wrong, the USDA have just published a report on the energy balance of ethanol in particular which shows that ethanol produces twice as much energy as it takes to make it: Electrification is probably the worst (!) in terms of energy return! Not only does electricity lose a majority of its energy from source to use, but the burning of coal, etc is so ridiculously inefficient, probably one of the least efficient ways to make energy. Actually to say that electrification is a better energy return is pretty laughable really.

    • says

      An energy return of 2 is very very low. Wind is 20. Solar is 10. Society needs as much as 8 to function in its current form.
      To the extent that biofuels are derived from waste feedstock it makes sense to me. But, crop-based biofuels are a very poor choice from a policy perspective. Given an EROI of 2 they will never be a viable wholesale alternative to fossil fuels.

      • Roger K Brown says

        While I agree that biofuels cannot support high energy consumption life styles, the limitation of this energy source is the input requirements of land, irrigation water, and so forth per unit of net energy produced. Even without taking account of energy balance the production per hectare of bioenenergy crops makes it obvious that we cannot support 9 billion people in high energy consumption life styles. Of course taking account of energy balance drives the land requirements even higher, but in spite of what Howard Odum and his students claim one cannot do economic analysis using only dimensionless energy ratios.

        As for the claim that we need EROI=8 to support civilzation as we know it, consider the case of an energy source source with total EROI of 21 and an alternate energy source with total EROI of 2. For the first energy source 1 unit of energy invested in extracting, transforming, and delivering energy to end users provides 20 units of net energy. The remaining 1 unit must be reinvested in extracting and delivering energy or the process of economic production will collapse. For the second energy source 1 unit of energy invested in extracting, transforming, and delivering energy to end users provides 1 unit of net energy.

        Now certainly it is plausible that being forced to switch from energy source 1 to energy source 2 will force a reduction in economic output. However, any attempt to compute the amount of reduction requires an analysis of all of the resource inputs to the energy production process and not just energy inputs.

        For example let us suppose that the only limiting non-energy related resource involved in the production of energy for either source is labor. Using source 1 we optimize economic production and find that we are dedicating 5% of our total labor effort to extracting and delivering energy. If source 2 has the same labor/energy input requirements and the source 1 then 20 times the labor is required produce the same amount of net energy. Clearly using 100% of our labor to extract and deliver energy is not going to to work, so we must back off on our use of net energy.

        There is one case of lowered energy use in which we can use a simple plausibility argument to compute the reduction in economic output. Using source 2 we increase the amount of labor dedicated to producting energy until the ratio of energy to labor hours in the rest of the economy is equal the ratio that we used for source 1. In this case we can plausibly argue that the productivity per labor hour in this part of the economy will not decrease.

        A simple calculation shows that under the assumption made above dedication 51% of our labor to producing energy will produce the desired result. With the high EROI energy source 95% of our labor was dedicated to producing consumer goods and service other than energy. With low EROI source 49% of our labor is dedicated to the same task with same ratio of energy/labor hours. Therefore total procution is lowered by the fraction 49/95=52%.

        This reduction is quite significant, but hardly represents a return to the neolithic. Furthermore a strong plausibility argument can be given that this level of energy use is not optimum and that backing off further in energy use will result in higher economic production.

        Again I am not attempting by this analysis to support large scale use of biofuels for transportation. However, criticizing them for the right reasons (i.e unsupportable land use requirements) carries more conviction than claims of low EROI.

      • Jenny Sommer says

        Wind EROEI is up to over 60 already AS Siemens’s life cycle analyses of onshore and offshore turbines show. Onshore EROEI is still higher.
        Wind EROEI also gets boosted when repowering existing sites and towers.

        Theoretical possible EROEI of wind is somewhere around 1600 with the right technology.

        EROEI alone is a poor metric anyways. Imagine a fully automated solar breeder. Any excess energy over 1 could be diverted for use. You would just need to produce at a very high rate to satisfy energy demand.

        Biofuels are bad anyways…

    • John Sedricks says

      Corn ethanol saves fossil energy, but it doesn’t save greenhouse gas emissions, because of the large contribution of nitrous oxide emissions from farm soils, and land use change emissions. You can of course find mid-westerners who claim very low land use change emissions, but those calculations require a lot of the the corn to come from a reduction in other uses (amongst several other fiddles) . In that case, you could save more emissions by just taxing corn, and you would save money at the same time.

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