Second generation biofuels is not for tomorrow…

On November 30, the European Commission finally detailed the new clean energy package of measures. Among the new proposals, it was announced the inclusion of targets to substantially increase the use of advanced  biofuels in the transport fuel mix between 2020 and 2030, while reducing the EU ceiling for first generation biofuels (e.g. biodiesel from rapeseed & bioethanol from maize) to 3.8% (at most) of EU renewable energy in transport by 2030, falling from 7% in 2021.

Is there a coherent rationale behind this decision?

First, when it comes to the first generation of biofuels, as shown by Farm Europe’s report available here, the EC’s approach of EU-sourced biofuels is biased, and not taking into account the positive impact renewable fuels can have on both the environment and EU agriculture.

Second, it should be highlighted that advanced biofuels are not the most immediate solution towards a low carbon, circular economy. It will take time and substantial investments to make them ready for the markets.

As recently confirmed by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) in its report released last month, “low expected production volumes” among other factors mainly related to costs, “make it unlikely that advanced biofuels can meet increasing targets” in the near future. There is basically a problem of non-competitiveness for advanced biofuels, not only related to high production costs, but also to the time needed to bring a new technology to commercial-scale production.

Experts agreed that, although some types of advanced biofuels (i.e. from algae) “are technologically well understood and have significant future potential, there are still several years away from being economical to produce because of the high cost” of converting feedstock.

This result need to be read in light of the recent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publication of the new Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for 2017. The figures are up from 2016 levels (a total of 73 billion liters compared with 68.5 billion liters in 2016). Mandates for cellulosic fuels are set at 1.2 billion liters compared with 871 million liters by 2016 (an increase of 35%), those for biodiesel, at 7.6 billion liters vs 7.2 billion liters in 2016 and those of advanced biofuels (2nd and 3rd generations), at 16.18 billion liters compared with 13.7 billion liters in 2016 (an increase of 19%). It has to be highlighted that these revised mandates achieve US Congress’s target of 57 billion liters for first-generation ethanol biofuels.

In this context, the EU policy framework should promote efforts in favour of advanced biofuels in parallel and not against the conventional ones. It has not to be seen like “one at the expense of  the other”. Otherwise, the EU would indirectly secure the market share of fossil fuels in the EU while increasing the agricultural land losses by cutting an important outlet for EU farmers.

Both first generation and second generation biofuels are needed to reach the renewable energy targets. Shouldn’t EU aim be to replace fossil fuels instead of conventional ones?