An EU biofuels proposal worth getting behind

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By James Cogan, Special to The Digestjames-cogan

Europe’s bioethanol association ePure just released a renewables policy paper that’s something to get excited about.

It’s a show of confidence and ambition on the part of Europe’s ethanol CEOs.  Their product delivers climate and bioeconomy benefits, it doesn’t come with adverse side effects and it is worth fighting for.

Current 2015 EU ethanol sector output of 5.8 billion litres equates to 3 million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe).

The new ePure scenario proposes 6.5 Mtoe of ILUC compliant conventional ethanol plus 2.5 Mtoe of advanced for 2030 (or whenever practicable), which is 9Mtoe.  This is virtually a “growth parity” vision, with conventional and second generation varieties sharing roughly similar growth volumes, taking a big chunk out of fossil petrol and making sure lots of fossil carbon stays where it belongs.

Both Europe’s and the world’s cereals output went up nearly 30% in the last decade, mostly for animal feed and meat production, while prices are staying low. So the 8 – 10Mt of extra starch and sugar needed for doubling conventional ethanol volumes will be satisfied many times over by the steady trending increase in the EU’s vast and elastic starch and sugar capacity in the same timeframe (from 270Mt to easily 300Mt or more) placing no pressure whatsoever on current supplies, markets or land uses.   The high quality protein livestock feed made in parallel with ethanol will once and for all bring to under 50% Europe’s dependency on soy plantations in developing countries: The ethanol process takes some of the low value starch that’s already over-abundant, and makes emissions-free fuel from it, while sending the sought-after protein back to where it is needed on the farm. What this means is there’s no real prospect of land use change risk and scientific modelling performed according to Globiom confirms it.

Cereals and beet farmers in a couple of dozen European regions will enjoy secure long term demand at the highest end of farm produce price ranges while the regions themselves will gain their own ready-made bioeconomy anchor companies and investors.

Petrol demand in Europe today is 80Mtoe per annum and falling, due the tax incentives causing the shift to diesel (the EC forecasts 50Mtoe in 2030). But let’s say petrol only drops to 70Mtoe by 2030, which would be a great thing for air quality in Europe’s cities, then the ePure 9Mtoe scenario equates to 13% by energy which is 20% blending by volume.

So what’s being proposed is roughly what’s known as “E20 petrol” and that means a complete reversal of the current wonky regulatory trajectory in Brussels (on July 20 the Commission published a strategy for low emissions mobility which included an entirely unscientific scenario which would see the contribution of “food-based” biofuels phased to 0% in 2030).

It’s the kind of challenge one can relish because if it works everyone, except big oil, wins.

Ethanol in Europe is currently yielding 65% certified average greenhouse gas savings over oil, and on a trajectory to 100% by 2030.  So blended E20 will yield at least a 15% carbon savings in the entire petrol sector (11%-12% in the fuel itself and 4%-6% in engine efficiency) which is a hell of a long way towards the 16%-18% ambition being discussed for transport generally in Europe as part of the 2030 goals.  All the more so as no other measure is going to make anything close to this level of impact for at least another two decades.

So now it’s up to bioeconomy advocates everywhere to get with the ePure programme and bring about that pivot in the regulatory trajectory.

First up, on October 17 there’s a meeting of the Environment Council, the EU club of 28 Ministers for the Environment. It has the job of receiving and reacting to the Commission’s July 20 Strategy on Low Emissions Mobility. It should be sending the Strategy right back to the Commission requesting inclusion of the 20% ethanol volume scenario, along with an ILUC compliancy framework to doubly confirm no forests or peatlands will be harmed in the process.  If the 20% fails the regulator’s subsequent impact assessment, then so be it.  But it won’t fail. Ethanol is safe.

The Council may want to add while they are at it, that the entire July 20 Strategy is a non-Strategy by any measure: it’s short on ambition, vision, targets or means and does nothing to improve what there is currently.  The Commission has had years to prepare this.  It must do better.