Biofuels driving emissions cuts thru 2030, says Lux: but which feedstocks?

April 26, 2016 |

Lux Research projects that the emergence of low-carbon fuels and vehicle efficiency will cut emissions by 29% in 2030 compared to a business as usual scenario, with biofuels and natural gas vehicles together accounting for 45% of potential fossil fuel displacement as nations look for new technologies to cut emissions.

The sharp cut – exceeding the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) target of 24% set by 188 nations at the Paris Conference of the Parties (COP21) in 2015 – will be realized from a combination of low-carbon fuels, alternative fuel vehicles, and improved fuel efficiencies.

As this Lux chart shows, global emissions from the transport sector are not falling, with all the changes in auto design and fuels undertaken to date — they are rising and expected to accelerate, because of more cars on the road around the world. Overall, global road transportation accounts for a sixth of all global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – and its share is rising.


“Low-carbon biofuels like cellulosic ethanol, renewable diesel, and biomethane have lower well-to-wheel carbon intensities compared to their first-generation counterparts and play a pivotal role in cutting emissions, as does renewable electricity,” said Yuan-Sheng Yu, Lux Research Analyst and lead author of the report titled, “Driving Down Emissions: Achieving CO2 Emissions Reduction Goals through Biofuels and Alternative Fuel Vehicles.”

Where will the feedstock for these emission cuts comes from — how much from first-generation corn and cane sugars, and vegetable oil seeds. How much from residues. How much from woody biomass, or from next-generation purpose-grown energy crops such as algae, ineible oilseeds, or energy cane?

We’re interested in your views, and to help us divine the answers, you can take our “SARA 2016 – Sustainable, Affordable, Reliable Available” survey here, which looks at the questions of volumes and feedstocks.

The US scenario

Baselining from today, with a significant percentage of biofuels already in the mix — future emissions cuts are likely to come from new low-carbon feedstocks. Adding 10 billion gallons of advanced biofuels into the road transport mix by 2030 would generate a 5% savings on emissions compared to 2015, using a mix of oilseeds, residues such as MSW, animal and crop waste, cellulosic crops and woody biomass. As we’ve shown in the rough scenario here.


10 billion gallons of new advanced fuels, and 5 billion from residues? There are a lot of choices in there — from accelerating woody biomass programs, to accessing millions of tons of corn stover, municipal solid waste and tapping new oilseeds and planting new energy crops.

The daunting task

It’s not a daunting task to find enough biomass for 10 billion fuels, conceptually. For example, the 93 million acres of corn planted in the United States would generate somewhere between 90 and 180 million tons of accessible corn stover, depending on whose baseline of sustainable biomass lifting you adopt. At 70 gallon per ton yields as we have seen from the first generation of cellulosic ethanol plants, that’s 6.3-12.6 billion gallons in potential fuel, right there. At the high-end, much more than our scenario.

That’s not taking into account the additional fats, oils and greases that companies like Diamond Green Diesel, REG and others are tapping. Or, the ample forest resources in the US and Canada, under sustainable management. Or, the potential of new crops from camelina to algae or miscanthus. And, not taking into account the huge potential of municipal solid waste.

The question of where the new fuels will come from will be less about availability — at these kinds of volumes — and more about project development, feedstock cost, biorefinery capex, and the logistics of building supply chains.

That is to say, a supply chain to bring strawberries to market isn’t something that you can invent overnight and it won’t be the same with biomass for fuels, either.

Different feedstocks, different priorities

Depending on the mix, some issues loom more than others. In the case of energy crops, there’s the proposition to the grower and the development of harvesting equipment, transport from field to refinery gate, storage, and pre-treatment.

With residues like corn stover, the grower proposition changes as it’s not a novel commitment of land to a novel crop, but there’s still a proposition to be made. And all the other questions from harvest to pre-treatment are there, only different. With fats, oils and greases, there’s no grower proposition at all, and harvesting is not an issue, but the value proposition and all the other elements come into play, and change.

With municipal solid waste, the value equation changes as there’s a payment not to a grower, but rather to a processor to take it off the municipality’s hands.

Which is why our survey is key. Most surveys of biomass focus on projected availability. In this survey we’ll look less at what will be available, but since supply of the new biomass for some time will vastly exceed demand, we’ll be looking at intent to use.

Resource allocation

It is unlikely that any country, no matter how ardent about emissions or replete with dollars, with have the resources to fully develop supply chains for every possible new source of fuel, chemical, or biomaterial feedstock available in the Advanced Bioeconomy. There are more than 100 feedstocks, and according to the Billion Ton Report — take it from the title — in the US alone there could be more than 1 billion tons available. That’s a lot of pre-treatment studies and tests, biomass depots, trucks, barges, rail cars, harvesters, baling wire, sorters & purifiers, choppers and grinders, and software to track it all.

And, not to pick on camelina, but what if you build out a plan for camelina and nobody grows very much? As happened in recent years. We could have cited pennycress, beauty tree, or a great number of other feedstocks that have excellent characteristics for the advanced bioeconomy — just lack a big installed base.

We’ll be very interested in your views on the feedstocks that will be of the greatest interest to you, taking into account your views on what will be sustainable, affordable, reliable, and available.


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