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OPINION

Updated December 20th, 2023 at 13:17 IST

Biofuels comeback will give West a rare energy win

China will launch a series of pilot projects to spur domestic production and consumption of biodiesel, an attempt to beef up a low-carbon sector.

Reuters BreakingviewsLisa Jucca
Representative
Representative | Image:Unsplash
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Back with a vengeance. A global drive to replace combustion engines with electric cars has threatened to undermine biofuels. In 2024, planes and ships will open a new avenue for propellants made from food and plant waste. That could offer a lifeline to fossil-fuel majors such as BP, TotalEnergies and Eni – and benefit the West.

Biofuels, derived from plant material or animal waste, can help fight global warming. Biodiesel can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 75% compared to its fossil-fuel equivalent, the U.S. Department of Energy says. Oil players like Finnish pioneer Neste have been focusing on biofuels as a way to put their refining skills to a less polluting use.

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That said, biofuels took a blow in March 2023 when European Union states decided not to spare them from a planned 2035 ban on combustion engine cars, amid concerns for the global food supply chain. Buses and commercial vehicles are also taking the e-route, particularly in China, where more than 95% of heavy-duty trucks produced in 2021 were equipped with lithium batteries.

Yet propelling large ships and airplanes requires so much power that electric batteries are impractical. That hands biofuels a new life. Using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) made from waste and able to withstand extreme low temperatures looks the only clean energy option for aircraft: hydrogen and ammonia are either potentially explosive or poisonous. Using non-edible feedstock such as castor beans, rather than maize or sugar cane, should help alleviate food security concerns.

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At about 200 million euros, the market for SAF is currently almost non-existent. Yet global regulation will force a radical uptake. The EU’s ReFuelEU Aviation initiative, approved in October, requires sustainable fuel to constitute 70% of airline propellant by 2050, while the U.S. envisages 100% by then. Hence the global market could hit 50 billion euros by 2030 and 500 billion euros by 2050, SFS Ireland reckons.

This paves the way for an acceleration in biofuel demand that will benefit players with expertise. India, which chaired the G20 in 2023 and aspires to become a sustainable fuel refining hub, has launched a 19-country-strong Global Biofuel Alliance to accelerate the use of low-emission fuels. But Europe looks a more obvious winner: it contributed 60% of global production in 2022. Italy’s Eni, the world’s No. 3 producer, forecasts global demand to grow to 45 million metric tons per year by 2030, from about 10 million metric tons at the end of 2022.

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Hoarding enough feedstock to keep up with rising demand, without compromising the food supply chain, will remain a challenge. Analysts reckon global production will probably be a third less than Eni assumes. Still, that could keep margins high and improve the prospect that biofuel businesses can be spun off and listed at decent valuations.

One relative laggard, in contrast to its breakneck electric mobility growth, is China. While Beijing announced some pilot biofuel projects in November, consumption is relatively scarce. In 2024 Western groups have a chance to jump at a green technology the People’s Republic has yet to dominate.

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(This is a Breakingviews prediction for 2024. To see more of our predictions, click here.)

Context News

China will launch a series of pilot projects to spur domestic production and consumption of biodiesel, the National Energy Administration said on Nov. 21, an attempt to beef up a low-carbon sector in which the People’s Republic lags other economies. Danish shipping group Maersk said in November that it had agreed to buy 500,000 metric tons of bio-methanol and e-methanol per year from China’s Goldwind, to enable low-carbon operations for 12 of its vessels from 2026 onwards. India said on Sept. 9 that it had launched a global biofuel alliance to boost the use of biofuels.

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Published December 20th, 2023 at 13:17 IST

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