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Asian biofuels face a big crisis

Environment, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Projects, South Korea, Technology
By John Richardson on 21-Nov-2007

After all the optimism, all the hype and a lot of investors’ money, the industry has shot itself in the foot by failing to build demand ahead of supply.

Plus the negativity caused by food versus fuel and environmental counter-arguments to supporting this current generation of technologies is making some Asian governments hesitate on providing the support needed to bolster demand…… The Asian biofuels industry has gone from boom to bust in just six months as the processing levels of biofuel producers have declined sharply due to soaring feedstock costs and weak demand.

Compounding this are rising environmental concerns, the food versus fuel debate and the reluctance of refiners to change the way they have always done things.

Distribution systems are not set up to handle large quantities of biofuels, plus in the case of biodiesel you have the added complication that conventional diesel is becoming a great deal greener. This is leading to unfavourable comparisons between the plantation-to-wheel emissions of palm oil-based biodiesel and those of ultra low-sulphur diesel.

The other problem is that one of the major efforts to break the link between food and fuel – switching to jatropha-based biodiesel – is facing some big hurdles.

An even further cause for gloom is big capital costs for third or second generation technologies, which use biomass as feedstock. Either you opt for the enzymatic route, where the enzymes are very expensive to produce, or you go for gasification using the established Fischer Tropsch process. Capital costs for the coal-based gasification complexes being built in China are $6-10bn.

But Tony Regan, Singapore-based senior consultant with Nexant ChemSystems, says that the huge investment in R&D in the US is bringing the new technologies ever-nearer to commercialisation.

“A short while ago, I would have said that second and third generation technologies were 10 years away from being commercially proven. Now I would say five years,” he adds.

Regan also says that the cost of feedstock, such as palm oil and soy prices, may moderate as the increases are cyclical and have been driven mainly by the food industry. However, he warns that the economics of biodiesel plants might not substantially improve unless crude oil prices remain high.

The industry also faces the problem that it’s built capacity ahead of demand.

Refiners and end-users need to be persuaded to use more biodiesel and ethanol.

In Indonesia, for example, the blending of 5% biodiesel into conventional diesel should have occurred by now. But Pertamina, the state-owned refiner, has only supported blending of up to 2.5%.

Malaysia has no mandated blending levels for biodiesel, while conventional diesel enjoys huge subsidies.

If a minimum blending level were to be introduced and enforced, the price of crude oil-based diesel would have to be hiked and/or heavy subsidies would have to be handed out to local biodiesel producers in order to boost consumption.

Regan calculates that with palm-oil prices at current levels, exporting palm oil generates the equivalent of $113/bbl for the Malaysian palm-growing industry. It has been suggested that the diversion of crude palm oil to domestic biodiesel could reduce palm oil exports by about 40%.

In South Korea, the government had wanted a biodiesel blending level of 20% but was forced to compromise to just 5%, Even this was rejected by the refining industry, which is only blending up to 0.5%. A mandate has now been introduced but to only increase the blending rate by 0.5% per annum until it reaches 3% in 2012.

Ethanol is more established in Asia and is less of a sorry picture. However, the Chinese government’s National Development and Reform Commission banned new corn-based ethanol projects last December. The reason was soaring corn prices on the back of increased industrial use.

Soaring crop prices globally have been blamed on biofuels, but the industry should not take the entire blame; increased meat and dairy consumption as incomes rise in the developing and world and speculation by agricultural commodity traders are the other factors.

Nevertheless, a well-placed source close to official policymakers says that some Asian governments are becoming increasingly reluctant to promote biofuels because of the food versus fuel debate.

But a second source that other governments remained enthusiastic with banks still willing to lend money, despite the deeply flawed economics.

Efforts are being made to tackle the poor economics and the food versus fuel concerns by finding alternative raw materials for the current generation of technologies.

The star turn at biofuels conferences over the last few years has been jatropha.

India has put a lot of work into commercialising the crop, which can be grown on land unsuitable for agriculture, as has the Philippines.

However, when grown on marginal land jatropha bushes are small, low-yielding and not suitable for harvesting. A much more effective means of making jatropha flourish is to grow the plant on agricultural land, but this defeats the purpose as governments and investors may be dragged back into the food versus fuel controversy.

And wherever you grow jatropha and, of course, any other crop, you need water and fertilisers and it can take 3-5 years for a jatropha plantation to reach maturity.

Water is very scarce in some parts of the Asia and if you use chemical-based fertilisers, run-off or eutrophication is the consequence. This is where fertilisers are washed off the land and into the rivers and seas. Oxygen levels are depleted and, as a result, fish stocks decline – putting further strain on food supplies.

A huge amount of land, water and chemical fertilisers would be needed to replace a significant percentage of conventional fuels with biofuels.

There is also the Orangutan factor – rising environmental concerns in Europe over the clearing of rainforests in Southeast Asia, the habitat of the endangered primate, to grow palm oil.

Greenpeace recently highlighted the huge release of carbon dioxide from peat bogs. This occurs when rainforests, which sit on top these bogs, are cleared.

But Regan says that biofuels have an important role to play in coordinated energy policies, along with conservation and other forms of alternative energy.

Will governments and prospective investors now play the waiting game, though, until the new technologies or on the market?

Existing investors, in the absence of the right levels of government support, could go to the wall as a result.