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Straight answers are myths: One fuel does not fit all

How come there is no straight answer to the question of which renewable fuel is the best? The answer is that it all depends, said Johanna Mossberg, director of f3, when she introduced the session “Renewable fuel myth busting” arranged by f3 within the Advanced Biofuels Conference program on Friday 19 May. This may disappoint some and motivate others, since the answer will differ according to many factors, such as time perspective, the system delimitations, the methods chosen as well as the actual production processes and how they are integrated with other systems.

Four researchers held presentations on this theme, each of them busting one of the myths surrounding development of renewable fuels. The first one concerned CO2 emission reduction potential, and the statement that it would be a biofuel property. By comparing the production of a renewable fuel to baking meringues, Jonas Joelsson from RISE Processum showed that the potential reduction of CO2 emissions is in the system – not the fuel itself. If you need whites from three eggs for your meringues, what will you do with the yolks? Throw them out, use them to make vanilla ice cream or something else? How many eggs should then be allocated to the meringue? The same type of questions apply for allocating CO2 emissions related to biofuel production. It depends on how you allocate the emissions between fuel product and other by- and side-products generated and the only certain answer that the emission reduction potential varies not with the fuel itself but with the system and the method chosen.

Julia Hansson, IVL and Chalmers University of Technology, further elaborated on the importance of the method design in order to bust the myth that if it is bio it is all good. In her presentation she emphasized the need to look at a broad spectrum of sustainability aspects when evaluating any type of fuel, renewable or fossil. Today, it is common to study the environmental and economic aspects of renewable fuel production, however, the social impacts are often not considered and important sustainability properties could therefore be missed out on. Moreover, a social sustainability analysis of a fuel could result in changed perspectives regarding the overall sustainability properties of a fuel in a specific context and the presentation showed the importance of not only the feedstock for production but also the country of origin for the feedstock as well as the country where the production takes place.

A common assumption in the renewable fuels debate, is that there is not enough (sustainable) biomass available for fuel production. Gustaf Egnell from SLU Swedish University of Agriculture busted this myth by explaining that a biomass potential will become a resource once it is valued. An increased demand for e.g. forest products and thus forest biomass will increase the market price, leading to enhanced availability of biomass through i.e. energy efficiency investments in the forest industry and the recovery of larger amounts of residues. Hence, the availability of biomass depends not only on traditional forestry but on what parameters we calculate with in the bigger picture. Included in this should be the type of scenarios that are unforeseen, e.g. biomass that is released as an effect of storms, fires and bark beetles. So, whatever we use the biomass for, fuel production or something else, the available amount depends on what we see as the resource.

But what about market availability of renewable fuels? Is commercialization of large production of lignocellulosic fuels near or far off in the future? Dina Bacovsky from Bioenergy 2020+ dedicated her presentation to the myth that advanced biofuels are just around the corner. She listed ongoing and planned projects and programs and the effects on these from the EU Renewable Energy Directive and summarized the lessons learned from e.g. the USDOE Integrated Biorefinery Program. The key message was that the corner where commercial scale renewable fuel production awaits might be in theoretical sight but not in practical reach. While technology might be ready, the market is not, and these two must be built hand in hand in order to be realized on a full commercial scale. Again, a wide and detailed perspective is needed for the understanding of the complexity of the system in which renewable fuel development can take place. The answers are context dependent, the questions are everything!

The f3 centre wishes to thank the speakers of the session, the audience who came to listen, and Svebio, main arranger of the Advanced Biofuels Conference. The presentations from the f3 moderated session are available as pdf:s (linked from each speakers name). The referred projects in Jonas Joelsson's and Julia Hansson's presentations are: