Interview waste-based biofuel : EWABA's Ewald-Marco Münzer: "Waste-based biodiesel is the most GHG-reducing fuel for road and maritime."

Hand turns dice and changes the expression "fossil fuel" to "green fuel".
© Fokussiert -

What are the main sources for waste-based biofuels?

The most common type of waste-based biofuel is waste-derived biodiesel. The main feedstocks are namely used cooking oils, animal fats and other waste oils and residues that are part of the Renewable Energy Directive Annex IX. Waste-based biofuels can also derive from lignocellulosic or woody biomass, or agricultural residues or waste, but these are considerably less widespread.

How has the market evolved over the years?

The market for waste-based biofuels grew significantly over the past years since EU policymakers decided to place additional incentives towards waste-derived renewable fuels over crop-based biofuels, which dominated the market until then. A major development is a need for biofuel producers to diversify their supply, particularly by increasing their use of Annex IX Part A ‘advanced’ feedstocks. These waste feedstocks are more difficult to process and require some modifications to be able to treat and process the raw materials pre-production. The need for wider feedstock diversification has led to several new investments within the waste and advanced biodiesel industry with either new production facilities and high-spec pre-treatment facilities.

Which countries are pioneers in the use of biofuels?

The European bloc of countries is the main consumer of waste-based biofuels due to very strict policies put in place over 15 years ago. Countries like Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina and the US, have considerable production and consumption of biofuels but mostly first-generation ones produced from crops. States like California have an adequate consumption of waste biofuels due to very ambitious targets set compared with the rest of the United States. In Europe, countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Spain and the Nordics are the main hubs of waste-based biofuel demand. Malaysia and China also export considerable volumes of waste feedstocks and waste-based biofuels to the EU.

How much of the annual fuel consumption in Europe can the biofuel industry currently cover? How much is realistic for the future?

This is a difficult figure to estimate as it involves several transport sectors. Biodiesel is used at a 7% blending rate for several years now across the EU, and with the revision of REDII (REDIII) the default value sold in fuel stations would rise to 10% biodiesel, or else B10. This can rise even further with the existing and upcoming quantities expected in the market in the coming years. Apart from road transport, waste-based biofuels can be blended into maritime, despite the clear absence of proper incentives to decarbonize shipping. Once the right policy mechanism is put in place, and investment certainty is secured, we believe that the production of waste-based biofuels could double or triple. There are a lot of novel feedstocks being tested by biofuel producers. These feedstocks will take some time to reach the market in sufficient volumes but pave the way for improvements in technology, plant optimization, efficiency, and yield. It is important to support biofuel producers in this journey to diversify supply and expand their business. These companies have invested a lot of money and time in transport decarbonisation and they will continue to do utmost to keep their facilities running at full speed. It is up to EU policymakers to make sure that feedstocks are being used where their yield is maximized and create a holistic framework across the whole industry.

Ewald-Marco Münzer is the new President of European Waste-based & Advanced Biofuels Association (EWABA)

Can biofuels be mixed with every other fossil fuel? Can they be used in every fossil fuel-powered vehicle?

Biodiesel can be mixed with diesel and ethanol can be mixed with petrol. Also, biomethane is mixed with natural gas-powered vehicles to reduce emissions. Generally, biofuels can reduce GHG emissions in any type of light or heavy-duty vehicle. And for this reason, the EU legislator should promote higher biofuel blends on road and maritime to significantly reduce GHG emissions today whilst boosting an industry that is collecting and re-using wastes that would otherwise be discarded in landfills or sewages. The efficient use of higher blends across transport is one of the main legislative priorities for EWABA and can significantly contribute to climate mitigation efforts without the need for modifications, new investments, or technology upgrades. We can start blending waste-derived biodiesel at higher rates, today.

How has the technology evolved? Are there new waste sources that can be turned into fuels?

Technology has definitely evolved a lot over the past years. Wastes and residues are usually sources of contamination containing impurities and high-free fatty acids. To be able to process those, waste biofuel factories have adapted to optimize the production process. Several EU-based plants have pretreatment facilities installed within the compounds of their biofuel plants, to process waste feedstocks and remove impurities prior to the production phase.

The market for waste-based biofuels grew significantly over the past years since EU policymakers decided to place additional incentives towards waste-derived renewable fuels over crop-based biofuels, which dominated the market until then.
Ewald-Marco Münzer, EWABA

Some European countries already established blending obligations to aviation fuel suppliers. Now the European Commission plans higher blending mandates – 2% from 2025 onwards and rising to between 63% and 85% by 2050 - in its ReFuelEU strategy. What impact do you expect for the waste-based biofuel industry?

Tackling emissions in the aviation industry is a very positive development. The EU approach to achieving aviation decarbonisation is another topic and could be questioned. The ReFuelEU mandate has set very ambitious targets to reduce emissions in the sector. But the market reality is that these fuels in their majority do not exist at a commercial scale.

Therefore, the EU legislator should ensure that the most promising and scalable technologies would be promoted first to ensure their swift and efficient development for the benefit of long-term aviation decarbonisation. Instead, the blending obligations are not incentivizing these technologies but instead the most mature, already existing ones, creating competition between the aviation sector with the road and maritime industries that use the same waste feedstocks much more efficiently.

Sustainable biodiesel is one of the solutions already helping lower emissions from transport significantly. And, in addition to road transport, it is also a solution for maritime and aviation.

Maritime and aviation become part of the wider ETS, which will see a linear reduction rate from 2025 onwards. This implies that the sectors combined should achieve zero emissions around 2050. Note that aviation and maritime combined represent 1/8 of energy consumption in road transport.

Let me tell you one example of the maritime sector: The Sustainable Marine Methanol (SUMMETH) project has the overall objective of advancing technological development and providing recommendations for the introduction of methanol as an alternative fuel for coastal and inland waterway vessels to reduce their emissions and carbon footprint. The project intends to investigate methanol combustion concepts and ship fuel systems that will lead to cost-effective alternatives for ship operators to reduce their emissions and carbon footprint.

Sustainable biodiesel is not only a solution for road transport but also for maritime and aviation.

- © phaisarnwong2517 - stock.adobe.c

What are the intended climate benefits of this Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) mandate and what do you think of this outlook?

The overall objective is to reduce emissions in the transport sector by blending SAF into jet kerosene. The currently negotiated ReFuelEU proposal aiming to introduce a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) blending mandate significantly risks climate mitigation efforts accomplished so far for the road sector - the EU’s most polluting transport mode, and is expected to lead to a net increase of at least 1 million tons of additional GHG emissions in our atmosphere from 2025. The reason behind this is that the mandate will rely on waste-lipid based HEFA for the crucial 2025-2035 period, diverting feedstock already used in road and maritime for biodiesel production achieving 90% GHG savings, for their use in aviation for aviation fuel that achieves 76% GHG savings. Policy makers should therefore enforce the principle of using feedstocks where they yield the most climate benefits.

What is the current climate impact of the use of waste-based biofuels in the road and maritime transport sector?

Waste-based and advanced biodiesel in particular has prevented million of tons of CO2 equivalent emissions from being released into the atmosphere. The road is the most polluting transport sector and waste-derived biodiesel is the main source of decarbonisation until now. In 2021 alone, EWABA members produced over 2 million tons of renewable liquid fuels saving more than 6.3 million tons of CO2 eq emissions. In 2020 and during the covid-times, this figure stood at 5.3 million tons of CO2 savings. That is why it is important to enhance the role of waste-based biofuels and maximize potential GHG savings today. In maritime transport, a strong policy framework is currently missing to push investments toward the use of renewable fuels. The currently negotiated FuelEU file has proposed a considerable reduction of GHG intensity for ships from 2025 onwards. Waste-based and advanced biodiesel has increasingly being used by shipping companies and operators to achieve emission savings. It is currently the only fuel that can reduce GHG emissions by 90% compared to fossil fuel alternatives, can be deployed immediately as volumes are available, has a high energy density to support long voyages at sea and can be used without changes to the existing engine or fuel infrastructure.

How big is the future potential to mitigate GHG emissions?

The potential is huge since sectors like road or aviation transport are pressured by increased demand and it is therefore very difficult to reduce emissions. A combination of a large deployment of renewable fuels and a shift in demand patterns should allow for the climate mitigation potential to be achieved. From our industry’s perspective, we know we have the right tools and technology to continue to make significant contributions in GHG reduction for road and maritime, in line with the ambitious objectives of the fit for 55 package.

The currently negotiated ReFuelEU proposal aiming to introduce a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) blending mandate significantly risks climate mitigation efforts accomplished so far for the road sector.
Ewald-Marco Münzer, EWABA

Do you think the waste-based biofuel industry is overlooked in the current debate?

The climate mitigation efforts done by our industry are enormous over the past decade. And this has been achieved through a very uncertain regulatory and investment landscape. EU legislators should understand that by favoring ‘silver bullet’ solutions like electrification for road transport they are really harming the whole transport industry and repeating mistakes of the past. The EU currently is risking to lose considerable volumes of such fuels for road and maritime, for the short-term benefit of aviation decarbonisation despite this increasing overall GHG emissions across transport!

What is necessary to support the increase of biofuels?

A stable policy framework that protects investments in the sector is the most important element. It is also important to showcase important initiatives achieved by our members in the field of waste biodiesel, efficiently driving decarbonisation in the sector. Waste-based biodiesel is the most GHG-reducing fuel for road and maritime and should be recognized. The EU legislators should ensure that renewable liquid fuels with such an important climate footprint should be used in higher blends across Europe while being the primary decarbonising tool for harder-to-decarbonise sectors like heavy-duty vehicles and maritime. At the same time, the contribution of sustainable renewable fuels to EU transport targets should be allowed without caps or limitations, to ensure long-term viability for the sector and proponents of such fuels.

There is a big push to electrify the transport sector. What do you think about that?

Electrification will be the major technology for light road transport decarbonisation. However, we are not nearly close to full commercialization at scale while recent geopolitical developments have underlined the uncertainties related to the pathway to full electrification of new cars by 2035. Liquid renewable fuels will continue to play an important role across harder-to-decarbonise sectors like heavy-duty vehicles and maritime. Large trucks and consumer goods vehicles are the ones doing considerable mileage and carrying the heaviest loads will not be electrified anytime soon. Ambition and realism are two sides of the same coin. We cannot expect the whole electricity grid in Europe to become renewable in times of such energy crisis, supply insecurity, higher costs along the supply chain and several technical issues that hinder the deployment of battery-run trucks in Europe. Waste-based and advanced biodiesel is here and will be here for decades to come.

If you compare the use of biofuels in transportation to the use of batteries: Where do you see the advantages and disadvantages of both?

This is a difficult and rather technical question. I believe that when a full Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is completed and given that the electricity grid in Europe (and elsewhere) still runs primarily from fossil-based resources, total emissions from a battery-power vehicle are still higher than a diesel alternative. The reason is that the extraction of resources to produce batteries and the battery production itself have high GHG emissions. If the electricity grid runs on renewables then emissions throughout the LCA of EVs will be lower than the diesel-based alternative. And that is really optimistic for the light-duty vehicle sector. But the issue is to scale this considerably for heavy duty vehicles.

How do you see the future of transport?

The future of transport is bright and mobility will shift considerably from what we know today. A few examples could be driverless cars, shared mobility, increased efficiency in urban and rural public transportation, EV charging stations across cities and hydrogen fueled planes will be topics that we will experience not so far into the future. But internal combustion engines won’t be fully substituted for decades to come and we should all strive together to decarbonize ICEs with most sustainable renewable fuels available.

Mobility has always served to further development. The more mobility, the more development. That has always been the driving force in human history. The challenge now is not to limit mobility but, on the contrary, to develop it further again - more efficiently and as far as possible decarbonized.