By 2030 one in three cars in Sweden could run on biofuel made in
the country and mainly from residue from forestry operations or non-edible agricultural produce such as biomass-based waste.
This is according to a report submitted by Swedish researchers to an official government investigation on how to wean the Swedish transport sector of fossil fuels by 2050 and to make it “carbon neutral”.
The Production of Today’s and Future Sustainable Biofuels report, written in part by Bio4Energy researchers, suggests that the country could increase its annual biofuel production to as much as 25-35 terawatt hours (TWh), keeping with today’s “technological restrictions, and to a certain extent also ecological and economic restrictions”.
Sweden’s current biofuel production has been estimated at three TWh, part of a total energy supply in 2010 of 616 TWh, 96 TWh of which found final use in the transport sector, according to 2012 statistics from the Swedish Energy Agency.
The scientists’ report, signed by the Swedish Knowledge Centre for Renewable Transportation Fuels, f3, puts the focus on biofuels that are second generation or more advanced. Such made from forestry residues or fast-growing trees for bioenergy receive a favourable rating in terms of socio-economic and greenhouse-gas-reduction considerations when they are part of a “long-term” forest growth strategy, and notably when they are produced in combination with other energy products.
What matters, the researchers say, is not so much the type of biofuel produced, but the socio-economic and environmental soundness of the production system they are made in. The latter should be adapted to local conditions; including production unit size and location, choice of raw materials, conversion route and transport logistics.
A range of fuels made via the thermo-chemical or biochemical route are being discussed in the report in a "well-to-tank" life-cycle perspective. In this, forest-sourced raw materials also get good marks for “energy balance” or energy efficiency, which would be the net balance of energy input and output, in a system’s perspective.
External energy input for biofuels produced by gasification of lignocellulose is estimated at five-to-ten per cent, compared with about 50 per cent for bioethanol made from grains, the report says.
Favour sustainable production systems, not types of biofuel
A key recommendation by the f3 authors is thus for policy-makers not to favour a certain type of biofuel, but rather look at the efficiency of each production systems in a local context and notably for added value when several energy products are produced in the same system.
For instance, co-production of biofuels and combined heat and power, or ethanol with food crops or animal feed, can be cost efficient, they say. In any case, the production should be adapted to local conditions after an assessment of economic, environmental and social aspects on a case-by-case basis.
“The type of biofuel matters less. For a production system to be considered sustainable, it should be energy efficient and not compete with today’s production by the forestry industry or agricultural production”, according to Lundgren, researcher at the Luleå University of Technology (LTU) in northern Sweden.
Gasification of forest-sourced biomass 'best' bet, but incentives needed
While the f3 researchers steer clear of recommending that a particular type of biofuel be promoted, an April report from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences gave its voice in support for biofuels based on forest-sourced raw materials made via the thermal conversion route, notably by gasification.
The Biofuels - Now and in the Future report recommended a shift in focus from first-generation food-crop-based biofuels to second-generation methanol and dimethyl ether (DME). With further intensification of Swedish forestry, together with increased use of electricity to power hybrid or fully electric engines and with required large-scale investment in industrial infrastructure, the two could be produced in such quantities as to replace fossil fuels in the Swedish transport sector by 2050, the academy said.
"However, forceful political incentives and support for research and development, as well as strong actors interested [in seeing the venture succeed] are needed to put in place the large-scale [production] units and the infrastructure required [for biofuels based on forest-sourced biomass] to be competitive with fossil fuels", an April press release from the academy stated.
“The KVA report said biomass gasification is the best option, which means DME and methanol [should be preferred]”, Gebart said, using the Stockholm-based Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' Swedish ackronym to refer to the Biofuels - Now report.
“Fossil fuels will always be cheaper than renewable fuels, but we know the side effects of [using them] so we have got to move away from that”, he added. The f3 report puts “future” production cost for lignocellulosic biofuels made via thermal conversion of biomass or bioethanol made in conjunction with food or feed products at SEK7-8 (€0.8-0.9) petroleum equivalents per litre "for the most process-efficient concepts". In comparison production of ethanol based on Brazilian sugar cane is estimated at SEK5 petrol equivalents.
Cost could come down with large-scale biorefinery
However, the cost argument could be turned on its head as new technology emerges, making industrial uptake less of a distant prospect. A report out this month by the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, recounted in a press release of 3 July, said that commercial-scale (defined as 300 megawatt) biofuel production from forestry residue, such as branches and tops, could be realised at a cost of less than €1 per litre of biofuel made using gasification technology.
“Converted into gasoline-equivalent price per litre, the estimated production cost would be €0.5–0.7/litre. The price of renewable solutions would thus be on a level with the current pre-tax price of fossil transportation fuels, and cheaper than existing imported biofuels”, the VTT statement said.
The conclusions by the f3 and VTT reports should be good news for organisations such as Bio4Energy, who have been calling on policy-makers to favour resource efficient and sustainable advanced biofuels from forest-sourced or other organic residue. A recent report by the European Environment Agency similarly calls for further resource efficiency in the production of biofuels.
- Written by Anna Strom