Renewable ethanol is a versatile product and our industry is a vital asset in Europe’s quest to decarbonize transport, boost growth and jobs, and achieve greater resource efficiency by utilising a range of feedstocks, such as waste and residues. By 2030 biofuels made from these feedstocks could create up to 300,000 jobs.
European ethanol plants are true biorefineries, converting multiple inputs into multiple outputs, not limited to renewable ethanol and animal feed. The sector is also constantly innovating at different stages of the conversion processes. For example, new enzymes and yeasts have been developed in order to maximize the amount of ethanol produced from the feedstock used, improving resource efficiency.New outputs have also been developed, such as oil extracted from maize and wheat.
Similarly, the spread of best practice and constant innovation allow for the minimisation of waste. In many cases our plants pursue closed-loop production systems using, for example, waste biomass to generate green electricity for use in ethanol production plants. Water use is also is kept to a minimum, recycled and/or treated before discharge, allowing some plants to be water neutral or even to return water to the rivers cleaner than when it was extracted.
Advanced ethanol, such as cellulosic ethanol, is a renewable fuel that further optimises resource efficiency by using waste and residue material, such as straw. In Europe, cellulosic ethanol can also be produced from dedicated energy crops such as miscanthus and switch grass. Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to achieve even higher GHG emissions savings, up to 90% compared to fossil fuels, but its benefits go beyond this:
Processing these feedstocks to extract sugars requires high-tech facilities, pioneering enzyme and yeast extraction technologies, as well as highly-skilled people. Europe enjoys easy access to these resources, thanks inter alia to traditional financing in the first stages of R&D up to the point of pilot and demonstration plants. Europe now needs to maximize the use of theseresources and harvest the benefits of cellulosic ethanol by supporting fully integrated commercial-scale biorefineries.
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To do this, change is needed. Currently, cellulosic ethanol makes up less than 0.1% of the European transport fuel market. The first commercial cellulosic ethanol facility in Europe opened in Northern Italy in 2013, but while other pilot and demonstration facilities are currently in operation, there are minimal prospects for commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol in Europe at present. In contrast, several commercial plants are operational in the USA and Brazil, and a second wave of plants is also under construction in these markets.
While European companies are world leaders in advanced biofuel technologies, investments are increasingly being made outside the EU, where public policy and market conditions are more favourable. The current use of multiple-counting as a policy tool in measuring contributions towards the EU’s renewable transport target has not incentivised truly advanced biofuel technologies or supported innovation in the renewable energy sector.
With this in mind, a group of advanced ethanol companies, along with ePURE, published a manifesto calling on European policy makers to introduce measures to support advanced biofuels up to 2030.
The EU needs to change its focus in order to help innovation ventures and projects move from R&D to commercial deployment in the short to medium term in order to avoid ‘innovation leakage’.
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