It’s the feedstock, silly

Say what you want about Chinese biofuels – not enough subsidy, not allowing imports, high carbon emissions, low-tech.  The facts are in: it doesn’t matter what the government does, if you can’t find sustainable feedstock, you can’t make sustainable biofuel!

And so it is for China.

It has been spelled out that China doesn’t have much accessible sustainable feedstock for biofuels right now, no matter where you look for it, and  much greater international cooperation not on feedstock conversion technologies, but in fact on feedstock development technologies and strategies that work for China is needed.

What if China misses its biofuel targets by 2020?  Well, so what?  If you don’t have the feedstock, if you don’t have the resource, how can you make the target?

A brief review of the challenges ahead:

1.  Non-grain fuels

There are international standards being developed everywhere for sustainable fuels, low carbon fuels, etc.  But China has come up with its own term that it believes is most applicable to its own situation: non-grain fuel (非粮食燃料). On the surface, it’s simple.  China has 1.(6?) billion people to feed, and it needs grain to do so.  Don’t use grain for fuel.  But it’s not that simple.  There is no standard for what non-grain means.  Is cassava a “grain?” how about grasses or Sorghum?  After you answer this question, let me ask:  are you SURE?  Ha.  Didn’t think so.

“What is non-grain fuel?” needs to be answered in the context of China as a developing country, but could definitely use the input of the sophisticated policy and standards development of overseas experts.

2.  Biofuel mandates and targets – why not import?

Having stronger mandates for biofuel in China is going to cause serious problems.  The fact is that if China imports even one ton of ethanol, the global price of ethanol is very likely going to shoot up, because it indicates that China has changed its import policy.  Who wants that to happen?

At the same time, it is impossible to know where ethanol is actually coming from.  Is the ethanol imported from Brazil, or has it been made in an unlicensed backyard distillery in Henan province from wheat?  Is it second generation bioethanol made from farm waste, or is it corn-based ethanol from Jilin?  The fact is that if any mandates or subsidies are made to increase the supply of ethanol, the cheapest feedstock will be used in order to maximize profit to the subsidized entity.  Given that China’s regulatory system is not sophisticated enough to track batches of ethanol from producer to retailer, it will probably mean an increase in dirty 1st generation ethanol.

3.  What’s up with Waste-based Cellulosic Ethanol? Isn’t it the perfect solution?

Novozymes has recently made announcements in China that the price of enzymes for processing cellulose into sugar to make ethanol has finally entered the realm of commercial pricing.   This is a great and important step for this technology — so, what’s holding things up?

We’re back to the feedstock supply issue:

The management of farm wastes in  China is really difficult.  It seems that biomass users can’t properly educate their farm waste suppliers (farmers) what kind of waste they need, how to prepare the waste in advance, the dimensions and characteristics of the biomass they need, and so on.  There is no mechanism for pricing biomass, so there is little stability for the biomass user.  Perhaps the most discouraging fact for biomass users is that in many cases across China, land is divided between millions of small landowners…and each of them needs to negotiate a contract with the biomass user.  A formidable task for any new enterprise.

Regardless of technology readiness, it is the business model related to feedstock that will continue to be a problem for cellulosic ethanol in the near and mid-term future in China.

What should be done?

Cellulosic ethanol is still a key technology that needs to be developed in this area.  Its carbon emissions and potential environmental impacts are significantly lower than grain-based ethanol.

But there are some systematic challenges that need to be solved:

  • Training on how to manage waste materials from farms: farmers need to know what type of farm waste is needed, and standards need to be developed on how waste materials are prepared
  • A regulated pricing market needs to be developed for waste biomass in order to offer price stability to bioenergy producers
  • Other cellulosic materials need to be developed, including energy grasses that can truly grow efficiently on marginal land.

Standards, logistics and training, the “soft technologies”, are going to be key to the development of sustainable biofuels in China.  Whoever figures that out will reap great rewards!

These are issues we’re working on at iCET – we need partners, help, and funding to get the right businesses and regulators to do the right things!

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It’s the feedstock, silly — 1 Comment

  1. A regulated pricing market? by whom?
    The current price for ag residues is set by biorefineries, not by the gov or farmers…what they need is a move towards a more established/competitive market for feedstocks. It takes a while for competitors to enter though.