BNEF report highlights findings of Bioenergy Leadership Forum

By Erin Voegele | March 13, 2013

In early March, Bloomberg New Energy Finance published a report outlining its Bioenergy Leadership Forum, which was held in October. According to BNEF, the forum is an invitation-only, executive think-tank geared towards 50 of the bioenergy sector’s thought leaders. The 2012 event, held in London, focused on the examination of three fundamental issues, including how companies manage, monitor and profit from bioenergy-related commodities; where a new breed of feedstocks, alternative fuels, chemicals and pellets fit into tomorrow’s markets; and the enablers, inhibitors and timelines for the cellulosic biofuels industry. The goal of the forum was to create a dialogue between finance, policy and industry too address challenge and capitalize on opportunities.

According to the report, the global biofuels industry seems to be at a crossroad. It is too mature to demand increased assistance, but is too young to survive unaided. While global production capacity increased from 40 billion liters (10.57 billion gallons) to 160 billion liters between 2004 and 2012, only 13 billion liters of that capacity has come online since 2010. In addition, asset finance capital was down 74 percent in 2012 compared to the year prior, reaching only $1.1 billion world-wide. While first-generation biofuel development has slowed, BNEF said in the report that forum showed that an absence of growth in first-generation biofuel investment is not a sign that the industry is winding down.

One session of the forum focused on the Brazilian ethanol industry, finding that set gas prices, increased labor costs, mechanization and underdeveloped infrastructure are obstacles that are currently restraining further development in the sector. Participants in the discussion stressed that current productivity levels are challenging and prohibiting, and that Brazil should focus on correcting that problem before its sugarcane sector makes investments in next-generation biofuel and biochemical technologies.

Regarding cellulosic biofuels, the report notes cellulosic ethanol is considered an entry point in the market for investors, as an international market for ethanol is already in existence. The same is not yet true of drop-in biofuels. Attracting capital, however, remains a significant challenge. Forum panelists pointed to IPOs and strategic partners as “a difficult but correct road” to financing cellulosic biofuel projects.

The cellulosic biofuel panel also noted that the future of next-generation biofuels is closely tied to biochemical production. However, they said biochemicals will not be a means of getting to transportation fuel, as higher margins associated with biochemicals are not likely to help the transition to fuels. Rather, they said it would be easier to prove biofuel processes first, and then move into chemical markets. “Biochemicals will not, therefore, remain a high value product forever,” said BNEF in the report. “Once production scales up, prices will go down. It is thus probably best to envisage a future with large integrated biorefineries, which simultaneously produce fuels and chemicals.”

Regarding biochemical production, panel participants agreed that biochemicals will not require subsidies to complete with their fossil-based counterparts. However, in the long-term, diversification will become crucial to managing risk.

The BNEF report said the biomass power industry has shown less volatility and more stability in recent years than other niche energy markets. It has attracted an average of $1.4 billion in investment each quarter for the past two years. Interest in the European Union has been growing thanks to government policies supporting the conversion of coal-fired facilities to biomass. A minimum of 3.6 GW of biomass power is expected to be commissioned within the EU before 2016.

According to the report, interest in large-scale conversion projects and cofiring have “lit a fire under the global wood pellet market, which until 18 months ago has been in relative obscurity.” BNEF expects traded volumes of industrial pellets to increase from approximately 10 million metric tons today, to approximately 25 million metric tons by 2020 in the EU alone.

However, participants in the forum agreed that the pellet market is currently illiquid and trading is far from standardized. However, the future looks encouraging, as statistics show pellet imports are increasing every month while pellet quality slowly becomes more homogenous. The weakest link in the pellet supply chain currently seems to be volatility in the price of raw materials. “Pellet producers who do not own their raw material resource face input cost uncertainty,” said BNEF in the report. “They will need to carefully balance these feedstock costs and the clients’ need for long-term price stability.”

A full copy of the report, titled “Leadership Forum Bioenergy Results Book 2012,” can be downloaded from the BNEF website