Strong Interest in Waste Product Biofuels

By Bruce Ross, Ross Gordon Consultants SPRL

Each year the World Biofuels Markets conference provides an opportunity for biofuels industry players to rub shoulders and get a feel for the state of things. This year’s event was held in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in mid-March. As in previous years, National Renderers Association (NRA) staff and members both attended and spoke at the event. The idea is to ensure that biofuels from rendered products are showcased and that the NRA has some visibility. This year, Jim Conway, Darling International, and myself, NRA’s European Union (EU) representative, participated in the conference to ensure that biodiesel produced from animal fats and used cooking oil were given due attention. There were also several representatives of the U.S. biofuels sector at the conference.

The mood at the conference was positive and business-like. There was much less crystal ball gazing than in previous years, less guesswork about which exotic plant might provide the fuel of the future, and more discussion on how to make the fuels and feedstocks already known about work in the market. Having said that, the keynote sessions on “Transitioning to a global bio-economy” and “Food versus fuel: the global debate continues” showed the fault lines that persist.

The former allowed the European Commission to explain how it is helping encourage biofuels use through regulation and, in the longer term, a move towards a “sustainable bio-economy in Europe.” Robert Zubrin, U.S. author of Energy Victory, defended his opinion that it is time for biofuels to challenge the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, oil cartel. His “one-point plan” is for governments to legislate that all cars be flexi-fuel adapted. BP Biofuels shared how the company has moved from research to significant investment in biofuel production, notably in bio-ethanol in Brazil and the United Kingdom. The consensus in the audience was that the big challenge is to maintain a stable investment climate – a job for the regulators.

BP Biofuels raised the challenge of getting across a clear message to the public about the benefits of “good biofuels.” The second session revealed that this is just one of several continuing controversial aspects of the biofuels debate. In Europe, others include indirect land use change (ILUC), and land rights and labor laws in the developing world where biofuel feedstocks are being grown. A European Biodiesel Board (EBB) representative tried to steer the debate towards what he saw as a threat from subsidized exports of biodiesel to the EU, but he garnered little support.

This year’s conference concentrated on several concrete business challenges. The investment climate, the need for a stable regulatory environment, opportunities for biofuels for shipping and aviation, bio-chemical products, and “scale-up and commercialization” were hot topics. As proof of the shift to the more practical aspects of the biofuels business, a day-long session was devoted to “Waste to biofuels,” including a discussion chaired by this author focusing on “Food, tallow, and used cooking oil residues.” This recognized that dealing with various waste streams is a present problem, but that waste products are a viable biofuel feedstock. While the title wasn’t ideal, this session did allow tallow and used cooking oil to be properly showcased.

Animal Fats and Used Cooking Oil
A session on tallow and used cooking oil on the third day of the conference was well-attended by a cross-section of industry, regulators, non-governmental organizations, and the media. Presentations were made by Jens Jacobsen of Swiss-based MBP Group, which has 10 years in by-products collection services, biofuels, technical oils, and used cooking oils feedstock for biodiesel production; Hermann Stockinger of BDI-BioEnergy International, builder of several biodiesel plants in Europe and the United States; and myself and Conway. Speakers did a great job of explaining the technical, commercial, and environmental advantages of tallow and used cooking oil as biodiesel feedstocks; that these products have been used on an industrial scale for over a decade; and some of the regulatory challenges faced by producers (such as the lack of clear and consistent definition of what are wastes, by-products, and residues). The part the rendering industry plays in the supply chain was also underlined.

The discussion was lively and positive, again illustrating the stronger interest at this year’s conference in the use of by-products and residues in biofuels. That interest was already evident the first two days of the conference when many speakers and participants commented on the availability of raw materials and their lack of environmental “baggage,” such as there is no ILUC or land/labor rights issues surrounding the use of by-products and residues.

However, there are other challenges to be faced. For example, speakers from the EBB raised concerns about the double-counting of by-products and residue feedstocks towards meeting EU renewable energy targets (biofuels using tallow and used cooking oil can be considered as counting double towards the target of 10 percent of EU transport fuels being derived from renewable sources by 2020). EBB raised a variety of problems they perceive with used cooking oil in particular, including its alleged lack of consistent quality, its inferior contribution in sustainability terms, and the possibility of fraud (it is asserted that some used cooking oil isn’t used cooking oil at all). But it wasn’t mentioned what might be their real concern, which is that the more fuel that is produced from double-counted raw materials, the less biodiesel might be produced overall.

April 2012 RENDER | back