Why haven’t biofuels taken off? For years they have been touted as the fuel of the future, with high-profile commercial aircraft making headlines for pioneering all-biofuel international flights and promising a greener future for air travel. The first transatlantic flight powered solely by biofuel, a Gulfstream G450 owned by Honeywell International Inc., took place nearly a decade ago, in 2011, and was lauded as a harbinger of green jet fuel for all. At that time, Honeywell Vice President Jim Rekoske told the world, “We’re ready to go to commercial scale and commercial use.” But now, nine years later, the biofuel revolution that we were promised, both in the air and on our highways, is nowhere to be seen. As of 2020, biofuels account for a piddling amount of the global jet fuel mix, clocking in at less than .1 percent in 2018 according to data from the International Energy Agency. Even though biofuel consumption is still rising, the acceleration is comically slow. “In the U.S., the federal Energy Information Administration projects that the consumption of all biofuels will rise from 7.3 percent of total fuel consumption in 2019 to just 9 percent in 2040,” reports Bloomberg Green, and that’s only if oil prices fail to recover. “Even if petroleum prices skyrocket, biofuel consumption is predicted to increase to just 13.5% by 2050.”
Despite all of their promise and the flood of headlines declaring that biofuels were going to be a big part of how we get around going forward, global investors just haven’t gotten behind biofuels. “Global investment in biofuel production capacity, meanwhile, plunged from $22.9 billion in 2007 to $500 million in 2019,” Bloomberg Green reports using data from BloombergNEF. “That has significant implications for decarbonizing transportation, which is key to keeping global average temperature rise to 1.5C to avoid catastrophic climate impacts.”
While renewable energy is being adopted very unevenly around the world, with the United States in particular being slow to the draw, globally we are trending toward a green energy transition, and it is undeniable that the renewable energy market has a bright future, especially with green subsidies and post-corona economic recovery packages, particularly in Europe, that prioritize green energy investments and subsidies. Around the world, industry leaders, policymakers, and environmentalists alike have characterized the oil crash and COVID-19’s dramatic interruption to the economic status quo as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a “new energy order.” Renewable energy, backed up by “a raft of new studies,” has emerged as a particularly promising and fiscally prudent economic sector for job creation and economic recovery post-pandemic.
But, again, biofuel is being left behind. This is nothing new. “Biofuel’s dramatic fall stands in stark contrast to other renewable energy technologies,” writes Bloomberg Green. “Over the past decade, solar and onshore wind prices dropped 90 percent and 70 percent [...] and they’re now the cheapest form of new energy generation for two-thirds of the world. The price of lithium-ion battery packs fell 87 percent, and BloombergNEF predicts electric cars will become cost competitive with gasoline vehicles by the mid-2020s. But many advanced biofuels startups have either collapsed or now use their technology to make additives for cosmetics, dietary supplements, and food.”
This surprising failure and great fizzling out of the once widely touted biofuel revolution can be attributed to a rift between government policy and the time and money required to develop the global supply chains necessary to make biofuels commercially viable on a large scale. Investors looking for a quick return balked at the decade-long road to building up the biofuels industry, entrepreneurs were “overly confident about their technologies’ potential” if not outright dishonest, and policymakers did not incentivize or mandate biofuels the way that they did solar and wind until those industries could become profitable.
And now, little has changed. The future of biofuels is no longer bright. The oil crash and global pandemic have battered biofuels to the brink of collapse, the Trump administration has all but abandoned any existing biofuel mixing mandates, and Joe Biden’s big new green energy plan makes no mention of biofuels at all. The future of energy likely won’t include fossil fuels, but it’s looking more and more like it won’t include biofuels either. Tesla had better hurry up with that million-mile battery.
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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