Controlling Feedstock Costs Creates Value in Biofuel Companies

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Jim Lane

Companies creating opportunities in feedstocks are getting lots of love from investors, and giant downstream partners like BP and Shell.

What’s up in the new upstream?

It has not escaped the attention of investors that Renewable Energy Group’s (REGI) IPO resulted in a $262 million valuation for a company actively earning $2.11 per share through the sale of 200 million+ gallons of biodiesel, while Ceres recently increased the target for its IPO to a valuation above $500 million, despite being, in essence, a pre-revenue company.

What gives? The secret, it turns out, is in feedstock. In recent months and years, as more and more advanced biofuels processing technologies have made it through pilots and demonstrations of their technology and head for commercial-scale, investors have been focused on the fact that value-creation in biofuels has generally conferred an awful lot of dollars on feedstock growers, and not so much for the processing technologies and downstream marketers.

Controlling feedstock costs

For that reason, companies like BP Biofuels have been making control of the feedstock costs, through direct grower contracting, a central feature of their business models. And processing companies that have been getting significant traction towards commercialization, are generally those that have spent the most time and attention locking down the feedstock costs.

Examples? Well, there are plenty, such as POET’s Biomass Division, the technologies such as INEOS Bio, Fulcrum and Enerkem that have secured long term, zero-cost MSW supply contracts; companies like LanzaTech and Joule that utilize and have secured long-term supply of low cost, industrial off-gases such as carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide; or companies like Mascoma and ZeaChem that have establish long-term relations with forest biomass companies like JM Longyear and Greenwood Resources.

Over the past five years, there have been a raft of celebrated bankruptcies and shutdowns in the bioenergy sector – restructuring at Pacific Ethanol, Aventine Renewables, and VeraSun, as well as (at one time) the  shut-down of huge percentage of global biodiesel capacity. Many of the companies and plants have revived and re-opened, but consider this: just one generation after the days of FarmAid, hardly a grower (of first generation feedstocks) has not enjoyed pretty good times, throughout the past five years.

Limits there are, as is widely understood, on the availability of first-generation feedstocks. In some cases, pricing pressure, as in the case of maize or soybeans. In other cases, regulatory pressure such as the EPA’s ruling that palm oil biodiesel has insufficiently low greenhouse gas emissions to qualify as an advanced biofuel.

Value creation, value unlocking, value add

In the Digest’s Feedstock Framework, we see three types of companies.

First, those that are chasing value creation – turning low-performing feedstocks into economic rock stars through yield intensification, often through hybridization and unlocking favorable traits that are hidden in the genome.

Second, companies involved in value unlocking. That is, taking next-gen feedstocks already available at scale – generally, residues, and finding processing or extractive technologies that tease out valuable material streams out of what, previously, was thought of as waste, fit only for dispersal and disposal.

Third, companies involved in value adding. That is, taking existing feedstocks already available at scale, and already providing material ROI to their growers and processors, and using synthetic biology to produce higher-value products from the feedback.

In some cases, these are processors, some cases seed developers, some cases developers of magic bugs. But all of them are working on the right side of the value equation in bioenergy and biomaterials – which may help explain why investors are giving them so much attention as they come to the markets for capital – whether it is financial investors, or serious strategic players working in the downstream markets, such as BP Biofuels, Shell, Valero or Tesoro.

A Feedstock Framework

Below, we have parsed the major feedstocks into the buckets of “value creation”, value unlocking and value add.

Note: The companies cited are for illustrative purposes – there are, for example, tons of companies working on micro algae and agricultural residues that we did not have space to mention – and no disrespect is intended if a favorite company of yours is not included. And, yes, some of these feedstocks (e.g. algae) fit to some extent in both the sugars and oils department. But you get the general idea.

Value creation (new feedstocks)
Oil crops
Microalgae Sapphire Energy, Solazyme (SZYM), Phycal, Aurora Algae, many others
Jatropha SG Biofuels
Carinata Agrisoma
Camelina Sustainable Oils, Green Plains (GPRE)
Sugars: cellulosic and otherwise
Macroalgae Sea6/Novozymes(NVZMY.PK), BAL, Kumho
Miscanthus Mendel
Switchgrass Ceres
Woody biomass ArborGen
Sorghum Chromatin

Value unlocking (residues)
Bagasse Codexis (CDXS)
Municipal solid waste Enerkem, Fulcrum, Terrabon, BlueFire(BFRE.OB), INEOS Bio, Coskata
Animal fats & wastes Dynamic Fuels, Neste Oil, Diamond Green Diesel
Wood residues ZeaChem, Mascoma, Cobalt, KiOR(KIOR), American Process
Waste gases Proterro, Joule, LanzaTech
Agricultural waste POET/DSM, Abengoa(ABGOY.PK), Novozymes, Dupont (Genencor)


Value adding (existing feedstocks)
Corn starch Gevo(GEVO), Butamax, Green Biologics, Genomatica
Cane syrup Amyris(AMRS), LS9

Disclosure: None.

Jim Lane is editor and publisher of Biofuels Digest where this article was originally published.  Biofuels Digest is the most widely read Biofuels daily read by 14,000+ organizations.  Subscribe here.


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