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The Economics of Biofuels: Three Drivers

Jim Lane

They’re known as the three E’s: emissions, energy security and economic development. But how do they contribute to the economics of biofuels?

And how do those economics compare to the economics of crude?

The financing of biofuels is founded, to put it as simply as possible, upon the economics of substitution. On the one hand, there’s the price of energy currently locked inside biomass; on the other hand, the price of energy currently locked inside crude oil. The monetary rationale for biofuels is a version of vive la difference.

To give a simple example, if renewable sugars are trading at 15 cents per pound, and crude oil is trading at 35 cents a pound — there’s an opportunity for converting sugar to fuels if the refining cost leaves a profit margin worth the agricultural and market risks.

Oh, there are enough complicating factors left over to keep a hive of economists busy for a year. There’s the differential in the energy value of, say, ethanol, compared to gasoline or diesel. The impact of losing mass when you blow off the oxygen to turn a sugar into a hydrocarbon. The impact of bioenergy demand on raw biomass prices. The value of co-products from biomass or oil refining. And so on, practically ad infinitum. It takes an advanced degree and a whole bunch of Tylenol to figure it all out.

But at the end of the day, the point where substitution makes economic sense is going to correlate back to the price of crude. No matter what the hoped-for margins are, or the opex of a biorefinery, or the capex — it all starts with the barrel.

The oil price: 54.40 or fight

In looking at the world of cost — an obscuring factor is that oil is generally quoted in a cost per barrel (42 US gallons), while biomass is generally quoted in a price per metric or US ton. To simplify, we have converted everything to US cents per pound. Plus, we’ve used constant dollars, so that you don’t have to constantly factor out inflation.

Today, the cost of Brent Crude oil is 35.88 cents per pound, and the IEA forecasts that price will increase to 54.40 cents by 2040.

So, here’s the good news or the bad news. If your biomass refining process at scale can beat that price — fully loaded for the raw inputs, capex, opex and margins — you’re going to find a lot of friends in the fuel markets.

Barriers? Even if your technology pencils out, there are the “3 Bewares“.

1. Beware! The technology has not yet reached scale. It may well not have fully de-risked itself, either – being somewhere in the path between concept and scale.

2. Beware! Qualified investors have more attractive options. No matter how attractive 10 percent returns might be to many investors, they weren’t sufficiently attractive to Chevron in evaluating their own solvent liquefaction technology — compared to 17 percent average corporate returns on capital, primarily from oil & gas exploration.

3. Beware! Policy and market risk frighten away investors. It could be that the requisite fuel requires a blending mandate to be assured of a market — mandates which may well be unstable. Or they may require flex-fuel vehicles, which may not be in wide supply. And so on.

If those barriers are addressed either by your technology (for example, by reaching scale, or producing drop-in fuels that negate the infrastructure risk) — then you may well have the basic economics to compete dollar-for-dollar with crude oil, and win.

It’s 54.40 or fight, though. Any technology that can’t compete with crude oil on price — must enter in to the more esoteric and unstable world of what is usually described as the 3 E’s of biofuels – emissions, energy security and economic development.

carbon-price[1].jpeg The carbon price

Whatever your take on the stability or wisdom of carbon prices, they have arrived in key markets such as Australia and the EU, and particularly in the EU there’s no reason to suppose they are going away any time soon.

What’s the value of carbon today? Well, again, we have the problem of carbon credits being generally quoted in euros per metric ton of CO2 avoided. An 8 euro per tonne carbon price works out to 0.65 cents per pound of biofuel — if you assume that an advanced biofuel reduces carbon emissions by 50 percent in a complete lifecycle.

That’s not much of an add-on or game-changer — one of the reasons why biofuels developers generally don’t take them into account when developing technology) the other reason is policy instability).

But, according to the UK government, carbon prices will begin to bite much more sharply in the next few decades. In fact, by 2040, the UK is projecting a carbon price of 12.27 cents per pound.

If you accept their projections — and many may be skeptical — that could raise your threshold “break-even” point with crude oil from 54.40 cents per pound to 66.67 cents, by 2040. That would be of material help.

The energy security price

Now, what about energy security? What’s the price of avoiding the unrest that being short on fuels brings?

Well, there are estimates all over the map. One line of thinking assigns the cost of the US Firth Fleet to the cost of oil — since the Fifth Fleet generally guards the Straits of Hormuz and is dedicated to assuring a flow of oil out of the Gulf.

Another, more conservative approach is to assign the cost of fossil energy subsidies as a cost of energy security. Generally, the subsidies are paid out to keep national populations content in a world of unstable and high energy prices — and to keep national economies producing. Those can be thought of as costs associated with being short on energy, or energy insecure.

Fortunately, the IEA has been tracking fossil energy subsidies — and it comes out to 3.70 cents per pound, if you assume that half of fossil energy subsidies go to fuel (the IEA says that it is “more than half” and leaves it at that), and that about 80 percent of the barrel goes to fuels (as opposed to chemicals and other co-products).

So, if you like to factor in energy security, you might start there, which brings your 2040 target price up to 70.37 cents per pound.

Economic development

The University of Wisconsin estimates that a biofuels refinery generates $1.82 in statewide economic activity for every $1 in sales. Now, “economic multipliers” can be all over the map — but this is a conservative estimate, on the whole — we’ve seen multipliers well north of 2.0 used in biofuels economics.

So, what does that mean? It means that a local biorefinery is going to be worth far more in overall economic impact than just the fuel it sells — and, accordingly, a nation, state, county or town has benefits that range above the direct profits, wages and equipment sales that go into our cents per pound calculation.

Making that refinery valuable to the community in terms of economic impact even if it doesn’t generate a profit.

Now, that’s a controversial benefit to work into the fuel price equation — because biorefineries are not going to be running at a loss simply because they generate overall benefit to the community. That is, unless they are owned by the community — in the same way that the NFL’s Green Bay Packers are owned by local investors, who have been able to maintain a competitive football team in a relatively small market and in 2011 sold $64 million in stock to local investors who know that “the redemption price is minimal, no dividends are ever paid, [and] the stock cannot appreciate in value.”

If you assign all that value into the enterprise — you get some pretty high “break-even” points — 73.22 cents per pound this year, and 128.07 cents per pound in 2040 (in constant dollars). Economic activity is not the same as margin — but it wouldn’t be unfair to assign some 10 percent of that impact as a value-add.

We’ve done that in our chart below. But individual investors, policymakers and technology developers will make their own choices on what to count.

The bottom line

For sure, it’s 54.40 or fight. Above the strict break-even with crude oil prices — that is, if your capex, opex, raw inputs and margin add up to more than 35.88 cents per pound today, or 54.40 cents per pound in 2040 — you’ll have a dogfight on your hands getting traction in the fuel markets.
crude-biofuels-substitution[1].png How much you want — or need to — lean on the impacts of emissions, energy security and economic development — well, it’s a tough call. In the case of economic development — what’s good for Iowa may not make you popular in Texas. What is good for the plant employee may not translate into a desire for In the case of carbon pricing — fickle friends you will find.

Nevertheless there is value in avoiding emissions, generating energy security and stimulating local economic impact. Especially the latter — though it is felt most intensely quite close to the plant, and your offtake contracting would be most successful if it also was kept local.

It may push you out to the higher-margin, lower-volume worlds of chemicals, fragrances, flavors, feed, lubricants and nutraceuticals. That’s where a lot of ventures working with algae and corn and cane sugars are generally heading now — though not all.

There’s good reason to do so. Today, the price of cane sugar is running in the 15 cents per pound range, and corn starch is running in that region as well.

But other forms of biomass look for more affordable — KiOR projects wood biomass in the 3 cent per pound range, as do POET-DSM and other makers of cellulosic ethanol from wheat straw and corn stover. The conversion rates are lower, the capex can be daunting, and there are limits to the ethanol market that are being tested now that pertain to the lack of flex-fuel vehicles — but you can see where the fuel arguments apply.

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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