Transport makes up one-quarter of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Europe and is the only major sector in the EU where emissions continue to rise. According to the European Environment Agency, if the EU is to meet its goals of CO2 neutrality by 2050, transport emissions need to decrease by 90%. Renewable fuels (RESfuels) will play a central role in aviation, shipping and the heavy duty sector on the road where no medium-term alternatives for reducing emissions are available. In this context, the EU Horizon 2020 project ADVANCEFUEL, coordinated by FNR, and assembling 8 partners, mainly recognised research institutions and universities from around Europe, generated new knowledge, tools and recommendations for overcoming barriers to the commercialisation of renewable transport fuels. The results that have been produced over the past three years have been presented during the project’s final event on 24 June 2020 in the context of the EU Sustainable Energy Week.
While conventional biofuels have come under fire for sustainability concerns and land competition for feed and food production, liquid advanced biofuels are derived from renewable energy sources from lignocellulosic non-food energy crops, or agricultural residues, waste oils, and even renewable hydrogen and CO2 streams. The EU Renewable Energy Directive sets a target for the contribution of advanced biofuels to renewable transport fuel of at least 3,5 % by 2030.
Deploying RESfuels over the next decades will require a substantial amount of sustainable feedstocks. To make this viable, all identified potentials, including innovations in land use and applied cropping schemes, need to be unlocked to be able to produce sufficient amounts of these sustainable fuels. Additionally, the further development and integration of suitable conversion technologies needs to be promoted and supported by strong and stable policy support, including financial incentives to reduce the economic risks involved in increasing this new market segment and for penalising the fossil based fuel production routes. Given such policies, the increased integration of the new processes into already existing fossil fuel infrastructure, the up-scaling of RESfuel production and the increased use of side products can lead to the cost reductions required for the expansion of this industry and the successful market roll-out of these favourable fuels.
Even under the most favourable cost conditions, there is a significant gap of at least €20-40/MWh between the production cost of RESfuels and the price of conventional fossil fuels. Greater policy and financial support is needed to decrease the high costs and risks of RESfuels to make them the stronger alternative. While regulations could make fossil fuels the costlier option, a combination of policy instruments such as obligatory quotas with feed-in tariffs can provide a stable investment climate for RESfuels and help bridge the gap.
Addressing high feedstock and production costs of RESfuels, ADVANCEFUEL proposes that innovations in breeding and selection, as well as improved logistics and agricultural management, have the potential to increase biomass yields and reduce costs, while innovations in crop rotation schemes could also be effective. A project-led study also reveals the significant role that marginal lands could play in sustainably securing biomass production for resource-efficient advanced fuel value chains; however, in the case of energy crops, this must also be backed by proper policies.
While the recast of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED II) sought to address key sustainability concerns, greater harmonisation of sustainability criteria for all solid biomass, regardless of its end-use, must be applied with additional social sustainability criteria. Furthermore, harmonising sustainability criteria for voluntary schemes with a focus on RESfuels is essential.
Drop-in products for cars have the potential to outperform fossil fuels when it comes to engine efficiency, fuel consumption and emissions limits. For aviation, liquid RESfuels are the only low-carbon alternative, while the shipping sector’s gaseous and liquid RESfuels are the only mid-term alternatives to conventional fuels since electrification is not possible.
The role of RESfuels is certain in the energy transition. Whether or not EU policies will enable their role, or hinder their deployment, is yet to be determined.