Not all biofuels are equal

How waste-to-energy biofuels are the best solution — today.

Our Used Cooking Oil and Biodiesel tanks

As our global electricity demand continues to rise year on year, it has become increasingly important that we find the right resources to produce energy. Whilst a wide range of renewable sources are becoming progressively competitive, at FutureFuel, we are able to produce energy with the best biofuels, creating a more sustainable tomorrow. Biofuels are renewable liquid fuels produced from biomass (organic material) that offer a cleaner and more environmentally friendly alternative to coal, oil and gas. They have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of both transportation, which accounted for over 25% of the EU’s emissions in 2015, and electrical generation. As a result, biofuels are playing a big part in the phasing out of fossil fuels in tandem with climate legislation such as the 2015 Paris Agreement and the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED). However, some biofuels are more sustainable than others. To optimise our chances of meeting such climate targets, our consumption of biofuels must be concentrated on those which will have the best impact on our planet.

As numerous different feedstocks can be used to produce biofuels, it is the source of the feedstock that is of primary concern when assessing a biofuel’s sustainability. Since its inception, the industry has been predominantly centred around what are known as first-generation biofuels, which are produced from food or vegetable-based feedstocks. These require minimal processing in comparison to the more advanced second-generation biofuels, which will be discussed later, and have been the main contributor to the dramatic rise in global biodiesel production, which reached almost 27 billion litres in 2017 amongst the top 10 producing countries alone. Subsequently, first-generation biofuels now constitute a vast majority of the total market, which grew to $168 billion by 2016. However, they are not actually as sustainable as you might believe.

First generation biofuels — taking away from alternative human consumption?

Whilst, in theory, the consumption of first-generation biofuels is an excellent way of phasing out fossil fuels, there is one major downside that suggests they are overall unsustainable. This is their reliance on food or vegetable crop-based feedstocks because this means that in order to be produced, they require a resource that was already meant for human consumption in an alternative way — food. Therefore, first-generation biofuels create a major problem when produced on industrial scales by forcing up global food prices. In 2007/8, a steep rise in biofuel production meant that the prices of cereals, oils and fats were on average 2–2.5 times higher than they had been in 2004, whilst sugar prices were up 340%, fomenting riots in several developing countries. More recently, one 2017 study claimed that if the EU eliminated its use of first-generation biofuels, the global price of vegetable oils would drop by 8%. And regardless of prices, if the production of first-generation biofuels increased enough, not enough arable cropland would be available to grow the food needed by people across the world anyway. We obviously need to be using biofuels that can avoid such a negative fallout.

First generation biofuels — environmentally counter-intuitive?

Additionally, the purpose of first-generation biofuels as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels is somewhat undermined by the unsustainable environmental degradation caused as a side-effect of their production. One of the biggest problems when producing first-generation biofuels is that they have a large water footprint due to the irrigation necessary for the cultivation of their feedstocks. For instance, one study suggests that in certain parts of the USA, for every litre of ethanol that is produced from corn, over 400 litres of water are required. With only 0.007% of earth’s water fresh, clean and accessible, we cannot feasibly meet global power demands with a source of energy that requires such a great volume of water without compromising our water security. Furthermore, the use of fertilisers when growing a variety of crops for biofuels can cause high levels of water pollution due to the run-off of chemicals rich in nitrogen and phosphorous. For instance, the use of fertilisers for corn in the Mississippi basin has led to the growth of an uninhabitable ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico which has already reached the size of New Jersey. Surely using biofuels that have such devastating side-effects is not sustainable.

Waste-based biofuels — solving all the problems at once?

Fortunately, a solution exists that can provide a biofuel equally capable of replacing fossil fuels that creates neither of the problems seen with first-generation biofuels. It entails producing a second-generation biofuel from waste, specifically Used Cooking Oil (UCO). Unlike first generation biofuels, UCO-based biofuel uses a feedstock that is not in demand for alternative human consumption but is rather a by-product of human consumption that has already taken place. This means that the waste-to-energy solution, linked to a circular economy system, solves a problem of consumption (waste generation), rather than creating one (as first-generation biofuels do with food prices). Additionally, whilst first-generation biofuels add to environmental problems through the water demand and pollution associated with their feedstocks’ cultivation, using UCO can not only avoid such negative side-effects, but it can also help to combat pollution issues that already exist because of waste. Currently, significant amounts of UCO end up in a landfill, where they release high quantities of carbon dioxide and methane as they degrade. This is especially bad in developing countries, where effective waste management and recycling schemes are often unavailable. But even in the USA, methane emissions, which have a global warming effect 36 times the size of carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe, are released from a landfill on such a significant scale that they accounted for over 14% of total American methane emissions in 2016. However, by instead using organic waste to generate energy, some of these emissions are avoided. Furthermore, using UCO for biofuel avoids water pollution that would otherwise be taking place. In the UK, very little UCO is recycled in the domestic sector, with over 90% subsequently finding its way into the water system via drains and landfill. This causes significant damage because UCO blocks sunlight from penetrating water’s surface, stifling aquatic photosynthesis, and also depletes oxygen levels as it degrades, which can suffocate aquatic wildlife. Therefore, whereas using crops to produce first-generation biofuels adds to environmental degradation, using UCO for biofuel production reduces it.

However, in the past, there have been concerns over the quality of waste-based biofuels that might suggest they are only suitable for small-scale use, such as on farms, and not for supplying large proportions of transportation or electrical generation. In June 2018, the EU reached a renewed renewable energy agreement, RED II, calling for at least 14% of transport fuel to come from renewable sources by 2030, with the use of food and vegetable-based biofuels thankfully capped at 7%. When attempting to meet this target, the viability of using waste-based biofuel may be questioned by those with concerns over its quality. However, at FutureFuel Renewables, we know that waste-based biofuels can fill the void left by the phasing out of crop-based ones. This is because we are independently accredited and certified under the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC) and are already producing biodiesel in industrial quantities that is regularly tested and shown to meet the BS EN 14214 European biofuel standard, as per the Biodiesel Quality Protocol. Combing this with the fact that UCO is produced in huge volumes all around the world, it becomes clear that scalability is not an issue. Fortunately, waste is therefore already being considered as a new leader for biofuels. In fact, a 2017 report commissioned by the UK government itself suggested that the immediate focus for biofuels should be on waste.

It is apparent that the biofuels industry needs to transition away from first generation fuels if it is going to play a meaningful role in solving the 21st century’s environmental problems. This is because even if first-generation fuels can provide a cleaner source of energy than fossil fuels, their use on a global scale is not sustainable when the negative impact that their production has on food resources and the surrounding environment is considered. By contrast, second-generation waste-based biofuel is primed for the industry. The use of UCO produces an entirely environmental and sustainable biodiesel that can feasibly replace fossil fuels on commercial scales without taking away food from human consumption, but rather by dealing with the waste of former human consumption. Furthermore, the production of waste-based biodiesel refrains from causing separate environmental degradation as is the case with first-generation biofuels but rather reduces existing pollution. Therefore, in an industry where all biofuels are not created equal in their potential to help our planet, UCO stands out as a sustainable feedstock that can be used to make a real difference to the environment whilst still operating a profitable renewable energy business model.