Biofuels: ‘Waste and residues’ need clear criteria to avoid system’s misuse

Spišák: "Advanced biofuels promotion has to be secured above the cap for the conventional biofuels after 2020." [Shutterstock]

The criteria for “waste and residues” should be so defined clearly in the EU legislation that the system cannot be misused and allowed to endanger sustainability, Robert Spišák told EURACTIV.com in a written interview.

He also noted that renewables need long-term stability and a predictable policy with no U-turns by the EU decision makers every two years.

Robert Spišák is the chairman of the Board of Envien Group, which is active in the production of biofuels in Central and Eastern Europe.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos. 

How do you see the ongoing discussion about biofuels in EU transport? Are you satisfied with the 7% cap on first-generation biofuels proposal?

The stakeholder discussion was polarised and some extremes appeared during the legislative negotiations. The debate on the future of transportation energies has now become more pragmatic. The development in the formulation of the new provisions of the biofuels directive has shown that there is and will be space for different types of alternative fuels in the EU, like in the rest of the world. Current conventional biofuels are the front-runner and actually the largest solver of emissions in transportation.

They are able to deliver and, therefore, face further ambitious environmental targets that will have to be met. We in Envien Group are convinced of the necessity to involve even more biofuels in the future, side by side with other alternatives for transport, to balance fossil fuels. We firmly believe that demagogy has no space in the debate about the future of this sector. Investors planning expensive construction of new plants need stability for their work.

Legislation currently speaks about 7% for the conventional biofuels, and this can be considered as a solid ground for the manufacturing sector and its growth at least until 2020 and perhaps even beyond. Advanced biofuels promotion has to be secured above the cap for the conventional biofuels after 2020. We assume that the lack of other energy alternatives in the foreseeable future will create an additional need for the reassessment and increase of the target and role of biofuels for the next decade in the EU. The great message is that Slovakia has a clear vision of its legislation and energy mix and has taken measures to promote the use of both advanced and conventional biofuels for a longer term.

You produce both advanced and conventional ethanol. I assume you are getting ready to gradually turn to the second generation. What are the main challenges you are facing? What’s the performance of advanced biofuels in your company? Is it progressing?

Envien Group commercially produces conventional biofuels. As part of the massive multi-year research that preceded the investment decision, we produced advanced ethanol in close cooperation with a Swiss technology contractor. The result is a new fuel with the emissions saving up to 90% compared to gasoline, and we are getting ready to start producing it on a commercial scale, as one of the first to do so.

Subsequently, we obtained all necessary permits for the construction of a plant for production of biofuel from residual straw. The construction of the plant in Leopoldov will start soon and the testing phase of the production is planned already for 2020, before the final launch. Thanks to the accessible straw from Slovak suppliers, we will be processing domestic renewable resources. This will support Slovakia in the increase of self-sufficiency and energy independence from foreign suppliers, and at the same time support also domestic producers from other primary industries and associated services as well. The planned annual capacity of the new plant is up to 50,000 tons of bioethanol. So, up to now, we’ve mastered all the issues, settings, and challenges, and we’re moving smoothly forward to next step.

Questions raised over EU’s proposed advanced biofuels list

Not all second-generation biofuels listed by the European Commission are sustainable, critics warn, urging policymakers to use the indirect land use change (ILUC) factor to “clean up” the list.

Is the technology advanced enough for the second generation biofuels or is more time needed?

We consider advanced ethanol as one of the most prepared advanced biofuels to be ready for commercialisation. Research and production technology evolution has already made such great progress in the last years. It is a demanding process that requires state-of-the-art cellulose degradation and ethanol-extraction technologies that Enviral has coped with. We signed a licensing agreement with the Swiss company Clariant, a world leader in specialised chemicals, to purchase patented (sunliquid®) technology for the production of cellulosic ethanol from straw.

The agreement was signed after years of research and exploration. The first negotiations with Clariant’s were followed by broad R&D and later the testing of 2G ethanol from the domestic Slovak straw. The result was just excellent so we could consider these present technologies to be advanced enough and deployable in the commercial production and ready to contribute to the fulfilment of the environmental goals. E-mobility and other alternatives in transportation are still far from being at a similar stage of development.

Do you believe that advanced biofuels are the future in the transport field? Are you optimistic?  

We are not just optimistic but also convinced about the role and potential of biofuels. Our decision was not only research but also extensive analysis of global, EU and local trends, policies and markets. In the study, we did not forget to consider all user and partner relationships, and biofuels came out as a clear and convincing path. That’s also why we decided to invest in new production after all. We feel it’s a pity that the EU is not more courageous with its biofuel production and use, like Brazil or some of the  Asian countries. However, the conventional biofuels in the EU are relevant and a ‘demanded item’ now and even in the future, the advanced biofuels will be needed to contribute to an increasing need for emission savings.

How has the Commission’s constantly changing biofuel policy affected your business? What convinces you that this time investing in advanced biofuels will be a long-term policy objective?

Renewables need long-term stability and predictable policy with no U-turns every two years. The uncertainty of the EU legislators at the start of the debate has to some extent marked the decision-making process of investment. However, we have accepted it as a challenging moment towards the final decision. The arguments in favour of biofuels were so clear that they just had to prevail sooner or later.

Our investment decision was a massive and long process in which we have solved many multidisciplinary issues. A welcome shift and a significant impetus to reach an investment decision of about 180 million euros was last year’s amendment of the Slovak law – the Act on the Promotion of Renewable Energy Sources, which has clearly set the Slovak energy mix for the future. Slovakia has declared its long-term interest in promoting and use of renewable energy sources, in particular, second-generation biofuels, through which they will also meet European environmental targets. The renewable energy coming from conventional and advanced biofuels in the energy mix represents a significant and important part of the game in emission savings.

What is your opinion about the sustainability criteria framework for the use of waste and residues?

We are completely firm on this: the criteria for “waste and residues” should be defined in detail and so clearly in the legislation that the system cannot be misused or endanger sustainability.

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