Clean Transport Fuels – What are the Real Options?

Australia’s carbon price is here, so how can transport operators gain from cleaner fuels?

As a retailer, manufacturer, miner or farmer, where in your supply chain can clean fuels bring real benefits, now?

Biofuels win under Carbon Pricing

Biodiesel and ethanol now have a carbon price advantage over other transport fuels. While gaseous fuels (LNG, LPG and CNG) have lower greenhouse gas emissions than diesel and petrol, on July 1st they copped a tax “double whammy”:

  • Gas excise duty now rises each year while biofuels don’t pay excise until 2021.
  • Gaseous fuels attract a carbon price; biofuels don’t.

But costs continue to rise

Biodiesel and ethanol are made from agricultural commodities and organic waste materials. Rising demand in many industrial uses is pushing up prices of these feedstocks, and some are caught in the “Food versus Fuel” debate. The promise of offsetting society’s dependence on oil is now staged against our ability to feed growing populations. As food prices rise around the globe, economic, environmental and social trade-offs are made in a complex arena. Government support for biofuels in Europe is weakening as new laws narrow the choice of feedstocks.

Our small demand in global terms competes for inputs with big biofuel producers overseas. Australia has only a handful of biodiesel and ethanol plants, and none are world scale. Soaring Asian demand  consumes feedstocks and raises prices, challenging the viability of Aussie producers.

On a positive note, one Queensland company already produces an ultra clean synthetic diesel  and says they can do it for only 20 cents per litre.  20 cents! Is that a typo?

Biofuel blends

In practice, biofuels gain only a small carbon price advantage over other transport fuels. That’s because biodiesel and ethanol need blending with regular diesel and petrol to comply with fuel quality standards and excise rules. This reduces their carbon price advantage by 80% in the case of a B20 blend (20% biodiesel and 80% mineral diesel) down to 1.2 cents per litre. Then the logistical challenges in getting blended products to end users can pretty quickly gobble that up!

Market Reality

Market entry remains the biggest challenge of all:

  • it’s hard to supply biofuels at a competitive price due to the infrastructure and volumes needed
  • business models face rising production costs and can’t rely on government support
  • many people just don’t trust biofuels
  • lack of demand means local plants can’t expand to world-scale
  • fuel retailers need to invest in storage tanks to offer alternative fuels at the bowser

Playing with the Big Boys

Despite volatile prices, oil-based transport fuels dominate the market. Major oil companies have supply networks, production technologies and retail models they have refined for more than 100 years. While a few officially support alternative fuels, their practical steps have been tentative at best.

Getting traction

There’s no silver bullet for introducing cleaner transport fuels – a portfolio of fuels is needed. Today, both biofuels and gaseous fuels are used successfully in various light and heavy vehicle applications. Depending on a vehicle’s work task – it’s payload capacity, speed, stop-start intensity, distance range and fuel efficiency to name a few variables – each fuel has its’ “pro’s and cons”. Thorough due diligence is needed, and the clean fuels industry could better educate and communicate the sweet-spots to end users.

Meanwhile, trials of cleaner jet fuels show that biofuels can be safe, reliable and are ready for use, but would not meet immediate demand if large airlines make the switch. Yet such trials are vitally important, especially with the support of engine makers who remain critical to clean fuels take-up. Truck manufacturers like Scania run ethanol trials in their own operations to prove new clean fuel technologies.

Test & Invest

Yet even with government support, some avid users and a few keen oil companies, all clean fuels have their own market entry challenges. Carbon pricing may help some clean fuels, but it will fall short of what’s needed.

To make real progress, all supply chain partners must work together to understand which clean fuels can help their particular situation. Only through collaborative testing can the right clean fuels be chosen for each supply chain. Then clean fuel producers must make their fuels available at retail and industrial points of use – reliably and cost-effectively.

So if you want to win from cleaner fuels, you’ve got to make it happen. Get with your supply chain partners to test and invest in clean fuels now.