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The commercial performance of cellulosic ethanol supply-chains in Europe

Author(s): Slade Raphael | Bauen Ausilio | Shah Nilay

Journal: Biotechnology for Biofuels
ISSN 1754-6834

Volume: 2;
Issue: 1;
Start page: 3;
Date: 2009;
Original page

Abstract Background The production of fuel-grade ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass resources has the potential to increase biofuel production capacity whilst minimising the negative environmental impacts. These benefits will only be realised if lignocellulosic ethanol production can compete on price with conventional fossil fuels and if it can be produced commercially at scale. This paper focuses on lignocellulosic ethanol production in Europe. The hypothesis is that the eventual cost of production will be determined not only by the performance of the conversion process but by the performance of the entire supply-chain from feedstock production to consumption. To test this, a model for supply-chain cost comparison is developed, the components of representative ethanol supply-chains are described, the factors that are most important in determining the cost and profitability of ethanol production are identified, and a detailed sensitivity analysis is conducted. Results The most important cost determinants are the cost of feedstocks, primarily determined by location and existing markets, and the value obtained for ethanol, primarily determined by the oil price and policy incentives. Both of these factors are highly uncertain. The best performing chains (ethanol produced from softwood and sold as a low percentage blend with gasoline) could ultimately be cost competitive with gasoline without requiring subsidy, but production from straw would generally be less competitive. Conclusion Supply-chain design will play a critical role in determining commercial viability. The importance of feedstock supply highlights the need for location-specific assessments of feedstock availability and price. Similarly, the role of subsidies and policy incentives in creating and sustaining the ethanol market highlights the importance of political engagement and the need to include political risks in investment appraisal. For the supply-chains described here, and with the cost and market parameters selected, selling ethanol as a low percentage blend with gasoline will maximise ethanol revenues and minimise the need for subsidies. It follows, therefore, that the market for low percentage blends should be saturated before markets for high percentage blends.
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