Advanced Biofuels Cushioned Against Oil’s Crash


By Brentan Alexander, PhD; Chief Science Officer & Chief Commercial Officer


Oil prices are cratering to levels unimaginable just months ago and major ethanol producers are idling their plants. Although this is bad news for all types of fuels, renewable and fossil alike, there is a silver lining for advanced biofuels. These sources qualify for a broad set of renewable credits, diversifying their revenue streams and providing a layer of protection against the price destruction occurring in the fuels marketplace.

What’s an advanced biofuel? It’s a fuel produced using wastes or agricultural byproducts, such as the corn stalk instead of the kernel. (The kernel produces traditional ethanol, which directly competes with food-crops for land and farmer attention.) Potential feedstocks for advanced biofuel projects include household trash (known as ‘municipal solid waste’), leftover woody biomass material after logging operations (known as ‘slash’), and the shells from almond orchards.

These feedstocks are currently either landfilled, plowed under, or (depending on local regulations and the desire to follow them) burned. But in the United States, their use in biofuels production is incentivized through a variety of state and federal credit programs. The federal system, known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), primarily supports the entire domestic ethanol industry with ethanol-blend targets for the nation’s fuel supply.  Less known is that the program also supports more advanced biofuels development. The RFS authors envisioned that corn-based ethanol would be a temporary bridge to an advanced biofuels future, and created multiple credits, known as Renewable Identification Numbers (RINs), to differentiate between the various feedstocks used to produce a biofuel. These RINs trade on open markets and their prices fluctuate based on the demand from ‘obligated parties’ (those required to buy RINs to demonstrate compliance with the statutory requirement).

One type of RIN is targeted at cellulosic fuels: the ‘D3’. This RIN has unique characteristics that make it more valuable that other RINs under the RFS. It is essentially a wild card: the RFS is a ‘nested’ compliance structure and the D3 RIN also counts as a ‘D5’ or ‘D6’. As a result, in times of oversupply, D3 prices are shielded from falling below the prices of these other RINs. Another unique feature of the D3 is the cellulosic waiver credit (CWC). The value of the CWC is set by the EPA annually, based on the price of gasoline in the Unites States. As gasoline prices fall, the value of the CWC goes up (albeit on a time-lag). In times of undersupply in the D3 market (not true at the moment), this built-in hedge means advanced biofuels projects are protected from oil price drops.