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Transport needs to decarbonise. It is the only sector with growing greenhouse gas emissions. No silver bullets are available. Electrification is the future, but it will do nothing for the existing vehicle fleet, and since it takes 10.7 years to replace the average car in Europe, we have got at least two interim decades where solutions are badly needed. Oil needs to be replaced.
One of the key elements of the Renewable Energy Directive under revision in the EU is the proposal to increase the share of advanced biofuels. Arguably, the largest scale in advanced biofuels is with using agricultural residues, such as wheat straw, corn stover or sawdust (forestry residues) and energy crops. There is a great sustainable biomass potential across Europe. So it is understandable that cellulosic ethanol has a prominent role in the deployment of advanced biofuels.
Most recently a series of news concerning alternative transport fuels has shaken the belief among Brussels pundits. Cellulosic biofuel plants have gone under, the profitability of the sector is questioned. Not exactly the development many envisaged. How the dozens of investments, each 3 to 5 hundred millions of Euros, needed to meet the targets for advanced biofuels proposed by the European Commission will materialise is unclear.
What may have gone wrong? Certainly, there are technological difficulties. But it must be noted that the technology is not new. The first cellulosic ethanol plant opened in 1898 in Germany. In the two world wars, both Germany and Russia used cellulosic ethanol, and up until recently, Russia had a few dozens of those old cellulosic ethanol plants running alongside pulp and paper mills. The Soviet Union had a programme to develop a cellulosic ethanol industry.