Biofuels have rapidly emerged as one of the most popular alternative marine energy choices over the past few years as the shipping industry bears down on its greenhouse gas emissions.
The advantages of using biofuels are clear: they work as a drop-in alternative to conventional bunkers, with little or no changes needed to ships’ engines or delivery infrastructure to use them, and result in net reductions in GHG emissions based on their full lifecycle assessment when produced from second or third generation (sustainable) feedstocks.
Biofuels already help buyers today meet their ESG targets and will soon be one of the solutions to meet the mandatory blend-in requirements as set out in the FuelEU Maritime Regulation, starting in 2025.
Bunker buyers can take on these fuels immediately, without significant up-front investment or any long-term commitment to them.
Demand for these fuels has grown rapidly during the past months. Rotterdam saw 791,000 mt of sales for biofuel/marine fuel blends last year, up by 163% from 2021, while Singapore kicked off biofuel sales in 2022 with 140,000 mt of blended product sold in total. The main products in ARA are B30 and in Singapore B24, which means 30% respectively 24% of biofuel blended with conventional marine fuel. The fuels are already available at a wide range in other ports, and volumes can be expected only to climb in the coming years.
These sales initially came in the course of trials from shipping companies looking to try out the fuels in their engines on a one-off basis, but regular sales are now increasingly being seen.
The first thing to note about biofuels in the marine fuel space is that when we talk about them, it’s almost always blends being referred to, typically with up to about 30% biofuel content mixed with VLSFO, HSFO or MGO. Higher ratios of biofuel content, even up to 100%, have been shown to work in conventional engines but are as yet rarely used.
Regulations driving biofuel uptake
There is no doubt that one of the main drivers for the shipping industry’s transition towards carbon neutrality is the increasing and rapidly developing regulatory requirements.
Firstly, IMO has now set a firm target for reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from international shipping approaching the year 2050.The target includes checkpoints for 2030 and 2040 of 20 and 70% respectively absolute reductions (striving for 30% and 80%). In addition, the uptake of zero or near-zero fuels are to represent at least 5% by 2030. Consequently, the shipping industry cannot just wait until 2050, but will be working on reaching these targets already now. The targets of absolute emissions reductions can only be reached by transitioning from traditional to alternative fuels.
Secondly, the CII regulations has now entered into effect. From this year all vessels larger than 5,000 GT will have calculated for them a CII rating based on historical data submitted to the IMO. The rating is a calculation of the CO2 the vessel emitted per unit of cargo capacity per nautical mile.
The rating will come as a letter between A and E, with A at the top of the scale, and ratings will be determined on an annual basis. Ships receiving a D rating for three years or an E rating for a single year will need to implement a corrective action plan as part of the ship energy efficiency management plan (SEEMP) setting out their plans to improve their performance and rating. Alternative fuel such as biofuel will have a significant positive impact on the rating.
Finally, IMO is set to adopt further regulation – such as a price on carbon emissions as well as a green fuel standard – in the coming years to further drive the transition.
But separately from the global effort on decarbonization led by the IMO, the European Union has also been pursuing its own regulatory agenda.
Last year the EU came to a deal on including shipping within the union’s emissions trading system (ETS). All ships over 5,000 GT in size will be included in the ETS, covering 100% of CO2 emissions from intra-EU voyages and 50% of emissions from voyages between EU ports and the rest of the world. In practice, this means that all vessels calling a European port will be affected by the EU ETS.
The system will be phased in starting in 2024 with 40% of emissions covered, 70% in 2025 and 100% from 2026 onwards. Shipping companies will be required to buy an equivalent number of “EU Allowances” (representing one tonne of CO2 emissions) to match their annual total fleet emissions, and deliver these to the authorities each year.
Europe also has a separate regulation called FuelEU Maritime, which will require shipping firms to gradually incorporate renewable fuels in their bunker purchases in order to lower the GHG intensity of the fuel burned. Like the ETS it is a gradually phased in system with the same coverage in terms of ship size and geographical scope. Meanwhile, the FuelEU Maritime sets requirements not only for CO2, but for other greenhouse gases as well.
These regulatory drivers are just the start; further developments can be expected from the IMO in the coming years, and over the longer term the US and China may also seek to impose their own rules if they are dissatisfied with the global regulations.
All of this will mean biofuel use is heavily incentivized in the short term as the use of conventional fuels becomes more constrained by regulatory costs.
Stay tuned for our part two on ‘What to Look Out for When Buying Biofuel Bunkers’.