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How renewable fuels are accelerating the decarbonisation of transport

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WisdomTree

On 16 November 2022, UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) Voyager aircraft, the military variant of the Airbus A330, took to the skies for 90 minutes over Oxfordshire. What looked like a routine test flight in its outward appearance was ultimately deemed ground-breaking. Why? It was a world-first military transporter aircraft flight, and the first of any aircraft type in the UK to be completed using 100% sustainable jet fuel.  

Mobeen Tahir, Director, Macroeconomic Research & Tactical Solutions, WisdomTree
Mobeen Tahir, Director, Macroeconomic Research & Tactical Solutions, WisdomTree

What are renewable fuels?

Renewable hydrocarbon biofuels (also called green or drop-in biofuels) are fuels produced from biomass sources through a variety of biological, thermal, and chemical processes. These products are chemically identical to petroleum gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.

In other words, renewable fuels are sources of energy chemically identical to fossil fuels but produced from domestic, commercial, or agricultural waste (see Figure 1 below).

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Figure 1: Converting waste into energy

Waste types and refinery output

Why the excitement?

Renewable fuels, like renewable diesel and sustainable jet fuel, can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 80-90% compared to fossil fuels. And because they burn much cleaner, engine filters remain cleaner for longer reducing the need for maintenance. Furthermore, given used cooking oil, vegetable oil, processing waste, and animal fat waste are used as inputs, the production of these fuels reduces biowaste, thereby cutting emissions from landfills.

This makes renewable fuels a key component of the circular economy. Humans have largely operated on the linear model historically when it comes to utilising natural resources. The circular model, in contrast, is much less wasteful and seeks to recycle as much as possible (see Figure 2 below).

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Figure 2: The Circular Economy

Circular economy
Source: WisdomTree, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2023

The most exciting thing about renewable fuels is the immediacy with which they can make an impact. The reason why they are referred to as drop-in fuels is that they can replace fossil fuels in internal combustion engines with little or no modification required. So, if supply was abundant enough, forms of transport which cannot be electrified easily like heavy duty trucks, ships, and aeroplanes can be switched across to renewable fuels making a significant improvement to the environmental footprint. According to BP, “A return flight between London and San Francisco has a carbon footprint per economy ticket of nearly 1 tonne of CO2 equivalent. With the aviation industry expected to double to over 8 billion passengers by 2050, it is essential that we act to reduce aviation’s carbon emissions.”

The challenge

Renewable fuels or biofuels are still in their infancy. This means the obvious hurdle to overcome is cost competitiveness with fossil fuels. Cost estimates vary, but figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) provide a useful sense for the ballpark. In May 2022, IATA stated that the average worldwide price of jet fuel is about $4.15 per gallon compared to the US average price of a gallon of sustainable aviation fuel, which is about $8.67.

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So, roughly double the price of the incumbent polluting technology. This is not a bad starting point at all. Considering how rapidly the cost of energy storage in batteries has fallen in the last decade, renewable fuels could become competitive quite soon if sufficient investment is made and economies of scale are achieved. IATA also predicts that renewable fuels could make up 2% of all aviation fuels by 2025, which could become a tipping point in their competitiveness.

Businesses are acting

Businesses pursuing their own net zero targets have already started exploring renewable fuels to minimise their waste. Darling Ingredients Inc, which produces its trademark Diamond Green Diesel from recycled animal fats, inedible corn oil, and used cooking oil, was chosen by fast food chain Chick-fil-A in March 2022 to turn its used cooking oil into clean transportation fuel.

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Similarly, McDonald’s entered into a partnership with Neste Corporation in 2020 to convert its used vegetable oil into renewable diesel and fuel the trucks that make deliveries to its restaurants. According to TortoiseEcofin, both Darling Ingredients and Neste have a net negative carbon footprint given emissions produced by these businesses are lower that the emissions avoided because of their renewable fuels.

A final word

Renewable fuels alone will not tackle climate change. No single solution can. But they can help us make meaningful progress. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasises how crucial it is for the world to halve its greenhouse gas emissions this decade to at least have a chance of limiting global warming to 1.5oC. This means that solutions with an immediate effect have an important role to play. Biofuels can cut emissions from waste in landfills and provide much cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels to help accelerate the world’s decarbonisation efforts. They don’t require different engines to be of use. They just need funding to reach scale.

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Mobeen Tahir, Director, Macroeconomic Research & Tactical Solutions, WisdomTree

Analys

Crude oil comment: Lack of clear direction

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

This week, Brent crude prices have declined by USD 2.3 per barrel (2.8%) since Monday’s opening, driven by fundamental market factors. The current price is near its weekly low at USD 81.8 per barrel, down from Monday’s high of USD 84.5 per barrel.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

The price has fallen by nearly USD 1 per barrel since yesterday afternoon. This week’s downward trend can be attributed to three main factors:

1. Upcoming OPEC+ Meeting:

OPEC+ is scheduled to meet on June 1st for the Joint Ministerial Monitoring Committee (JMMC). Initially planned as a physical meeting in Vienna, it will now be fully digital, suggesting no major discussions or changes. We anticipate that the meeting will result in the extension of current production cuts into Q3 2024. OPEC+ aims to signal a tight yet well-supplied market, maintaining the status quo and minimizing significant market reactions.

2. U.S. Inventory Report:

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Wednesday’s U.S. inventory report had a bearish impact on the market, showing a build in commercial crude inventories (excl. SPR) by 1.8 million barrels, contrary to the expected 1.9-million-barrel draw. This was slightly more bullish than the American Petroleum Institute (API) forecast of a 2.5-million-barrel increase released on Tuesday.

Commercial crude inventories now stand at 458.8 million barrels, about 3% below the five-year average for this time of year. This build is counter-seasonal, as we usually see a draw at this time of the year. Gasoline inventories decreased by 0.9 million barrels, less than the anticipated draw of 1.2 million barrels. Distillate (diesel) inventories increased by 0.4 million barrels, against a consensus expectation of a 0.3-million-barrel draw, further defying typical seasonal trends and adding a bearish tone to the market, even though they remain about 7% below the five-year average. Overall, total inventories (crude + gasoline + distillate) rose by 1.3 million barrels.

Additionally, U.S. crude oil refinery inputs averaged 16.5 million barrels per day last week, an increase of 227 thousand barrels per day from the previous week. Refineries operated at 91.7% of their operable capacity, the highest since mid-January, as they ramp up following maintenance. Gasoline production averaged 10 million barrels per day, while distillate fuel production averaged 5.1 million barrels per day. A marginal improvement in refinery margins indicates healthier demand prospects leading into the driving season.

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3. FOMC Minutes and Economic Concerns:

The continued decline in oil prices can also be attributed to bearish pressure from hawkish Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) minutes, which raised concerns about persistent inflation. This could result in prolonged higher U.S. interest rates, potentially limiting future oil demand growth.

In summary, the combined effect of the upcoming OPEC+ meeting, the U.S. inventory report, and economic concerns highlighted in the FOMC minutes has contributed to the weakening of Brent crude prices this week.

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Analys

German solar power prices are collapsing as market hits solar saturation

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

German solar power producers got a price haircut of 87% over the past 10 days. German solar power producers have over the past 10 days received a volume weighted power price of only EUR 9.1/MWh. The average power price during non-solar-power-hours was in comparison EUR 70.6/MWh. Solar power producers thus got an 87% cut in the power price they get when they produce vs. the power price during non-solar-power-hours. This is what happens to power prices when the volume of unregulated power becomes equally big or bigger than demand: Prices collapse when unregulated power produces the most.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Massive growth in solar power installations in Germany in 2023 is leading to destruction of solar hour prices and solar profitability. Germany installed a record 14,280 MW of solar power capacity According to ’PV Magazine International’. That is close to twice as much as in 2022. Total installed solar capacity reached 81.7 GW at the end of 2023 according to ’Renewables Now’. Average German demand load was in comparison 52.2 GW. So total solar capacity reached almost 30 GW above average demand. Solar power produces the most during summer when demand is lower. The overshoot is thus much larger than the 30 GW mentioned when it matters.

The collapse in solar-hour-power-prices implies a collapse in solar power producer earnings unless the earnings of the installations are secured with subsidies or by PPAs. It also means that there is a sharp reduction in the earnings potential for new solar power projects. The exponential growth in new installations of solar capacity we have seen to date is likely to come to an abrupt halt. There is however most likely still a large range of solar power projects under construction in Germany which will be finalized before growth in new capacity comes to a halt. The problem of solar power production curbs (you are not allowed to produce at all) and solar power price destruction is likely to escalate yet higher before new growth in supply comes to a halt. 

Focus will now shift from solar production capacity growth to grid improvements, batteries and adaptive demand. All consumers are of course happy for cheap power as long as they are able to consume it when it is cheap. At the moment they can’t. But the incentive to be inventive is now super high. The focus will now likely shift from solar power production growth to grids, batteries, adaptive demand and all possible ways to utilize ”free power”. This will over time exhaust the availability of ”free power” and drive solar-hour-power-prices back up. This again will then eventually open for renewed growth in solar power capacity growth.

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It is probably much worse down in the grid. What is worth noting is that these numbers are for all of Germany average. Solar power congestion is much worse in the local grids all around Germany along with local grid capacity constraints ect.

The problem of solar power is high concentration of production: 80% of German solar production was produced during 22.3% of the hours in the year in 2023. What is also worth mentioning is that solar power production is extremely concentrated in relatively few hours per year. It produces in the middle of the day and during summer. In 2023 German solar power produced 80% of its production in only 22.3% of the hours of the year. This basically implies that once solar power production reaches 22.3% of total power supply (without batteries), then solar-hour-power-prices will likely collapse. Solar power production reached 55 TWh in 2023. That’s a lot but it is still only 12% of total demand of 458 TWh in 2023. What it means is that the acute problem of solar-hour-power-price-destruction sets in much before the ”theoretical 22.3%” mentioned above.

On the 21 Feb 2024 we wrote the following note on this issue: ”The self-destructive force of unregulated solar power” where we highlighted these issues and warned that this will likely be a process of ”First gradually. Then suddenly”.

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German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.

German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, PV Magazine, Wikipedia, Blberg data on German power demand

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg
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Analys

Firm at $85

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

This week, Brent Crude prices have strengthened by USD 1.2 per barrel since Monday’s opening. While macroeconomic concerns persist, market reactions have been subdued, with price fluctuations primarily driven by fundamental factors. Currently, the oil price stands at its weekly high of USD 84.4 per barrel, with Wednesday’s low recorded at USD 81.7 per barrel, indicating relatively normal price movements throughout the week.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

The upward trajectory since Wednesday afternoon can be attributed to two main factors:

Firstly, Wednesday’s US inventory report, though mixed, conveyed a bullish sentiment to the market due to an overall decline in commercial inventories. The report from the US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed a draw in US crude inventories of 1.4 million barrels last week, surpassing consensus estimates of a 2.0-million-barrel draw –  the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) forecast of a 0.5-million-barrel build on Tuesday.

Additionally, a marginal improvement in refinery margins hints at healthier demand prospects leading up to the driving season. While commercial crude oil inventories (excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve) decreased, standing approximately 3% below the five-year average for this period, total gasoline inventories saw a notable increase of 0.9 million barrels compared to the consensus forecast of a decrease of 1.1 million barrels. Distillate fuel inventories experienced a more moderate increase in line with expectations, rising by 0.6 million barrels but remaining approximately 7% below the five-year average. Overall, total inventories (crude + gasoline + distillate) showed a marginal increase of 0.1 million barrels, coupled with a 1% improvement in refinery utilization to 88.5% last week (see pages 11 and 18 attached).

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The substantial draw in commercial crude inventories, particularly compared to the typical seasonal build, has emerged as a key price driver (see page 12 attached).

Secondly, the third consecutive day of oil price gains can be attributed to renewed optimism regarding US rate cuts, supported by positive US jobs data suggesting potential Federal Reserve rate cuts this year. This optimism has boosted risk assets and weakened the dollar, rendering commodities more appealing to buyers.

In a broader context, crude oil prices have been moderating since early last month amidst easing tensions in the Middle East. Attention is also focused on OPEC+, with Russia, a key member, exceeding production targets ahead of the cartel’s upcoming meeting. Expectations are widespread for an extension of output cuts during the next meeting.

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Conversely, providing support to global crude prices is the Biden administration’s intention to increase the price ceiling for refilling US strategic petroleum reserves to as much as USD 79.99 per barrel.

With geopolitical tensions relatively subdued, but lingering, the market remains vigilant in analyzing data and fundamentals. Our outlook for oil prices at USD 85 per barrel for 2024 remains firm and attainable for the foreseeable future.

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