Betting on biofuels? A beyond-the-hype look at investments

The biofuels industry is booming, with more and more players entering the market. But what factors are they considering, and what elements will continue to drive those looking to become involved in this exciting sector? Nicolas Denis, Andreas Meiser and Alexander Schwartz take an investors’ look at the industry.

But can biofuels really deliver for the investor? The answer relies on fuel prices as well as on three other variables that directly influence the profitability and environmental impact of biofuels: the cost and availability of feedstock, government regulations, and conversion technologies. All three are in flux, so any investment today is really a bet on how these interrelated factors will change over time. Feedstock costs vary tremendously by region and could change significantly in the years ahead. To match changing priorities, governments could end up establishing industry ground rules before any technologies emerge as winners. The energy, cost and carbon efficiency of various biofuels are already quite different and new conversion technologies could make them even more so, at different rates in different regions. Decisions faced by all industry participants, from crop-input players to grain traders, ethanol producers and oil refiners, and about where to produce and distribute biofuels, could have dramatic implications for the feasibility of their business.

Sugar beet is one of the crops being used in Europe for ethanol production, although it is far from the cheapest method abf

Amid all this uncertainty, why enter the market now? In many commodity industries, winners are the latest entrants at the bottom of the cost curve, wielding the newest, most efficient technologies. But waiting may be a costly strategy in this nascent biofuels industry because certain essential resources, such as land or critical partners, might be short.

McKinsey & Company recently undertook a global effort – involving many current and potential industry players, as well as some of the world’s leading academics – to develop a fact-based perspective on the future of the biofuels industry. Beyond fact-finding and interviews, we also developed a sophisticated feedstock availability database and worldwide supply-demand model that enabled us to assess the impact that different assumptions for crude oil prices, government regulation and new technologies would have on the biofuels industry.

In short, our findings suggest that the biofuels industry is well-positioned for exceptional growth, both in volumes and geographies; that technologies will evolve but will complement existing technology in most cases; and that there will be pockets of sustained high returns for players in the right positions with the right assets and skills.

The biofuels industry is booming

The biofuels industry in the key demand regions of the world – the US, Europe and Brazil – looks much like it did five or so years ago except that demand has skyrocketed and profits are raining down on those lucky enough to be in the business at the right time. How did the market reach this ‘boom’-like state and what is driving industry performance today? Several factors characterize the biofuels market today, some of which are behind the recent levels of excitement:

Widespread and cross-cutting political support
From Sweden to Indonesia, and Brazil to the US, governments and politicians are singing the praises of biofuels while offering subsidies and tax credits to producers that make biofuels profitable at crude oil prices well below US$40/barrel. Only in January 2007, US President George W. Bush proposed a target of 35 billion gallons (132 billion litres) of alternative fuels by 2017. The considerations behind this broad-based support include:

  • Agricultural support. Growing the feedstocks used in biofuels keeps farm incomes up and farmers happy, a political goal in almost every country. In 2006, the level of subsidy awarded to biodiesel producers in the US actually made production costs negative!
  • Energy ‘independence’. Given the general instability in some of the most important oil-producing regions of the world, some politicians have hailed biofuels as a means to reduce dependency on foreign oil, thereby limiting the impact of political turmoil on domestic markets.
  • Environmental benefits (Figure 1). There is no debate that sugar cane-based ethanol and certain kinds of biodiesel have a significant positive CO2 impact (up to 80%-90% reductions) over petroleum-based products. The consensus in the scientific community today is that corn-based ethanol also has a positive impact on CO2 emissions, though the impact is more likely limited to be around a 20% reduction.

FIGURE 1. Biofuels have a positive impact on CO2 and energy balance a) Well-to-wheel b) Production of ethanol from biological feedstock required non-renewable energy, e.g., for production of fertilizer c) Refers to gasoline only, excluding energy required for exploration, refining, etc
Source: Farrell, et al., “Ethanol can contribute to energy and environmental goals”, Science, January 27, 2006

Subsidies are critical to today’s industry in most parts of the world. In the absence of subsidies, the typical production costs for corn-based ethanol in the US – estimated at $1.50/US gallon ($0.39/litre – including margin for capital recovery) – means that returns are attractive only when crude oil trades above about $55/barrel (at low-blend rate). Unsubsidized biodiesel from rapeseed oil in Europe is only attractive when crude trades above $110/barrel. On the other hand, sugar cane-based ethanol achieves parity with gasoline when crude oil prices are above $35/barrel.

Production based on ‘old technologies’
Both the ethanol fermentation process used in the United States and Brazil and the biodiesel transesterification process are based on well-understood technologies that have been around for decades. Moreover, the feedstock for both these technologies are common agricultural crops (sugar cane, corn, wheat, soybeans and rapeseed) that have been commercially cultivated for decades – if not centuries or millennia.

Fragmented industry
As a result of low entry barriers and its agricultural roots, the biofuel production business, in large part, is a highly-fragmented industry. There are a few players with relatively large positions in biofuels production (e.g., Copersucar, ADM, Hawkeye, VeraSun, Cargill), but most of the biofuels production players have a global market share of less than 1%. In the US, for example, a large portion of ethanol production is in the hands of cooperatives or local businesses. Major oil companies do not own any commercial-scale ethanol or biodiesel production facilities. ‘Big Oil’ is playing elsewhere (trading and marketing biofuels).

Palm oil is one of principal sources of biodiesel, but its cultivation has raised issues of land clearance in South East Asia

‘Domestic’ production and consumption
With few exceptions, the vast majority of biofuels produced in any one country are consumed locally. The 4 billion gallons per year (15 billion litres) of ethanol produced in the US is consumed in the US. Even the 4.2 billion gallons of ethanol produced in Brazil is largely consumed in Brazil. In addition, the agricultural feedstocks used for biofuels production are grown and processed locally – typically within a 100 mile (150 km) radius of the biofuels production facility due to their high transportation costs.

Attractive returns
In 2005-2006, high oil prices, increased demand, limited supply and plentiful governmental support have combined to generate highly-attractive returns for biofuels producers. According to our calculations and the statements of several of the publicly traded players, many ethanol producers have earned somewhere between 40% and 60% EBIT/revenue. The payback period for new capacity shrank to 2-3 years in 2005 and, not surprisingly, significant new capacity came under construction throughout the US, Europe and Brazil. We estimate that biofuels capacities will more than double to 25 billion gallons (94.5 billion litres) per year globally over the next 5 years. Recently, increased feedstock prices, the rise of capex for facilities and lower oil prices have caused margins to shrink to 20%-30% EBIT/revenue.

The evolution of biofuels

All the signs indicate that the biofuels industry will undergo a fundamental transformation over the course of the next 5-7 years. The ‘perfect storm’ that currently supports oversized returns and speculative investing should cool off and the industry is likely to experience a number of changes that will make it more competitive.

Although most of the easy money has already been made, new technologies are likely to support the emergence of biofuels as a major element of the global transportation fuels market. Our base-case scenario assumes that an extension of today’s biofuels mandates (not subsidies) and economically motivated replacement will drive global demand and that both current and new ethanol production technologies will be commercially viable. In this case, the biofuels industry would be about eight times its current size by 2020. An industry of this size would account for about 80 billion gallons (302 billion litres) of fuel per year – 10% of the projected total world transportation fuel demand – and be large enough to have a global reach and significant impact on consuming industries, societies and governments.

An ethanol (and butanol) refinery in the United Kingdom smartest energy

Our internal analysis, supported by conversations with numerous academic, regulatory and business experts, has formed the basis of a perspective on the biofuels market from 2010 to 2020 that will be characterized by several factors.

Political support
Governments across the globe (less so in the oil-exporting countries) will continue embracing biofuels but in many cases will be less willing to use financial incentives to drive actions. Subsidies to the industry will be reduced or eliminated over time and replaced by steadily increasing consumption mandates for biofuels (as the German government recently announced it would do), complemented in some cases with penalty fees for not meeting these mandates.

  • Governments and politicians will continue to rely on the agricultural sector benefits that biofuel feedstock production generates. The expansion of land under cultivation to support biofuels, however, could create new challenges – local and federal governments in the US, for instance, will likely need to address environmental concerns if ‘marginal’ cropland is pressured into use and the image of rainforests threatened by expanding sugar cane production would tarnish the ‘environmentally friendly’ label that biofuels enjoy today.
  • Full energy independence will never be achieved, but biofuels would significantly reduce the dependency on energy imports and/or diversify the associated geopolitical risks.
  • Reduction of CO2 emissions will become a critical, if not the critical, driver of biofuels adoption and expansion – including in the US. The value – both environmental and financial – of reduced CO2 emissions could replace or supplement governmental subsidies as a key incentive to drive the growth of biofuels and impact price-setting mechanisms.

New technologies
The second wave of biofuels will be marked by the addition of cellulosic ethanol to the biofuels portfolio. This single technology, when it becomes commercially viable – and virtually all indications suggest this could happen between 2010 and 2012 – would change the biofuels industry. Cellulosic ethanol will offer CO2 emission levels comparable to sugar cane (a 90% reduction) and will open the door to all manners of new feedstock options – from corn stover to sugar cane bagasse, to specialized ‘energy crops’ such as switchgrass, to yard waste and wood chips. Cellulosic technology is expected to lower the production cost of ethanol compared to today’s technology by 10%-50% (Figure 2), depending on the feedstock and the region. However, this technology will co-exist and complement first-wave ethanol production – which will itself achieve a modest level of cost efficiency and which will contribute significant productive capacity – for a long time.

FIGURE 2. Cellulosic ethanol should achieve a cost competitive position across many regions a) Based on energy crop (e.g., switchgrass) as feedstock source, in China rice straw, cost (in US$/tonne): US 36, Brazil 10, EU 52, India 12, China 22, SEA 13
Source: NREL, USDA, SRI, expert interviews, McKinsey analysis

The future bio-based technology to substitute diesel is less certain. Biodiesel is much less cost-effective than ethanol (when compared with petroleum-based alternatives) and there are greater feedstock limitations. Although still in testing phase, jatropha, a toxic oil crop, seems to be suitable for producing low-cost vegetable oil products and could be grown on marginal acres. Biomass-to-liquid (BTL) could produce high-quality synthetic diesel from various sources of biomass, but at higher rates of capital expenditure. Given current cost challenges, government regulations and more innovation from large players seeing the opportunity to develop this technology will likely determine the future of bio-based diesel.

While cellulosic ethanol technology will add a new dimension to biofuels, advances in yield and customized traits will have a fundamental impact on corn and sugar cane – the ‘traditional’ ethanol feedstocks – and possibly other crops. Significant advances in cold and drought tolerance that will expand crop acreage beyond current geographies or boost the yield within existing geographies are already in the pipelines of Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, the major seed players. Selective breeding techniques and genetic modification are also expected to produce crops with ‘designer outputs’ (such as Syngenta’s high amylase corn slated for sale in 2008) that will enable more efficient biofuels production.

Industry structure
During the period of transition, the biofuels industry will likely remain fragmented. As new technologies are commercialized, subsidies fall and relative position on the cost curve becomes increasingly important, a certain amount of consolidation will likely occur among the smaller players. The relative cost and risk of commercializing new technologies – in particular BTL – and expanding to new geographies will increase the entry barriers for biofuels production. Every sign indicates that the ‘big oil’ players, many of whom are today placing bets and partnering with existing technology players – will enter the market in a more substantial way and gain access to key elements of the biofuels value chain. Integrating the value chain and capturing local and global arbitrage opportunities, through ownership or partnerships, from field to retail, will become a key success factor.

Global production and consumption
Governmental mandates for biofuels penetration in some countries, coupled with lower tariffs and privileged access to feedstock and production in other countries, will create a truly global biofuels market. We expect, for instance, that Brazil will become a major exporter of ethanol. We also foresee the likelihood of certain African or Asian countries becoming major sources of feedstock or fuels, driven by advantaged feedstock growth and preferential tariff systems.

FIGURE 3. Simulation of volume/penetration of biofuel production

‘Pockets’ of high returns
As the biofuels market evolves, boom-like returns will end and the biofuels market will be characterized by ‘rational’ pricing and profits. The demand-supply balance in any country over a certain period of time could lead to higher or lower levels of profitability for producers as price-setting mechanisms, governmental support and supply curves collide. As subsidies fall, producers will see margins fall. However, players with a privileged position in feedstock (e.g., tropical countries without tariffs) or leading positions in new technologies could secure very attractive margins. Crude oil prices above $40/barrel, or continued high regulatory support, could result in higher overall margins and growth. Our supply-demand model suggests that at a crude oil price of $50/barrel, it could be economical to have as much as 25% of transport fuels replaced by biofuels (Figure 3).

How to get involved now

The winners in the biofuels market are shifting from those players ‘lucky’ enough to have been in the right place at the right time to those players that are in the right place, with the right technology and feedstock access, and the right partners at the right time. Understandably, some companies will wait for technology to advance and the regulatory landscape to evolve before entering. Nonetheless, early entrants can gain a valuable lead in understanding its technologies, operations and economics, as well as by influencing local regulation. When companies face high levels of uncertainty in variables they can influence, taking steps to shape outcomes can make sense. For companies with long-term aspirations in biofuels, the strongest argument against waiting is that certain vital resources are in short supply. Biofuels companies will need partners, for instance, and the best may soon be taken.

The way companies determine their strategy will depend on where in the biofuels value chain they play. Three distinct segments have emerged:

  • Asset owners (including farmers, seed producers, petroleum companies, chemical companies, plant operators and small farmers) are heavily investing in producing and marketing biofuels. They grapple with uncertainties in the long-term attractiveness of geographies, as well as with technological change.
  • Product and service providers (including seed companies, engineering and equipment companies, and biotechnology firms developing enzymes and fermentation organisms) tailor their technologies and processes to the needs of the biofuels industry. Their strategies are mostly not specific to geography, and they face technological and commercial risk.
  • Market participants (including gasoline blenders, farmers, agricultural equipment companies, suppliers of input such as fertilizers, and logistics providers) benefit when the growth of the biofuels industry increases demand in their core businesses.

All of these players need to make smart bets in a few key areas:

Betting on geographies and technologies
Asset owners and (to a lesser degree) market participants have increasingly entered the international biofuels trade, mixing and matching geographies for production and distribution to balance risk and investment. In the US, for example, demand is all but guaranteed thanks to the world’s most ambitious biofuel targets, a well-developed infrastructure and generous subsidies, but feedstock constraints could continue to put most of the profits into the pockets of farmers or landowners. Undeveloped tropical regions in Africa, Asia and Central America – especially those that have free-trade agreements with the European Union or the United States – seem appealing, but they pose political and economic risks of their own and require significant investments in infrastructure.

To deal with technological risk, asset owners should invest in a number of options. BP, for example, founded the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) in California, which hosts leading industry research groups, and gave it $500 million in sponsorship funds. In return, the company gains early knowledge of – and the right of first refusal for – much of the intellectual property developed there. Shell, by contrast, has invested in companies researching both lignocellulosic and gasification processes (including BTL) for biomass conversion.

For product and service providers, mitigating technological risk means commercializing intellectual property. They can partner with major (future) asset owners for access to a sizable captive market (as DuPont did in a joint venture with BP to develop biobutanol) or collaborate with other product and service providers.

Building relationships
The establishment of young industries often calls for coordinated efforts all along the value chain. Building a biofuels industry in a new geography, for example, requires the simultaneous application of skills in agronomics, feedstock and fuel procurement, storage, distribution, refinery operations, commodities trading, and the influencing of local regulation. No asset owner can claim to possess all of these skills, so most companies would benefit from true or virtual integration (for example, through partnerships) along the value chain.

Biofuels companies must also build relationships with the governmental agencies that regulate biofuels and the non-governmental organizations that influence public opinion. Proponents of biofuels can identify potential areas of cooperation and conflict by analyzing these players’ concerns (including consumer advocacy, environmental protection and fair trade) as well as the economic interests of groups such as farmers, petroleum companies, auto manufacturers and food companies.


Biofuels have a tremendous potential to provide the world with efficient and sustainable energy, but much about the industry remains uncertain. Those entering it today must bet carefully on geographies and technologies, and establish the right relationships at critical points along the entire value chain.

Nicolas Denis, Andreas Meiser and Alexander Schwartz work for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company
e-mail: Nicolas_Denis@MCKINSEY.COM

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