Biomethanol market slows, but shipowners eye offtakes

  • Market: Biofuels, E-fuels
  • 16/05/24

The UK's biomethanol consumption fell by 37pc last year as competition from alternative renewable fuel compliance options weighed on demand.

The UK consumed 40mn litres of biomethanol in 2023, down from 63mn l in 2022, 53mn l in 2021 and 48mn l in 2020, according to provisional data from the country's Department for Transport.

Biomethanol is used as a blending component for gasoline in the UK. Market participants attribute the decline in demand to ample supply of competitively priced alternatives to meet the UK's mandate for the use of renewable fuels in the transport sector.

Fob ARA range biodiesel prices fell to a 19-month low towards the end of 2023, following an unusually large influx of supply to Europe from China since the start of the year. EU biodiesel imports from China reached a record 1.06mn t in 2023, up from 557,000t in 2022, according to GTT data.

The increase in imports contributed to lower renewable fuel ticket prices in key European markets, including the UK. Companies supplying biofuels for transport in the UK can generate renewable transport fuel certificates (RTFCs), which are tradeable and can help obligated parties meet the UK's renewables' mandate. The Argus UK non-crop RTFC reduction obligation price averaged 21.79 pence/RTFC in 2023, compared with 36.35p in 2022. The price has averaged 16.79p so far this year, compared with 26.40p and 37.39p in the same period in 2023 and 2022, respectively.

The drop in demand for biomethanol from the UK transport sector is weighing on domestic prices. The Argus cif UK biomethanol price has averaged $1,081.43/t so far in May, having been on a consistent downward trend since late October when the price peaked at $1,205/t. The price averaged $1,212.75/t in May 2023.

The slowdown in demand has put biomethanol production margins under pressure, prompting some producers to cut output.

Silver lining

Demand for renewable methanol, in the form of both biomethanol and e-methanol, could be supported by growing interest from the maritime sector in the coming years as shipowners seek to reduce their emssions. The EU's FuelEU maritime regulation is due to come into effect at the start of next year. It aims to reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity of marine fuels by 2pc in 2025 and by 80pc by 2050.

Shipping companies can choose from a wide range of alternative marine fuels to reduce their emissions, but several are betting on methanol and renewable methanol. Danish shipping giant Maersk has ordered 24 methanol-powered container ships for delivery and commissioning during 2024-25, and Japanese classification society ClassNK said in a recent report that it expects a total of 77 methanol-ready ships to be ordered by 2026, up from 27 methanol newbuilds expected to be ordered this year.

Offtake agreements for renewable methanol are also on the rise. Maersk has signed several letters of intent for the procurement of biometanol and e-methanol from producers such as Equinor, Proman and OCI Global. The company also said it has secured an agreement with Danish shipping and logistics company Goldwind for the offtake of 500,000 t/yr from 2024. Meanwhile, Singaporean container shipping group X-Press Feeders said last year that it will offtake biomethanol from OCI's Texas plant starting this year.

Another spanner in the works?

Although the outlook on renewable methanol demand from the shipping sector appears bright, the recognition of biomethane and biomethane-based fuels produced through mass balancing in non-EU grids is uncertain.

More than 40 energy companies and institutes have sent joint letters to the European Commission asking for these products to be included in the Union Database, which aims to prevent the relabelling of biofuels' sustainability declaration.

The UDB was launched in January 2024 for liquid fuels and will include gaseous fuels in November, but the commission plans to exclude automatic certification of biomethane and biomethane-based fuels if it is transported through gas grids outside of the EU.

The measure "is likely to reduce the availability and increase the cost of low- and zero-carbon bunker fuels for shipping" and may also impact hydrogen and hydrogen-derived fuels, one of the letters sent to the commission said.

By Evelina Lungu


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